by Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
When you first found out you were betrayed by your partner, it probably felt like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet. Everything you knew to be true and valid in the world, suddenly had no meaning. You started doubting yourself, your judgement, your perceptions. Nothing was as it seemed. Your world was turned upside down. Your perceptions of the world were shattered.
Everywhere you went, there were constant reminders (called triggers) of the affair. EVERYWHERE! Even though you logically now know (hopefully) the affair is over, you can’t seem to shake this panicky, anxiety-ridden feeling. All too often your heart is pounding, your brain is fuzzy, your memory is shot to hell, you cry at the tip of a hat. Your sense of trust has been violated, and when that goes, you start questioning, exactly what is safe? Anything??? You might be thinking you are going crazy, but most likely you’re experiencing a form of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. (There are physiological reasons that pertain to this as well, fueled by your inherent survival mechanism, which I will explain more in the next article of this series.)
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition , Text Revision or DSM-IV-TR, a manual used by therapists to diagnose psychological issues, PTSD occurs when a “person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or other.” In addition, “the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” Now I’m guessing you’re probably saying to yourself “my partner’s betrayal had nothing to do with death or physical injury, but that second part – were there cameras recording me?
Well, I believe there’s a case to be made there HAS been a death – the death of your relationship as far as what you previously perceived to be true. With all deaths, according to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five distinct stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance; which don’t necessarily have to occur in this exact order. Are you beginning to see a correlation? In order to heal completely from the pain of betrayal of infidelity, eventually you will need to go through all of these stages.
Now back to the betrayal and PTSD analogy. I’ll bet previously you had thought only something akin to soldiers returning from a war could cause PTSD, right? Wrong! Many people experience PTSD and have no idea that’s what’s going on – AND there’s a pretty substantial chance this may be exactly what you’ve been going through.
Let me go over some of the other required criteria (somewhat paraphrased here) for a diagnosis of PTSD contained in the DSM IV-TR. See if this sounds all too familiar to you:
1. The trauma is persistently re-experienced in one or more of the following ways:
- Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions
- Emotionally and/or physically reacting more intensely than the situation calls for (as if the danger of an attacking tiger is still in the room, right in front of you)
- Making attempts to ignore or suppress the intrusive thoughts, impulses, or images by trying divert your attention with another thought or action
- Intense physical reaction to anything either internal or external that remind you of the traumatic event
- Intense emotional reaction to anything either internal or external that reminds you of the traumatic event
(Beginning to see a pattern here? As if someone has been inside your brain?)
2. Persistent avoidance of anything associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness subsequent to the trauma (as indicated by 3 or more of the following):
- Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma
- Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma
- Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma
- Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
- Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
- Restricted range of affect (i.e. unable to have loving feelings)
- Sense of a foreshortened future
3. Persistent symptoms of increased arousal subsequent to the trauma (as indicated by two or more of the following):
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Exaggerated startle response
In addition, there are a couple other requirements in the DSM IV-TR, such as a continued duration of over one month. Given most people seem to take an average of 2-4 years to heal from the betrayal of infidelity, I’d say this condition is fairly prevalent!
So, now that you’ve gotten the basic gist of what PTSD is all about, what do you think? If you’ve come to the conclusion that this pertains to you, I’ve got two more articles you may find helpful that will be following shortly: “The Neurobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome: You’re Not Crazy! There’s a Physiological Reason Why You’re Feeling the Way You Are” and “Methods to Help You Cope and Heal from Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome Caused by the Betrayal of Infidelity.”
You might be asking yourself, “But Joyce, why can’t you just skip to the article on ways to heal?” My main goal in writing these articles is to give you some tools to help alleviate your current pain. As a therapist, I find my clients are able to heal best when they understand why they are reacting the way they are. Making sense of things is a vital component in healing, which I’ll be discussing more in my next article “The Neurobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome: You’re Not Crazy! There’s a Physiological Reason Why You’re Feeling the Way You Are.” When you understand what is causing your reaction to things, it becomes easier to instead consciously make a choice to “respond” – which puts the control back in your hands – a vital component in regaining your emotional stability and sense of self.
**Additionally, we spoke with Joyce by phone and recorded it. You can access this interview from here.