The Trauma of Infidelity

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

The Trauma of Infidelity


The Trauma of Infidelity

October 2, 2021

Most people expect monogamy in their committed or marital relationship but infidelity is widespread – occurring in 20% of married couples & 70% of unmarried couples.

If you have been recently cheated on, you don’t have to make a decision right now about what to do. You can wait until the dust settles. On the other hand, if you are thinking about cheating, don’t do it – fix your relationship or get out of it.

There is no greater sense of betrayal than being the victim of infidelity. Discovering an affair calls into question every assumption about your partner, yourself, your relationship and your life. Sexual jealousy – both perceived infidelity & actual infidelity – is a driver of intimate partner violence for both men and women. Men & women kill each other, the other’s lover and themselves over infidelity. That is how serious the impact is. 

Not only is infidelity damaging to your relationship, it greatly impacts the physical & psychological health of both parties for years – creating the need for psychologists like us to step in! We will prevent further damage & promote healing by helping you figure out what is the best situation going forward.

Let’s talk about what it is, how often it happens, who is at risk and how to recover from it if it happens. We will discuss infidelity in both married and unmarried relationships.

Infidelity 101

Researchers identify infidelity as an extradyadic relationship or behavior – which refers to a wide range of behaviors occurring outside of a committed relationship from actual sex to having an emotional relationship to masturbating without your partner. Psychologists have also expanded the types of infidelity to account for technology.

The current types of infidelity include:

  1. Sexual: physical touch to intercourse 
  2. Technological: texting, video chatting and sending provocative images, videos & messages
  3. Emotional: confiding, showing affection & dependence 
  4. Solitary: fantasizing & masturbating

Men report greater levels of jealousy & distress in response to sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity. In contrast, women report more distress with emotional infidelity. At this point – although the research is not clear – both genders are similarly impacted by technological infidelity.

Sexual & technological infidelity engender the most intense negative emotions. Technological infidelity causes individuals to be triggered and suspicious when their spouse is on the phone or computer in the future. It also involves sexting, sending pictures, and an emotional relationship.

General Causes of Affairs

The greatest offenders are living separate lives, loneliness, drudgery, economic difficulties and finding someone is interested in you when your partner is not. Social media – specifically Facebook & Instagram – are also huge offenders. Affairs often being on social media when someone innocently catches up with a long-lost love.  

Risk Factors for Infidelity

  1. Relationship specific – incompatibility, stress & unique dynamics
  2. Individual characteristics – personality disorders, illness & attachment problems
  3. Prior infidelity
  4. Low relationship commitment
  5. Declining sexual & relationship satisfaction – especially when someone else thinks you are great
  6. Narcissistic, borderline, extraverted, sensations seeking or impulsive personality traits
  7. Permissive attitudes about sex or infidelity
  8. Exposure to approving norms
  9. Dating relationships
  10. High in avoidant attachment – individuals report infidelity for reasons related to seeking independence
  11. High in attachment anxiety – individuals report infidelity for reasons related to fearing intimacy with their partner or having their self-esteem affirmed by being with a non-partner
  12. Higher levels of sexual inhibition – individuals report concerns about performance with their partner but they are able to perform with others
  13. Higher levels of sexual excitement
  14. Being a man as a result of social power & evolutionary motivations
  15. History of sexual acting out when facing negative emotional states
  16. Incompatible sexual attitudes & personalities
  17. Greater neuroticism
  18. Lower religiosity
  19. Partner’s pregnancy
  20. Military deployment
  21. Low self-esteem
  22. Suspecting your partner had an affair
  23. African American men – scarcity
  24. Less education & unemployed 
  25. Socioeconomic factors for women
  26. Having had more relationship partners prior to marriage
  27. Quality & availability of alternative partners

Narcissism & Infidelity

Is narcissism related to sexual infidelity? Yes – but not in the way you think. Sexual narcissism is most related to infidelity. For both men and women, narcissism related to sexual exploitation, grandiose sense of sexual skills & sexual entitlement are related to infidelity. Lack of sexual empathy is associated with increased infidelity for men only. 

Despite this, sexual skills are associated with relationship satisfaction – which is why it is important to have a good sex life whether you are a narcissist or not. 

Military Deployment & Infidelity

I worked as a psychologist in the Navy for five years – where I was deployed for seven months to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba & then on an aircraft carrier for about a year. I was married during both deployment cycles so I know first hand how deployment put a strain on relationships – especially with children. For instance, I did not meet my second child until she was nearly seven months old due to my Cuba deployment. It was up to my wife to manage the birth and then raise two kids on her own until I came home.

As a deployed psychologist, I was aware of infidelity by those deployed and their spouses remaining at home. There was significantly less infidelity by service people onboard ships because there were much fewer women than men. In contrast, there was an equal number of men and women in GTMO so many of the people deployed had what we called GTMO wives and GTMO husbands – a.k.a. substitutes for their spouses at home. I did not. 

We know that those in the military with a prior history of separation, those who have already made steps toward divorce or have had significant relationship distress prior to a deployment are more prone to infidelity. Rates of divorce following infidelity are much higher in the military compared to their civilian counterparts because if infidelity occurs during deployment, that couple will most likely get divorced quickly upon their return.

Power & Infidelity 

The research suggests that both men and women become more unfaithful with more power. Certainly, power is attractive but what is the issue with power? Power increases both genders’ confidence in their ability to attract partners – which is then associated with increased rates of infidelity. Confidence affects both genders equally.

There are likely many surface reasons for these apparent gender similarities but the reasoning behind the infidelity differs. Powerful women do it to trade up while men do it to cast a wider net. A great example of this is the Great Recession of 2008 when many men lost their jobs. Their wives went back to work and inevitably became the breadwinner – which led to them having an affair in the workplace.

Is Serial Infidelity at Thing? 

One study found that those who cheated in their past relationship were three times more likely to do it again in their next relationship. Those who had been cheated on in their prior relationship were two times as likely to face it again. Those who suspected their former partner to have cheated were four times more likely to report suspicions about their current partner.  

Research acknowledges that both partners may play a role in creating relationship characteristics that could potentially increase the chance of infidelity. Is the cheater always a cheater or is the other doing things that leads the other to cheat or is it somewhere in between? Those who had suspicions in a past relationship tend to show more suspicions in future relationship. This persistent suspiciousness is most likely related to their parental attachment style rather than their partner choice, however, it is possible that they are instrumental in whether their partner is unfaithful or abandons the relationship.  

Whether you have been faithful or not in a past relationship does not determine your partners fidelity in your current relationship. those who had suspicions in a past relationship show more suspicions in future relationship. This persistent suspiciousness is most likely related to their parental attachment style rather than their partner choice and it is possible that they are instrumental in whether their partner is unfaithful or abandons the relationship.  

Every couple is different and despite the rates of repeat offending, most people who had committed it or experienced it in a prior relationship did not have a repeat experience in their current relationship – which means there is hope. 

About 65% of couples remain together after an affair. Many couples rebuild their relationships and often speak of having an entirely new relationship together. It is common for men to say that they would end the relationship if their wife ever cheated on them but in reality, many men stick by their wives after an affair – especially if they share children.

Immediate Steps Toward Relationship Recovery with an Emphasis on Preventing Further Damage & Promoting Healing

  1. End the affair if you want to maintain your marriage or relationship.
  2. Don’t disrupt daily tasks. If you have children, don’t tell them about your discovery & maintain their routine as best you can.
  3. Keep the discussions balanced. Focus on positive aspects of your relationship as well. Limit your daily discussion about the transgression to 30 minutes per day MAX or when with a professional.
  4. Engage in self-care to better cope with insomnia, anxiety, obsessions, depression & anger.
  5. Develop a plan of action for help. A plan will give you a sense of control and direction.
  6. Important – You don’t have to decide now whether you are staying in the relationship or not. You will figure it our later once the dust settles.
  7.  Peace will begin to occur when the betrayed is able to put the pieces of the puzzle together & it is up to the offender to give them all the pieces at one time rather than experiencing traumatization with each new piece discovered. This is the greatest challenge because the offender wants to do damage control for concern about the other’s emotions, but your partner needs to know what you did & with whom so there are no more surprises. They don’t need every single intimate detail but they need to know where you were, with whom, how often & how it started.
  8. Participate in couples therapy & individual psychotherapy with an expert. This will help you begin to process the betrayal. One of you will likely need assistance in coping with the trauma of betrayal while the other will need assistance in mustering the courage to be transparent & patient as the other needs to talk about the betrayal each day for a few months. 
  9. Rebuild trust with transparency, consideration & new experiences.
  10. Explore past vulnerabilities that led to the affair.
  11. Show remorse, apologize a thousand times, and be willing to talk about what you did and how you partner is recovering even when you think your partner is not thinking about the harm you have done to the relationship. 
  12. Don’t give up hope. The road will be long but again, know that 65 to 75% of couples who have experienced an affair recover & remain together. The vast majority of the couples who remain together create healthier & stronger relationships following an affair.

Take Away

Working on infidelity is no easy task. It takes immense courage to be transparent as well as to forgive. It also takes great courage to leave a long-term relationship that includes serial infidelity. I’ve been doing this for a long time and have seen many people who have turned against their values and have lived with the unacceptable for fear of embarrassment & shame. Be bold & do what needs to be done – no one but you is going to change your life. Life is short, do it now!!!