The Darker Effects of Infidelity
Most people have been exposed to, or affected by infidelity in some way or another. Even if not personally, they likely have a close friend or relative that has been affected by it. Most people are familiar with the pain, confusion, and anger associated with being cheated on, and think those reactions are pretty normal. So then, what could possibly be worse than those? What is it about infidelity that so many people are unaware of? One simple word... Trauma.
Most people can easily view infidelity as painful, sad, confusing, and even infuriating, but some might have a hard time seeing it as traumatic. Most of the time people think of a soldier coming home from battle when they think of trauma. Could someone being cheated on really compare to that? The simple answer is yes, and research backs that answer up. There is even a name for it--betrayal trauma.
The symptoms of betrayal trauma especially occur when someone is in a relationship with a sex, love and/or pornography addict, and is chronically cheated on. Here's an example of why. Imagine that someone is stopped at a red light, and a car rear ends them. They are hospitalized for their injuries, but they aren’t very severe and they are able to leave the hospital the same day and then recover pretty quickly. Then let’s say the same scenario happens to them multiple times. We can easily see why they would be uncomfortable getting in a car, sitting at a red light, or even with the sight of a car in their rear view mirror. They would likely even show some odd, if not extremely abnormal behavior. If we knew their story we would know why—they are traumatized—but if not, we may just think they’re crazy. This is often the case with betrayed partners. They hear from well meaning friends, relatives, and possibly even counselors that they should be over it by now, that it’s in the past, that it shouldn’t still be that big of a deal. The partner that betrayed them may even say these things to minimize their behavior, or worse, gaslight the partner into believing that they actually are crazy. All of these comments simply add shame and reinforce the feeling that they are crazy, when the fact of the matter is that they have been deeply traumatized. Their trust in the person they are most attached to has been severed, and their emotional/physical well-being and sense of safety has been destroyed.
So why is this important? For one it’s important for the people around someone that has been cheated on. Awareness can greatly help these people be understood, rather than being shamed, or thought of as crazy for the way they are reacting. Also, it’s important for coaches and counselors so they know how to navigate these issues correctly. But, most importantly, it is important for the person who is going through it. Before explaining why, the following are some symptoms of betrayal trauma:
- Recurrent and intrusive thoughts, images, and dreams of discovery and their partner's acting out behavior
- The sense of reliving the experience
- Continuous and intense feelings of fear, terror, helplessness, confusion, worry, sadness, numbness, guilt, loneliness, and worthlessness
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Difficulty eating
- Digestive issues
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension, headaches, and chronic pain
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs
- Sense of shame and self-blame for their partners behavior
- Physical and emotional insecurities and loss of self-esteem
- Recurrence of trauma triggers from sexually suggestive images and reminders of traumatic events
- Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma
- Efforts to avoid people, places, and activities that cause trauma recollections and triggers
- Decreased interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Feelings of detachment from others
- Sense of foreshortened future (does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, normal life span, etc.)
So back to the question. Why is this important? It’s important because partners of sex addicts have long been misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Before research was done showing that they were suffering from trauma, they were usually diagnosed as co-addicts or co-dependents. This definition simply does not fit, because usually they were not aware of their partner’s behavior. Also, their symptoms were seen as their way of controlling their partners, when the reality is that they are trying not be be re-traumatized by their partners acting out again. Obviously these misconceptions about partners led to a lot of shame and not much progress for their healing.
Now with the research that has been done, partners can finally let go of their shame and make a plan towards healing. If you are the partner of a sex addict and you have experienced these symptoms, it is important that you know why you are having them. Even though these symptoms are unpleasant, they are natural reactions to your partner’s betrayal. You are not crazy, you are normal. You should not be shamed or pathologized, you should be comforted, supported, and shown a path towards recovery.
This awareness is also important for sex addicts and those who cheat. The old saying, “what he/she doesn’t know won’t hurt them,” simply doesn’t cut it. The betrayed partner likely does know something is off, and the two worlds will collide. Cheating puts a partner’s emotional and physical safety at risk. Perhaps knowing that will prevent people who have cheated from doing it again, and encourage those active in their addiction to seek help. If this describes you, I encourage you to seek help from a therapist or coach that specializes in sex addiction, infidelity, and betrayal trauma, and work with them on a plan to go about disclosing your infidelity to your partner. It will not be easy, but it will be the first major step towards healing your relationship, and at the same time, healing their trauma.
The road to recovery is not easy, and should not be taken lightly, but there is hope. If you are a sex addict, I encourage you to seek help. Not only for yourself, but for your partner. If you are a betrayed partner, reassure yourself today that you are not crazy, and that you just need to find the right help. Trauma does not just simply "go away". It requires you to be intentional, and to find someone who knows how to help you. Don't give up hope! You can heal and have the life and relationship you deserve!