LAKE FOREST, Calif. — A licensed clinical psychologist says you can develop a form of PTSD after your partner has an affair. Dr. Kathy Nickerson reveals that this lesser-known condition you can develop after the trauma of finding out your partner is cheating on you — calling it Post Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD).
The condition can leave you with PTSD-like symptoms such as anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, and a constant sense of dread. While it’s an informal term rather than an official diagnosis, the condition recognizes the long-term trauma an affair can inflict on someone.
“When you’re in a committed relationship, your partner is the foundation on which so many aspects of your life are built,” Dr. Nickerson says in an online video. “When you discover that your partner has cheated, the foundation cracks and you feel as if everything in your life is unsafe, unstable, and insecure. People are extremely reluctant to talk about infidelity because of the guilt, shame, and judgment they experience when they share their experiences.”
“As such, most people don’t know when their friends or family have been betrayed and were unaware someone was suffering with PISD,” the clinical psychologist continues. “There should be more awareness for PISD and more compassion for both the betrayer and the betrayed.”
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Dr. Nickerson explains that the condition arises when a person chooses to stay with their partner after they cheat on them. There are lots of symptoms including feeling depressed, hopeless, anxious, isolated, and angry — as well as struggling to sleep and having unusual eating habits. Dr. Nickerson adds that PISD can be more common than we realize because of the trauma a person can go through after being cheated on.
“Everything feels wrong because the world as you knew it is shattering, and that is incredibly, incredibly scary and painful. But many betrayed partners are made to feel foolish, weak, and misguided by well-meaning friends and family when they disclose an affair,” she explains.
“These betrayed partners are very unlikely to share the ongoing pain they are experiencing. Out of fear of more judgment and harassment. As such, most people don’t know when their friends or family have been betrayed and were unaware someone was suffering with PISD.”
The psychologist and relationship expert says it is possible for a couple to overcome an affair leaving the other partner with PISD. However, she notes that it’s not easy and takes a lot of effort, time, deep conversation, transparency, and reassurance.
“The most valuable thing a straying partner can do is talk with the hurt partner about their feelings. They should validate what they hear and reassure their partner that they’re safe now,” says Dr. Nickerson, the author of “The Courage To Stay: How to Heal From an Affair and Save Your Marriage”
“The straying partner should also have no further contact with the affair partner and be very transparent about their time, location and communication. They should then do some deep reflection on why they strayed, so they can make different choices in the future.”
Symptoms of PISD, according to Dr. Nickerson (suffering 3 or more for over a month is an indicator for PISD):
- Constantly being worried
- Constant anxiety
- Feeling depressed
- Overwhelming thoughts
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feeling a sense of dread
- Difficulty sleeping – too much or too little
- Difficulty eating – wanting to eat too much or not at all
- Easily startled
- Isolating yourself
- Lots of pent-up anger
- Intrusive thoughts about the affair
- Irritability and fluctuating emotional states
Who faces a high risk of developing PTSD?
PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. However, certain groups are more likely to develop PTSD due to their higher likelihood of experiencing traumatic situations or because of differences in how they process trauma. These groups include:
- Veterans and active-duty military: They often encounter traumatic experiences during their service, such as combat exposure, which significantly increases the risk of developing PTSD.
- First responders: Emergency personnel like police officers, firefighters, and paramedics are frequently exposed to traumatic events in their line of work.
- Victims of violent crime: Individuals who have been assaulted, robbed at gunpoint, or otherwise victimized in a violent manner have a higher risk of developing PTSD.
- Survivors of disasters and accidents: Natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist attacks, and other life-threatening situations can lead to PTSD.
- Survivors of abuse or domestic violence: Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, particularly if it occurred over a prolonged period, significantly increases the risk of PTSD.
- Individuals with a family history of PTSD or depression: Genetics might play a role in determining who gets PTSD. Individuals with a family history of mental health conditions, such as PTSD or depression, might be more susceptible.
- People who lack a strong support system: Social isolation or lack of a supportive network can make it harder for individuals to cope with traumatic experiences, increasing the risk of PTSD.
- Children who experience traumatic events: Children, including those who witness violence or have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, have an increased risk of developing PTSD.
It’s important to remember that while these groups have a higher risk, PTSD can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background. Furthermore, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD.
South West News Service writer Amy Reast contributed to this report.