Research over the past couple of decades has provided evidence that suggests infidelity can, in fact, lead to illness. This research suggests that infidelity can be a factor in the development of mental illness and can also have consequences for a person’s physical health.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
There is a growing school of thought that the discovery of a partner’s infidelity can be a psychologically traumatic event significant enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) Marriage and family counselors who confront the consequences of infidelity on a regular basis note that discovering infidelity can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and even flashbacks to the discovery, all of which resemble classic symptoms of PTSD.
Regardless of whether these symptoms can ultimately signify true PTSD, mental and emotional strain after discovering that a partner has been unfaithful is undeniable. It can be a contributing factor in the development of situational depression or an anxiety disorder. Infidelity can result in further consequences and disruptions that may also give rise to mental illness. If infidelity results in the breaking up of a marriage or relationship, it can mean dealing with more limited financial resources, the stress of single parenthood or shared custody, dividing a household or finding new accommodations or other complications. All of these challenging situations are risk factors for mental illness.
Broken Heart Syndrome
In many ways, the connection between mental strain or illness and infidelity seems obvious. But newer research has discovered that the stress of infidelity can also result in direct physiological consequences; in fact, it can cause damage to the heart.
Although the term “broken heart” is still used throughout the English-speaking world, it is understood by most people nowadays that the heart is not, in fact, the center of our emotions. However, it turns out that this saying may actually have a grain of truth to it. In the 1990s, doctors in Japan were the first to recognize cases of heart trouble following emotionally stressful experiences. They named it takotsubo cardiomyopathy, after the resemblance an affected heart had to a Japanese octopus trap.
A 2005 study conducted by Johns Hopkins Hospital and published in the New England Journal of Medicine supported the Japanese reports that emotional stress can lead to myocardial dysfunction. In this country, the phenomenon has come to be known as broken heart syndrome.
The study looked at 19 patients suffering from dysfunction of the ventricles – the lower chambers of the heart. This is a severe but easily treatable condition distinct from a heart attack, which is caused by a spasm or blockage in the arteries leading to the heart that cut off the heart’s supply of oxygen. The mechanism of ventricle dysfunction is less understood, but it is thought that a sudden rush of hormones brought on by an intense emotional experience might cause it.
Infidelity in the United States is a relatively common event. Fortunately, broken heart syndrome is not nearly as common. Approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of people who are initially diagnosed with a heart attack are actually experiencing ventricle dysfunction. The symptoms are very similar, but ventricle dysfunction can occur with no history of coronary disease and is rarely fatal.
An overwhelming percentage of the people who have suffered from the condition are women, and almost all of the women were post-menopausal. Just exactly how and why this condition occurs is still largely a mystery and the reason middle-aged women are almost exclusively at risk is also yet unknown. If the condition is indeed connected to a sudden surge in hormones that impedes the heartbeat, differences in hormone levels between post-menopausal women, pre-menopausal women, and men may hold the answer.
Despite the name, a relationship gone bad is not the only thing that can trigger broken heart syndrome. It’s no surprise that the idea of actually dying from a broken heart caught the imagination of those who spawned and popularized the name, but other intense emotional experiences can also trigger the condition.