The Trauma of Betrayal. Suffering the Trauma of an Affair

All too often, couples separate because one partner has been betrayed when the other has sought a fulfilling love elsewhere. If you have been abandoned by a lifelong partner, you know how overwhelming and unspeakable the hurt and outrage can be.

By Dennis Ortman
Updated: December 08, 2015
Health and Well Being

Some marriages end with a whimper, and the couples simply grow apart. However, many others end with a bang. All too often, couples separate because one partner has been betrayed when the other has sought a fulfilling love elsewhere. While the numbers vary in the studies, some recent researchers have estimated that 37 percent of men and 20 percent of women have had sexual affairs sometime during their marriage.1 More tellingly, 40 percent of divorced women and 44 percent of divorced men reported more than one sexual contact outside their marriage.2 These are not just impersonal numbers; they represent persons who have experienced untold pain and confusion with disrupted lives. If you have been abandoned by a lifelong partner, you know how overwhelming and unspeakable the hurt and outrage can be.

In my fourteen years as a Catholic priest and seventeen years as a clinical psychologist in private practice, I have met many who have suffered the trauma of a discovered affair. I call it a trauma because of my observations that many of those who have discovered their partner’s infidelity have been traumatized. They feel overwhelmed, enraged, and unable to cope with life. They are preoccupied with the betrayal, have nightmares about it, and suffer flashbacks. At times, they feel emotionally numb, then at other times, crazy. Their reaction can last for years and interferes with their capacity to enjoy their lives and trust others. I call their reaction “post-infidelity stress disorder,” with the acronym PISD, which expresses the rage that is the primary symptom and the intensity of the feelings. I use this term not to suggest a new diagnostic category but to suggest a parallel with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been well documented and researched. Those who have been wounded by their partner’s infidelity are often filled with rage, directing their anger, obviously, toward their partner, but also against themselves in self-blame. They also project their anger onto the world of relationships, which becomes dangerous and evokes mistrust.

Some clients in my practice ask me, “Why can’t I just get over the affair and move on with my life?” I find it is helpful to explain the nature of the trauma they experienced and how their reaction is a predictable response to an extraordinary event. I tell them their reaction is in many ways similar to those who have suffered life-threatening events, such as war, violent crimes, or auto accidents. In reality, their psychic lives have been threatened and their assumptions about their marriage shattered. These clients often breathe a sigh of relief and tell me, “I thought I was going crazy.” In understanding their painful experience and reactions in the broader context of a traumatic response, they become more patient with themselves and the recovery process. They are enlightened by the parallel of their experience with others who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, which has received so much publicity lately. They feel more confident they will survive the journey on the road to recovery traversed by many others who have experienced life-threatening events.


From the book TRANSCENDING POST-INFIDELITY STRESS DISORDER: THE SIX STAGES OF HEALING by Dennis Ortman © published by Celestial Arts/Ten Speed, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group.

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November 19, 2009

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