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

Surviving Infidelity: The #1 Challenge to Recovery

One of the most frustrating issues when recovering from betrayal trauma is the ongoing emotional flooding that comes from the loss, deception, reminders, and intrusive thoughts. Long after a couple commits to work on the marriage, a fire-breathing trauma-dragon will raise its head and scorch the little progress they make. I call it a dragon because this type of trauma appears as if from nowhere for a ruthless surprise attack. This dragon of trauma is difficult to describe, so it can seem imaginary to those around you who don't know this kind of pain. For you though, it feels so big and so impossible to manage that recovery often seems utterly hopeless.

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Bear with me for a couple of minutes while I cover some brain basics. Several weeks ago, I was asked how the release of dopamine in our brains creates an intense need for more. The process is very 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 part of the "downstairs brain" and is in charge of our fight, flight, or freeze reaction. 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: what they can eat and what can eat them. I'm told that if an alligator isn't hungry and feels no sense of danger, it's safe to approach that reptile, although I am certainly not going to try it! If that alligator is hungry or senses danger, however, they will attack even someone, even if they have been feeding it for years. To the alligator, there is no relationship. The amygdala stores memories and images, and it constantly watches for anything that may pose a threat. Unfortunately, we don't know what has been imprinted as a trigger for the fight, flight, or freeze response.

The "upstairs brain" includes the cerebral cortex and allows us to think before we act. It is the part of the brain that is responsible for higher-level processes such as rational thinking, reasoning, and impulse control.

Now, let's break down how your brain processes a potential threat using both the downstairs brain and the upstairs brain:

I was walking my daughter's dog last week through my favorite park when she stirred up a snake that was sunning itself. I saw the snake out of the corner of my eye, and before I knew it, I had jumped and twisted about two feet in the air. I scared the lady behind me when I screamed like an eight year old!

When first I saw the snake, my downstairs brain, which is constantly on guard, triggered my sympathetic nervous system (the emotional accelerator). In 1/200 of a second, adrenaline was released, my heart rate jumped to over 100 beats per minute, and I leaped out of harm's way. Next, my upstairs brain analyzed the type of snake to determine whether it posed a risk. If the pre-frontal cortex (in the upstairs brain) 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 posed a risk? We'd have two fang marks and a loved one calling 911 long before we could determine whether we should jump out of the way. Instinctive reactions increase our odds of survival in the wild, but they are not always so helpful in day-to-day life.

The downstairs brain 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 examples of what the downstairs brain watches out for in order to survive. This system is dependent on the upstairs brain 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. This survival system tends to hum along just fine until we experience trauma.

Here's where the severity of this process sets in. Severe trauma overloads the pre-frontal cortex (in the upstairs brain) 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 ability to brake. The trauma of infidelity, more often than not, produces this effect. Our downstairs brain, always on watch, will spot a reminder of the infidelity and trigger the sympathetic nervous system, setting off overwhelming, emotional flooding all over again.

The trauma of the betrayal makes it very difficult for that person to utilize the upstairs brain in order to regain control in that moment. Without a plan to eventually shift focus and diffuse these reminders, the future of the marriage (and individual recovery) is not only painful and overwhelming, it's also uncertain.

I believe that even a basic understanding of how our brain works can be a powerful tool in recovery. Understanding the realities of the trauma caused by infidelity and what can be done to heal can equip you to move forward in your recovery journey, albeit slowly. So, be gracious to yourself and respectful to each other.

If you are a wayward spouse and in need of support and a structured process, I would encourage you to check out the Hope for Healing Online Course. It was developed by Rick Reynolds, LCSW, a leading expert who has dedicated his life work to infidelity recovery. Additionally, you'll receive incredible support from our trained group leaders who have been right where you are. Your small group's shame-free environment will help you build the authentic community you've been craving. Please check it out at the Affair Recovery website under the programs tab.

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"I just completed the Harboring Hope program. My husband was unfaithful to me emotionally, physically and sexually with a co-worker. What I wished I would've known is that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. People who refuse to forgive can never live their own lives, they are too busy obsessing about the life of the one who hurt them. They are stuck. They are unable to enjoy friends, family or even their children. They imprison themselves in a bondage of their own making. I definitely recommend the Harboring Hope program as a support for healing. To be in a safe community with other women who know what you're going through and how you're feeling is comforting. Whether you're able to reconcile or not, there is hope." - M., Michigan | HH Participant, April 2021.

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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.

Looking forward to this series

Hi anon. I completely understand what you are going through. It makes so much sense. Your story is so very similar to mine...i was wondering if I had wrote this. My wife had a 3 year affair and I found out in Jan 2015. I too struggle like you. I'm also in shock as she is not this sort. I'm trying all sorts of things including mindful meditation but the affair has a stronghold on me. But you are not alone. You are doing the best you can.


This is definitely the hardest part of recovery for me. No one thought he could ever do anything like this, myself included. It was a total shock. I have lost everything because of his affair. My friends, my church family, my home, my job, our financial security. There is to many triggers to cope with. I pray everyday for God to help me through this. It has been 15 months since the affair became known. We have been married 36 years. I love him and forgive him but i am not sure about our future together and I am trying to be strong and look to my heavenly father but I am scared i will not be able to overcome the flooding.

anger, sadness

It's been four months (i know it's still very early) and i'm going through this same exact problem. I feel like she becomes too open to other guys too easily. Everything i do with her now, inside I'm asking, did she do this with the other guy?! when we're smiling and making love, talking positive it feels great, but, then when she's not around I'm all alone with myself, those intrusive thoughts and anger creeps in. Then we again start talking about the affair over text... again those Why? Why? Look what have you done to us!! just why??! she also looses her patience and says mean things. It just hell!!!

for Last 7,8 days i've been sick with fever, headaches....i couldn’t even leave my bed...but, all i was thinking about was that her affair! I wake up crying in the middle of the night...


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.


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.


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.

You are correct, Rick

I can so relate. My husband gave me trickle truth for five years. So each time I thought I had all the truth and began to take the risk of working on our marriage and then learned one more thing from the past (always worse that the initial info), I was sent back into trauma. Finally, I went the route of a polygraph to make sure I knew the whole truth. And did any therapists talk about my trauma before we met with the one who did the polygraph after five years?? Not a one. Not one.
The whole focus was on saving the marriage, my husband, his depression, his addiction. Being completely self focused was part of what contributed to my husband's secret life in the first place. Therapists seem to reinforce this self focus and totally miss the impact on the spouse who is traumatized and needs protection and healing.
I am grateful for AR and especially to Harboring Hope for the focus on my recovery. It is not my recovery through my husband's recovery. It is my recovery. My husband, thank God, now attends SAA, a men's group and therapy and is committed to new ways of thinking and being a better man. I am now, finally, committed to my own recovery regardless of my husband's choices going forward. I have been through a lot of therapy since first learning of my husband's infidelity (wish I could have that money back!) I cannot recommend enough Harboring Hope for betrayed spouse who are committed to healing.

I want my wife healed

It would take to long to post the entire relationship. I cheated on her physically and with porn and have been free of this for over ten years. However the emotional flooding is almost weekly for her, the hyper vigilance and I just do not know how to communicate with her. In the past I have defended when accused of being attracted to other women, now I see these were just triggers. My defense was manipulative and she calls me a manipulative emotional abuser. When I tell her she is all I want then that is a lie a to her and the same old words. She says I have to come up with new words and undo my past behavior and the only reason I cannot is I have not changed. I just don’t know how to talk to her or what to say. Any help please.

Permanence of Damage to the Brain of the Betrayed Spouse

There are elements of the work done by Affair Recovery that I find valid and important. But a program built by men who were unfaithful carries a bias that is ignoring the scientific discoveries related to the degree of physical damage, financial and social damage, and the damage to a betrayed partner's spiritual life, her professional life and to the family.

The affair does not in itself do the greatest damage to the victim's brain. Rather, it is the disclosure, especially when done to intentionally cause emotional harm, done without taking responsibility, and done without a willingness to put the needs of the betrayed spouse ahead of their own needs and desires by going to infidelity-focused intensive marriage coaching or counseling that starts what I call the Toxic-Infidelity Cascade.

The D-Day has been found to cause the same damage to the brain of the victim of these perpetrator's actions as is caused by hearing that your child has suddenly without warning, been violently killed. It destroys the foundation that is laid down in infancy; a foundation that built trust into the fabric of who you are. That sense of trust is less a matter of trusting others and more a matter of trusting your own ability to discern who is good, who is safe, and who is not. It takes most of the first year of your life to lay down that foundation. Everything else about what makes you who you are is built on it. Then, in seconds, it is ripped apart.

I know.

I am a survivor of the domestic violence by covert rape. Infidelity is not the violation of a partner's right to define for themselves the rules of consent. Sexual contact of any type is. In my case, for 18 years he was committing infidelity by sexually assaulting children and women enslaved in prostitution. My rules of consent were clear; mutual sexual and relational exclusivity were not optional. They were required. I don't do casual sex and if he wanted me, he wanted only me. Hiding his infidelity when I was trusting him to be faithful meant he violated my consent and sex without consent is rape.

That is an inconvenient truth. Infidelity followed by any contact while keeping from your partner the essential information that you are not monogamous is sex without consent; rape.

In fact, researchers have proven that victims of stranger-rape heal. They never trusted their rapist. I trusted mine with my life-which he risked daily...AIDS is still deadly, with my future, with my children and with my brain. He raped all of who I used to be and destroyed the woman I was. DDay toxic disclosure is not "coming clean" it is a deliberate act of murder. I would have been far less harmed if he had shot or stabbed me and women who have experienced being beaten, stabbed or shot as well as infidelity disclosures consistently state that the most damage came from the perpetrator's acts of infidelity.

Post Infidelity Traumatic Stress Disorder has no cure; and several research studies demonstrate that it is lined to suicide, drug and alcohol use, major depression, chronic anxiety and fear, cancer in several forms, and cardiovascular events. It is the single most treatment resilient form of PTSD because an entire base of trust that formed the foundation of your life is gone.

Now SPECT scans are demonstrating that the damage is specific and broad-spectrum attack on the brain, disrupting large areas of brain function and that the damage lasts for the rest of life.

It is time to bring the science to the table; this is domestic violence and as such it should be prosecuted as covert sexual assault. Great alternative for perpetrators who do not "stray" they choose to negate the right of their spouse to set the boundaries of her consent and in disenfranchising her the perpetrator of infidelity makes a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice to negate the humanity and violate the most basic of human rights; the rights to give consent that is freely offered, not coerced by deception and based on essential knowledge. That makes infidelity followed by any form of sexual contact a hate crime; with a targeted population of one; the spouse who loves and trusts them.

Infidelity ends the marriage....you don't stayed married to your rapist. The role of law enforcement and the judiciary is to enforce the castle doctrine so that the victim of this type of Domestic Violence doesn't have to lose her home in order to be dafe.

High alert.

This is so dead on. I called it high alert. I was on high alert for about five year,. My system got no rest at all. Also the reason I lost 80 pounds in a matter of a couple of months. Finding the right therapist is what finally saved me.

Good article

I am still at the beginning of my fight. I recently found out my wife of 19 years has been having a 4 year affair with another man. I have known her since we were kids and she was always such a good hearted and honest person. I never doubted her loyalty or morals for 1 second of our relationship. She was the perfect mother, friend, co-worker, and I thought wife so finding out everything she did has destroyed me. We are trying to work on it but I constantly look at her and feel so gutted inside. To know that another man had my wife so completely and in so many ways that I never even had her is more than I can handle. I know I made mistakes and was not always the perfect husband but I love her so completely and I was really trying to give her what she needed. Now I have to go through the rest of my life knowing the one person that was everything to me and that was more than enough for me in every way just threw me away like a piece of trash and hurt me intentionally for 4 years. I can not go more than a few hours without being totally devastated and crying about this loss. The pain is so unbearable and I never even saw it coming...

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