Having a loved one with PTSD is an exceptionally hard experience. We watch them suffer and we also suffer. Sometimes the PTSD, mixed with alcohol and porn, leads to infidelity and the leading of a double life. What can we understand about this situation? Is there Hope? Is there anything we can do? The following observations apply to my experience with military trauma survivors as well as those who have survived rape or molestation.
This is a terrible experience and it takes its toll on you and everyone who cares for the person afflicted with PTSD. I wish I could say this behavior is unique and uncommon, but it is more common than not in cases of PTSD.
Drinking too much is a typical response to PTSD. So is on-the-fly sex where there is no emotional, loving, interaction, just only the physical animal act of breeding in the place of love.
The alcohol is an effort to dull the memories and any on-going physical pain. The promiscuity is often an attempt to try and feel alive and sometimes an attempt to feel they have enough personal worth so as to be desirable by another person, even if only for a sexual quickie). The trauma they survived eats at their sense of self and diminishes their ability to realize their own self-worth.
The PTSD erodes our sense of self-worth and one of the ways PTSD fools us is to make us think that the more people there are who are willing to have sex with us, then we must have some degree of self-worth, after all. These sorts of on-the-fly sexual encounters are doubly sad because the other sex partner is usually suffering from their own sense of loss of identity as the PTSD spouse in question (and they may also be cheating on a spouse or partner..PTSD loves that!).
Paradoxically, the person who already knows the essential self-worth of the PTSD-sufferer is the wronged spouse. In many, but not all cases, the PTSD-sufferer will not engage in sex with their spouse or committed partner for fear of tainting someone they perceive as too good or too pure for them.
The oddity here is that they feel the sexual act indicates they have value as a person, but end up further alienating the very person who genuinely loves them.
The PTSD-sufferer may go away for sex with relative strangers who are also soul-wounded by PTSD while they keep their spouse or committed partner at a physical and psychological distance.
Afterwards, after the drinking, porn, and adultery binge the PTSD-sufferer often feels anger and/or depression. They feel even more tainted and unworthy than they did before. They may feel they are beyond redemption, beyond forgiveness.
Prior to being caught (in some cases shame and guilt inspires one to confess it themselves) in their infidelity they may have been trying to lead a double life:
Life One: At home they played the role of the loving, caring spouse, and devoted parent.
Life Two: Away from the family hidden in their smart phone or their computer’s internet history file is all the residue of their PTSD-driven sexual behaviors.
It is not unusual for the wronged spouse to wonder who this new, angry and alienated, person is. Is it the person they married and trusted, or is it a stranger who only looks like that person they married and committed their life to?
What can be done?
The cheating spouse is still responsible for their behavior and its consequences even when understood in terms of PTSD. The pain and damage they have done to themselves, their spouse and family, still matter.
A quickie prayer to Jesus does not suddenly erase the harm done.
Repentance is required and this is a process, a journey, not a quick one with the Lord and everything is all better as if it never happened. Relationships need to be restored and fundamental issues need to be addressed in an ongoing manner.
The Forgiveness Journey
Sometimes the wronged spouse can endeavor to forgive, other times not. Sometimes the relationship is too damaged for it to continue. Forgiveness does not inflict us with a case of amnesia to the past or the new need to be tested for STDs due to a wayward spouse.
The wronged spouse should not feel compelled by others to forgive or not to forgive. Forgiveness is also a journey and can take some time to arrive at.
At times it comes upon us a surprise after months of prayer.
The wronged spouse requires a fair amount of time to assess the wounds inflicted upon themselves and also upon the relationship. Thus, the wronged spouse should not be barred from asking questions down the road. Part of being forgiven from a grievous soul- wounding sin is a commitment to help the wronged person to heal. Not every cheater is willing to risk the implications of the forgiveness journey.
A wronged spouse should not be rushed into offering or denying forgiveness by others.
When to Talk, What Time of Day?
Recovering from infidelity requires commitment to communication.
There will be a lot of questions that need to be asked.
And that requires patience.
It requires multiple conversations over months.
Part of the dialogue will be discovering when can we talk? When are we both able to be as honest as we can? It is not just a question of when can we both be in the same physical location, but when can we actually communicate?
There are particular times of day a PTSD-sufferer is most vulnerable to anger and other PTSD behaviors. There are certain times of the day when I am weaker to resisting PTSD’s seductions to negative behaviors. I am also less even-tempered at those times. At those times I am more vulnerable to trying to relieve my anxiety and anger with alcohol.
Once I know which times of day I am most vulnerable to negative PTSD behaviors I can take precautions against being more of a fool than I usually am.
This all leads to there being better times for me to have serious, deeply vulnerable, conversations than at other times.
Is there a time of the day when you know it would be a bad time (or a good time) to talk to your spouse? Sometimes the spouse will not even know when they themselves are at their most communicative and it is up to you to figure it out
Don’t Argue with a Drunk Person
If your spouse is soused with alcohol you will just get an angry response that is useless for redeeming a relationship.
Fasting from Porn and Alcohol
If a person’s spouse or committed partner is truly interested in redeeming the relationship then they need to engage in certain types of fasting.
At the times of day they are most vulnerable to PTSD-based anger and hopelessness they need to abstain from alcohol, they need to fast from alcohol.
At those times of day they need to make commitments to staying offline if they have a porn problem. They need to fast from porn.
Now, I am old fashioned, if someone is consuming porn, an activity which treats others at meat-popsicles, then they have a problem. I know that not everyone agrees with that, but porn and PTSD go together, they feed off each other and cause alienation and deterioration of healthy relationships.
When one is fasting from porn and alcohol they ought to not be left by themselves, if possible. The temptation will be strong when in isolation. It is easier to beat temptation when doing so in the presence of another person who cares.
Replacing the Culture of Death with a Culture of Life
Porn, alcohol abuse, and unrestrained anger are elements which contribute to a culture of death and alienation. They corrode our most vital relationships. In order to not cause our healthy relationships to be diseased we need to replace corroding behaviors with healthy behaviors, behaviors which will lead to healing and life.
We cannot simply knock off the negative, life-stealing, PTSD activities and expect to heal merely by their absence.
Instead, we need to replace PTSD’s negative, death, activities with endeavors and commitments which encourage healing and life.
Creative arts are very healing (even if their subject matter might be dark). Music, drawing, painting, singing, and other forms of creativity promote life and healing.
If the relationship is still at a tenuous and fragile stage, perhaps listening to music together or watching a movie together can be useful.
The primary goal is to fill the space of time and place where we used to be isolated and subject to act upon PTSD-based temptations with activities that do not promote death and isolation. Even just watching a football game together is better than isolation, booze, and porn. But, one needs to not seek stress relief solely in a computer or smartphone with the internet’s temptations always ready to drive us more deeply into the mire.
None of these things are easy, yet, they can promote life and healthy relationships. Relationship killing and soul-corroding activities need to be replaced by healthy partnership.
Last, but Not Least
The wronged spouse has been wounded. They are vulnerable to PTSD from their partner’s adultery and anger. The wronged spouse may have their own traumatic history triggered by the present day infidelity of their partner. This area is fraught with PTSD shrapnel. Therefore, the wronged spouse needs to also seek healing so that their wounds from a betrayed relationship do not harm them even further.
Having someone trustworthy to speak with and who is not judgmental helps a lot.
Individual and couples counseling can be helpful.
The wronged person should also engage in writing, prayer, music, and any activity which encourages healing and community. PTSD throws out a type of shrapnel which wounds those who care and love us the most. The PTSD seeks to isolate not only the cheating partner, but also the wounded partner. This makes taking care of yourself even more important than taking care of others. If you become too ill from PTSD, then it will be harder for you to be able to help others survive.
Longwinded but Hopeful
I’ve been longwinded here. It probably took a sack lunch and some spare sox to get all the way down to here. If you did, know that there is always hope. The situation with a PTSD-afflicted spouse who cheats is not hopeless. I have seen relationships go both ways. After PTSD-inspired infidelity I’ve seen some relationships self-destruct and I’ve seen other relationships survive and even have grow stronger in the long run.
While I certainly do not wish this sort of adversity on anyone, for those who are going through it, do know that you can learn a lot about yourself and your relationships as you traverse a journey which can feel like plunging into a boiling cauldron.
But always remind yourself that it will not always feel this bad. This anguish does not have to define the rest of your life. You can heal. I’ve seen it happen.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z