Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Infidelity: The #1 Obstacle to Recovery

What is the most vexing issue when recovering from a betrayal? It’s the ongoing emotional flooding resulting from the trauma of betrayal. Long after a couple commits to work on the marriage, the fire breathing trauma dragon continues to raise its ugly head and scorch the progress a couple makes. I call it a dragon because this type of trauma appears as if from nowhere only to ruthlessly attack you. This dragon of trauma is difficult to describe, so for those around you who don’t know this kind of pain, it can seem imaginary. For you though, it feels so big and so impossible to manage that recovery feels utterly hopeless.  

Several weeks ago I mentioned how Dopamine creates an intense need, similar to a drug addiction, which tells the brain you must have that pleasurable experience to survive. Those who are addicted and those who are traumatized are influenced by the same primitive part the brain, the amygdala.

The amygdala is in charge of our fight or flight mechanism; it functions much like the brain of a reptile. If you’ve ever owned a reptile you know they are incapable of relationship. They are about two things: need and feed. If an alligator isn’t hungry and feels no sense of danger, it’s safe to approach that reptile. If that alligator is hungry or senses danger, however, they will attack even someone who has been feeding it for years.

The amygdala stores memories and images and constantly watches for anything that may pose a threat. Unfortunately we don’t know what has been imprinted as a trigger for the fight or flight response. Let’s break down how your brain processes a potential threat using the example of seeing a snake on the ground. First, the amygdala, which is constantly on guard, triggers the sympathetic nervous system (the emotional accelerator) and in 1/200 of a second adrenaline is released, your heart rate jumps to over 100, and you leap out of harm’s way.

Next, the pre-frontal cortex analyzes the type of snake to determine whether it poses a risk. If it perceives no danger it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which operates as the brakes on our emotional system. This alarm system is crucial for the survival of our species. What would happen if instead of immediately reacting we were to stand there trying to discern the type of snake and whether it poses a risk? We’d have two fang marks on our leg long before we could determine whether we should jump out of the way. At other times anger, which is a part of the fight response, is critical if we are to survive. Reacting and then determining the potential risk significantly increases our odds of survival in the wild, but it’s not always so helpful in day-to-day life.

Dynamic in nature, the amygdala is constantly adapting to its present environment. Circumstances where there is fear, pain, shame, guilt, disrespect, insults, physical danger, and/or injury are just a few of the life experiences that can be marked by the amygdala as something to watch for in order to survive. Generally our survival system tends to hum along just fine unless we experience trauma.

The amygdala, when triggered, stomps on our emotional accelerator causing us to react with either anger or by running away. The pre-frontal cortex evaluates the situation to determine if there is current danger, and if none exists it slams on our emotional brakes. This system is dependent on the pre-frontal cortex being able to make sense of what is happening so it can send the other parts of the brain the appropriate signals to calm you down.

Here’s where the severity of this process sets in: severe trauma overloads the pre-frontal cortex and effectively cuts the brake line to the parasympathetic nervous system, leaving us like a car with the accelerator stuck on the floorboard and no brakes. The severe trauma of infidelity more often than not produces this effect. Our amygdala, always on watch, will spot a reminder of the infidelity and trigger the sympathetic nervous system, setting off overwhelming emotional flooding. The trauma of the betrayal makes it impossible for that person to regain control in that moment. Without a plan to eventually shift focus and defuse these reminders, the future of the marriage and potential recovery is not only painful and overwhelming, it’s also uncertain.

Over the next few weeks we will explore the difficulties created by Post Traumatic Infidelity Syndrome. In my opinion this is the most significant obstacle for couples in recovery. It is at the root of emotional outbursts, hopelessness, avoidance, emotional and sexual constriction, hyper vigilance, depression, emotional abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and all irrational conversations.

Knowledge is power. Understanding the realities of the trauma caused by infidelity, and what can be done to heal the trauma caused by infidelity, can equip you to move forward in recovery. If you have specific questions regarding trauma and how to deal with trauma I would encourage you to join the Recovery Library. One of the benefits of the Recovery Library is the weekly question and answer session. You can post your questions and I will do my best to provide an answer on the following week’s Q&A.

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Comments

Looking forward to this series

I've spent 3 years trapped by flooding. Despite my efforts, counselors, and all the books I've read...I'm still hit hard on a daily basis.
I believe some of that stems from the fact that I was so shocked that my wife would have an affair. It just isn't her. Or so i thought.
She is kind, wonderful and caring..but deep inside there were so many insecurities and a history of giving herself to men for attention or love (as many young girls do).
For 3 years...I've been having flooding each time we are intimate. I get images of her doing the things we are doing or her touching him. I can now usually push it aside for the moment, but after...im caught in this sad place. Disgusted and feeling my heart break.
It hurts. I hope the following weeks give me some guidance on how to mend.

Looking fwd to this series- I feel you Anon

I am feeling this comment. Its been 2 years since I found out about my husbands infidelity. It happened.3 years prior. Ive been reeling ever since. At one point I was completely broke down. Since then I have begun a processing of working on myself and putting myself first. Therapy has helped a little but it doesn't help enough. It was so shocking to me. Im so traumatized. We have been together since college. He was my first love. I adored this man and it was so out of character. He is kind generous, a great father, a great uncle, great son in law, great uncle, my family adores him. He works hard for the family sacrifices, does everything to make everyone happy. He said at the time he didn't want to be married but didn't want to lose me. And there is always some person that will sleep with a married person. No boundaries. Im flooded constantly even after two years. Its always there. Ive gained 35lbs, im not miserable and unhappy just shocked and feel really betrayed. Im working on it. We are working on our marriage. Its unbelievably difficult because the trust is broken. Its just gone. I don't know how to every trust him again and even if we divorced I probably would never trust another man. Im very sad this happened. It definitely was not in my life plans.

obstacles

This latest article couldn't have been posted at a better time. We are trying to move on and repair but I, the betrayed, am having trouble stopping the "irrational conversations". My husband has been very patient and answered all my questions (some of which I wish I hadn't asked). Now I seem to be repeating myself while trying to figure out why,why,why? I am so tired of these thoughts constantly filling my head. I look forward to your next article.

Anger and depression

Since discovering my wife's affair, now around 2 1/2 years ago, I find myself very quick to intense anger or occasionally despondency.

Early counselling helped with the anger, but the spectre has returned to an extent. It does not result in violence of any sort, but it is unpleasant for all those concerned and it feels as though I am totally unable to control its arrival - or departure.

Of course, this is often triggered by reminders that I can be aware of after the event, but not always. It is a scarring experience. Horrible.

Flooding

Thankyou Rick for your wisdom and guidance! It's been four years since we were at EMS! Our marriage is strong in The Lord now however I have post traumatic infidelity syndrome and always will. Learning to handle the triggers is a huge step in recovery and healing!

Yes this needs to be addressed

Thank you for addressing this issue. As one has experienced this, it was crucial to understand the dynamics of the intense emotions and reactions I was experiencing. Being able to "name" the root cause and understand the physical and emotional interplay was the first step toward healing. Naming it also assisted others in comprehending why it seemed my progress toward healing stalled.

Great article!

This was a great article and I could have written some of the responses myself! Going on 3 years here too and I agree completely.

5 years and still hurting

This article has come at the right time in my life. It is my 21st wedding anniversary today and approximately 5 years since my wife had an emotional affair from September to January and these traumatic thoughts still haunt me and send me nearly into orbit and can't seem to come down for several hours, sometimes days. I thought by now we would be past this and wondered why we aren't. This article explains a lot about how triggers and thoughts "suddenly" come back and how the brain processes them. It scares me to think that my marriage can't make it past these images. I have to totally agree with "Looking forward...", I've been through all the same stuff; counseling, books & etc.I share the same story and the same disbelief that she would actually have an affair and the "giving" of herself to many men for attention, i didn't find out about the number of her prior "partners" until about 10 years into our marriage and that was a big enough of a shock and then to realize that was just in her freshman year of college before we met the following summer. The thoughts that go through my mind during intimate times are crazy as well, usually i seem to push through enough to complete "the task". Anyway, i am also looking forward to the upcoming weeks of articles. Stay strong "Looking, Obstacles & Flooding" God bless.

It's been a year and a half

It's been a year and a half now for me (the betrayed) and we went through a honeymoon period that lasted about 6 months before everything came flooding back to me. Though we are in our early 30's, we have been together since we were 15 - half of our lives. To this day, I remember every detail of the affair after torturing myself reading through the texts. It has to get easier. It has to. I am looking forward to the upcoming articles. Many of your columns describe my feelings, but I need to know what to do about them to move forward. I need to move past this - to help my marriage, to help myself. My husband has been extremely patient and forthcoming, but I still cannot move on.

Thanks

I'm glad to know that my problems with recovery have an actual name and this is an actual syndrome and I'm not just crazy. Even though it's been 20 months since the 1st Dday (10 months since EMS) and only 6 weeks since the second DDay, I have found that I am having panic attacks, terrible emotional outbursts, extreme hypervigiliance, and just spells of wanting to throw things and scream. My spouse seems to finally realize, after all this time and after FINALLY coming clean with most of the details of his two affairs, that he needs help and he is getting it. He is also being very patient with me during my outbursts and trying to reassure me that it is over between him and the AP. Yet, these feelings persist and in addition, since he lied for 20 months, I have trust issues with anything he says. I am very interested in finding out about Post Infidelity Stress Syndrome and what can be done for it. I am so weary of hurting and feeling hopeless.

PTSD and the affairs, addictions

I experienced severe trauma as a child and have since then, when in trouble or triggered or threatened, experience shakes, heartbeat irregularity, difficulty regulating breathing, rage and panic. I freeze, caught between fight and flight. Within a few days of learning about my husband's secret life, my brain linked the two and now triggers involving him create the same severe responses in me. I recognize the link between childhood abuse and affairs (yet further damage). I'm nearly one year past D-Day and noticing some calming, but I struggle. It's easy to think leaving him would solve it, but I know this goes deeper. I guess I wish my husband understood how unfathomably painful it is to stay. I sense he's wanting me to "move forward" and doesn't appreciate how much grit it takes to still be here.

emotional flooding

Thank you for your wisdom and the informative article. I'm too embarrassed even to explain my situation anonymously. Now, I realize some of my behaviors and illogical outbursts are coming from post trauma infidelity. I dared to love again. This is something that has proved too strong for this formerly proud man to overcome. To the other commenters,"God bless you." I know theres a God and I definitely know its not me.

wish i could afford the retreat

Everyone commenting on this article, thank you. Jan.2014 she sent me a message. And then they had sex one last time right before my birthday. He looks like hes on the road to recover after this second affair, but those trigger are a force of its own. How do you keep from blending reality of the now with the memories and unprovoked thoughts? Thank you for a path.

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