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Latter-day Saint Therapist: After an Affair, How Betrayal Trauma Impacts Marriage (+ How to Find Healing)

This is part of an ongoing series on healing from infidelity. To reserve a spot in my free online class of the same name for LDS Living readers, click here

Can a spouse’s affair lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? For some, the question seems overly dramatic. “Surely it’s heartbreaking,” they say, “but PTSD is for cops, assault victims, firefighters, and war veterans.” However, as Dr. Shirley Glass explains in her seminal book Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, victims of affairs often meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. After all, their sense of security, stability, and safety was shaken. Their view of their world and their relationships was upended. They no longer feel safe.

If your spouse had an affair, while you may or may not fully meet the criteria for PTSD, there is a component of trauma (often called betrayal trauma) which no doubt affects your emotional health and your relationships every single day. If you had an affair, understanding trauma and its effects will go a long way toward helping you earn your spouse’s trust while managing your own reactions to their “rollercoaster of emotions.” Let’s move in closer and look at how betrayal trauma affects both spouses.

For the Betrayed Partner

The ways in which trauma may harm and influence you, the betrayed spouse, are more than we can list here. That said, many in your position experience loss of joy, playfulness, and the ability to have fun. They have invasive, unwelcome thoughts of their spouse having an affair. A loss of hope for the future, intense mood swings, pushing people away because you feel unlovable, self-blame, and intense feelings of shame are common. You may want closeness from your partner at times while being repulsed by it at others. You might alternate between intense romantic and sexual interest in your spouse to extreme disinterest. Perhaps you have anger that is difficult to control.

One sister described it this way:

“I don’t know if words can describe my feelings when I learned that my husband had been involved in an affair for two years. It was more than I could comprehend. At first I denied it. But the awful realization began to crush me. I cried whenever I was by myself, but in public I pretended that things were fine. I stopped eating and dropped to ninety-five pounds. The world around me seemed to be unfocused, and sometimes I felt that I couldn’t even move” (“The Greatest Test a Marriage Can Have,” Name Witheld, Ensign, August 1988).

More than anything you want to feel safe, respected, and loved. Maybe you vacillate between trying to get those needs met in your marriage and moving on to find it elsewhere. Please know that you’re not going crazy, even if it feels that way. What you’re experiencing is normal. You can heal from this. You can find stability. You can feel safe, respected, and loved. It starts with doing what it takes to love yourself, respect yourself, and keep yourself safe.

For the Partner Who Cheated

Many in your shoes struggle to understand why, after you’ve apologized and abandoned the behavior, your spouse doesn’t “get over it.” It seems like they’re choosing to punish you instead of healing the relationship. You’re tired of being the villain. You want your partner to understand why you did what you did, and oftentimes why you felt lonely or hurt and compelled to cheat. You want to be seen as more than the bad guy of this story. Maybe you feel hopeless because, no matter how hard you try, it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Perhaps you carry intense guilt that you feel won’t go away until your spouse forgives you.

So, why can’t they move on? My graduate school professor said of someone in your shoes “until your remorse equals your spouse’s pain, they’ll never get over it. They need to know that your remorse equals their pain, because then they can believe it won’t happen again.” If you’re dismissive, shifting blame, or pushing them to forgive you, trying to speed the process along, it comes across as you not taking it as seriously as they do, and that triggers massive insecurity and fear.

Speaking of triggers, a traumatized firefighter, police officer, or soldier can take time off, away from their trigger, for psychological care. That time away can be healing. For your spouse, you are the trigger. This is one reason why your spouse is hot then cold, drawn to you then pushes you away. He or she loves you and likely wants, on some level, to make this work. But you are also a reminder of their anguish, a reminder of betrayal, a reminder of trauma. This is why they can’t just “get over it.”

Coping with Betrayal Trauma: Healing Your Marriage

You can heal as individuals, and if you so choose, as a couple from the trauma of infidelity. It involves a process of atonement (the betrayed partner having a voice and the unfaithful partner making amends), attunement (restoring trust and shoring up the weaknesses of the marriage), and attachment (solidifying your union so that you’re closer than ever while establishing a plan with boundaries to ensure faithfulness moving forward).

Outlining that process in full goes beyond the scope of this article, so I’m offering a free online course, “How to Heal From Infidelity,” for LDS Living readers to get some tips. It’s coming soon, so reserve your spot. Please know that, as awful as it feels right now, this doesn’t have to define you, your life, or your marriage moving forward. It can get better.

Remember always that the Lord Jesus Christ “suffered pains and afflictions and temptation of every kind,” and He did this “that his bowels may be filled with mercy . . . that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (see Alma 7:11-12)  He knows your pain. He knows how to help. Turn to Him and to others who may be in a position to help you.

Lead image from Getty Images
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Jonathan Decker, LMFT

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily Gospel-based relationship tips. 

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