This is the first in a series of three articles pertaining to Betrayal from Infidelity and PTSD by Joyce Smith, MA, MFT Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist


infidelity and ptsd

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.)

Affair Recovery and the 7 Stages of Grief After an Affair

Understanding Infidelity and PTSD: The Psychological Impact of Betrayal

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.” 

See also  A Marital Affair is an Oasis From the Mundane

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 Infidelity 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
See also  Affair Trauma Part 2: Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore

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
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response

Rebuilding Self Esteem – Don’t Lose Your Self Concept


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:

1.  The Neurobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome: You’re Not Crazy!  There’s a Physiological Reason Why You’re Feeling the Way You Are and…

2.   Methods to Help You Cope and Heal from Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome Caused by the Betrayal of Infidelity.”

Understanding Your Pain: The First Step to Healing

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.”  

See also  Infidelity and Suicide

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.


Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified EMDR practitioner. In addition she is trained in Somatic Therapy, Expressive Art Therapy, Sandtray Therapy and Child Centered Play Therapy. She has a private practice in Hollywood, CA. You can find more information about Joyce on her website:


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Regaining Control:
Dealing With Obsessive Thoughts, Triggers and Memories of the Affair

Arm yourself with a variety of techniques, practical strategies and  knowledge to help you to manage those intrusive thoughts, triggers and memories of your partner’s affair.


    43 replies to "What Does Betrayal From Infidelity Have To Do With Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome?"

    • LookAhead

      Thanks so much for this article! Tomorrow will be the one year “anniversary” of D-day # 1. My husband can’t understand why I stil lhold on or even why I would remember that date. It is the date that changed life as I knew it forever, why would I forget. This article helped me to understand a lot of what I am thinking and feeling is not unusual. Thanks again!

    • Hopeful

      I remember reading “Not Just Friends” book (which is GREAT) and Glass phrased infidelity recovery as PTSD and I initially thought this was too much. I should be able to handle things logically and orderly. That I can’t, I internalized, means that I am weak, needy, and so on. Everyone else and certainly a strong woman would not be out of control, unable to work, experiencing flashbacks, severe emotional stress, obsession, piercing fear, uncontrollable fits of anger and tears, and SO ON.

      Well, all the PTSD symptoms fit my experience to be honest and excepting this helped me forgive and go easy on myself and find the treatment and path to healing that I required. One’s partnership is sacred and one of the most foundational relationships one has. One trusts their partner and relies on them to love and support them, to not abuse them, to not disregard them. Finding out you’ve been betrayed and lied to and made to feel needy/clinging/weak for raising suspicions that were spot on, …on top of beign neglected, stonewalled, etc…. is traumatic. Our supposed best friend turned out to be a shit to us and enemy #1. It is like someone stabbing you or dying.

      Anyway, seeing my experience as PTSD was helpful. I did feel like a nam vet. Triggered and I’d hit the deck, covering my head with a pot, whimpering and afraid out of no where. It took a long time to get rid of / lessen the blows of the triggers. in addition to my H doign work and us doing work together, I went to a counsellor who works with trauma and it helps. There are techniques that help rewire the brain and unhook the networks that have formed and fire whether we like it or not. And they fire to protect us rightly….to warn us of harm…but when we are in a safe place again and have a partner who has come back wanting to work with us and we with them…those firings don’t help. Trauma work can help.

      • Teresa

        Hopeful, you said ” and I initially thought this was too much. I should be able to handle things logically and orderly. That I can’t, I internalized, means that I am weak, needy, and so on. Everyone else and certainly a strong woman would not be out of control, unable to work, experiencing flashbacks, severe emotional stress, obsession, piercing fear, uncontrollable fits of anger and tears, and SO ON.
        This was what I felt and on some days, still feel!! Just wanted you to know you’re not alone!

        • Jewel

          Yep, you are definately not alone!! I too feel like a ‘weakling’ for not being able to ‘control’ these thoughts emotions. Just today, i had to ‘suck it up’ and tell my husband that I was feeling threatened and freaked out (because its a holiday weekend and she typically comes home to our town on holidays) I feel like admitting this makes me look desparate, crazy, and that I don’t trust him, which i hate. We have been skinned alive emotionally, it’s gonna take a while to heal. Let’s all just take a breath and give ourselves a hug and let us feel. Godspeed to you all.

          • Gizfield

            One thing I am really looking forward to when I get my divorce is letting everyone know that Hey, I am NOT crazy, moody, unfriendly, hot tempered, jealous, or whatever bad opinion you probably have of me based on my actions in response to dealing with 2(count ‘ em, 2) lying cheating whores. Since his girlfriend is well acquainted with his group, I imagine is she on the prowl to find another Rent A Husband. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

    • DJ

      I just happened to have an appointment with my doctor the day after my D-day. As the nurse took my vital signs, she frowned and asked, “Are you feeling ok? Your numbers are very different today.”

      My doctor examined me, and asked me a lot of questions. I told her that I had just found out that my husband had been having an affair. She checked me over twice and said, “My dear, you are suffering physical shock. We need to take some action here.” She called my husband in and laid down the law about what needed to be done for me. To his credit, he took it very seriously and did everything she asked.

      At my next visit, she told me I had developed a form of PTSD. I am better today, but I still suffer some of the ill effects of PTSD after almost two years. It’s a long haul.

      I have been to a psychologist who has done some trauma work with me, and it was helpful. The best thing for me has been prayer, Tai Chi, and a rigorous fitness regimen.

    • Teresa

      GREAT article!! Looking forward to the others! I guess now we have the answer of WHY it takes sooooo long to heal from a EA!

    • chiffchaff

      Discovering infidelity really is a form of PTSD and it has been helpful for me to see that the way I was responding throughout the seemingless endless lying and discovery events after Dday#1 was consistent with mental trauma. Feeling safe, then to have a chasm open up beneath you, then repeated again and again is devastating and that it’s done by the person who supposedly loves you compounds the effects even more. You can’t even get away from them.
      I discussed the PTSD effect with my H for the first time 2 weeks ago. He seems to understand that what he did, and how he continued to behave after DDay#1, has left me with the problems he notices – particularly his comments that he knows that ‘all of this (i.e. his affair) is just under the surface all the time and it doesn’t take much to open it up’.

      I have a huge trigger event coming up. we’re planning to visit his sister at home and stay there for a weekend. I am seriously concerned about it as it was in this house that I truly discovered my H’s affair was more than friendship, where we had those first difficult discussions and where the real lying and covering up and sweetening up of the ‘story’ began. I cried so much in that house. My life was demolished in that house. On that first and subsequent night my H slept like a baby while I stared into space unbelieving what was being revealed. I never want to go to that house again. That’s the extent for me of PTSD.

      • Carol

        Yikes. Do you have to stay at his sister’s home? Would it be possible to stay at a hotel or B&B nearby, just to reduce the stress on you?

        • chiffchaff

          I think we do have to stay there. I’ve told my H I am scared of staying there and his response is that I just have to do it sometime. which is true. we won’t have to stay in the same room as before and I’m hoping that as the kids will be around and it will be ‘their’ home not just us then it should feel very different.

    • Blue

      I was/am? so screwed up that I think even if I read something like this at another time- it might have not sunk in. I believe this article is making me see things more clearly at what I have gone through/going throug. These Five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance; -Not only may they not happen in this order, certain stages repeat themselves, which makes one feel they are going crazy. I read something on this site? that says we have to forgive ourselves for feeling guilty about these stages and accept that we will go through these stages.

      It’s uncanny how the betrayed and the CS almost follow a script. PSTD for the betrayed. For the CS I was going to say ‘denial of the emotional harm they have caused’ but maybe they too go through the stages of PSTD for facing what they have chosen to do to someone and what kind of shallow person they chose to be must be a hard pill to swallow.

      Wishing us all the strength to be the kind of person (kind)we would want others to be to us.

    • Joyce Smith

      Dealing with the betrayal of infidelity is truly crazy making. I am so happy to see my first article is helping so many of you gain some clarity on what you are going through, and hopefully beginning to help you feel a bit more sane. Understanding what’s been happening, and that there’s even an official name for it (PTSD), seems to help normalize your experience and soften the blow.

      We often tend to hold so much shame and guilt for our emotional responses. I am hopeful after reading my next upcoming article that explains the neurobiological reasons behind your PTSD symptoms, you’ll be able to put more of that behind you. These reactions are driving by our inherent basic survival mechanism and operate without any conscious thought.

      You are all very brave, strong women – and you will get through this!

      Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT

      • Hopeful

        Just wanted to say, Joyce, that there are many, many men going through this on this site as well.

        Thanks for the article and your words.

    • Teresa

      January 1st 2011 was Dday for me…and now, looking back, 2011 is a TOTAL blur!
      I can remember some of the most painful moments, like when I found out the EA was a lot more than I thought it was, I can remember finding a page from my H’s cell phone bill and seeing the hundreds of phone calls, when he had told me for months that they only talked a “few” times…but everyday life, I can’t remember much…and that makes me sad, a whole year of my life, and all I can remember are the painful parts?

      Like I was told by a friend from this blog “WHY don’t people know what infidelity does???  WHY???  There’s just no way back from it, only ways to live with the pain, to minimise it, you never forget!

      • chiffchaff

        I think CSs do know what infidelity does, they just choose not to think about it as they are under the impression that they’re above normal people at the time they enter into their secret second life. It’s not really a case that if they knew they wouldn’t be able to do it. They choose to do it, which is why they frequently have to come up with the whole ‘soulmate’ justification. Part of the CS script.

    • Joyce Smith, MA, MFT

      Hopeful, thank you for that correction. There are absolutely men who have been betrayed. They too are to be admired for making it through this process.

      Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT

    • Natalia

      Reading Not just friends opened up my eyes and gave a name to the inappropriate relationships my husband was having. Finding out that the anxiety and sickening feeling I felt in my stomach each time I thought about his EAs was PTSD embarrassed me. I have always thought I was a strong woman who could face anything, but I obviously couldn’t handle his betrayal. One of the physical signs that scared me was the sudden nose bleeds which happened in gushes! But I’m better now and recognize the signs and know how to handle them.

    • ChangedForever

      How amazing, in retrospect, to read how this article describes me to a ‘T,’ especially the ‘required criteria’ for a PTSD diagnosis. I am unfortunately a textbook example within #1 & #2.
      I often think about & hope that one day, i may be able to assist others who unfortunately find themselves on this horrid journey. Joyce, you are doing just that. Thank you. I am looking forward to your next 2 articles.
      …23 months from DDay#1

    • Broken2

      Joyce great article!!! It initiated conversation with my CS and gave explanation for many of my behaviors. Dont know why but its comforting to put a label on it. Thank you.

      • Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT

        Broken2 – so glad my first article has been helpful. I think you’ll find after reading my next article, many more of your behaviors will also make sense. There are so many things we tend to attribute to our “crazy” emotions, when it’s really biologically based, all driven by our basic inherent survival mechanism – and yes there is hope for healing that as well! I hope to have the next article out within the next week or so.

        Yes, being able to put a label on something takes it from being abstract to being concrete. When you’re in the midst of the tornado, having something to hold on to, that is “real” and recognized by others, can be tremendously helpful.

        Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT

    • rachel

      Amazing article, Joyce. Thank you. I think anyone that has gone through this terrible nightmare will suffer from PTSD. As far as the 5 stages, I have experienced everyone. I’m now at stage 5 acceptance. Gosh, It took so long to get here, but I’ve never felt stronger. Tuesday the 18th would have been my 25th wedding anniversay. A day that I was dreading, but now can’t wait for it to arrive. My amazing friends are taking me to dinner that night to celebrate. We won’t be celebrating my anniversay, just celebrating.
      I’ve taken my attorney’s advise and I don’t talk or even make eye contact with that person that I am married to.
      He’s waiting for me to react, but I won’t. When I walk by him he will take out his phone and start to text. I use to react start to shake, wonder who is he texting? Now I think, good luck to that other person, you will need it!
      I have met many nice SINGLE men with my new job. I am certainly not looking for a relationship, but just someone to go to dinner with or a movie. I never had that with the H, he didn’t want to be with me. But that’s ok because , I don’t want to be with him now!

    • Teresa

      Rachel, when your divorce is final, you should throw a HUGE
      Party! You deserve it! You’ve endured a lot from your CS, and I know you are going to be so happy when you are finally set free!! Wishing you good luck as you forward to a new and happier life!!

    • Teresa


    • rachel

      LOL, Teresa! My friends and I just discussed having a party on divorce day. I will be a day of relief and celebrating!!

      • Teresa

        Good for you!! And if you have a Facebook page, post lots of pics so your ex can see them!! LOL Especially ones of you with a HUGE smile on your face! Maybe have a T-shirt made that says “FREEDOM”! LOL!! 😉

    • Marty

      There is so much helpful information here for anyone dealing w/ PTSD regardless of the cause. Thank you for your great work and I look forward to seeing your future articles.

    • tsd

      Wow, this validation would have helped me a year ago…great read, excited for the next two…thx

    • Dol

      The most striking PTSD indications I’ve had have been the times where once a reliving experience has started it won’t stop. It went on for a couple of weeks back in June – my brain just slowly worked its way through every aspect of the original horror like it was running back into the store and coming back to shove it under my nose. Nothing I could do about it. The lack of sense of control was probably the worse part of that – some psychological process that had to happen and I was just along for the ride.

      Thank God, things have improved massively. DJ, if only everyone could have had such a great moment of clarity communicated to their BSs. I tell my other half this stuff, just to try and say “we can’t do this again. No way. Look what this did”, I’m never 100% sure she understands the full effect. Or maybe she does, but I don’t want her to forget! That said, I guess we both have to find a way to move forward.

      • Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT

        Dol, you’re experience of “reliving” your experience is extremely common when experiencing PTSD – thus the term “posttraumatic”. In particular, when there’s a new discovery, anything related to the original trauma, you get re-traumatized all over again – and yes, it DOES feel like starting at square one.

        So much of your response is neurobiologically based and has nothing to do with your cognitive efforts and desire to get beyond these feelings. My second article in this series, which will be online tomorrow, goes into much greater detail explaining why this happens.

        Be well, and know that you WILL get through this!

        Joyce E. Smith, MA, MFT

        • Teresa

          Joyce, your response to Dol brought tears to my eyes, THANK YOU so much for explaining that so well! I’m 20 months past Dday and I’m finding that I do that quite often myself, and I get so frustrated!!
          And after the frustration with myself, I get angry with my H all over again, for being such a big dope and doing this to us!!
          Looking forward to your other articles!

    • nmw1

      As some above know from other blogs, I to am suffering form PTSD one year and I have triggers on a daily basis that sometimes build into total meltdown and hysterical rages with my husband. This past week has been one of those times. I worked myself into such a frenzy of resentment that I had a severe anxiety attack that almost sent me to the emergency room. I don’t know how to stop it, I’m taking medication but it does not help my thoughts. My husband is supportive, but it tortures him with guilt and shame. I don’t want that but i can’t control how i feel. I can’t seem to go one day without some small minor thing triggering some memory of my husbands emotional affair. I never know what mood the trigger will put me in, Sometimes quiet, sometimes angry, sometimes snappy, sometimes hateful, sometimes it makes me say hurtful or smart ass remarks to my husband, or sometimes I just push them to the back of my mind until they fester there. It could just be some comment someone makes not pertaining to anything. I’ve had a trigger seeing a street sign of the state the other woman is from. A song on the radio, almost every movie has a trigger for me, what the hell is up with that? i guess I should just sit in one spot and not move all day. Its a very hard, difficult condition to get past. I hope I do, extreme anxiety attacks leave me with head aches that last days. thx for acknowledging PTSD, Infidelity is right up there with the number one spot for this condition.

    • Mat

      Thank you for your insightful article. I have felt that there must be a similarity between PTSD and the way I have veen affectes by my ex-wifes affairs. The first affair was very bad, an abusive police officer, children shoe-horned into being “best friends”, the feelings were exactly as you described. After a few years she was at it again, I presumed the pain couldn’t possibly be as bad. I was wrong, the shock period didn’t last as long but the depression was more worse – the futility of it all- hence the research into a better understanding of my problems. At least I know that I’m not alone, indeed there is a script that we all seem to follow. All of our mutual friends turned out to be her friends – it’s been a lonely year. Hit me again this month – thanks again for.your article.

    • TL

      I was on a forum where a unfaithful spouse stated she had PTSD and PTSD style triggers directly as a result of her committing infidelity. She said it was common for the unfaithful spouse to have such a reaction.

      I’ve not seen a lot about that. Is it common? Is it expected? What would cause an unfaithful spouse to have PTSD?

      Thanks for any help in understanding this dynamic.

      • Doug

        TL, To be honest, I’ve not heard much about the CS having PTSD type triggers. They can have triggers, but to classify them as PTSD…haven’t heard of that one before.

    • Joyce E. Smith, MA, LMFT


      Hmmmm, interesting question. With the couples I have worked with, at least those where the CS has been remorseful, willing to make amends, and the couple were completely committed to working through this major explosion, yes I do think you’re right about the CS experiencing a form of PTSD as well.

      When a CS truly gets how much they have hurt the person they love the most, the last thing they want to do is have anything remotely occur that is going to trigger their partner. They’ve seen that look of devastating pain and agony in their partner’s eyes, which they now (and rightfully so) feel responsible for. They feel ashamed and guilty. This can result in the CS being hyper-vigilant for anything possibly affair related. Not just their affair, but ANY affair! And let’s face it, in today’s world, it’s virtually impossible not to be slammed in the face everywhere you turn with articles, movies and TV shows that wreak of infidelity. Soaps have non-stop affairs. I challenge you to find a movie and/or drama (other than Disney) that doesn’t have some form of “cheating.” On MadMen, there’s not a single male character (and many of the females ones too) that hasn’t cheated. And what could be more blatant than the show “Mistresses” or “Californication”? Other than the singing or dancing reality shows, it’s pretty hard to avoid.

      So, where does this leave the CS? Constantly freaked out that the BS is going to get triggered, and the fear that maybe this might be the “one too many” times of being triggered before the BS decides to end the relationship (ah – there’s the death component of PTSD.) This can result in the “freeze” reaction of your inherent flight/flight/freeze survival mechanism. And when they freeze, the BS may start to have suspicions because the CS may look guilty due to the “deer in the headlights” response (perhaps like the one when D-Day occurred.) And round and round it goes.

      And – with the right help and good communication skills, and most importantly both parties being 100% committed to recovery, you can end up with a much closer and deeper relationship than before. The area where a bone has broken, when healed, becomes even stronger that the bone on either side of the prior break. So it goes with relationships too. It just takes time, consistency, compassion and commitment.

      • Liss

        This makes total sense to me, as the CS. I am constantly on edge that we’re going to encounter something that triggers my husband, and causes him more pain. I find myself avoiding most tv shows for this reason. However, I know it’s nothing compared to the form of PTSD that he’s experiencing.

    • Rebecca

      Thank you

    • Despair

      How can I get rid of – ‘visions planted in my brain – still remain’ – even after 35 years? Been through the talk, blah blah and drugs and ‘visions planted in my brain – still remain’ even after 35 years.

      • Steve

        Try EMDR

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