Blind-sided by the one you love, the one you married.
Learning about your spouse’s infidelity can be emotionally and physically devastating. The emotional damage is reflected in what some mental health professionals call Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD), for the stress and emotional turmoil experienced afterward.
Psychologist Dennis Ortman, author of Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder, describes the term as “not to suggest a new diagnostic category but to suggest a parallel with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been well documented and researched.”
In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), re-experiencing the trauma repeatedly is the first of three categories of symptoms described. The disorder is marked by flashbacks of war for veterans, nightmares of the accident for car wreck survivors, and painful memories of abuse for survivors of intra-familial trauma.
So too, in PISD husbands and wives will replay the painful realization of betrayal. Even after the initial fall-out, people will have recurring thoughts of their partner with another.
Psychologist and certified sex therapist, Barry Bass, adds, “Like trauma victims, it is not unusual for betrayed spouses to replay in their minds previously assumed benign events,” those times when their spouse became defensive when asked a simple question, or the late nights at work, or the text messages from unnamed friends, all of these become viewed as possible deceitful acts.
The second category of symptoms for PTSD, avoidance and emotional numbing, is seen in PISD as well. Rage or despair that comes after the initial shock of discovering the infidelity can be followed by a state of emotional hollowness. Formerly pleasurable activities lose their appeal. Those who were cheated on sometimes withdraw from friends and family and describe feelings of emptiness.
The last category of PTSD symptoms, hyper-vigilance and insomnia, can also arise for those dealing with infidelity. Sleep patterns become erratic; and concentration becomes a challenge, affecting work performance and family life.
PISD can have physical consequences as well as emotional ones. The stress of discovering infidelity can lead to what has been dubbed broken heart syndrome, also termed stress cardiomyopathy. The American Heart Association describes symptoms such as sudden chest pain, leading to the sense that one is having a heart attack. Physical or emotional stressors, such as a loved one passing or major surgery trigger a surge of stress hormones that temporarily affect the heart. The condition typically reverses within a week.
Despite the stress, there is life after an affair. Due to the symptomatic similarities, therapists are now beginning to use PTSD counseling techniques to help couples either stay together or move on.
Exposure and cognitive restructuring are techniques used when dealing with traumatic memories. In exposure, spouses are asked to gradually imagine those heart-wrenching moments and to cope with them gradually, whereas cognitive restructuring substitutes irrational thoughts, feelings, and behaviours induced by the trauma, with adaptive ones.
Counselors use these “trauma focused” explorations with clients, sifting through the distressing memories and aversive feelings, to help build the client’s self-esteem and confidence in dealing with the betrayal or loss of the relationship.
Therapists are also working with their clients to help them understand the unique reasons that led to the infidelity. Understanding why the affair occurred can help both people.
Along with help from family and friends, wounds can be bandaged and trust restored. Infidelity trauma and the time and strength involved in recovery remind us that love, like war, can have its casualties.
Justin Garzon, Contributing Writer