The Trauma of Infidelity: A Betrayal of Trust

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”
~ Anaïs Nin

I grew up in a household in which infidelity was a common occurrence. My father had many girlfriends, along with a pathological proclivity for porn and swingers clubs. He used my mother’s schizophrenia as a convenient excuse for his depraved behavior.

My mother hated him and wasn’t timid about showing it. Chasing him with knives and hammers was routine. She wanted him out of the house. I blamed her for all the chaos and trauma incurred, but now I view it differently.

My father manipulated my sister and me to view him as the pitiful victim. His complete and utter disregard for my psychologically tormented mother and the vows they made to one another threw her over the edge. He brainwashed us to exonerate him and condemn her. Indeed, that’s how it played out until I came to recognize how my father’s incessant betrayals and complete absence of remorse led me towards narcissists just like him. It was then I began to understand my mother’s rage and the intense pain incurred through infidelity.

Essentially, infidelity is a violation of an agreement within a relationship to maintain sexual exclusivity. Consent has not been granted to engage in sexual relations outside of the primary relationship. Although there are myriad reasons why an intimate partner strays, the consequences are invariably destructive. In fact, studies indicate that infidelity not only leads to relationship distress and divorce (Amato & Rogers, 1997; Betzig , 1989), but also contributes to an increased risk of mental health problems (e.g., Allen et al., 2005; Cano & O’Leary, 2000) such as decreased self-esteem (Shackelford, 2001), guilt (Spanier & Margolis, 1983), and depression (Beach, Jouriles, & O’Leary, 1985).

As a trauma therapist in NYC who works with many couples whose lives have been decimated by lies and disloyalty, I’ve witnessed countless folks who incurred Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to infidelity. Despite the fact that couples seeking treatment are generally committed to salvaging their relationship, returning from this sort of betrayal is exceedingly difficult. What once was, has been destroyed. Repetitious relational harm causes serious damage.

A prolonged and emotionally turbulent process of healing might lead to a renewal of a bond that will undergo redefinition, but for better or worse it will not go back to being what it had been before.

The breaking of trust in a relationship ruptures the inherent need we have as human beings to safely bond with others. When values of fairness, honesty, and integrity are defiled in an intimate relationship, fear and paranoia are ignited. The victim of betrayal begins to question their perceptions and their capacity to discern and discriminate. Their comprehension of solidarity, love, and human nature is fraught with uncertainty. They can no longer just see what they want to see. After being lied to and deceived by an intimate partner, they feel apprehensive about relying on their own judgement. Most critically, they fear engaging with vulnerability.

When vulnerability becomes coupled with danger, relationships are no longer experienced as empowering.

According to psychologist Dr. Paul Gilbert, humans possess a tripartite emotional regulation system consisting of threat (detection and protection), drive (resource acquisition and achievement), and soothing. When the threat and drive system of the brain is overactive, hyper-vigilance kicks in and relentless suffering ensues. Stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol deluge the limbic and autonomic nervous systems pronouncing emotional instability. An obsessive fixation takes hold. Perseverating over the betrayal is an inevitable consequence, as the drive system is trying desperately to achieve agency.

Naturally, betrayal due to infidelity also causes sexual injury, not just in terms of incurring an STD. Sexual intimacy may become nonexistent due to feelings of repulsion and rage. Alternatively, sex may become a compulsive compensatory ritual. Fueled by pain and insecurity both the betrayer and the betrayed may use sex as an ameliorative glue that offers the illusion of intimacy.

Rebuilding healthy physical intimacy in the aftermath of infidelity is a complex pursuit requiring the healing of the mind-body connection. There are significant feelings and issues for both partners to process before resuming sexual relations. Working through issues with arousal, and preoccupation with the third person in terms of both loss and painful comparison will take time, courage, and patience.

Chapman University’s systematic cultural study of sixteen societies found that infidelity was the most common cause of marital divorce (ScienceDaily, 7 January 2015). The inability to re-establish trust and the reluctance to address underlying problems in the relationship are primary impediments to restoring and rebuilding in the aftermath of infidelity. One cannot endure the uncertainty of betrayal into perpetuity and not everyone is up for the task of repairing a relationship that has been devastated by adultery. Decisively committing to either saving the relationship or letting it go lends itself to stabilization.

Psychologist Dr. Leonard Felder wrote in The Ten Challenges, Spiritual Lessons from the Ten Commandments that in order to maintain elevated mature relationships, “human beings must commit themselves to one another honestly, truthfully, and lovingly, avoiding deception, exploitation, and irresponsible conduct of any kind.”

For this to occur, the pursuit of love must be primarily motivated by higher values of friendship, compassion, and truth, not the consuming desire for pleasure or security. Rather than need being what defines the pursuit of love, it is the need for the other which eventually results from a deep abiding mature love (Erich Fromm / The Art of Loving).

Enduring love necessitates humbly and empathically expiating past wrongs through genuine self-examination and change. It requires accountability for human fallibility.

As much as it is an obvious noble sentiment to learn from mistakes of the past so as to mature one’s capacity to love in the present, this seems to elude many. Many folks who knowingly insert themselves into a committed relationship or marriage to engage in infidelity fail to recognize their role in causing injury to all involved. They posit being an innocent third party, even bemoaning how they were hurt by the duplicity of a cheater.

This curious form of moral relativism not only ignores the obvious ramifications of consciously participating in deceit it also refuses to acknowledge the suffering generated by their choices. Yet, paradoxically I suppose this sort of posturing also amplifies how a binding set of moral principles is critical to creating love. Ironically, righteous denial of responsibility confirms that true tolerance is about compassion, and assisting others with taking accountability, not excusing poor behavior.

To love rightly we have to consider how our choices impact others. Mature love allows for conflict and negotiation, but the values of accountability and responsibility are guiding principles. If one cannot live in full accordance with their own beliefs and truths then they cannot show up honestly and honorably for another.

Through self-knowledge, humility, compassion, and the conscious adherence to ethical principles, lasting love can be attained, traumas can be healed and with steadfast dedication, infidelity can be transcended.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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