Infidelity is an interpersonal, psychological trauma wound. My clinical, professional, research, and personal processes demonstrate its devastating impact on a couple. Injured counselees often report overwhelming emotions that vacillate between rage and inward feelings of shame, depression, and abandonment. In many ways, infidelity’s impact parallel that of PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder.
Maribeth told her husband during one of our sessions, “I don’t know you. You’re not the person I thought you were. How could you do this? I thought I could trust you.” She was raging. Her husband’s affair was not merely a negative trauma event. Maribeth likewise experienced a deep shattering of her core beliefs about her marriage and her husband that are essential to emotional security.
I always observe in my practice that, given the ruptured trust and uncertainties after the discovery of the betrayal, the injured partners are not easily able to move forward even if the affair has already ended. They typically cannot trust their partners not to hurt them again, especially in the initial aftermath. Flashbacks, faces, voices, or places may serve as stimuli for the injured partner’s painful emotions such as anxiety, confusion, anger, depression, and shame.
Therefore, before couples can start processing the meaning of the affair and rebuild trust and intimacy, they first need assistance in containing the emotional turmoil and destructive exchanges that are typical during and after the discovery. Frequently, they need help in learning how to communicate their feelings to each other in a constructive, healthy manner. They need to learn how to interact and navigate the challenges of their relationship in their day to day life.
In sum, couples experiencing an infidelity trauma wound need some way to process the trauma that has occurred and some way to make sense of the past and move on from there.