This blog will review why one should seriously consider the potential impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on one’s partner before having an affair. Adding the context of a hypothetical situation, suppose you know a couple married for 20 years and who have two children. You consider their relationship to be sound and appreciate their positive perspective. That said, you realize that while they are both happy, there is less fondness and admiration over than in past years. You learn that despite being “happy in the relationship,” one partner reveals an affair occurring as a one-night stand, to be “happier.” The partner comes to discuss this with you as they want to stay honorable and come clean. The sexual affair has violated vows of sexual exclusivity and has involved deception that will impact the other partner (Gottman, 2017). As you hear the confession, you begin to realize how easy it can be to get into this dilemma.
Technology continues to make affairs more accessible than ever (Gottman, 2017). Further, while apps are only about twelve years old, there is a proliferation of dating apps, and sex-only apps providing access unknown before them. Apps such as Hinge, Bumble, or Tinder, while for dating, can be of use helping married individuals find and connect with affair partners. Others are more obvious and geared for sex, such as Kindkoo, or Ashley Madison, which actively promotes affairs. The traditional methods are still in play as well. As a result, the number of affairs is on the rise.
While the statistics on affairs can be hard to figure out, some studies suggest that “45- 55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship (Gottman, 2017).” Esther Perel (2015) highlights that 95% of people state that they would lie about having an affair if caught. Paradoxically, the research also highlights that while technology has made it easier to have an affair, it is easier to get caught. In the midst of this is the intensity of PTSD and its symptoms.
The research highlights that when the non-affair partner finds out, there is grave danger of having post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD (Gottman, 2017). PTSD is something that can disrupt the betrayed partner’s entire life. PTSD symptoms “often feel out-of-control at first, and the partner suffering from them does not want to be feeling or doing what the PTSD is provoking” (Gottman. 2017). The Hurt partner’s PTSD symptoms can include trouble sleeping, nightmares, shame, fear, hyper-vigilance, hopelessness about the future, no humor, or joy (Gottman, 2017). The experience also includes intrusive thoughts, occurring spontaneously, without warning from distressing memories of the event. Flashbacks trigger from any cue that has a connection with the infidelity, whether the sting is conscious or not (Glass, 2002).
As an example, the hurt partner may connect to the event with upsetting dreams or nightmares that show up. As a result, severe emotional distress, including physical reactions, can manifest (Glass, 2002). Additionally, if there are not intrusive memories, avoidance can occur. Avoiding the conversation around the event, activities, or people and not addressing the topic can result in further mental health problems. Both intrusive memories and avoidant coping can cause depression and anxiety. There can also be issues with drugs, alcohol use, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts (Glass, 2013). PTSD from an affair, and the symptoms often last for a long time. They can also impact other members of the family.
We know there can be homeostasis with families where “child/adolescent’s problem may have been performing a regulatory function for the couple” (Russell et al., 2016). For example, a parent has anxiety, and it can transfer in the family system to a child to maintain a steady-state in the house. PTSD can similarly shift to other family members as well. Notably, the affair partner is not immune to having the transference of the PTSD symptoms, and those sudden flashbacks can be a regular part of their experience (Glass, 2002).
Looking back to the couple example and that idea of wanting to be “happier,” turns into making your life dramatically worse when an affair shows up. No one in the family is exempt. This idea that “I can have this affair and just want to be a little happier” is cognitively distorted. While acknowledging that a partner can be experiencing worse betrayals in a marriage in neglect, contempt, and indifference, the antidote is still not an affair. One reason is after the affair, most often the happiness is fleeting. I heard it stated this way, “our happiness is not based on our happenings.” The data supports this as “about 30% last two or more years and few extramarital affairs last more than four years” (Gottman, 2017). Further, those who divorce rarely marry their affair partners (Gottman, 2017).
Adding an affair to the relational suffering already in a relationship is dangerous. The research adds that when a couple wants to work on reconciliation in couples therapy, it can be futile, especially if they have a tight relationship before the betrayal (Petersen, 2018). One reason is the PTSD symptoms bring obsessive ruminations that retrigger or exacerbate, and it is too much to for the couple to navigate for six to twelve months of therapy.
A majority exposed to an affair do not develop long-term PTSD, and in the end, not everyone will have PTSD or PTSD like symptoms. Sometimes, this is because people in different life experiences have resilience to be able to navigate the betrayal without PTSD showing up. Nonetheless, we would want any of these struggles in our lives and we should not want affairs in our lives either. Each of us should have a personal responsibility to eradicate affairs, just based on the commitment and the promise that we made when our relational endeavor began. Recently, I read a quote that applies to our relational lives. In closing, “Society works better, all things considered when we make a promise, or when we make a commitment, and we stick to them” (Petersen, 2018).
Glass, S. P. (2002). Couple therapy after the trauma of infidelity.
Gottman, J. (2017). Level 1 Clinical training manual: Gottman method couple
therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute Inc.
Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Random House Canada.
TED. (2015, May 21). Esther Perel: Rethinking infidelity – A talk for anyone that has ever loved [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_ perel_ rethinking_infidelity_a_talk_for_anyone_ who_has_ever_loved
Russell, W. P., Pinsof, W., Breunlin, D. C., & Lebow, J. (2016). Integrative Problem Centered Metaframeworks (IPCM) Therapy.