Have you been traumatized by infidelity?
The phrase "broken heart" belies the real trauma behind the all-too-common occurrence of infidelity. Psychologist Dennis Ortman likens the psychological aftermath of sexual betrayal to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in its origin and symptoms, including anxiety, irritability, rage, emotional numbing, and flashbacks. Using PTSD treatment as a model, Dr. Ortman will show you, step by step, how to:
• work through conflicting emotions
• Understand yourself and your partner
• Make important life decisions
Dr. Ortman sees recovery as a spiritual journey and draws on the wisdom of diverse faiths, from Christianity to Buddhism. He also offers exercises to deepen recovery, such as guided meditations and journaling, and explores heart-wrenchingly familiar case studies of couples struggling with monogamy. By the end of this book, you will have completed the six stages of healing and emerged with a whole heart, a full spirit, and the freedom to love again.
The question haunts all of us, for me previously as a priest and now as a married man: "How can we make love last? How can we preserve love's passion and excitement without succumbing to the boredom of a lifelong commitment?" In the not too distant past, an Ozzie and Harriet ideal of family life reigned, at least in appearance. It seemed that relationships flowed with some ripples, but no disrupting tidal waves. Couples stayed together, somehow worked out differences, and accepted their commitments to lifelong marriages. Couples accepted their roles and were not too demanding of passion, adventure, romance, and excitement.
But a tidal wave has hit, and we are left floating on a sea of change we cannot control or grasp. Often we feel like we are just treading water in our relationships. We now take our longings for passion, romance, and intimacy more seriously. We are more willing to leave a marriage if we do not enjoy the romance and passion we expect. Many of us have come to believe that the ideal of marriage for life is now unrealistic, impossible with today's longevity, or too restrictive of freedom. A marriage without emotional closeness becomes a prison that needs to be escaped. The statistics about marriage reflect its instability: over half end in divorce.
The Trauma of Betrayal
Some marriages end with a whimper, and the couples simply grow apart. However, many others end with a bang. All too often, couples separate because one partner has been betrayed when the other has sought a fulfilling love elsewhere. While the numbers vary in the studies, some recent researchers have estimated that 37 percent of men and 20 percent of women have had sexual affairs sometime during their marriage.(1) More tellingly, 40 percent of divorced women and 44 percent of divorced men reported more than one sexual contact outside their marriage.(2) These are not just impersonal numbers; they represent persons who have experienced untold pain and confusion with disrupted lives. If you have been abandoned by a lifelong partner, you know how overwhelming and unspeakable the hurt and outrage can be.
In my fourteen years as a Catholic priest and seventeen years as a clinical psychologist in private practice, I have met many who have suffered the trauma of a discovered affair. I call it a trauma because of my observations that many of those who have discovered their partner's infidelity have been traumatized. They feel overwhelmed, enraged, and unable to cope with life. They are preoccupied with the betrayal, have nightmares about it, and suffer flashbacks. At times, they feel emotionally numb, then at other times, crazy. Their reaction can last for years and interferes with their capacity to enjoy their lives and trust others. I call their reaction "post-infidelity stress disorder," with the acronym PISD, which expresses the rage that is the primary symptom and the intensity of the feelings. I use this term not to suggest a new diagnostic category but to suggest a parallel with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been well documented and researched. Those who have been wounded by their partner's infidelity are often filled with rage, directing their anger, obviously, toward their partner, but also against themselves in self-blame. They also project their anger onto the world of relationships, which becomes dangerous and evokes mistrust.
Some clients in my practice ask me, "Why can't I just get over the affair and move on with my life?" I find it is helpful to explain the nature of the trauma they experienced and how their reaction is a predictable response to an extraordinary event. I tell them their reaction is in many ways similar to those who have suffered life-threatening events, such as war, violent crimes, or auto accidents. In reality, their psychic lives have been threatened and their assumptions about their marriage shattered. These clients often breathe a sigh of relief and tell me, "I thought I was going crazy." In understanding their painful experience and reactions in the broader context of a traumatic response, they become more patient with themselves and the recovery process. They are enlightened by the parallel of their experience with others who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, which has received so much publicity lately. They feel more confident they will survive the journey on the road to recovery traversed by many others who have experienced life-threatening events.
Healing through the Gifts of the Spirit and Power of Forgiveness
I have written this book for those who have been traumatized by the discovery of their partner's affair. I refer not just to the married, but to all in any committed relationship who have felt the sting of betrayal. I have written this book to offer hope to those who may feel lost and hopeless. Those who have been or are considering involvement in an affair may also benefit from this book, to appreciate the impact of their unfaithful behavior. Those who have been unfaithful also feel pain and need to be involved in their own recovery, a recovery that is similar in many respects to those who have been traumatized by infidelity. This book is a practical guide offering some insights, exercises, and advice to aid those with deep interpersonal wounds on their journey of recovery. Make no mistake that inner healing requires a journey with many turns and setbacks, a journey that takes time and effort but ends at a surprising place of peace, contentment, and wholeness.
I will reveal in advance the secret of recovery. But take heed that my recommendation may initially seem repulsive, unrealistic, or even impossible. That reaction is understandable in light of the terrible wound of unfaithfulness. Ultimately, you will recover from the trauma of infidelity to the extent that you forgive your offending partner and yourself. Forgiveness is the key to inner and lasting healing. Unless you release your anger and desire for revenge, replacing it with an attitude of kindness, you will not feel contentment. That is a strong, uncompromising statement. Nevertheless, my personal experience and clinical work confirm its truth. You forgive for your own sake, so you can mend your broken heart and find peace. Arriving at that place of forgiveness requires an extensive preparation of the emotions, mind, will, and heart. A forgiving attitude is the fruit of purposeful effort, a cultivation of virtues, and the healing of inner wounds.
In this book I will describe the journey toward forgiveness, which involves an unconditional acceptance of yourself and your unfaithful partner. I have delineated six stages in the process of forgiveness, which engage the emotions, mind, will, and heart. Each of these stages, or steps, represents a season of change on the journey toward wholeness and peace. Healing unfolds in stages from the ground up: from the body/feelings, to the mind, to the will (soul), to the spirit.
1. The first stage is to calm the emotional storm unleashed by the discovery of the affair. Like many who have been traumatized, your initial reaction may be one of shock, disbelief, and emotional numbness. You may shut down to survive. But soon you likely feel overwhelming anger, sadness, fear, shame, and maybe even guilt. The anger, in particular, protects you from being overwhelmed with pain. Working through the emotional storm, you can learn temperance (self-control), equanimity, patience, and fortitude (courage).
2. The second stage entails understanding why the affair happened. An affair is a way of disconnecting in the relationship. You will likely be disillusioned with your partner and obsessed with why the affair occurred. Understanding will bring you some relief and prepare you to make important decisions to rebuild your life.
3. The third stage involves coming to understand yourself, your interactions with your partner, and your personal struggles with intimacy. You may feel stuck imagining your partner as the powerful, guilty persecutor and yourself as the powerless, innocent victim. Such a one-sided misrepresentation will only set you up to repeat the tragic drama of betrayal. I tell my patients, "Unless you understand your part in the relationship, you will repeat the same dance with a different partner." Through the honest confrontation of your doubts and uncertainty, you begin to nurture the spiritual gifts of understanding, knowledge, and truthfulness.
4. The fourth stage involves making a wise decision about the relationship. Logically, there are only two options: to continue the relationship or end it. In either case, it will be important to understand yourself, your partner, and what went wrong in the relationship in order to make a wise decision. You will need to look deeply into yourself and discover what you really want and what is in your best interest. Grappling with this decision, you are nourished by and cultivate the Spirit's gifts of wisdom, counsel (right judgment), and fortitude.
5. The fifth stage, resulting from working through the previous stages, is discovering self-forgiveness, which is letting go of anger and embracing kindness. The primary symptom of PISD is rage, against your partner, yourself, and the world. You may well blame your partner for the affair but may also come to blame yourself for your blindness or not being an adequate partner. Forgiveness begins with accepting yourself and rebuilding your own self-esteem.
6. The final, and longest, stage of healing leads you to forgive your unfaithful partner. You recognize how your resentment saps your strength, peace, and contentment. You heal inwardly as the poison of anger is transformed into the medicine of compassion. Through recovery, your broken heart is opened up to love in a deeper way. You may also develop the virtues of generosity, gentleness, patience, and loving-kindness.
The stages of recovery through forgiveness are similar to the stages of grief described by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her classic work, On Death and Dying. She observed in her dying patients five overlapping stages in their facing the reality of death, the ultimate loss: (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance. Before finally accepting death, patients typically deny they are dying, become angry and depressed, and bargain with God to spare them.3 In a similar fashion, those who have been traumatized by the discovery of their partner's affair experience grief, which is a process that proceeds through identifiable stages:
1. Denial: shutting down, not wanting to believe the affair occurred
2. Anger: closing off behind a wall of rage
3. Bargaining: hanging on to old behaviors without acknowledging the need to change
4. Depression: pulling back from life
5. Acceptance: letting go of anger and opening up to a new life
These stages present emotional challenges that need to be negotiated for the advancement of inner healing. The reactions of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are gradually transformed into openness and compassion. A heart broken and torn apart by betrayal becomes an open, tender heart that can reach out to others in love.
From my clinical work and personal conversations with friends, I have observed that those traumatized by the discovery of their partner's infidelity suffer both a personal and a spiritual crisis. They suffer a profound loss of faith, hope, and love. They experience a loss of faith because their assumptions about themselves, their partner, their relationship, and the meaning of their lives have been shattered, leaving them plagued by doubt and despair. Because their dreams of a happy future with their partner are destroyed, they experience a loss of hope. Because they are so filled with rage, their love and ability to trust again have disappeared.
The remedy for this spiritual crisis comes from the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, which are prayed for and nurtured through recovery. While the gifts of the Spirit are beyond counting, the Hebrew scriptures list them as wisdom, understanding, counsel (right judgment), fortitude (courage), knowledge, piety (reverence), and fear of the Lord (wonder and awe) (Isaiah 11:2).(4) The fruits of the Spirit are presented in the Christian scriptures as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). There is an obvious parallel, which joins Eastern and Western spirituality, in the ten paramitas of Buddhism. These paramitas are perfections, qualities of being, that need to be nurtured in order to reach enlightenment. The paramitas are generosity, proper conduct, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity.
A third parallel can be found in the traditional symbol of the Sacred Tree in Native American folklore.(5) The Sacred Tree is the rallying point for the tribe and possesses healing power. Its roots extend down to Mother Earth, and its branches reach up to Father Sky. The fruits of the tree are the gifts of the Great Spirit that bring the people nourishment and show them the path of wisdom, love, compassion, patience, generosity, humility, courage, and countless other blessings. These fruits grow under the right conditions, in their own time and season, bringing health and wholeness to the tribe.
While sharing common roots in the universal human spirit, these traditions view the virtuous qualities somewhat differently. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are freely given by God and are nurtured through disciplined effort into virtues. God's grace builds on and perfects our flawed human nature. In the Buddhist tradition, the paramitas are natural human qualities that we cultivate by mindful practice. They are the expression of our true nature, which has been obscured by ignorance, greed, and hatred. For the Native American tradition, all creation is spirit filled and bounteous with the blessings of the Great Spirit. The rhythms of nature, the seasonal changes, and particularly animals, reveal the path to wholeness. All these traditions teach that adversity is the fertile ground for the growth of these life-enhancing virtues. Virtuous living is ultimately the only remedy for suffering and the path to joy. In the end, what unites these traditions far surpasses what divides them because they possess a common spirit. As the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi expressed it, "Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged."(6)
The genuine recovery from the trauma of betrayal requires the release of the gifts of the Spirit, which are then nurtured through disciplined effort into virtues. The virtues are good habits of living that replace the self-defeating behaviors revealed by the affair. As a crisis, the discovered betrayal can become an opportunity for growth toward a more mature, wiser, and more compassionate love, either with or without the offending partner. The recovery process, though painful, can be the occasion to cultivate life-enhancing virtues that lead to authentic happiness.
The approach I take in this book is holistic, integrating psychological and spiritual insights. For the Eastern and Native American mind, there is no distinction between the psychological and spiritual, between the natural and supernatural, because there is no separate Deity. Human nature itself is sacred. Mindful practices and loving attention lead to wholeness and a sense of connectedness with all reality. For the Western mind, there is both a distinction and a connection between the human and the Divine. God freely bestows His gifts, which are received and nourished in faith. Grace builds on and perfects nature. Consequently, in the healing process, spiritual exercises, such as prayer, contemplation, and meditation, build on and perfect the use of our psychological resources, such as therapy, group support, and journaling.
This book is a spiritual guide through the trauma of betrayal that offers hope for new life. I use many stories from my clinical work to illustrate the struggle to overcome the interpersonal trauma of infidelity and arrive at a place of forgiveness, contentment, and inner peace. Names have been changed, details altered, and examples integrated to maintain confidentiality. Furthermore, I suggest many psychological and spiritual exercises drawn from both Western and Eastern wisdom traditions, particularly the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist. I believe that the naturally confident and awakened heart is a healing heart and that health occurs with the release of the gifts of the Spirit from within. As the Sufi sage Hazrit Ali expressed it, "Your medicine is in you, and you do not observe it. Your ailment is from yourself, and you do not register it."(7) The first four chapters of the book focus on the traumatizing effects of infidelity. I describe the nature and symptoms of post-infidelity stress disorder, the differing responses of men and women, those most vulnerable to being traumatized, and the impact of parental infidelity on the adult children. The next six chapters describe in detail the six-stage recovery process through the gifts of the Spirit toward forgiveness: from calming the emotional storm, to understanding why the affair happened, to understanding your partner and yourself, to making a wise decision, to forgiving yourself and your partner. To refrain from being overjudgmental, I will refer to the one involved in the infidelity as the offending partner and his counterpart as the wounded, offended, or hurt partner. For grammatical simplicity, I will alternate the masculine and feminine pronoun to refer to the unfaithful partner, unless the context indicates otherwise.
1. Shirley Glass, Not Just Friends (New York: Free Press, 2003).
2. S. S. Janus and C. L. Janus, The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1993).
3. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Scribner, 1969).
4. All quotes from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are from The New American Bible.
5. Phil Lane, Judie Bopp, et al., The Sacred Tree (Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2004).
6. Word Power, "Quotations by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi." http://www.wordpower.ws/quotations/rumi-quotes-sufi-mysticism.html.
7. Indries Shah, The Way of the Sufi (New York: Dutton, 1970), 224.
Excerpted from Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder by Dennis C. Ortman. Copyright © 2009 by Dennis C. Ortman. Excerpted by permission of Celestial Arts, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.