“Your husband is having an affair with my wife.” Sue pressed the phone to her ear. She could barely recognize Brian, her kind, soft-spoken neighbor, as he spat out his angry message. Her brain couldn’t compute, so she asked him to repeat himself. When he did, and the meaning of his words began to sink in, the room became dreamlike and swirled around her. For a moment, she felt like she was going faint. “How could this be? Bob is my husband and he loves me. Nancy is my friend.” Images of her husband having sex with her neighbor came to her mind, and she pushed them away. This could not be happening. She wanted to throw up. She wanted to shout profanities and break all the furniture in the house. She wanted to curl up in a ball on the floor and die.
Over the following days and weeks, as the facts of the affair became undeniable, Sue was, in her own words, “a basket case.” She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t concentrate at work. At times rage would rise up in her like a volcano. At other times, she would sob uncontrollably. Even though Bob promised to end the affair and work on their marriage, Sue’s mind was rarely free of images and thoughts about her husband’s infidelity. She compulsively spied on Bob by checking his phone, reading his emails, and tracking the history on his computer. She questioned him incessantly. She wanted to know every detail, even though his answers hurt her to the core. Even the antidepressants and sleep aids she finally obtained from her doctor did little to give her relief.
What does this story illustrate? It is traumatic to learn that your partner has been unfaithful. This is true whether the infidelity is a one-time event or a pattern of behavior such as we see in sex addicts. We expect our closest love relationship to be safe. We expect to be our partner’s “one and only.” When that relational safety is threatened, we often react just as powerfully as we would if our physical safety were threatened (such as in the case of an earthquake, war, or a car accident). Our minds and bodies are designed to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. It is an automatic reaction; we cannot control it.
Here are many of the common responses to trauma:
- Nausea/Inability to Eat
- Dissociation/Trouble Concentrating/Am I Going Crazy?
- Uncontrolled Emotions: Sadness/Fear/Rage
- Intrusive Images and Memories/Flashbacks/Reliving the Event/Nightmares
- Heart Palpitations
- Panic Attacks
- Turning to Alcohol, Drugs, Food, etc.
We recognize these symptoms in those who have been through a car accident, a rape, or a deployment in Iraq. They are just as prevalent in those who have been betrayed in their primary relationship.
Sue’s reaction is typical for those who discover pornography use, affairs, or sex addiction in their partners. They often find it difficult to function at work or in life because they are so consumed by emotion, intrusive thoughts and memories, the inability to concentrate, and the compulsion to watch or control their partner. If Sue’s husband is wise, he will understand that many of her words and actions are a trauma response.
According to the research of Barbara Steffans, author of Your Sex Addicted Spouse, there are three factors which affect the level of trauma response in wives when they discover their husbands’ infidelity:
- The length of the marriage – The longer the marriage, the more severe the trauma. There are more memories for her to rethink. For example, “When we were in Hawaii on our 10th wedding anniversary and I thought everything was wonderful, where was your mind?”
- Earlier life trauma – When a woman has had abuse or losses early in life, she is less resilient to additional trauma in her current relationship and is likely to have more severe trauma symptoms.
- The behaviors – In general, the more the severe the acting out behavior of the husband, the more severe the trauma reaction of the wife. For example, all other things being equal, it is more traumatic to learn of a physical affair than it is to learn of pornography use.
Top Tips for the Traumatized:
- Take care of yourself. If you had been physically traumatized by being hit by a car, wouldn’t you allow yourself to be taken to the hospital to seek professional medical care? Wouldn’t you permit loved ones to drive you home and bring you meals? Wouldn’t you give yourself time to rest and heal? Why not honor the trauma of betrayal in the same way? Seek guidance from professionals and support from trusted friends and family. Understand that you will be in pain for a while, and be gentle with yourself. Healing takes time.
- Manage your reactivity. In the midst of the emotion of trauma, the logical, thinking part of our brain shuts down. Try to acknowledge your emotions, but not act on them. It may bring a temporary relief to break furniture or call your husband’s mother to tell her how horrible her son is, but you will probably regret it in the long run. Let yourself calm down before you make any important decisions (like divorce).
Top Tips for the Betrayer:
- Be patient. If you had accidentally backup out of your driveway and run over your partner, would you tell her to “get over it?” A few weeks after she got out of the hospital would you sigh with impatience if she told you she was hurting? Or would you do everything you could to care for her and to make amends?
- Validate her feelings. When she expresses her pain, don’t defend yourself, minimize, blame, or insist that she see her fault in the matter. Say something like, “I know you are ____ (angry/in pain/upset). I am so sorry. What can I do for you now?”
- Be proactive. If you hope to rebuild trust, go out of your way to let her know you have stopped the infidelity. If you suspect an addiction, seek treatment. Go to an SA or SAA group. Let her know the steps you are taking.
- Be transparent. Give her permission to check your phone or your email account. Be willing to answer any questions she may ask. However, be careful about telling her things that will increase her pain or will traumatize her all over again. Avoid staggered disclosure, where you tell her the truth in bits and pieces. Each truth telling will be another trauma and will feel like “death by a thousand cuts” to her. You may want to consider finding a therapist who knows how to guide you in a Full Formal Disclosure process. This will help to minimize the ongoing pain and trauma.