When cheating is uncovered, deeply attached, intimately betrayed partners are emotionally and psychologically traumatized. Even if the faithful partner suspected that something was not right with the relationship, she or he is likely to be floored when infidelity finally comes to light. In fact, research shows that betrayed partners, after learning that their significant other has strayed, typically experience stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[i] And yes, PTSD is the same debilitating disorder we see in battle-scarred soldiers.
That’s what it feels like to learn that your spouse or partner—the one person in the world you thought had your back, no matter what—has betrayed you.
Common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, hypervigilance, powerful mood swings, and an inability to focus on and manage basic tasks of day-to-day life. Betrayed partners experience all of that and more. And this “craziness” is a perfectly normal reaction to the traumatic experience of profound betrayal perpetrated by a trusted loved one. So if you’ve been cheated on and you’re feeling crazy, you’re not alone.
(Note: Manifesting symptoms of PTSD does not mean you actually have PTSD. For a formal PTSD diagnosis, symptoms must persist at a significant level for at least six months. After infidelity, the symptoms tend to slowly abate over time. Still, experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, even for a relatively short period, is incredibly distressing.)
Amazingly, cheaters often push the blame for their betrayed partner’s emotional rollercoaster back at the partner. They think and say things like:
- "If you weren’t so hostile, I never would have cheated."
- "I never know what to expect from you. It makes my life really difficult."
- "Why can’t you just forgive me so we can move on with our lives?"
These responses from the cheater ignore the trauma of betrayal. Consider the results of a study I conducted with Dr. Jennifer Schneider and Dr. Charles Samenow where betrayed spouses, after learning about their mate’s infidelity, said things like:
- "His cheating obliterated the trust in our relationship. I no longer believe a single thing he says."
- "I have been traumatized by his deception and betrayal."
- "I am over-the-top with snooping, spying, trying to control the behavior."
- "His cheating has caused complete erosion of my self-esteem, boundaries, and sense of self."
- "I can’t sleep or concentrate." [ii]
As stated earlier, when infidelity comes to light, betrayed partners experience that as a powerful form of emotional and psychological trauma. It feels like they’ve been hit by a truck—but emotionally rather than physically. They feel battered, bruised, and broken by the betrayal. If they are invested in the relationship, if they love and believe in their partner, then they are rightfully and understandably devastated.
There is no way to avoid that, nor is there a way to avoid the “crazy” that naturally follows. In fact, a betrayed partner’s rage, tears, fear, pleading, vindictiveness, and emotional instability are an inevitable and expected response.
And this is not the betrayed partner’s fault!
If your partner has cheated on you and your response is all over the place—changing almost by the minute—that’s a normal reaction to the trauma of betrayal. Period. If you don’t like the way you’re behaving, the best you can do is accept it and stop blaming yourself (and stop letting your cheating partner blame you) for this reaction. No matter how excessive and overblown your emotions and actions might seem, they are perfectly normal reactions to the circumstances in which, through no fault of your own, you now find yourself.
And you should expect this craziness to continue for longer than you might like. In fact, betrayed partners often ask: How long am I going to feel crazy like this? Is it going to continue forever?
The response to this is that they’re going to feel this way, at least once in a while, for a year or more. And if the cheater continues to lie, manipulate, and gaslight, it can go on forever. Betrayed partners should also prepare themselves for an endless stream of apologies and pleas for forgiveness, and the fact that their cheating partner would like them to accept those apologies and grant forgiveness in 90 days or less—even though that’s just not possible.
Generally speaking, the degree of pain you experience when you first learn about infidelity hinges on five factors:
- What your partner actually did: For betrayed partners, this is usually the least important factor. Cheating is cheating. Using porn, webcam sex, visiting sex workers, and affairs can all be an intimate betrayal, depending on the relationship. They are all a violation of relationship trust. The pain of cheating is less about the actual sex act and more about the lies and secrets surrounding it. For betrayed partners, it’s not the nature of the infidelity that does the most damage; it’s the betrayal of relationship trust.
- How long it went on: Usually, a one-time sexual encounter is not as devastating to the betrayed partner as repeated sexual dalliances or a lengthy affair. This is because longer-term infidelity undercuts everything that occurred in the relationship while the cheating took place. Betrayed partners wonder: All those times you said you loved me, were you really thinking about me? Or is our whole life a lie? With longer-term cheating, the betrayed partner can’t help but question everything the cheater has ever said or done.
- With whom the cheating occurred: The choice of cheating partner matters in much the same way as the amount of time. The closer an affair/sexual infidelity partner is, the more traumatic the betrayal. A one-off sexual encounter with someone the betrayed has never met and is unlikely to ever meet is likely to be less traumatic than an affair with the betrayed partner’s best friend. If the affair/sexual infidelity partner is someone the betrayed partner knows and trusts, the betrayal is doubled. Each layer of connection and trust increases the betrayed partner’s pain.
- How you found out: There is a huge difference between finding out about infidelity from a partner who voluntarily and remorsefully confesses what he or she has done versus catching your partner in the act, getting an anonymous phone call, hearing about it from friends who think you ought to know, getting a call from the police because the cheater was nabbed in a prostitution sting, or being told by your doctor that you’ve got an STD.
- Your personal history of relationship safety: The degree and duration of a betrayed partner’s emotional rollercoaster may be related as much to that person’s life history as the current betrayal. If the betrayed partner was abused, neglected, abandoned, or otherwise traumatized earlier in life (especially during childhood), the betrayed partner’s sense of relationship safety was already compromised and the current situation will cause that individual to react not only to the immediate betrayal but past betrayals. (That is the nature of a post-traumatic stress reaction. The current situation is made worse by the individual’s history of trauma.)
So, is it any wonder that your emotions and behaviors feel out of control after you learn about your partner’s cheating? Is it any wonder that “crazy” feels like your new normal?
The good news for you is that the emotional rollercoaster you’re riding need not last forever. No, you will never forget the betrayal you experienced, but if your significant other is willing to do the work of re-earning relationship trust, you can eventually move past the betrayal and your relationship might actually become stronger and more intimate than ever as a result of that process. Until then, there is before the betrayal and after the betrayal, and you should expect to display the typical symptoms of that trauma.
[i] Steffens, B. A., and R. L. Rennie. 2006. “The Traumatic Nature of Disclosure for Intimate Partners of Sexual Addicts.” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 13 (2–3): 247–67.
[ii] Schneider, J. P., R. Weiss, and C. Samenow. 2012. “Is It Really Cheating? Understanding the Emotional Reactions and Clinical Treatment of Spouses and Partners Affected by Cybersex Infidelity.” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 19 (1–2): 123–39.