When we hear the term PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, often the images that flash through our minds are of soldiers triggered by the memories of war. We think of how fireworks may remind them of gunfire, of how hunger may bring them back to moments of terror while waiting out silence on the battlefield.
What we don’t consider is who else, other than the soldier, may suffer from PTSD. We don’t often think of the betrayed spouse.
Andy, a 50-year-old golf professional and instructor, discovered his wife Mariah’s first infidelity almost a decade ago. She claimed that it was a one-time fling, a mistake – but over the next five years, Andy learned about multiple affairs she’d had. Andy thought he was devastated the first time, but what he would experience over the next half-decade was, as he describes it, unimaginable pain.
“From the outside, most would ask how or why I’d even stay,” he shares. “That makes most sense, but what happened… well, I’d be in pain with or without her, and I chose to stay with her.
“I fought to find out why she did what she did, because I believe that my wife is not an evil human being. She’s flawed, and she was wrong, but just as no one would ask to be judged for their actions, I didn’t want to be judged for staying and wanting to find recovery for us as individuals and as a couple.”
Andy and Mariah attended therapy as a couple and also independently. The couple accepted that Mariah’s experiences of continued childhood sexual abuse, as well as an assault in college, had shaped her – the self-destructive behavior and unhealthy coping strategies she’d employed over the years had never been addressed, and appeared maliciously in what would have otherwise been an affectionate and loving marriage.
“Our therapist alluded to the fact, to me, that Mariah was suffering from PTSD from the years of sexual abuse as a child,” says Andy. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re making that up.’ PTSD is for prisoners of war. That’s not a thing. You don’t get abused and then abuse back.
“And as I said it out loud, I thought, ‘Wait. All these things she’s doing, all the things she’s told me she’s feeling, I feel too. I’m anxious, I’m isolated, I’m hypervigilant, I’m reaching out for anything and everything to just feel better.’ And I got it.
“So it wasn’t a shock when my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD, because I ticked off all the boxes.”
Like Andy, many victims of betrayal are comforted to know that their feelings are normal and valid. They may be surprised to realize that infidelity can bring about PTSD symptoms, which include:
- Feeling nauseated
- Insomnia (or wanting to sleep all the time)
- Persistent nightmares
- Isolation from friends and loved ones
- Irritability, hostility, and agitation
- Extreme distrust
- Severe anxiety
- Self-destructive behavior (including addiction or acting out)
What PTSD does is change you physiologically; you enter fight-or-flight because you feel persistently threatened. When you have PTSD, you don’t feel safe. You are constantly feeling jeopardized or in danger. Science even tells us that your cortisol levels (cortisol is the primary stress hormone) rise so high that you are at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, sleeplessness, high blood pressure and a host of other chronic illnesses.
Even if the betrayal occurred a long time ago, even if the immediate threat has passed, your brain doesn’t know any different. Your neurochemicals continue to fire to warn you that you’re still not safe.
What happens now?
Whether you or your spouse decide to seek counseling and recovery together, what we’d like to focus on right now is you.
It’s so important for you to recover from PTSD as a result of betrayal trauma, so you can find your own happiness and rediscover your own sense of health and wellbeing. This is regardless of the choices your spouse makes.
Finding a therapist, as Andy did, will be of great help. You’ll be able to see another perspective and walk through the experience with a professional who helps you see things more clearly, so that you can respond to your spouse – and to the persistent noises of your mind – in a healthier way. You can learn to deploy better skills, decide on better boundaries, take care of yourself, and be a part of new support systems.