Infidelity as a Trauma
One of the most common reasons for couples to seek therapy is dealing with infidelity. The individual that cheated generally comes full of guilt and promising to never do it again, while their partner most times is unsure about the possibility of continuing together, because it seems impossible that their trust can be recovered.
In this article I will try to explain the tragedy of infidelity, focusing on the victim, since most psychotherapists writing on the topic have written about the cheating partner and the reasons behind their actions. I will also explain the effects cheating has on a person through the theory of trauma. Finally, I will show some steps to follow at home, and in therapy, that facilitate overcoming the pain and anger produced by being cheated on and, however slowly, begin the process of forgiveness and attempt to rebuild trust.
Before turning to the victim’s experience I want to share a few words about the cheating partner. There is no single explanation about why a person is unfaithful. There are cases where there is a psychological or psychiatric disorder at the root of infidelity, but that is in a minority of situations. In some cases it is the consequence of not loving the partner anymore, but there are also people who cheat on a dearly beloved partner. The common assumption that “if they cheated on me, they don’t love me anymore”, is thus not applicable to all the cases, so the actual cause in a specific case has to be explored, a process which can benefit from the support of therapy.
Even if the partners both still love each other, however, the commitment made at the beginning of the relationship may be breached if they had agreed to be monogamous, alongside any other implicit and explicit agreements made on the outset of their relationship.
It is the breach in what we expected that I will focus on when discussing infidelity, and the effects it can have on the partner who did not cheat. What happens to a person who finds out their partner cheated on them? If we center our attention there, we will find much more similarity between them than we would between the people that cheat on their partners. Because of what cheating means, and the typical reactions people have when they find out about it, we can say that the victim of an unfaithful partner is indeed suffering from a traumatic event.
What is trauma? A traumatic event refers to an experience that goes beyond the capacity that a person has to handle it. They find themselves unable to integrate the ideas and emotions that the event provokes with the rest of their life. In psychological terms, it generally occurs when there is a strong incongruence between what has happened and what the person thought about their life and their future, resulting in a state of profound confusion and uncertainty. When a person is cheated on, it’s not unusual to hear them say: “I never would have thought they would have done something like this”, a clear indication of the unexpected and unfathomable nature of infidelity.
It’s useful to understand that when we talk about trauma, we talk about a breach, an experience that breaks the continuity of our story in a sudden way, marking a before and after in our lives. After a discontinuity such as this happens in our story, certain characteristic phenomena start to occur. Recognizing these as symptoms of a trauma helps both the victim and the person who cheated to understand the behaviors as something to expect in the journey through trauma.
The first symptom is that the memory of the traumatized person can be affected in different ways. It is common for them to constantly remember the fact and think about it, trying again and again to find any sense in it, to find an explanation; many victims experience a desperate search for meaning, hoping to be able to restore the continuity in their lives by pinpointing the cause of the disruption. Here the constant question “Why?” will be repeated, especially to their partner, needing an answer time and time again, even if it is always the same answer they are given.
Another symptom, a product of the breach mentioned, is a certain degree of amnesia or difficulty in remembering aspects of the relationship previous to the trauma. Since there is now a discontinuity in the story, it’s hard to traverse the memories to moments prior to the infidelity. The person is in this way stuck in the trauma, only able to remember and think about what happened there.
Even when the therapeutic process is working, even when the person is able to forgive and trust again, flashbacks can occur. This means that sometimes images of the traumatic event will appear unexpectedly, especially if something related to it triggered those memories. Common triggers in these cases could be hearing the name of the partner’s lover, walking past the place where they found out about the deed, or even dreaming about it. The image doesn't come alone; sadly it also brings back all the emotionality, all the pain, that appeared at the moment the traumatic event happened. It’s important to know that flashbacks are a normal part of the path, that they are even expected. This allows both members of the relationship to not see this as an absolute setback, or that all of their efforts have been useless, but to understand it as a part of the healing process.
Another characteristic symptom of a trauma is a simplified emotional response, in which anger and sadness appear suddenly, apparently without explanation. We can understand this from a biological level: if an organism is threatened, a quick response is preferable and, in fact, more adaptive. For the victim of infidelity, their partner was, or still is, the enemy that threatened their sense of safety and continuity, and it is to be expected they will show less tolerance and more irritability towards that threat.
It’s not unusual to find dichotomous emotionality in victims of infidelity, that is, feeling either all good or all bad. The past of the relationship, long before the infidelity, is sometimes seen as a happy and almost perfect period where no problems existed. The future, on the other hand, is seen as a barren wasteland devoid of trust and love. Once we are able to recover the continuity of our story, to give meaning to what happened —not to justify the deed but to understand it— we can connect that past with that future, breaking down the black-and-white dichotomy in remembering the negative moments that could have precipitated or warned of the infidelity, and believing there is some hope to trust again in the future.
Now that we understand why being cheated on is a trauma, we can discuss what to do about it.
First, it is important that both partners are in agreement with what they will refer to with the word ‘infidelity’. It is always helpful to define terms in relation to behaviors, that is, to things we can all perceive. In this way the presence of that phenomenon can be evaluated in an objective way, more or less.
For example: it is one thing to say that the problem is that the partner is an alcoholic, but it is quite a different story to say that there is a problem because every time they go out together he or she drinks until they get drunk. One definition is arguable, almost an insult, while the second one is possible to evaluate objectively. “Are you an alcoholic?” is a very different question than “Did you get drunk last Saturday?”
A good definition of infidelity must, of course, include sexual acts with a person outside the relationship, unless it is an open relationship in which an explicit agreement has been made that allowed extra relationship sexual conduct. The definition should not, however, end there. It is also important to clarify all the non-sexual conduct that either member of the couple considers to also breach their relationship agreement such as: sharing intimate pictures or even feelings with another person, spending more time with another person than with the partner, or any other situation one of the partners considers relevant.
I remember a case that illustrates this point very well. The wife felt her husband had been unfaithful because, during the important times in her life, such as her father’s funeral or the birth of their daughter, her husband had not been with her. Instead, he had been supporting his best friend, a woman that he had met at work, who was sad at those times for unrelated reasons.
The husband recognized he had not been there for his wife, but he explained that while his wife had been accompanied by her family, his friend had been alone so he thought his presence had been more helpful at her side. He disagreed that his behavior had amounted to being unfaithful. For him, and there was no way for his wife to dissuade him, infidelity meant to have sex with another person, and nothing less than that.
The argument between them had centered on semantics, the meaning of the word itself, leaving aside what was more important to discuss: the facts of what had happened between them. I proposed they not refer to what had happen as ‘infidelity’, since there was no agreement about its meaning, but to use the term ‘disloyalty’ instead. The husband was not sure about this new word, but he was open to discuss it and to the possibility of calling his behavior disloyal.
As you can see, since we were going to focus our attention on actions, the specific word we use to refer to them was not important. Thus, we can avoid the obstacle of someone not recognizing that their behavior was unfaithful just by changing the word with which we will work. As I always say, in therapy the important part of the words we use is the position they reveal, more than the actual words themselves.
Once in agreement of the words we will use for the issue at hand, we can decide with the couple on the goals of the therapy.
What changes would they like to see once the treatment is over? What kind of couple would they like to be in the future? These questions put forgiveness and the overcoming of trauma on the horizon, and at the same time allow for other desired changes to appear in the discussion of desire outcomes or goals. In answering these questions, the couple will also reveal much about the story of the relationship. And, in doing that, we can start to contextualize the infidelity, or disloyalty, within the relationship, instead of seeing it as an event outside of it.
A good example of the importance of goal setting is the issue of going out. If a person that had an affair tells their partner that in part they cheated on them because they never went out together, the most probable outcome will be anger in the victim, thinking their partner is trying to justify their action.
However, if the same person instead tells their partner that they miss going out with them and that in the future they would like to go out together more often, it becomes less a justification and more a positive goal to improve the relationship, and most of the time is seen as such by the victim.
There are some long-term goals that are always a good idea to talk about, especially when working with couples that have gone through an affair. First, there has to be an agreement about the emotional and social boundaries with other people. Second, that both parties will make an effort to rebuild the relationship, trying to the best of their abilities to satisfy the emotional and physical needs of their partner.
We then have to think of short-term goals that, through their fulfillment bring the couple closer to the achievement of their designated long-term goals. Since we have established infidelity is a trauma, and that talking about it is the only way to overcome it, one of the goals should often be being able to talk about the deed in a clear but respectful way. Often doubts will remain and questions will be repeated, so we will have to help the cheating partner to be patient and tolerate this stage. It is the only way for their partner to achieve some kind of meaning or sense behind what happened, and thus be able to connect it with their story and their present, restoring its continuity.
It is helpful to remind the couple of the typical reactions to trauma while they are attempting this, to help them to empathize with the hurt partner, and not think the repetitions are caused by cruelty or even other mental health issues.
In the same spirit of finding a meaning behind the infidelity, it is good to talk about the elements, both within and external to their relationship, that they believe contributed to the infidelity. It’s not important to arrive at one clear cause that explains what happened, but the simple fact of talking and exploring different hypotheses is useful to make sense and connect the trauma with the rest of both their lives. If the father of the cheating partner had an affair in the past it doesn’t explain anything by itself but it starts to give the deed a context. This knowledge connects their behavior with the past and stops it from being an isolated event that, exactly because of that rupture with the rest of their lives, would be impossible to assimilate.
It’s also useful to talk about the condition of the relationship before the infidelity happened, to be able to recover bit by bit that past, which can be lost or distorted in the memory by the trauma.
Once the facts are clear enough, including the details needed by the hurt partner, alongside the probable causes and the condition of the relationship when the affair occurred, it is possible to begin to identify the behavioral changes, of both partners, that could help to avoid a future infidelity and improve the relationship at the same time.
Finally, it is important that the victim of the infidelity understands forgiveness as a process, and not a clear cut event. This means that forgiveness can ebb and flow, sometimes more and sometimes less, but that doesn’t mean that they are taking it back or ‘un-forgiving’ their partner. It’s a gradual, and not always straight, path.
People often think that it will be impossible to forgive something, because they think forgiveness means to forget, or to forgive one hundred percent. When we understand forgiveness as a journey, where every step counts, where backtracking is natural, it is possible to see forgiveness as something achievable, even if it is only at ninety percent. This gradient is an important distinction for couples to understand as a relationship where there is ninety percent forgiveness is radically different to one where there is no forgiveness and, in fact, it is very similar to one where there is total forgiveness. Sometimes ninety percent is the closest they may be able to get to a goal that can be ultimately unachievable after an event as traumatic as infidelity.
In this way, the therapeutic process can work on one hand in the healing of trauma —by helping to tolerate being stuck at that point in time and slowly connecting it with the rest of the story of their relationship in order to become unstuck— while on the other hand it can also help by opening new ways in which the couple can become stronger and, in some cases, have an even better relationship in the future through open discussion and the setting of goals.
If we want to relate this to my focus on the subjective position of our patients, and the shift of it as the trigger for their change, we can say that trauma produces a limited perspective of our own story, censoring or blocking some of the chapters. In the case of infidelity, if the couple is to stay together we have to be able to shift the position to incorporate the deed and, at the same time, to explore the perspective of the future in order to decide if it is one in which they want to stay together as a couple.
In summary, understanding infidelity as a trauma allows both the couple and the professional to focus enough time on the deed itself, before looking to the past in search of a cause, or to the future that may seem barren after such a painful event.
In addition, trauma theory explains the phenomena of memory changes and the emotions present in this kind of case, while also explaining why they are a natural reaction to this type of event. This work can open the door to a not so distant future where the infidelity is included as a dark time of the couple’s story, a story that may still continue with the couple choosing to stay together, possibly in a relationship that is even stronger than before.
* I have modified the names, jobs, and other identifying information to maintain the confidentiality of the psychotherapeutic process.