Here Are Some Pro Tips to Surviving Infidelity When Your Partner's Been Unfaithful

August 20th 2015

Jenny Chen

Earlier this week, data from the dating website facilitating extramarital affairs, Ashley Madison, was hacked and important information from its 37 million users were released onto the internet. The leak has prompted an uproar on the Internet, embarrassment on the part of reality TV show Josh Duggar and tech reporter Sam Biddle (who were both revealed as having Ashley Madison accounts for different reasons), and fodder for Conan O’Brian, who joked about the different ways Ashley Madison users can justify themselves to their spouses. But joking aside, one wonders how the spouses who have been cheated on, feel.

Can infidelity affect your mental health?

Everyone knows the basics of infidelity: a person breaks an agreement of monogamy with a sexual partner. Infidelity can cause extreme stress, anxiety, and emotional distress on both sides. "Among American couples, 20 to 40 percent of heterosexual married men and 10 to 25 percent of heterosexual married women will have an affair during their lifetime," a 2012 story from Psychology Today reported. "In any given year, 1.5 to 4 percent of married individuals engage in an affair."

In 2009, Dennis Ortman coined the term "post infidelity stress disorder" (PISD) in his book, "Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder: The Six Stages of Healing." The term equated the feelings associated with finding out about an extramarital affair to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or seeing a terrifying event. Psychologists had already noticed parallels in the past, but Ortman tightened the link by providing a step-by-step model for patients dealing with infidelity using techniques for PTSD patients.

Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist and clinical researcher at the Family Institute at Northwestern University says the emotions one feels after being cheated on are similar to emotions associated with any other traumatic event. “They have lots of ruminative thoughts, they have trouble sleeping, and their questions that take on an obsessive compulsive quality,” Solomon told ATTN:. “That kind of stuck cycle is very similar to someone who has come through a trauma.” Other symptoms of patients with PISD that resemble PTSD include, avoidance and emotional numbing, rage, and hyper-vigilance.

In a 2015 Psychology Today article "Love Is War: Post Infidelity Stress Disorder," several emotional symptoms of PISD that overlap with PTSD are examined.

One of those symptoms is re-experiencing trauma. In veterans with PTSD that might included re-living traumatic battlefield experiences. In PISD, it might include reliving the initial moment of learning about the infidelity and/or imagining your significant other with a different partner.

"Like trauma victims, it is not unusual for betrayed spouses to replay in their minds previously assumed benign events," Barry Bass, a psychologist and certified sex therapist, told Psychology Today.

Other overlapping symptoms between PTSD and PISD include, "avoidance and emotional numbing" and "hyper-vigilance and insomnia."

How to treat PISD.

It’s becoming increasingly common to use PTSD therapy techniques to treat patients with PISD. Using trauma techniques on these patients can be especially helpful for creating a narrative to get “unstuck,” said Solomon. The techniques can include helping the patient investigate their emotions, and placing facts into context.

Psychology Today also explains two different ways PISD is being treated:

"Exposure and cognitive restructuring are techniques used when dealing with traumatic memories. In exposure, spouses are asked to gradually imagine those heart-wrenching moments and to cope with them gradually, whereas cognitive restructuring substitutes irrational thoughts, feelings, and behaviours induced by the trauma, with adaptive ones."

Therapists have to be careful, however, about patients getting stuck in the victim role. “Our goal is to help move them from the victim narrative to the survivor narrative,” Solomon said.

Other resources for coping with the aftermath of an affair.

For those who may be coping with infidelity—possibly following the Ashley Madison hack—all is not lost. Kristina Coop Gordon, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, spoke to Psychology Today about how couples can work through infidelity—if they choose not to separate.

Getting the two people on the same emotional page is important first step: The cheater must understand the feelings of the one who was cheated on, Gordon states.

"The cheating partner must hear, no matter how discomfiting it is," Gordon told Psychology Today. "The experience is very intense and usually a turning point. Partners begin to soften towards each other. It's a demonstration to the injured partner that he or she really matters."

Below are some links to resources:

Have you been a victim of an affair? Tell us in the comments here.