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?
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.
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