Intrusive Thoughts and Infidelity PTSD - Idit Sharoni, LMFT

Idit Sharoni

#70: Intrusive Thoughts After Infidelity: How to Help Your Partner Get Past Infidelity PTSD Triggers

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I'm a Miami licensed couples therapist, a relationship podcast host, and an educator. I help couples transform their patterns of communication and I specialize in healing after infidelity. 

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I'm Idit Sharoni, LMFT

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Our highly effective coaching program for couples in the aftermath of infidelity looking to heal and regain trust.

The primary thing to understand about infidelity PTSD? 

That hurt partners don’t just hurt when the infidelity is disclosed. The pain of betrayal in a committed relationship can persist for quite a long time afterward. Particularly if you don’t have a recovery plan in place.

  • What do you do when your thoughts won’t cooperate with your desire to move past infidelity?
  • How can you help your partner spend less time feeling blindsided by an affair-related memory? Is there a way to prevent being triggered by a sudden idea or mental image?
  • What do’s and don’ts will support your attempts to rebuild your relationship and what will just complicate matters? 

Post-traumatic experience after infidelity is very common. We’ve explored it at length before. If you want to learn more about how to recover from infidelity PTSD, Episode #68 is a great place to start. My interview with one of my practice experts, Yael Haklai-Neagu explores how hypnotherapy helps reduce symptoms that interfere with individual and relationship healing.

So many of the couples I’ve worked with over the past decade have tales to tell about their struggles with intrusive thoughts and other disruptive symptoms. Thus, I think it’s crucial to share what unfaithful partners can do to help support their hurting and troubled spouses. 

Suffering from Infidelity PTSD: How to Support Your Hurt Partner

What is Infidelity PTSD exactly?

As discussed in previous posts, post-traumatic stress disorder (as it pertains to the hurt partner), is often linked to the unknowns connected to their spouse’s betrayal. The pain of discovery and all the associated revelations can lead to symptoms that mirror other forms of PTSD.

Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and hypervigilance persist painfully for hurt partners, despite efforts to push past them. 

Thus, it is not at all unusual for the hurt partner to experience one or more of the following infidelity-related triggers in an ongoing way

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Hypervigilance

First, Let’s Tackle the Not-so-good News about Infidelity PTSD 

Intrusive thoughts get in the way.

These are the negative thoughts usually connected to infidelity, the affair partner, the betraying partner, or the hurt partner themselves. 

These thoughts can come at any time. There is very little warning. These thoughts result in negative emotions that quickly spiral downward. This creates ongoing suffering and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am not enough,” “No one can be trusted”).

In some cases, as stated on the American Psychiatric Association website, post-traumatic stress symptoms include: 

  • distorted thinking about the cause or consequences of the trauma
  • wrongly blaming yourself or others
  • persistent fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • reduced interest in formerly pleasurable activities
  • detachment or estrangement from others
  • inability to experience positive feelings

Flashbacks can use your imagination against you.

When I speak to my clients in the aftermath of infidelity, most talk about flashbacks. You might think that flashbacks are restricted to those who actually witnessed the traumatic liaisons. Not so. 

If you have vivid flashbacks of your partner having sex with their affair partner in their office at work, you aren’t alone. Truthfully, these mental images can be vivid and are not limited to what a hurt partner saw or heard. Therefore, I’ve seen hurt partners who experience flashbacks of imagined situations. 

So, just because you didn’t actually see them together is really immaterial. The images can intrude on your peace of mind as though you were in the room.

Still, it’s important to recognize that exposure to real messages, pictures, videos, does have a higher chance of causing flashbacks. 

Nightmares steal your chance at emotional escape.

Infidelity dreams can be so horrific for hurt partners that they routinely awaken in the middle of the night. The anxious feelings that accompany sad or disturbing dreams can become unmanageable and difficult to shed. These dreams are highly intrusive, impeding your ability to achieve restorative sleep. 

Arousal and reactivity make moving on contentious.

Understandably, hurt partners may become irritable and prone to angry outbursts. In addition, hypervigilance may become the norm. So, not surprisingly, couples wading through the aftermath of infidelity experience heightened conflict.  A cycle of lashing out, controlling behavior, and outbursts do very little good for partners struggling to rebuild their connection.  

Next, Let’s Discuss the Good News about Infidelity PTSD

Unfaithful partners actually can help their hurt partners with PTSD. 

In Episode #63, I talk at length about how unfaithful partners can and should support their hurt partners in overcoming infidelity PTSD. However, before you start that process, understand something important: 

Symptoms of PTSD are normal in the immediate aftermath of infidelity.

You needn’t fear them or suppress them. They become less frequent and less intense as you and your partner actively heal. Active healing happens as you face and address your relationship issues. 

Avoidance, ignoring the pain, and hoping time will heal will not do the job. When the unfaithful partner, in particular, takes an active role in their spouse’s healing they become the warrior for their relationship.  What happens then? 

More healing happens and less trauma residue remains. When you and your partner move through the stages of healing and trust-building together, remorse exists and is expressed openly. Real repair happens. Trust is built. Then, PTSD symptoms naturally begin to dissipate. 

Are there cases when PTSD is more stubborn despite a couple’s efforts to heal? 

The honest answer is yes. 

Nevertheless, this isn’t all bad news. At that point, you simply need the help of a trauma specialist. Again, in Episode #68, you are welcome to listen to my interview with Yael. She is adept at helping hurt partners reduce their trauma symptoms. 

Finally, Let’s Look at the Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Your Hurt Partner Experience Less PTSD

A quick look at the Don’ts:

  1. Don’t get upset when your hurt partner experiences PTSD symptoms
  2. Don’t tell them there is “something wrong” with them or that they’re overreacting
  3. Don’t share “trickle truths”, it is re-traumatizing
  4. Don’t leave an opening for the affair partner to resume the connection
  5. Do not leave your hurt partner alone to “get over it” under any circumstances (even if you think they’re too upset and need therapy)

Let’s also talk about the Do’s:

  1. Do Communicate: 
    1. Describe what you think your partner is experiencing (“I see how deeply hurt you feel right now”). 
    2. Make sense of their feelings and their intensity under such painful circumstances. (“You’re so sad and worried and that makes sense. I would probably feel the same way if you betrayed me with a coworker.)”
  2. Do Choose Transparency:
    1. Tell your partner what was happening at once. Yes, you risk being seen as worse than you’d like. 
    2. Consider how you’ll be viewed if withheld information is revealed later. You’ll be viewed even worse and your partner will experience more trauma symptoms. It’s NOT worth it. 
  3. Do Stay Present When You’re Pushed Away: 
    1. When your hurt partner is experiencing PTSD symptoms, they may withdraw. They might say “go away” or ‘don’t touch me”. Normally, we want to respect boundaries and allow people their space. In the aftermath of infidelity, consider the maelstrom of emotions happening inside them.
    2.  A common situation in the crisis phase is the presence of conflicting emotions (“Leave/ don’t leave; I love you/ I hate you; hold me/ don’t touch me”). Simply asking your hurt partner if they’re experiencing conflicting emotions may explain a lot.
    3. If your hurt partner pushes you away, resist rejection. This may make your hurt partner feel abandoned again. Ask yourself how to stay present.
    4. When I help couples in the aftermath of infidelity, we work on giving unfaithful partners tools to stay present when feeling rejected. We move from paralyzing shame to more actively supporting their hurt partner. 
    5. I also work with the hurt partner on expressing their pain, in crisis or not. Most of the time, this is completely possible. 

I do hope these tips, do’s, and don’ts make sense to you. They are worth the effort, judging by the results couples get in my program by applying them.

The Take-Away?

Recovery from infidelity PTSD is not easy. The goal now is to overcome intrusive thinking with support and active awareness. A new relationship with your partner is entirely possible.

Do you and your partner need a guide? Please schedule a free consultation with us. We can determine exactly how to help you heal and restore a loving, trusting relationship. 

We know how tough it is to begin affair recovery. Please consider a 45-minute free consultation to see if my infidelity recovery program can help you heal and establish trust. Simply visit here to schedule a consultation to meet with me for an in-depth conversation about your relationship experience. 

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Man who was unfaithful leaning onto a wall on the other side of that wall is a woman hurt by his cheating| how to help with infidelity PTSD

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