The term “trauma” gets frequently used when people are recovering from a spouse’s affair or extramarital sexual activity. Use of this word may be an attempt to try to describe the level of distress, anger, pain, sadness, anxiety, and other intense feelings the partner feels upon discovery. And in laypeople’s terms, discovering a secret sexual behavior of one’s partner is, undoubtedly, a “trauma:” one definition the dictionary offers for trauma is “an event or situation that causes great distress and disruption.” For most partners, this is a fairly accurate description of their experience.
However, the psychological definition of “trauma” is that of an emotional wound that creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person and leads to emotional and behavioral problems, known as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This diagnosis is fairly rare – even for soldiers who have been to war and have experienced trauma, most are not diagnosed with PTSD. It is not, for most partners, an accurate description of their experience.
So what is important about this distinction for partners? The differentiation between trauma and trauma leading to PTSD is of the utmost importance, because it 1) can provide the appropriate avenue for healing and 2) help the partner to turn a painful, deeply wounding situation into a process of psychological, spiritual and emotional growth for themselves rather than feeling stuck, angry, or defeated as a victim.
For most people who experience the betrayal of a partner, the injury they feel is intensely personal or “narcissistically injurious.” S/he finds him or herself asking: “Why did s/he do this to me? Aren’t I good enough? Am I not attractive enough? Am I so blind not to have seen it?” These questions are painful and often raise feelings of intense insecurity. Often, once these initial feelings emerge, intense anger surfaces, as the partner swings in the opposite direction, feeling like s/he deserves better. Again, these feelings are understandable as sex, and honestly, are deeply intimate behaviors. However, ultimately for most, answers to these questions are not where healing lies.
In truth, a person’s behavior really has to do with him or herself. Certainly, the affect can be painful, and often there is likely also work to do on the relationship. But the affair and/or sexual behaviors, and resultant secret keeping, is not about the partnership, it is about the profound work that that person needs to do. And if that is true, then feeling personally victimized is not what ultimate healing is about for the partner.
Often partners of sexual betrayal struggle with feeling a loss of trust, and wonder how to move forward in a relationship where they feel that loss. But often partners don’t stop to really ask themselves what “trust” actually means. Oftentimes, we walk into relationships with many assumptions – assumptions that we are not even consciously aware of. And one of the most common and fundamental assumptions that we often have is one that comes from a very young place and perpetuated in our culture through fantasy romance myths: the belief that if someone loves us, they won’t hurt us. Unconsciously we want to feel about our partners the way we felt about our parents: our partner will protect us from all bad things. They will always look out for us and always act with our best interest at heart. They won’t act out of anger or their own dysfunction. They won’t grow old, change, not change, disappoint us, lie to us even through omission, or get sick and die. In other words, they won’t be human.
A sexual betrayal and subsequent lies fly directly in the face of this assumption, and is often why outsiders will say “if anyone did that to me, I would leave him/her” or advise the partner to leave the relationship. And, ultimately, that may be the appropriate action for one or either member of the couple. However, the real truth of relationship is: even people who love each other deeply still hurt each other. Sometimes the hurt is small, and can be forgiven in an hour; sometimes the hurt is great and takes months to heal from. So true healing from a sexual betrayal does not mean that the couple will move forward believing that hurt will not happen again, or that the partner will regain a sense of feeling like “everything is fine” and “I am in complete control of my life.” True healing lies in accepting that this is not true – it never was true and never can be true. Partners that are able to heal from the impact of sexual betrayal, whether they stay or go, are able to understand that it was the partner who has the problem of addiction not them. They are able to reclaim a healthy separate sense of self and continue to love.
Freedom from this child-like fantasy opens a person to the possibility of a deeper love and a truer love. It allows for a love that is based on seeing one’s partner for who they actually are, and experiencing gratitude for that person, rather than love based on who we want/need him or her to be. It allows for a love not based on who your partner was or was not, or who they might or might not be, but instead who they are, right now, today, and what is unique, wonderful, and a gift about that person.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.
Elizabeth Corsale, MFT
Pathways Institute for Impulse Control