When most people of think of trauma, they think about large-scale and uncontrollable events.  Circumstances like war, natural disasters, rape, and car or plane accidents are some of the possible scenarios that come to mind.  Unfortunately, due to this narrow scope in terms of how the general public tends to conceptualize trauma, it is quite easy for a person to overlook their own experience as trauma.  This often means suffering in silence without seeking the necessary help to heal.

Last week, I wrote about types of trauma, with a specific focus on large ‘T’ and small ‘t’ traumas.  Within that post, I briefly mentioned that infidelity is a form of small ‘t’ trauma.  Some readers may initially react to this by thinking, “that’s not trauma. It sucks, and it’s awful, but it’s not trauma.”  This line of thinking may be due to their own personal experience with infidelity and the cognitive dissonance that occurs when self-identifying as having experienced a (at times, significant) trauma.  However, by not labeling that experience as such, we do a disservice to those who have experienced the heartache and betrayal of having a partner who engaged in infidelity.

There is much healing to be done after fidelity is breached; simply brushing the situation and related thoughts and emotions under the rug does not rid oneself of what has happened.  As many have personally experienced or witnessed in others, infidelity leads to trust issues (with the cheating partner if they remain in the relationship or with future partners) and frequent questioning of one’s own self-worth and value in a romantic relationship. Ignoring what has happened, along with trying to skip past the healing phase, has never helped with restoring the romantic relationship. Some may argue this method has been effective, only to later recognize that memories, thoughts, and emotions begin bubbling up again and conflict within the relationship is on the rise.

The Definition of Infidelity

Most individuals would define infidelity as having a necessary physical or sexual component.  However, modern and more inclusive definitions and conceptualizations of infidelity do not rely exclusively on a partner having engaged in an unknown sexual relationship with a third party.  Consider emotional infidelity, what is sometimes called “emotional cheating.”  This form of infidelity is often one of the most damaging to the primary intimate relationship.  The forging of an emotional bond with a person outside of the primary relationship is more likely to lead to sexual affairs, emotional distancing from the primary partner, and divorce.  This is not to undermine the significance of sexual infidelities, but rather to discern a true definition of infidelity that speaks to all types of transgressions.

Given consideration to the different types of infidelity that occur, perhaps it is helpful to begin defining relationship infidelity by examining the true definition of the word. That is, fidelity means “the quality and state of being faithful” and “accuracy in details” (Merriam-Webster.com, 2017).  Nowhere within that definition are intimacy or sexual relationships mentioned.  Likewise, Merriam-Webster (2017) defines infidelity primarily as “unfaithfulness to a moral obligation (i.e., disloyalty)” and secondarily, “the act or fact of having a romantic or sexual relationship with someone other than one’s husband, wife, or partner.” While the latter definition directly includes the romantic or sexual relationship aspect that most individuals’ use to define the term, the former definition is much more inclusive and lends itself towards “smaller,” but perhaps more meaningful transgressions.  Many definitions of infidelity have been offered in the literature, and so too, this one is offered:

Infidelity: Unfaithfulness that occurs when meaningful secrets are kept from your primary romantic partner and which leads to a reduction or loss in relationship trust.

This inclusive definition does not specify a precise method or means of engaging in infidelity, but rather speaks to the impact of secret-keeping on one of the most important parts of the relationship: trust.  Further, this means to say that if you are engaging in any sexual or romantic activities that are concealed from your primary romantic partner, whether by lies or keeping secrets, you are being unfaithful, dishonest, and thereby cheating.

Infidelity: Little ‘t’ Trauma

Similar to large ‘T’ traumas, a person who is aware they have been betrayed by their partner in the form of cheating (again, lying about or withholding information about romantic or sexual acts committed outside of the primary romantic relationship) is more likely to experience both overt and covert trauma-reaction symptoms.  For example, it is not unusual for the betrayed partner to become hypervigiliant, such as by constantly examining their partner for signs of further infidelities, checking their calendars, cell phones or social media accounts, directly questioning their partner, and ‘reading into’ their partner’s statements and actions.  They also frequently experience intrusive memories and reminders of the infidelity; this may happen when the betrayed partners sees the person who their partner had an affair with or from watching television or movies where similar situations are presented.

They may attempt to avoid the subject within conversations, change the television channel when a program depicts a romantic affair, or even try to ignore their own reactions (and thereby healing process).  It is quite common for the betrayed partner to experience frequent, and perhaps daily, changes in their thoughts and emotions.  For example, they may want to reconcile the relationship one day and then question their partner’s intentions and keep them at an emotional distance the next.  These are just some examples of how the betrayed partner may react for a period of time after they have learned about their partner’s infidelity, but at their core, these reactions comprise the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

To Separate or Not

Depending on the couple’s beliefs, and more precisely those of the betrayed partner, it is often the case that the question of whether to remain together or separate is heavily considered.  For some, separation and thereby, divorce, is not an option.  For others, it is only the option.  These decisions don’t come lightly, especially if the couple is married, have children, own a home together, have conjoined finances, or are particularly religious.  There are many logistical and emotional factors to be weighed, as well as the social pressures and shame that both partners may experience if the infidelity or separation is exposed to friends and family.  If a couple decides to stay together and work through the betrayal, the road ahead is not easy, and should not be easy.

Challenges Within the Relationship

When a person is betrayed by their partner, it is often not the sexual aspects (if they are present) of the infidelity that are most troublesome.  Rather, it is the fracture of trust within the relationship that is most affected.  Given what we know about the importance of trusting one’s partner in any enduring relationship, this makes a great deal of logical sense.  The process of healing from the infidelity can be arduous as there is much work to be done.  The most prominent challenge within the relationship will be that of trust.  Since the bounds of trust have been tampered, it is most common for the betrayed partner to feel confused, misled, and hesitant.  This happens even when the cheating partner is being forthcoming and honest.  This alone can take an enormous toll on the relationship, particularly as both partner’s are intending to reconcile and heal.

When the veracity of the relationship is frequently questioned and challenged, the cheating partner may find such accusations and distrust “unfair” or expired.  This means to say that the cheating, or lying, partner believes that the betrayed partner has had enough time to “get over it” and they should be trusting again; the irony is that they often expect the betrayed partner to accomplish this fairly quickly and perhaps within a matter of days or weeks (and there are many reasons why the cheating partner pushes this agenda).  The reality is that the healing process can take upwards of two years.  For healing to occur for both parties, it takes consistency, understanding, truthfulness, open-mindedness, and awareness.

We’re Here to Help

The process of recovering and healing from relationship infidelity can be incredibly difficult. The information contained within this post is merely a starting point to understanding more about the traumatic impact of infidelity. If you are struggling with the recent news, or perhaps not-so-recent news, of infidelity within your relationship, know that the healing process takes time, effort, education, and patience to overcome. We completely understand how difficult this process can be and want to help you and your partner through this very challenging time.  We specialize in working with trauma and couples in a relaxing and non-judgmental environment.  If you are experiencing relationship difficulties, are in a state of shock over your partner’s infidelity, or just revealed to your partner that you were having an affair and wanting to seek professional assistance, please contact us.  Take the first step to start your new relationship journey to healing and trust.