PTSD Spirituality: Infidelity, Should I Stay or Should I Go?

PTSD and infidelity often go together.  Should you stay with a spouse or partner with PTSD who cheats on you sexually? Is the PTSD an excuse for infidelity, or is the person just an asshat who is a cheater with or without PTSD?

Shark, Pen n Ink

What follows started as a comment left on the website yesterday and grew into an essay which I thought should have its own posting. Questions about PTSD and infidelity are the ones most received in terms of internet searches, comments, and e-mail. Usually, but not always, appended to the question is should I stay with a cheating spouse or partner who also has PTSD?

Some people, usually men, will try and use their PTSD as a cover for their otherwise horrid sexual behavior. If their personality and morals are such that they are willing to sleep around behind your back, devour porn, and engage in sexting and hook-ups, then they probably have no problem trying to blame their behaviors on PTSD.

How does one distinguish between genuine PTSD-influenced infidelity and the behavior of a selfish jerk who wants to cheat on you but for some reason wants to continue a relationship with you?

PTSD and Sexual Cheating

PTSD can certainly compel us to act in ways that minimize the value of other human beings and to even deny our own self-worth. PTSD will generate behaviors that seek to destroy healthy relationships. Healthy relationships help us to avoid the temptation to self-harm. If PTSD can tempt us and make us feel compelled to engage in infidelity, then it is that much closer to making us harm ourselves.

Yet, even though PTSD often serves as a catalyst for these negative behaviors, we remain responsible for what we do. The wounds inflicted upon us by a cheating spouse are still wounds, even if the perpetrator suffers from PTSD.

PTSD can certainly cause a range of dreadful sexual behaviors (and sexually transmitted diseases) that serve to destroy committed relationships.  But having PTSD does not get a cheater off the hook.

Referencing someone’s PTSD and their cheating I was asked,

“Is this an excuse, or is this a behavioral problem?”

It can be one or the other, or maddeningly, both.

If Staying Together, Commitments Need to be Made

If you choose to try and stay together, then some things have to change. It must be clear that choosing to stay together does not mean just living and carrying on as before. There must be a commitment to a program of systematic changes.

Simply saying “I will never do it again” is not enough.

Actions must back the words. These actions, the commitments, are designed to habituate the PTSD sufferer away from activities which lead to harm and move them to activities which sustain life and healthy relationships.

If the cheating partner is begging you not to leave and you want to try and go on in the relationship, then some changes have to happen. Ideally, he would need to make a range of commitments to you, himself, and the marriage. And, you would share in these commitments.

Some of these commitments are as follows:
  • There needs to be a commitment to ongoing counseling.
  • There needs to be a commitment to frequent (daily to start) conversations.
  • There needs to be a commitment to ongoing medical/psychological treatment with the VA.
  • There needs to be a commitment to discovering new ways to cope with stress and feelings of inadequacy that have up to now have led to aberrant sexual behaviors. This means find and develop a creative activity such as music, art, model building. It is important that when the PTSD symptoms are at their worse that the options for sexual abuse are replaced with something creative and healthy.
  • There needs to be a commitment to developing a spirituality that replaces and can serve as a buttress against the PTSD behaviors.
  • There needs to be a commitment that if there is a lapse that the lapse is discussed and examined. The goal here is to learn from the lapse so as to not have it become recurrent.
  • There needs to be a commitment to taking any meds as prescribed and not mixing them with alcohol. Alcohol and PTSD always leads to trouble. Alcohol and/or drug abuse and/or porn need to be replaced with creative activities.
  • There needs to be a commitment to allow you to check his internet and phone surfing history. Many people will find this as too intrusive and as a privacy violation, but if they are committed to healing the relationship this helps grow trust and a sense of “we are in this together.”
  • Commit to respect traumatic memory and traumatic experiences…they are real and they were horrible.

Cautions that Go with Commitments

The trauma survivor does not have to recount every second of every traumatic event unless they choose to. Sometimes they cannot be recounted verbally even if they wanted to. In my own case it was only after a decade or so had gone by that I tried to start expressing myself through art, music, and much later, through writing and teaching.

Expressing particulars of their traumatic experiences have the potential to re-traumatize them.  Sometimes they can be expressed non-verbally in art or music without the re-traumatization, which is another reason that creativity can be such a healing and life-giving process.

Commit to not belittling or doubting the validity of their traumatic experiences. Some combat vets have gone into further seclusion because their spouses laughed at them and said they were not heroic enough. In my conversations with these men it was made clear to me that being laughed at, doubted, and called coward, was worse than being on the battlefield. Women who have survived sexual assaults also isolate after people doubt them, call them liars, or blame them for the assault.

Don’t ever use a phrase such as, “If you loved me, then you would tell me every detail about what happened to you.” That just makes things worse. That would be like someone saying to me, “If you loved me, you would run a four minute mile.”

Telling our story is not a switch we can just flip on and then off with no repercussions.

Sometimes we cannot ever verbally say exactly what happened to us…and that’s okay.

In a committed, healthy, relationship, we learn over time if we can say more or not.

The point is not to dig out their traumatic story; the point is healing and maturing in the love and forgiveness that radiates from a healthy relationship.

If we are blessed by being told someone’s traumatic story we should not judge them or try to insert our own or someone else’s traumatic history into the narrative.

At best, we can say, “I am so glad you made it back.”  Don’t say, “it couldn’t have been that bad.”

If you indicate you are willing to listen, don’t shut the trauma survivor down because what they are saying is too much to handle.

In talking with PTSD survivors, some have told me about how someone insisted they wanted to know their story and when they started to tell them, the other person then said it was too horrible to hear and fled. That left the sexual assault survivor metaphorically bleeding and feeling as if they had harmed someone else…when all they did was respond to someone’s incessant insistence that they tell them their story.

Forgiveness carries a responsibility. If a person is forgiven for a harmful act, it is legitimate to expect them to do their best to not repeat the sin.

If you forgive someone their infidelity, it is fair to expect them to not continue in their previous infidelities.

Likewise, it is not fair to forever cudgel them with their infidelity for the rest of their lives. Not if you want the relationship to heal and move onward.

For Some Of Us There Will Be Setbacks

In the world of PTSD survival, to some extent, setbacks are normal.

That said, we need to do our best to reconfigure our lives so that the temptations that break down our will to be loyal to our spouses or partners will not get a foot in the door. That is why the commitments are necessary. See this link for more on setback and hopelessness in general.

If the setback is another affair or sexting hook-up, we need to ask ourselves again about if we want and if we are able to reapply ourselves to the relationship. Some people can and some people cannot. 

Some types of setbacks like porn consumption or alcohol abuse set the stage for more grave, damaging, behaviors. If a person can recover from porn and alcohol, then they are more likely to not start back on the infidelity trail. 

If we are to survive our PTSD, or survive the PTSD of our spouse or partner, then we need to do our best to reconfigure our lives so that the temptations that break down our will to be loyal to our spouses or partners will not get a foot in the door. That is why the commitments are necessary.

Part of the Reconfiguration is a Commitment to Creativity

In art is life. I can’t string three proper notes together on the guitar (I wish that was an exaggeration but it’s not), I’ll never perform outside my house, but playing guitar has certainly saved me more than once from letting my PTSD take me down destructive pathways. Instead of reaching for whiskey, I reach for the guitar, it’s a life saver.

Committing to a creative process is healing. Don’t let macho ego and fear keep you from artistic expression.

Find something to start a creative path. Don’t worry about being “good enough” or stuff like that. The point is to risk creativity which leads us away from death to life. PTSD hates creativity and life.

PTSD likes the macho culture where men don’t have feelings, don’t cry, don’t pray or have compassion for others, and never engage in pansy activities like art.

Macho culture makes it easier to avoid life and deep relationships. It helps us all kill ourselves that much sooner.

Love, hope, creativity are like antiseptic against the pestilence of PTSD. They enable damaged relationships to heal. That’s why we should commit to them as a program. We are doomed if we think we don’t need a program and just think we can get by on willpower alone.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Some committed couples are able to survive an outbreak of infidelity, others are not. If you are in this situation, know that ultimately the only two people who will determine if the relationship will survive are you and your spouse.

Beware of other people who will instantly say you must stay together or who say you should instantly separate or divorce.  The outcome will not affect them as deeply as it will affect you.

It is a hard decision and no one else (not even me) can dictate if you should stay together or split up.

You are both individuals and there is no single “one size fits all” answer to the situation.

If you decide to try to save the relationship – and not everyone is able to do that sort of hard arduous work – then do know that habits have to change. There needs to be a program agreed between the two spouses that they commit to.

The program of commitments is intrusive and most people won’t like it, but then again, most people don’t “like” the surgery to remove a malignant growth.

Infidelity unchecked is like a malignant growth that damages and ultimately will kill the living body that makes up an authentic living relationship.

Checking in with one another with honest conversation can serve as a sort of daily dialysis that filters out the impurities that cannot presently be done all by our self.

Don’t let other people rush you into a decision. You may need to sit a while with the pain before you know what it is that you should do in the long run.

Regardless…

If you stay or if you go, you still have value. The situation is a traumatic one for you…even if you were not in combat, molested, assaulted, or otherwise traumatized.

The injured party of a cheating spouse has suffered a traumatic blow.

Be sure that you take care of yourself. Write about it in your journal. Bring it to God and talk about your pain and sense of bewilderment. If you are fortunate enough to have a trusted conversation partner to discuss it with, then talk with them. The conversation partner is not there to “solve” the situation, but to listen…even if it means hearing the same painful tale many times.

Find a creative outlet. If you don’t have one, then experiment and discover one.

Recovering from adultery, you are wounded just as much as the person who already had been recognized as having PTSD.

Regardless if you stay or go, never forget you need to take care of yourself. You’ve taken a chestfull of PTSD shrapnel and, now more than ever, also need love, hope, and healing.

Even though it hurts so damn much right now, know that this current pain and devastation is not permanent. It feels bleak now, but the future will bring some clarity and some healing. As always, You Have Value.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

Comments

  1. I would be so grateful for any guidance. My partner of five years, who had been through a traumatic war where many of his friends died or were captured, and then dealt with serious illnesses of his children, cheated or attempted to cheat on me numerous times. Without me knowing anything about it, he had repeated internet sex the whole first year we were together, including emotional emails that he would leave me for them even though he had never met them, also tried meeting many women that he had had affairs in the past, some he met, till today I’m not sure what actually happened. The cycle was that he would start getting distant, pick fights, not “see” me, be mean, and do anything possible to cause me to tell him to leave, then he would go to a hotel or apartment and invite women. We went to counseling and after that had a few good months, I thought things were going to be normal, and our of nowhere he started the distancing again, being mean, angry on the road, silences. I asked him what was happening, how I could help and he told me I was crazy, there was nothing wrong. I went into his computer and phone and saw he had looked up 5-10 former lovers, looked for apartments to move to, looked for trips abroad for couples ( not me). I was shocked, had no idea anything was wrong, I approached him with it, wanted to show him and when I got near the computer he slammed me down to the floor. Because of the violence I kicked him out and he started getting help from a PTSD specialist. He moved into an apartment but insists on calling my apartment his home, but he stopped acting like a partner, and is only willing to talk about technical things like a car, but no emotions. Mostly he doesn’t contact me at all, i have no idea how he spends his time, and he keeps saying he’s scared of me, because I accuse him of infidelity. Despite the documented history on the phone and computer he claims it never happened and I’m crazy.
    Now he’s saying that his new therapist says the only way we can live together is if I never bring up the past and only look forward. I asked him if he told her about all the women and he yelled that there were no women, that either he’s crazy or I am and hung up on me.
    I think he’s lost his mind. I can’t imagine any therapist saying that the way to build trust is ignore cheating, and I don’t know why he acts like he’s terrified of me all the time, when I’ve stayed with him through so much crap, helped him find his way, helped him with all his issues, loved him intensely and still kept an olive branch open.
    Since the calls I have blocked him on the phone, don’t want to speak to him, but I’m worried about him, sounds like he has totally cracked and fallen into little pieces.
    None of his children speak to him, he has very few friends left, and now he’s alienated me.

    The last few months have been hell and I’m trying to recover, I think I’m getting to a strong place, but do I just leave him to fall apart, call his therapist, ignore him? From what he said his therapist thinks I’m unreasonable for wanting tracking on the computer, for expecting him to call if he says he’ll call, not to disappear for nights. I can’t see that being true, but I hate being portrayed as a nutcase, especially after all the harm he’s caused me.

    Would so appreciate any input, my friends think I should have left long ago.

    • Hello Marlene,
      Thank you for writing and sharing what is clearly a painful situation.
      It sounds as if he is devastated with PTSD from your description and his history of alienating his most important relationships. But, having PTSD does not excuse damaging behaviors.

      You wrote: ” when I got near the computer he slammed me down to the floor.”
      Your personal safety is paramount. Have an escape plan where you can show up at friends’ to stay if necessary.

      You wrote: “he’s saying that his new therapist says the only way we can live together is if I never bring up the past and only look forward. ”
      If he is actually seeing a therapist, then I am very doubtful any therapist would actually say that.

      You wrote: “but I’m worried about him, sounds like he has totally cracked and fallen into little pieces.”
      It is quite natural for you to worry about him. After all, there was a time when things were better for you and him. It does indeed sounds as if he has fallen into little pieces, but the pieces have to want to be put back together for healing and/or renewed relationships to occur. At this stage you will probably worry about him a lot. If you have a spirituality, I suggest prayers for his healing, but not with an expectation for a renewed relationship. I am old-fashioned: If a man hits a woman, then he forfeits his relationship with her. If she goes back to him, she will end up as a statistic. There is no contradiction in worrying about him and not being in a partner-relationship with him.

      You wrote: “last few months have been hell and I’m trying to recover”
      Your recovery is crucial. You can recover. A situation like this can create its own PTSD-shrapnel for the partner or spouse. Thus, it is important to make your personal well-being your number one priority.

      You wrote: “do I just leave him to fall apart, call his therapist, ignore him? ”
      If he has a therapist, he or she would not be at liberty too discuss his situation. Your priority should be your personal safety and recovery.

      In my essay I wrote about commitments that have to be made. From your description, it appears as if he would refuse to make any of those commitments, let alone see that any of them might be necessary. If you reunite, what would change for the better? From your description, I don’t foresee improvement … just more bruises.

      Semper Pax, Dr. Z

      • Thank you so very much for your quick and on point response. I guess I knew everything you wrote, but needed to hear it from someone who has a better understanding of PTSD. I have never met the new therapist, this is her specialty and she is very well considered and I also cannot believe that she would say the things he quoted, but I have been gaslighted so many times that I can see him carrying that in.

        I took away all of his keys and have blocked the phones and will not answer any mails. Do you think his therapist would want to speak to me. He claims that things that happened never happened, I don’t know if he’s just lying or disassociating, guess it doesn’t matter that much anymore.

        It’s horrible to watch someone you loved and thought you’d spend your life with fall apart. The worst is that the source isn’t his fault, but there must be some degree of control he can use.
        I am so grateful for your site, your voice or reason and the resoluteness of your answer. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I will pray for him.

        I had given him the name of healers that had helped me,, mediitation classes but he never called. Other than going to the therapist, and apparently lying to her, he doesn’t seem to be doing anything.

        • Dear Dr. Z,

          After your letter I quit all communications and he wrote me a long letter, that I didn’t reply to that he was working on himself and has not fallen again and will never ever in his life fall again.
          Tonight I learnt that he just spend the night with the cheapest and tawdriest of his “conquests” – I guess she was the most easily available in every sense of the way.
          Even though I am so secure in the knowledge that I must disconnect and he is toxic, I feel that by cutting myself off, the last person who cared about him at all, and I loved him dearly, I pushed him even further off the cliff.

          Now on top of hurting over my destroyed life I feel guilt, and I know I shouldn’t but I also know if I had accepted his horrible behavior, eventually I would have brought him back from the edge and now he’s totally fallen off the cliff.
          Knowing him I’m guessing he won’t tell his new therapist, probably will stop going altogether because he even wants her to think he’s a knight on shining armor ( and apparently she’s gone along with it – he’s good at his games) and I’m so confused and angry and hurt and disgusted.
          Any words of wisdom, or even just solace for my aching soul would be a blessing.

          • Hi Marlene,
            I sincerely think that there is nothing you can do to change the path he is on. He has to want to change because it is the right thing to do, not to get back in the apartment. He has to want to make the tough long term commitments and achievements of those commitments before a woman should risk herself on him.
            If you accept his behavior, then you would end up in the hospital or worse. Men who hit, well, they tend to keep hitting.
            It is very normal – and commendable – to feel some guilt and intense concern for him. But to operate contrary to your own best interests and personal safety is analogous to a wound that hurts and itches and compels us to scratch and pull the stitches, thus leading to gangrene. To act on this undeserved guilt is the opposite of healing, indeed, it may even be enabling (although I don’t think you are an enabler given your earlier comment descriptions).
            Your life has been damaged, but it is not destroyed. When you made the decision to stand up for your personal dignity and your personal safety you regained your opportunity to have a life. Now you have to learn how to live that life. Easy for me to say, but perhaps it is best to think of it as an opportunity to discover more of who you are and who you want to be. You are also a trauma survivor. While trauma is obviously unpleasant, it can focus the mind to allow one to decide to discover themselves.
            Semper Pax, Dr. Z

          • Dear Dr. Z,

            Thank you again for your quick answer, your insight and your empathy. I am especially grateful for your recognition of my trauma and the hope you give that I have regained the opportunity to live my life.

            I have no doubts whatsoever that he has not understood the depths of his problem, that he is in total denial and is going to the therapist exactly for the get out of jail free card. From what he had said that she had said, for example that he takes too much responsibility on himself ( when in fact he will blame anyone and anything other than himself) has totally clarified that he is not trying to get better, only trying to get the therapist to say what a great guy he is.

            It is very painful to see someone throw their life away, and throwing away the potential that we had for a wonderful life together, and the potential was certainly there. It is hard to see someone self destruct and do nothing to stop it. I know that I gave him all of the tools, showed him the way, showed him I was there for him even when he made mistakes, but as you said the violence was a redline and once it was crossed, I would not be in the same house as him.

            I have discovered how wonderful my friends are, how caring, how smart, and I feel blessed and know that somewhere down the road I’ll be the bubbly, dancing optimist I was before all of this.

            I am grateful that you, a stranger, have shared your experience and wisdom with me and are helping me on this heartbreaking path of seeing the man I loved, and who I thought loved me, who I planned on spending my whole life with, just turn into something that no one can be with.

            I don’t think I can ever not feel the compassion for him, because I don’t think he will ever have a good life as he deserved when he was a child, and probably would have had if not for all the external things that occured, Yet despite that, I am ready to seek my own happiness and not get dragged down into the ugly world that he has chosen to remain in.

            Once again thank you so much for your generosity of spirit to strangers who come to this sad place.

  2. I appreciate you writing a post to my reply. You are right, it is taking a toll on me and I’m becoming numb to the whole situation. I am learning that I have to take things day by day. As of today, I am learning that I need to have trust in God and he will direct me to make the right decision. It saddens me that this has happened to so many people. That being said, reading your post has helped me see that it’s understandable if I want to proceed with divorce and it is also understandable if I want to try to make it work. I think any spouse that has been through this or anything similar is humiliated, and doesn’t want to be humiliated more by announcing that their marriage is over by such a horrible contributor (PTSD or infidelity). Thank you for your time and kind words!

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