How I Learned to Heal from Infidelity
As a child, I endured sexual assault—which can, I learned in therapy, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Only recently did I learn that PTSD can also result from infidelity, which I've experienced in previous relationships as well as in my current one, and which I've worked hard to get past with compassion, self-reflection, time for healing, and friendship.
"Betrayal trauma can happen when someone we depend on or are significantly attached to violates our trust in a critical way," says Jill Manning, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Louisville, Colorado, who specializes in helping people impacted by sexual betrayal. Such trauma can have PTSD-like effects. "We see symptoms of shock, negativity, and emotional arousal—as you might see in somebody coming home from war—manifesting in committed relationships," says Kevin Skinner, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Addo Recovery in Lindon, Utah.
If you've ever been sexually betrayed, you probably felt so, so angry. You may be haunted by flashbacks of catching your partner cheating. Maybe you avoid emotionally fraught places, like your favorite date-night restaurant—or restaurants in general. You may assume the infidelity was your fault because of who you are (or aren't); if you're still with your partner, you may fear intimacy or obsess about his or her transgressions (past and imagined). Then there may be other reactions, like exhaustion, inability to concentrate, sensitivity to noise—or panic attacks, like I had. All of these are criteria for PTSD, says Skinner (as is a symptom less commonly associated with infidelity: fearing a threat to your life, especially if you contracted a sexually transmitted disease from your partner). To fit the diagnosis, however, symptoms must significantly disrupt your daily life for at least a month.
But they needn't do so forever. Here's what experts recommend to help you move on—within the same relationship or a new one.
Talk to a professional.
A counselor can help you realize you're not "crazy"—that you're having normal responses to abnormal events. She can also help you better understand how your feelings may be affecting your thoughts and behavior, says Manning.
Fight the urge to flee.
If you're with a new partner and your bond is growing, you may fixate on the fear of being hurt again, especially if you let yourself be vulnerable. Many women in that situation pull back and emotionally disengage. "Avoidance is a hallmark of trauma," says Manning; it's one factor she considers when diagnosing patients with PTSD. But instead of withdrawing, try to summon the courage and energy to communicate clear boundaries about behaviors you won't tolerate.
Have an action plan.
"It can be empowering for a woman to know what steps she'll take if the line is crossed," says Manning—like telling her partner that if the cheating continues, she may have to end the relationship.
Team up with your partner, if you can.
I went into my current relationship thinking that as long as my issues were being addressed in therapy, that was enough. Not quite. If your partner is receptive, ask him or her for help when you're struggling, says Skinner. I wasn't able to tell AJ about my coffee shop panic attack until late that night, but when I did, his love, comfort, and support helped me come back into myself, and back into our relationship.