Can You Get PTSD from Betrayal?

The simple answer is yes. It’s quite common to experience symptoms of PTSD after betrayal. In fact, up to 60% of betrayed partners experience PTSD symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at why people lose their minds when their most intimate relationship becomes a void of bullshit. 

PTSD from Cheating

There are some people out there who think that those who experience PTSD from cheating are weak, stupid, or crazy. Perhaps you are one of those people and you’re struggling to come to terms with the shitshow that is your current experience. Let me assure you that being weak, stupid, or crazy has absolutely nothing to do with it. PTSD is a normal biological response to an attachment wound. We’ll get into attachment later. Right now let’s focus on the PTSD part.

If you want to get super bored, go read the full diagnosis criteria for PTSD. If you prefer not to subject your brain to that, let me summarize it for you:

In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have been “exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” and you must have symptoms associated with that traumatic event, such as the following:

  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Self-isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Flashbacks
  • Overwhelming fear, horror, anger, or shame

You must also experience a couple of other things 

  1. Avoidance of triggers (i.e. memories, thoughts, feelings, people, places, songs, shows, etc.)
  2. Problems with cognitions and mood (i.e. depression, trouble concentrating, little to no interest in things you used to enjoy, overwhelming negative beliefs, etc.). 

These symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in functioning. One other thing – you need to have experienced these symptoms for more than one month. 

But what if you just found out that your partner was cheating on you a week ago and you’re already experiencing all these symptoms? You have a variation of PTSD called Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder. Basically, if you’re in the first 30 days after D-Day, your symptoms are acute. But if they’ve lasted longer than 30 days, you’ve passed the acute phase and are now into PTSD territory. Lucky you.

Betrayal Trauma is Real

Okay, blah blah blah. The part that people get hung up on is the “exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” part. People think cheating isn’t that serious. If you want to see me burst into flames, say that to my face. I have Thoughts with a capital T on this.

First, if your partner secretly had sex with someone else and then had sex with you, this is sexual abuse. If you got an STD/STI in the process, that is legally considered battery, which is a form of violence for which your partner can be held criminally liable. This is a stone cold atrocity that makes my entire face cave in just thinking about it.

Second, pretty much everyone agrees that domestic violence can cause PTSD. While most people consider domestic violence to mean physical abuse, it actually means much more. “Domestic violence is any abusive act between family members, ex-spouses, intimate cohabitants, former intimate cohabitants, dating couples and former dating couples in which one party seeks to gain/maintain power and control over the other partner.” And what is the cheater doing by lying, covering up, gaslighting, blame-shifting, and all that crap? Maintaining power and control over your reality. 

Third, psychological wounds can be just as devastating as physical wounds. And you got arguably the worst kind of psychological wound – an attachment wound. If any psychological wound can be considered life threatening, it’s an attachment wound. In fact, attachment wounds actually do cause physical harm. They cause a great increase in the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and inhibits metabolic activity. They also put the amygdala into a hyperactive state, which means the brain is in a chronic fight-flight-freeze state. This is basically a functional physical injury within the brain that can have very real consequences for your health.

Fourth, people who experience betrayal trauma typically report feeling traumatized and having difficulty understanding the intensity of their experience, but they don’t typically report feeling like they have PTSD initially. It’s only once they learn more about the trauma and PTSD framework that they begin to understand their experience and feel clarity, validation, and relief. (It’s similar with flashbacks – I had no idea this is what I was experiencing at first.)

Fifth, Dr. Minwalla of The Institute for Sexual Health has identified chronic infidelity as domestic and intimate partner abuse that frequently leads to intense relational rupture and devastating traumatic injuries. He notes that victims of this abuse often develop complex trauma-related symptoms such as progressive negative alterations to emotional functioning, relational functioning, self-perception, perceptions of the abuser, and how the victim relates to other human beings and their life or reality. So, basically, going through this shit is like meeting the sun. Your entire being is engulfed by boiling lava, then burned up into ash and blown across the universe. Wheeee! 

I think I’ve made my point. If you still think people who experience PTSD from cheating are weak, stupid, or crazy, I hope you walk into a spiderweb.

Why is betrayal so painful?

Because it’s an attachment wound. Oof, these are brutal wounds. Like getting hit by a truck and then set on fire. So what exactly are attachment wounds? They are the thing that causes betrayal trauma.

To understand attachment wounds you first need to understand attachment. Humans developed strong bonds (attachments) to each other way back in caveman days because having someone around whom you could trust to watch your back made survival much more likely. So, our brains have evolved to think that attachment is necessary for survival

Fast forward a bit to early childhood. Babies form attachment bonds to their primary caregivers (usually their moms) because these caregivers literally ensure their survival. Babies and toddlers can’t feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads and all that fun grown up stuff. They depend on their mothers for that. So, our brains think that we will literally die if mom goes away, a very logical assumption. On the flip side of that, our brains think that we are safe when we are close to mom. 

Fast forward a little more to early or mid-adulthood, when most people get into committed relationships or marriages. That powerful attachment bond shifts from your mom to your partner. And just like when we were cave people and little babies, our brains tell us that maintaining an attachment to this person is essential for our safety and survival. 

And it’s actually true. Statistically, married people tend to live longer than unmarried people. But who cares about statistics. How does marriage actually affect survival? 

Well, researchers did a study where they put women into MRI machines and told them they would receive a mild electrical shock. If the woman was alone, her hypothalamus (the part of the brain that handles stress hormones and stimulates the fight-flight-freeze response) lit up like a Christmas tree. If the woman held a stranger’s hand, activity in the hypothalamus was somewhat reduced. But what if she held her husband’s hand? The researchers found that her stress response was barely detectable. Especially if she reported being in a satisfying marriage.

What does that mean? It means that our basic biology is influenced by our partners. In fact, our partners help regulate our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and hormones. Obviously people with excessive stress hormones, unregulated blood pressure, or heart issues have poorer health and higher mortality rates. So yeah, our attachments really do influence our survival.

Now the bad part. What happens when this supremely powerful bond gets shattered? Our brains tell us that we must restore it at all costs or else we will literally die. Your brain truly feels this way. This is why we tend to vacillate so much with wanting desperately to restore emotional intimacy with our partners and wanting to smash their stupid lying faces. 

hammer time

I could go on all day about attachment, but let me just summarize by saying this: Attachment to another human is what allows us to feel understood, accepted, and safe. Betrayal destroys the foundation upon which those core human needs are placed, leaving you feeling lost, alone, and unsafe. It is the traumatic death of the relationship we once had with our partner, ourselves, and the world. We are left adrift, struggling to find safety in what has become a terrifying, unrecognizable world. If this is you right now, I’m so so SO sorry you’re going through this. If you need someone to talk to, reach out to me or check my resources page.

Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma

I’ve covered most of the symptoms above, but what I haven’t covered are the stages of PTSD. Understanding these phases and the symptoms that go along with each one may help you better understand your experience. 

Impact or Emergency Stage – This typically occurs soon after discovery and can last anywhere from a few hours to much longer. It often starts with an extreme visceral reaction and severe psychological pain. This is the part where you find yourself in shock, fearful, vomiting, sobbing, shaking, unable to breathe, melting into a pool of sweat and tears, etc. You are in fight-flight-freeze mode here.

Denial or Numbing Stage – Not everyone goes through this stage, but many people do. Some people will drink or use drugs to numb their pain. Others will dissociate, try to rationalize their situation, go into denial, or go numb. This is nothing to feel bad about. It’s simply the brain’s way of protecting you from overwhelming trauma and galactic levels of stress hormones. 

Rescue or Intrusive/Repetitive Stage – In this stage you start coming to terms with what has occurred. Key word here is “start.” The trauma is not yet fully processed, so you will most likely still be feeling like you have ghosts in your blood or like you need to scream into a thunderstorm. In other words, you’ll probably still experience things like nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, hopelessness, uncertainty, and anger. This is typically the most difficult stage of PTSD, so it’s helpful to talk with other people who’ve survived a similar situation.

Intermediate Recovery or Transition Stage – In this stage you have learned how to fulfill your safety and survival needs and have begun returning to “normal” life again. You may still experience symptoms of PTSD such as anxiety and nightmares, but they likely won’t be as severe or frequent as in the previous stage. This is where you stop constantly feeling like a walking ball of fire.

Long-term Reconstruction or Integration Stage – In this stage you begin putting coping skills you’ve learned into practice. You actively look toward the future and start rebuilding your life. You are still likely to experience some feelings of fear, sadness, and resentment as well as anxiety about your future during this stage. It’s important to create meaning out of your experience in order to accept it as part of your past and to begin moving forward again. 

These phases aren’t linear or fixed. You can dance between stages, move forward, backward, and all around them. As this occurs, your PTSD symptoms may come and go like some kind of fucked up hurricane. 

You will probably have quite a few no-sleep-ugly-cry-eat-a-whole-cake days and you may wish you could put on a hoodie big enough that you’ll never be seen again. Please don’t beat yourself up for feeling like this. Your brain has been run over, stabbed, set on fire, and thrown off a bridge. If that happened to your best friend, wouldn’t you tell them to eat all the cakes in the world or do whatever the hell they need to in order to feel better? Well, you can be your own best friend.

How Being Cheated on Changes You

After reading all of this, you’re probably wondering if it’s best to just take a flying leap into the Grand Canyon. What good can possibly come of this? It may not seem like it right now, but there is actually some good that will come out of all this pain and misery. It’s called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). 

Okay, I know that if I read that last paragraph early on in my healing, I would have rolled my eyes so far back in my head it would be a wonder if I didn’t lose them. If you feel the same way, you may still be too close to D-Day. Growth can’t be rushed or forced, but when you’re ready, you might find that PTG makes more sense to you. For now, it’s cool if you think I’m a chuckling husk of a person barfing up meaningless bullshit.

So, Post-Traumatic Growth. What is it? It’s basically a life-changing shift in how you think and relate to both the world and yourself. You don’t simply “get over it and move on with life.”  You create meaning from your struggle. This is a process that takes a lot of time, energy, and internal effort. Growth doesn’t come from the trauma itself, it comes from your struggle with a new reality in the aftermath.

If you want to learn more about PTG, including the difference between it and resilience and how to facilitate PTG, check out the Wikipedia article on it. This article is already way too long or I would have added all that stuff here.

If you’d like to schedule a session with me to talk more about PTSD, eating entire cakes, or anything else, head on over to my contact page. I get it.