How Traumatic is Infidelity?
Most sex addicts do not think about the pain they may be causing to their spouse or long-term partner. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s that they simply avoid thinking about or even considering the damage they are doing. Typically this damage occurs on two levels. First there is the pain and hurt caused by the actual infidelity, and then there is the agony caused by all the lying, secret keeping, and covering up. Oftentimes this second part, the dishonesty, is what ultimately causes the most distress to the cheated on spouse.
But how bad is this pain and hurt?
To put it as simply as possible: pretty darn bad. Learning about the ongoing infidelity of one’s primary partner is incredibly traumatic. One study found that many spouses, upon learning of their sexually addicted partner’s infidelities, experience acute stress symptoms similar to and characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder. If you’re not familiar, suffice it to say that PTSD is a very serious disorder that can wreak havoc on any individual dealing with it.
Typically the trauma caused by a sex addict’s cheating manifests in one or more of the following ways:
- Emotional instability
- Hyper-vigilance (checking bills, wallets, computer files, phone apps, etc.)
- Seemingly random predictions of future betrayal
- Sleeplessness, nightmares, difficulty waking up
- Obsessing about the betrayal
- Avoiding thinking about or talking about the betrayal
- Difficulty focusing on day-to-day life
- Compulsive escapist behaviors (eating, spending, exercising, gambling, etc.)
- Severe anxiety
In some ways the trauma spouses experience stems from the fact that while the sex addict has known about his or her behaviors for quite some time, the betrayed spouse is usually blindsided by the information. And even when the revelation of infidelity is not totally out of the blue, the cheated on partner is often shocked to learn the full extent of the betrayal. After all, sexual addiction is an ongoing pattern rather than an isolated incident.
On top of this, the betrayed spouse may have had his or her reality denied for years by a husband or wife who insisted that he or she was not cheating, that he or she really did need to stay late at work every night and travel every weekend (or some other similar set of lies). Many sex addicts actually accuse their questioning partners of being paranoid and mistrustful. In this way betrayed spouses are made to feel as if they are the problem, as if their emotional instability is the issue. Eventually they begin to doubt their own feelings and intuition. And, as we have long known from work with abused children, being made to feel wrong when you are right – having one’s accurate reality denied – is a solid foundation upon which much trauma is built.
Sadly, cheated on spouses are sometimes as angry with themselves as they are with their sex addicted partner. Many have learned to deal with having a physically present but emotionally unavailable husband or wife by drinking, using drugs, or engaging in other potentially self-destructive behaviors – behaviors they eventually regret. Sometimes betrayed spouses, upon learning about their sex addicted partner’s infidelity, will “cheat back” in retaliation, only to hate themselves for doing it.
Simply put, betrayed spouses of sex addicts have good reason to feel angry, hurt, overwhelmed, confused, and mistrustful. Even if their pain has not progressed to the level of PTSD they still need, at the very least, validation for their feelings, social support, assistance in processing the shame of being cheated on, and empathy for how their life has been disrupted by the trauma of betrayal. Many cheated on partners also need guidance with day-to-day issues such as managing rage, setting appropriate boundaries, approaching potential healthcare issues (STDs), and dealing with their constant desire to question the cheater in detail about his or her current behaviors. Many betrayed spouses will simply choose to walk out on their damaged relationship, and they are not wrong to do so. Nor are those who stay in a shattered relationship wrong to make that decision. Perhaps, for betrayed spouses, what is ultimately more important than whether they stay or go is how they go about growing beyond their traumatic loss.