By Ava Zorn


Trauma can make people do confusing - and seemingly irrational - things.

A traumatic experience can literally rewire your brain and forcibly change your very perspective on the world, making you do things that you know aren’t rational or fair. But once that fight or flight response is activated (as it can be so, so easily for people with trauma), the need to feel safe trumps all else.

Safety is, of course, subjective. Most people would agree that food, money, and shelter are necessary pieces of that puzzle, but for people with trauma, this definition is often expanded. There’s a newfound need to feel in control of your own life, to make sure that whatever happened to you never happens again. While it might seem counterintuitive, this need for control often manifests in self-destructive behaviors.

Recently, Dr. Kathy published a study on how men and women compare when it comes to infidelity, and the responses from all 5,783 people surveyed illuminated significant gender differences (deeper discussions of which will be available in future posts), and differences in the mental states of straying and betrayed partners. Overall, 76% of respondents stated they have experienced a traumatic event in their lives, and 90% of them said they have experienced more than one. While this trauma might not be the catalyst for the affair (and is certainly not an excuse), it is a factor, particularly if that person has not addressed their trauma yet.

Let’s look at an example.

Maria is a 41 year old accountant and mother to two little girls. She and her husband, Will, have been married for ten years now, and it’s been pretty good. They have regular sex, split the housework equally, and still go on dates. Maria has told Will about her childhood – he knows her father was abusive, and that the two of them haven’t spoken since she was 19. Will knows Maria has a hard time every Father’s Day, and cried when she asked her brother if he would walk her down the aisle. But what Will knows is just a fraction of what Maria feels. It’s too hard for her to try and express the state of constant paranoia she lives in, worried about if she’s done something to upset Will, or why her Mom isn’t calling back, or the other million little things that activate her nervous system throughout the day. So she just doesn’t talk about it. Instead, Maria throws herself into her work and makes sure the kids are taken care of, and is mostly successful at distracting herself from all that’s on her mind.

But after 41 years of carrying this emotional burden, she’s starting to feel the weight. She can’t seem to chase away the reminders of her trauma anymore. So she tries something new. Maria starts leaning into the flirtations of Mike, the guy that’s been working at the cubicle across from her for the last few months. They start taking breaks together, and talking about life. Eventually, they exchange phone numbers, and text each other well past work hours, exchanging music recommendations and personal stories. Maria knows what she’s doing is wrong, thinks about how her actions might affect Will and the kids, but she’s not thinking about her dad. When the relationship between her and Mike expands into a full-blown affair, despite the guilt that eats at her every time they sneak off during lunch, she can’t help but feel a sort of relief. The affair not only distracts her from her own unresolved trauma, but she can use her own guilt as a sort of way to make sense of the pain – clearly, she’s a bad person who does bad things, so the abuse by her father was almost deserved, right?

You likely can see how unresolved traumatic experiences can be a slippery slope when it comes to self-destructive behaviors like cheating. However, despite the majority of respondents stating they have experienced trauma, 60% of them say their trauma did not cause their affair. While this can certainly be true, affairs are most often triggered by compounding stressors. It may be true that someone who cheats has been fighting with their spouse more often, but there is inevitably a deeper source to this unhealthy communication. People don’t find themselves in affairs out of the blue – there’s always a number of triggers, a mountain of unaddressed grievances piling up behind the scenes. (For more on this, please check out Dr. K's post on the Affair Bermuda Triangle.)

It’s for these reasons that a focus on mental health after infidelity is so important. If one or both members of a relationship haven’t worked on healing, a breakdown is eventual and almost impossible to avoid.  


Written by Ava Zorn. Reviewed by Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D.





Dr. K's NEW Book on Infidelity Recovery

The Courage to Stay - How To Heal From an Affair & Save Your Marriage


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