Can PTSD Cause Infidelity?

Mar 20, 2024 | Communication, partnerships, Relationships

Most of us will experience a traumatic event once in our lives1. Trauma is a subjective experience, and we’ll each respond differently. Our history, how we interact with the world, our current life stressors, and support systems play a huge role in how we respond. 

While most of us won’t develop PTSD after a traumatic event, about 6 out of 10 people in the U.S. will. How will their PTSD impact their lives? For some, it can pass without too much damage, but for others, it can have long-term impacts, especially in the area of their relationships. 

Infidelity is not uncommon, either. Some studies suggest around 20-40% of married individuals have engaged in extramarital affairs at some point in their marriage2. While PTSD doesn’t directly cause infidelity, many couples dealing with PTSD may also end up dealing with infidelity as well. Let’s explore more to help you answer the question, “Did my PTSD cause infidelity in my marriage?” 

 

Do I Have PTSD? 

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. And not everyone who develops PTSD requires psychiatric treatment to address it; sometimes the symptoms resolve themselves over time, and sometimes they can be addressed through stable support networks (e.g., friends, family, and other community groups). 

How can you gauge if you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD? Well, the first thing to ask is, “Have they/I witnessed a traumatic event that was significantly harmful to my physical or mental health?” This could range from accidents and natural disasters to the unexpected death of a loved one to sexual assault, combat, or other forms of violence. 

After the traumatic event(s), any PTSD symptoms must be present for more than one month and cause significant impairment. If this isn’t true, you may be dealing with something similar to PTSD, such as Acute Stress Disorder

PTSD symptoms are categorized into three areas: 

Intrusive symptoms

  • Symptoms stem from the traumatic event.
  • Unwanted memories of the event cause distress.
  • Repeated distressing dreams.
  • Experiencing flashbacks.
  • Feeling intense emotional distress when triggered.
  • Experiencing intense physical reactions, such as hyperventilation, sweating, and rapid heartbeat, upon encountering reminders of the traumatic event(s).

Persistent avoidance 

  • Symptoms are related to the traumatic event(s).
  • Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event.
  • Attempting to evade memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the event.
  • Steering clear of individuals, locations, activities, items, or scenarios that may trigger recollection of the event.

Negative changes in mood and thinking

  • Start or intensify following traumatic events.
  • Difficulty recalling significant aspects of the trauma.
  • Persistent and entrenched negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world.
  • Unfairly assigning blame to oneself for the trauma.
  • Continual feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame.
  • Noticeable decline in interest or engagement in activities.
  • Sense of detachment from others.
  • Feeling incapable of experiencing happiness, contentment, or affectionate emotions.

Just a reminder – each person experiences stress and trauma differently, so each person’s presentation of PTSD is likely to vary. Just because you may be experiencing different symptoms than someone else you know doesn’t mean you both can’t be dealing with PTSD. 

 

PTSD & Infidelity

Let’s be clear – PTSD does not directly cause infidelity. But is there a link between the two? Oftentimes, yes, and it lies in the complex way people cope with their or their partner’s PTSD symptoms. 

Imagine someone experiencing the overwhelming symptoms: intense emotions, vivid flashbacks, or nightmares. The guilt, shame, and anger that can build can create a self-sustaining cycle of helplessness. In an attempt to avoid these overwhelming feelings or to avoid situations that trigger them, they may seek solace or relief outside of their relationship. It’s usually not about hurting their partner but seeking any sort of break from the PTSD symptoms. 

Studies have also found that individuals with PTSD are at a higher risk for engaging in impulsive and risky behaviors. Behaviors such as substance use, risky sexual behaviors, non-suicidal self-injury, and unhealthy eating patterns3. This, coupled with cognitive and emotional PTSD symptoms, can make it more likely they engage in behaviors that seem out of character, like cheating. 

Does that make the infidelity okay? No. But can it be important to understand what drove the behavior and how the PTSD may have come into play? Yes, especially if the couple is looking to reconcile. 

Now, what if the partner without PTSD engages in infidelity? For the partner who is working through their PTSD, please hear me – this is not a reflection of your worth or your value as a partner. Experiencing and working through PTSD is not an easy task, and you may need to fully focus on yourself to treat the symptoms. And sometimes your partner may seek support or validation for themselves outside of the relationship. 

It’s okay to feel hurt and betrayed. Sad, angry, relieved. You may even feel some guilt or responsibility, but I would caution you about taking all that on. At the end of the day, each one of us takes responsibility for our actions.  But remember, the bottom line is that it was their decision. While the context of PTSD may provide some understanding, it is not an excuse or absolvement of accountability. 

 

What Can I Do? 

Good news! There are things that can decrease the likelihood of infidelity and create a supportive environment for you both as you deal with the PTSD symptoms. Even if infidelity has occurred, these are good steps to moving forward. 

Change Up Your Convos 

With PTSD, you’re dealing with something that is out of the ordinary. Even if you have a good foundation of communication, this situation may require some new strategies. 

  • Share about your PTSD experience. The more your partner knows the more they understand. And the less they attribute to you or to themselves. 
  • Explore different ways to communicate. It doesn’t always have to be talking. Maybe it’s letters, text, or voice memos to each other. 
  • Set a time to share. It’s easy for other things to take priority in the day. So, schedule a time to share and communicate with one another. 
  • Don’t assume. Ask with the intention of learning rather than proving a point. 
  • Disconnect the feelings and actions (as it’s helpful). While cheating should not be rationalized by how the person was feeling, it can be a productive conversation to hear and understand each party’s emotional experience. 
  • Define intimacy. Don’t assume, and don’t get squeamish about having this conversation. Depending on the traumatic event and PTSD symptoms, intimacy very likely needs to be redefined so both of you can feel comfortable and safe. 

Test Out New Tools

Your current coping strategies may or may not cut it right now. It’s time to assess and add some new tools to your personal “toolbox.” 

  • Calm your body. Find ways to regulate your physical body. Retrain your breathing with this exercise.
  • Explore mindfulness activities. Mindfulness is defined as being present in your body, thoughts, and surroundings at that very moment; this can be accomplished through lots of different things! Here are 25 mindfulness exercises
  • Build a healthy routine. When everything feels out of control, having a routine can be so beneficial. 

Don’t Do It Alone

You’re not alone, even when you feel that way. 

  • Lean on your friends and/or family. Keep in mind who can help support you right now – not who would add more stress or require you to take care of them. 
  • Support groups. Connect with those who really understand what you’re experiencing. Whether you are dealing with PTSD symptoms or the partner supporting a loved one. Online peer support groups, like Pace groups or Reddit, can be good resources to explore to speak about life in general or PTSD specifically. 
  • Therapy works. For both partners, working with a trained therapist (individually or in couples therapy) may be crucial to resolving the PTSD symptoms and infidelity. A few examples of common treatments are Prolonged Exposure (PE), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), stress inoculation training (SIT), and interpersonal therapy. 

Prioritize… Yourself 

This may feel like a hot take, but… you may need to prioritize yourself over your partner and/or relationship for a period of time. That isn’t to say that you don’t care about your partner or the marriage, but it’s realizing that you only have a limited bandwidth. 

If infidelity has occurred in the marriage, then: 

  • Be honest with yourself. Can you focus on repairing the relationship right now? If not, think about what you do need to focus on for your well-being. 
  • Assess your partner’s capacity to change and support you (if they are the person who cheated). 
  • Don’t blame yourself. And be honest about the factors that may have gotten you to this position. This information will help you decide what is best for you moving forward.  

In Conclusion

So, what’s the takeaway? PTSD never causes infidelity, and, with all big life stressors, it can impact your marriage in big ways. PTSD symptoms can create driving forces for one or both partners to cheat, and navigating both infidelity and PTSD is not easy. Understanding how PTSD played a (complicated) role can help provide information on how you both move forward – together or not. 

References 

  1. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  2. Marín, Rebeca & Christensen, Andrew & Atkins, David. (2014). Infidelity and Behavioral Couple Therapy: Relationship Outcomes Over 5 Years Following Therapy. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.

Tull, M.T., Weiss, N.H., & McDermott, M.J. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Impulsive and Risky Behavior: Overview and Discussion of Potential Mechanisms. Comprehensive Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

You are writing your life story. Get on the same page with a prenup. For love that lasts a lifetime, preparation is key. Safeguard your shared tomorrows, starting today.
All content provided on this website or blog is for informational purposes only on an “AS-IS” basis without warranty of any kind. HelloPrenup, Inc. (“HelloPrenup”) makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this website or blog or otherwise. HelloPrenup will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor any use of, reliance on, or availability of the website, blog or this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at any time by HelloPrenup and without notice. HelloPrenup provides a platform for contract related self-help for informational purposes only, subject to these disclaimers. The information provided by HelloPrenup along with the content on our website related to legal matters, financial matters, and mental health matters (“Information”) is provided for your private use and consideration and does not constitute financial, medical, or legal advice. We do not review any information you (or others) provide us for financial, medical, or legal accuracy or sufficiency, draw legal, medical, or financial conclusions, provide opinions about your selection of forms, or apply the law to the facts of your situation. If you need financial, medical, or legal advice for a specific problem or issue, you should consult with a licensed attorney, healthcare provider, or financial expert. Neither HelloPrenup nor any information provided by HelloPrenup is a substitute for financial, medical, or legal advice from a qualified attorney, doctor, or financial expert licensed to practice in an appropriate jurisdiction.

0 Comments

Recent Posts

Can You Get Married Online?

You order takeout, stream your favorite shows, and maybe even shop for groceries online these days. But what about tying the knot? In our technologically advanced world, it's natural to wonder if exchanging vows can be done with a few clicks too. The answer is YES –...

Ready to join the thousands of couples completing their prenup?