Jennifer’s story portrays only the tip of the iceberg of the deep distress you may feel upon discovering your partner’s affair. It is a shock from which you may believe you will never recover. Your faith in your partner, yourself, and your relationship has been shattered. What security you felt in your marriage has been stolen. All the past expressions of love and commitment that you relied on have turned out to be lies. You may wonder how you could have been so foolish not to recognize the truth. You ask yourself how your partner could be so cruel to betray you and your children. “Could I have been so wrong about my life partner?” you ask. You are likely filled with confusion and dread about what the future now holds for you. You might feel lost in the whirlwind of conflicting thoughts.
Not only does your mind seem to be playing tricks on you, but your body and emotions may also be wreaking havoc with you. Sometimes the body knows more than the mind. You may feel sick to your stomach and unable eat. Your body may be so tense you believe it will break under any more stress. You may feel pain in new areas and wonder if you have developed some serious illness as a result of the stress. You are restless and cannot sleep, and what little sleep you manage is disturbed. It seems as if your emotions are running wild. At times, you may feel numb and dead inside. At other times, you feel so anxious it’s as if you are jumping out of your skin. A paralyzing depression may engulf you so you feel like withdrawing into a cocoon to recover the security that has been lost. The anger, which is closer to a rage, may be so intense you are afraid it will consume you.
Feeling as overwhelmed as you do, you might be thinking you are going crazy. You may be afraid you are falling apart and can never be put back together again. Let me assure you that this is normal for what you have probably been going through. It is a normal reaction to an extraordinary event, the devastating discovery of a partner’s infidelity. I think the reaction can best be appreciated by putting it in the context of a traumatic experience. Those who have discovered their partner’s infidelity have been traumatized. The word trauma means wound, and the offended person has been wounded to the core of her being by her partner’s betrayal of trust.
In recent years clinicians and researchers have paid considerable attention to the reaction of people to overwhelming, life-threatening events. In fact, nearly a century and a half ago, observers noted that soldiers who had fought in the Civil War were emotionally disturbed for years afterward. They called it “soldier’s heart.” Veterans of World War I suffered a similar reaction, which was called “shell shock.” It was assumed that their nervous response to battle resulted from being exposed to the percussion of exploding shells. World War II veterans experienced “battle fatigue,” which incapacitated them for further combat. After Vietnam, an identifiable and prolonged stress reaction was identified as “post-traumatic stress disorder.” We have come to realize that many people who are exposed to life-threatening events suffer a syndrome with predictable symptoms and progression. More recently, we have also realized that individuals who have been exposed to a wide range of catastrophic events besides combat have a similar reaction. People who have experienced serious auto accidents, natural disasters, or physical assaults are often traumatized. Others who feel vulnerable and face serious physical injury as victims of domestic violence, rape, and child abuse can also be traumatized.
Clinicians have described and researchers have catalogued the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These symptoms are listed and described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a book clinicians use for diagnosis.2 Although you most likely do not experience the intense and extreme reactions of those most traumatized, for example, by war or prolonged physical or sexual abuse, you may hear echoes, however faint, in your experience as you read these symptoms:
- Exposure to a life-threatening event
- Intense fear and helplessness
- Re-experiencing the event
- Avoidance of reminders of the event
- Emotional numbing
- Heightened anxiety
- Irritability and rage
I have observed in my clinical practice that many individuals whose partners have been unfaithful exhibit many of these symptoms, to a greater or lesser degree, which led me to coin the term “post-infidelity stress disorder.” I believe there is a notable parallel in the reaction of many to the discovery of their partner’s infidelity and the disorder described as post-traumatic stress disorder.3 They have been personally and deeply wounded and will need patience for the often long road to recovery. Nevertheless, they can also be hopeful because many victims of trauma have found and continue to find health and healing through the recent insights gained in treating this disorder.
From the book TRANSCENDING POST-INFIDELITY STRESS DISORDER: THE SIX STAGES OF HEALING by Dennis Ortman © 2009, published by Celestial Arts/Ten Speed, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group.