According to Ortman (2005), 60% of partners who were sexually betrayed experienced signs and symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress). Generally PTSD is attributed to a threat or fear response to a traumatic event. These can include experiencing, witnessing or hearing about the event. Although PISD (Post Infidelity Stress Disorder) is not ‘life threatening’ per se, it does produce several PTSD-like symptoms.
There is a defined fear and helpless response for the individual, especially when they are triggered back to reminders of the affair. There is an ongoing sense of helplessness and heightened anxiousness that the affair will happen again, leaving the partner to feel powerless as affairs operate in secretiveness.
Individuals who have been cheated on relive the affair in their minds. They often try to detach or avoid thoughts, feelings or other reminders that take them back to the traumatic event. In saying this, avoidance often heightens the fear of reaction and memories.
People who have experienced PTSD often dissociate. This takes on the forms of absorption, trancing out, feeling like you’re out of your body or reality. Also, individuals can experience a broad range of unwanted emotions such as anger, rage, anxiety, crying and other negative emotional responses. As a survivor, many individuals find themselves experiencing any one of these emotions and even trying to detach from the world around them and even themselves to cope.
The effects of an affair can cause individuals to experience sleep disturbances, nightmares and flashbacks. Anxiety perpetuates these reactions, as the individual now survives living in a high alert and hyper-arousal state. There is no relief once this state has set in to the individual.
As a result, the sense of betrayal leaves the individual feeling severely victimized and anger becomes the focus towards the bearers of this pain. There are also elements of self blame, guilt and either omission or commission for avoiding in responding to newly revealed early warning signs or feeling responsible for the PISD. Either way, a new narrative is formed in the mind of the victim linking them through omission or commission to the affair.
Being that PISD mirrors PTSD, therapy is a key component to the treatment. Treatment focuses on ‘returning to the traumatic event’ and helping clients change the perception of what they tell themselves about themselves in relation to the affair. Clinical work also focuses on shifting not only their perception, but the perception of others and the world in general. After experiencing PISD, it is not unusual for individuals to feel like the world of relationships and others around them can no longer be trusted.
Will I be safe in a relationship? Should I ever be vulnerable in a relationship with someone else? How do I find safety again? Will I live a life of loneliness in order to feel safe? All of these questions need to be explored in therapy in order for healing to begin.