Being cheated on by a romantic partner is deeply distressing. While it is unarguably a traumatic experience, the degree of the impact varies from person to person. When the trauma of being cheated on makes it difficult for you to function and leaves you riddled with anxiety and unable to move forward, you may be dealing with post-traumatic infidelity syndrome.
While post-traumatic infidelity syndrome or post-infidelity stress disorder is not among the mental health conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), it is a term widely used to understand and decode PTSD from being cheated on.
So, what does PTSD from cheating look like? What are its causes? Is it possible to heal from cheating trauma? We explore the varied facets of the trauma of infidelity in consultation with psychotherapist Jui Pimple (MA in Psychology), a trained Rational Emotive Behavior therapist and A Bach Remedy practitioner, who specializes in online counseling.
What Is Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder?
According to research, post-infidelity stress disorder (PISD) is a type of anxiety disorder stemming from extreme and chronic stress brought on by the discovery of a partner’s infidelity. “A person’s natural psychological defenses end up being overwhelmed, leaving a person unable to function in a healthy manner. The anxiety associated with post-infidelity trauma is chronic and persistent,” the research states.
The phrase was coined by clinical psychologist Dennis C. Ortman, Ph.D., in 2005 and published in a study in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services that describes the experience of a woman whose husband cheated on her with her best friend. Even though she separated from her husband and filed for divorce, the incident took a severe toll on her mental health. She was angry, stressed, depressed, and experienced nightmares.
Over time, it has been discovered that this trauma response of infidelity in betrayed partners is not uncommon. In fact, according to a study published in 2021, 30% to 60% of people experience symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of infidelity. This phenomenon is what has come to be recognized as post-infidelity stress disorder.
Explaining why that is, Jui says, “Stress and anxiety stemming from traumatic events fall under the broad umbrella terms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Typically, people associate PTSD with events like war, abuse, accidents, or similar life-altering events. But any experience that makes a person fear for their safety or feel as if the world as they know it has fallen apart can be classified as a traumatic event, and infidelity definitely fits the bill.
“When a betrayed partner experiences extreme distress in the wake of being cheated on, it is classified as post-traumatic infidelity syndrome. Even though post-infidelity stress disorder isn’t an official diagnosis, it can be extremely helpful in understanding the immediate and long-term psychological effects of infidelity.”
Related Reading: Effects Of An Extramarital Affair On The Partner
Why Infidelity Causes PTSD
Now that we’ve established that you can get PTSD from being cheated on, it’s important to address the reasons behind it. Jui says, “A romantic partner is someone you trust implicitly, and even imagining them with another person can be deeply hurtful. Then, to discover that your partner has actually gone ahead and betrayed your trust can feel like your worst nightmare has come true. This is why infidelity causes deep emotional trauma.”
As mentioned, about 30% to 60% of the people who have been cheated on by their intimate partners experience post-traumatic infidelity syndrome symptoms. This means infidelity doesn’t always lead to PTSD symptoms. So, why do some people experience heightened stress and cheating anxiety attacks while others don’t? According to the aforementioned research, here are some factors that make a person pre-disposed to post-traumatic infidelity syndrome:
- People who have dependent personalities and define their own worth by the way they are treated in a romantic relationship
- Women with self-sacrificing mindsets and dependent attitudes
- People who have suffered sexual or physical abuse in their childhood
- People with low self-esteem
Do Men And Women Experience PTSD Differently?
Just the way the experience of post-infidelity stress disorder is not universal, nor is the way it presents in the affected person. While the trauma of infidelity can manifest in different ways in different people (varying in intensity, symptoms, and longevity), the responses also vary based on gender. So, what does PTSD from cheating look like in men and women? Jui explains the difference as:
|PTSD from being cheated on in men||PTSD from being cheated on in women|
|Men, typically, aren’t comfortable in feeling and expressing emotions. As a result, they may end up suppressing their trauma||Women are more open to acknowledging their emotions and feelings; hence, they may experience trauma more deeply and immediately|
|Egos come into play, leaving a man in denial. Men may take longer to accept the emotional distress||Since women are more accepting of their emotional state, it may be relatively easier for them to cope with the trauma of infidelity|
|Men may experience feelings of shame upon being cheated on||Women struggle with more intrusive thoughts and vivid imagination|
Related Reading: 10 Steps To Recover If You’re Being Fooled By Someone You Love
5 Indicators Of Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder
On a non-descript October afternoon, Diana, a kindergarten teacher from Dover, felt the ground beneath her shift as she walked into her home to find her long-time partner being sexually intimate with his ex who had left him at the altar 6 years ago. It has been 4 months since this life-altering discovery but Diana is still struggling to cope.
Recently, she reached out to Bonobology’s panel of experts for help. In her email describing her feelings after being cheated on, she says, “I feel like I’m stuck in a loop, reliving the incident in my mind over and over again. I have difficulty concentrating on anything, my sleep patterns are erratic at best. It’s as if my life came to a grinding halt on that fateful afternoon, and all I’m left with are these excruciatingly painful memories. I can no longer remember the good times with Mark and everything that has transpired in my life since is a haze.”
You can see how deep the impact of infidelity on a betrayed spouse or partner can be. If you’re in a situation similar to Diana’s, chances are you’ve experienced this emotional upheaval first-hand. The question is: When does the trauma of infidelity get classified as a form of PTSD? To help you find the answer, Jui lists the following post-traumatic infidelity syndrome symptoms:
1. Heightened anxiety
While anxiety, which is characterized by increased alertness, fear, and physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate and sweating, is a normal response to stressful or high-pressure situations, it becomes a cause for concern when a person remains stuck in that state of dread and uneasy perpetually, even in the absence of an imminent threat.
“Experiencing heightened and persistent anxiety is a common indicator of post-traumatic infidelity syndrome,” says Jui, adding that the affected person may experience the following symptoms:
- Feeling on edge
- A pit in the stomach
- Physiological changes such as rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, sweaty palms
2. Nightmares and flashbacks
The distressing memories of the discovery of the partner’s affair or infidelity can keep coming back in the form of nightmares and flashbacks. “The nature and intensity of the trauma recall depends, to a large extent, on how the cheating came to light. If a person has actually caught their partner cheating red-handed, the images can be more vivid and disturbing,” explains Jui.
3. Recurring thoughts
The impact of infidelity on a betrayed spouse/partner can also be felt in thought processes and patterns, causing them to perseverate on the incident long after it has happened. “Apart from ruminating on the how and why of a partner’s transgression, the affected person may also fixate on how they ignored or missed the signs of cheating. This can, in turn, trigger feelings of guilt and shame,” says Jui.
4. Emotional numbing
While the expected reaction to a partner’s infidelity often is an angry outburst or a breakdown, sometimes cheating is traumatic to the extent that the betrayed partner may go emotionally numb. Jui explains, “There may not be any emotional reaction to the discovery of infidelity at all. Feeling numb can also turn into one of the lasting effects of cheating in a relationship, causing a person to become emotionally withdrawn and uninterested in engaging with the world around them.”
Related Reading: Expert Lists Out 9 Effects Of Cheating In A Relationship
5. Trust issues
As they say, once bitten, twice shy. Being cheated on changes you in ways more than one, and one of the most natural fallouts of this experience is difficulty trusting people. “The deep-seated trust issues stemming from the trauma of being cheated on can impact a person’s future relationships. Likewise, even if they agree to give their cheating partner another chance and stay together, it can impede chances of relationship repair,” says Jui.
Unless you learn to recognize such symptoms of post-infidelity stress disorder for what they are and focus on healing, you will not be able to build wholesome, healthy relationships. How can you, when even the most benign events like a text on your partner’s phone at an unexpected hour send you spiraling down the road of awfulizing and catastrophizing?
7 Expert Tips To Manage PTSD Triggered By Infidelity
The long-term psychological effects of infidelity in a person suffering from PISD are akin to being imprisoned for someone else’s crime. The post-traumatic infidelity syndrome leaves you trapped in that moment when you learned about your partner’s unfaithfulness. What’s all the more unfair is that the impact may not be as deep on the betraying partner.
The road to recovery can be hard and the healing process not always linear. But with the right help and resources, it is possible to heal from cheating trauma. Jui shares a few expert tips that can help you take charge of your emotional well-being and make progress, one step at a time. Considering how complex it can be to deal with post-traumatic infidelity syndrome, we are dividing these tips into parts: things you can do to manage PTSD triggered by infidelity and post-infidelity stress disorder treatment.
How to manage PTSD triggered by infidelity
If you have been cheated on by a romantic partner and can relate to the symptoms of post-infidelity stress disorder listed above, it’s imperative that you prioritize your emotional well-being. We strongly advise you to seek professional help and work under the guidance of a skilled therapist to work through your triggers and symptoms and acquire tools and skills to manage them better. But we also understand reaching out for help can be overwhelming sometimes, and clarity on what healing from PTSD triggered by infidelity entails can encourage you to take that first step toward self-care. To that end, here are some ways you can manage post-traumatic infidelity syndrome:
1. Work toward gaining acceptance
You’ve been through a heart-breaking and traumatic event. Accepting the gravity of what you’ve experienced and its impact on your emotional and mental health is imperative for healing and going through the different infidelity recovery stages. Jui advises, “Self-affirmations and gaining a subjective perspective on the reality of the situation are some ways to gain acceptance. Prioritizing self-care is another way you can come to terms with the situation.” She recommends the ways you can practice self-care:
- Get at least 30 min of exercise every day
- Eat healthy meals at fixed times
- Find a relaxing activity that makes you feel calm and centered
- Stay connected with your loved ones
- Set small achievable goals and work toward achieving them
2. Let go of the blame
Every relationship has its share of problems, and quite possibly, yours did too. However, those issues do not justify your partner’s choice to cheat on you. When confronted, a cheater may say the most shocking things to justify their actions, including blaming you. No matter what your cheating partner says, this is not on you.
Jui concurs, and adds, “You have to let go of the blame or the belief that your actions may have somehow pushed your partner toward infidelity.” Remember cheating is always a choice – a choice your partner made.
Related Reading: Emotional Flooding: What Does It Mean In A Relationship?
3. Acknowledge feelings
Cheating is traumatic and it’s not easy to deal with the pain and uncomfortable but strong emotions it brings in its wake. However, not allowing yourself to feel the full extent of your emotions isn’t going to aid your recovery and healing process. On the contrary, suppressing emotions can lead to unhealthy consequences. That’s why, Jui advises, “Don’t push away your feelings by saying you don’t care or it doesn’t matter to you. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, without any guilt or shame.”
4. Set boundaries
The traumatic experience of being cheated on by someone you loved deeply and trusted completely may impact your future relationships negatively. You can work through it by setting healthy boundaries early on. “Being cheated on may change your perspective on relationships to some extent, but that change doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. If you use it as a lesson to inculcate awareness about how the other person is treating you, it can make you better equipped to set boundaries,” says Jui.
Post-infidelity stress disorder treatment
When the post-traumatic infidelity syndrome symptoms become extremely intense and interfere with your ability to lead a normal life, you may need some structured treatment options to be able to heal. These include,
5. Cognitive restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is the process of replacing rigid and irrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors with rational, adaptive ones. Your therapist will first try to understand your narrative of infidelity and gradually make you focus on the specific details so that they stop feeling intolerable and powerful, eventually getting you to the point that you don’t have to run away from them. So, don’t discount the benefits of counseling in healing from the trauma of being cheated on.
6. Trauma-informed care
Trauma-informed care focuses on rebuilding a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem as well as addressing any negative, cynical views they may have toward themselves, relationships, or the world. Your therapist may also explore what happened before and after the infidelity to help you gain a subjective perspective of the situation and figure out the best way to move forward.
If you’re experiencing severe symptoms of PISD such as insomnia, depression, angry outbursts, or self-destructive behaviors, you may need medication, along with therapy. Depending on your symptoms, you may be prescribed:
- Anti-anxiety medication
- Post-traumatic infidelity syndrome is a type of anxiety disorder brought on by the discovery of a partner’s infidelity
- People with dependent personalities and low self-esteem as well as victims of sexual and physical abuse are more pre-disposed to PTSD from infidelity
- Men and women experience post-traumatic stress after infidelity differently
- PISD is characterized by heightened anxiety, recurring thoughts, nightmares, trauma recall, emotional numbing, and trust issues
- Seeking therapy, working on acceptance, letting go of blame, setting boundaries, and if necessary, medication are some ways to deal with PTSD from infidelity
In the end, we want to say we’re sorry that you’re going through this. Infidelity may be a heartbreaking experience but you don’t have to live in the prison of its trauma forever. You deserve to be happy, free, and at peace. Take the first step toward healing. It may be a long-winding road to recovery but we can assure you, it will be worth it in the end.