Infidelity can be traumatic, causing intensely painful emotions for the person who was cheated on. They may actually experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including heightened anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and emotional distress. Ultimately, the level of distress one can experience depends on their unique situation as well as how they internalize and cope with the infidelity.
What Is Post Infidelity Stress Disorder?
Although it’s not an actual diagnosis, many people report feeling post-infidelity stress disorder (PISD). If you experience relationship betrayal in the form of infidelity, you view this as a form of attack and experience interpersonal trauma with potentially devastating and lasting effects.1 You may also experience nightmares and self-doubt, have trouble trusting people (especially in relationships), and withdraw from social interactions.
Can Infidelity Cause PTSD?
The person who was cheated (sexually or emotionally) on may meet the criteria for PTSD and experience trauma-related symptoms such as rage, humiliation, intrusive images and flashbacks, preoccupation, emotional numbing, heightened anxiety to triggers, erratic behavior and sudden mood swings, and difficulty with sleep and concentration.2
Reliving and being triggered by the event can bring on overwhelming worries and fears.2 Anxiety related to post-infidelity trauma is also chronic and persistent.3 In some cases, a person’s natural psychological defenses end up being overwhelmed, leaving them unable to function in a healthy manner.3
Symptoms of Post Infidelity Stress Disorder
Symptoms of PISD include fear, helplessness, confusion, and intrusive thoughts. Some individuals may try to protect themselves by avoiding reminders of the traumatic, restricting their lifestyle to limit triggers.3
Symptoms of PTSD from cheating might include:
- Trust issues
- Commitment issues
- Intrusive thoughts
- Poor emotional regulation
- Becoming triggered easily
- Heightened anxiety
- Irritability and rage
- Worry or fear
- Withdrawal from social interactions
Men & Women May Experience PTSD From Cheating Differently
Men and women may react differently to a personal traumatic experience. Typically, men don’t feel comfortable expressing their feelings, whereas women often feel more in-tune with their feelings and are less embarrassed to share. Women may also be more open to share that their partner cheated on them at all and that they are experiencing symptoms of PISD.
Brain development also differs in how males and females express their symptoms.4 These differences were illustrated by measures of physiological arousal, anger, dissociation, somatization, and personality disorders.4 Ultimately, women report more intrusive images and show a higher PTSD prevalence than men.5 The social role for women such as wife, mother, or caretaker may impact the exposure and post-trauma responses, too.6,7
7 Ways to Deal With Post Infidelity Stress Disorder
The pain and betrayal of infidelity can feel suffocating and isolating, but whatever you do, try not to blame yourself. Working through these difficult emotions won’t be easy and you may have to give yourself plenty of time and space, but doing so is beneficial.
Here are seven ways to deal with post infidelity stress disorder:
- Don’t blame yourself. Putting the burden on yourself will only make it harder to heal. Remembering that you are not in control of someone else’s decisions and behaviors will help you to disconnect yourself from their actions.
- Learn to trust again. This starts with you. Trusting yourself can help you to believe in your judgement and intuition and bring you confidence in knowing that someone else’s bad judgment does not impact yours. This better prepares you to let someone back in when you’re ready.
- Practice self-care. Find out what you need and engage in activities that promote wellness and healing. Activities such as social time with friends, working out, and doing meditation can help by focusing your mind and giving you time to “reset.”
- Schedule time to worry. Pick a time in the day when you feel focused and calm and set that aside as a time to worry (this is called activity scheduling). This will help you to release obsessive thought patterns throughout the day.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Identify your feelings and put a name to them. This can help you accept those feelings and deal with them in the moment. Once you can recognize how you feel and accept it, you can find positive coping mechanisms.
- Find support. Building a good support system with friends, family, or co-workers can provide you with a sense of security. This can be helpful when you feel like you need to reach out and express your emotions.
- Establish healthy boundaries. By setting clear and concise boundaries, you let others know your self-worth. This will help you to create a safe space to rebuild confidence.
When to Get Professional Help for Post Infidelity Stress Disorder
After an infidelity, if you feel your daily interactions are being negatively impacted by your thoughts and behaviors, then it may be time to seek professional help. Other reasons for getting professional help include being nervous to talk about the trauma (this could be a sign that you’re suppressing it), feeling hopeless, and noticing high levels of anxiety.
Therapy for Individuals
Individual counseling is beneficial when a person finds themselves facing daily challenges. A therapist can help by providing insight into what your triggers are and how to overcome them. Exploring new ways to cope will also allow you to feel in control of your emotions and reduce daily anxiety.
PTSD can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), using techniques to target distressing emotions and modifying maladaptive cognitions and behaviors.8 It can also be treated with prolonged exposure (PE) and exposure-based treatment (in vivo or imaginal), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
Couples who want to work on their relationship should seek couples counseling. First, each partner needs to decide whether they want to stay in this relationship and put in the required effort to make it work. If both are open to therapy, this could help them trust one another through the healing process.
Couples CBT for PTSD can also help establish safety within the relationship and provide psychoeducation about PTSD after cheating and relationship functioning.9 Through it, partners can work to improve communication skills and reconnect their emotional and physical relationship.
Final Thoughts on PTSD After Cheating
Infidelity PTSD can be difficult to overcome but there are ways to move forward. Focusing on yourself and what you need is important. Establishing healthy boundaries and exploring your feelings will help you to identify better ways to cope and feel more in control. Remember to take things one day at a time.