Anger. Panic. Betrayal. Broken trust. Emptiness. Loss. Suspicion. Grief. Ugly crying.
There are many emotions that accompany the discovery that a partner has been cheating, and they are all justified. Infidelity can rock the picture-perfect view you had for your future with your partner, shake your confidence in all realms of the relationship — including emotional and physical intimacy — and downright feel like a punch in the gut. It can also leave you questioning yourself and the value placed on your relationship.
In short, cheating is one of the worst things that can happen in a relationship.
Mental Health Consequences of Cheating
Part of the reason cheating comes as such as huge blow is because it actually impacts our mental health, causing increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as other distress.
“Infidelity is one of the most distressing and damaging events couples face,” M. Rosie Shrout of the University of Nevada, Reno, told PsyPost following a study she co-authored on the impacts of infidelity. “The person who was cheated on experiences strong emotional and psychological distress following infidelity.”
In the study, which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Shrout and her research partner Daniel J. Weigel interviewed 232 college students who had recently experienced infidelity. Not only did their research discover adverse mental health consequences, but those who had been cheated on increased symptomatic behaviors such as poor eating habits, substance use, unsafe sex, or over-exercise.
When we look at what causes the psychological distress, it largely comes down to broken trust, decreased self-esteem, feelings of abandonment, and a loss of control, according to New York-based psychotherapist and relationship expert Lisa Brateman. We question how we could have missed the signs and often blame ourselves for the cheating partner’s behavior.
Blame also plays a huge role in the mental health consequences of cheating. In their study, Shrout and Weigel found “that people who blamed themselves for their partner cheating, such as feeling like it was their fault or they could have stopped it, were more likely to engage in risky behaviors.”
Taken together, all of the factors of infidelity comprise a challenging and charged situation that is bound to affect our mental health. So after the discovery of cheating, now what? This is a big question, and one that will have a different answer for every couple.
Regardless of what you do within the relationship, at the end of the day, one of the best ways to reclaim your own mental health is to forgive.
When we say forgiveness, though, we really mean to start by forgiving yourself. In situations where there is a violation, people often mistake forgiveness as being given to the other person. While this may be important to you, more often than not, we need to forgive ourselves first in order to heal our mental health and move on — either within or out of the harmed relationship.
“Forgiveness is vital in order to move on from [cheating],” says Brateman. “Forgiveness, real forgiveness, over time, offers freedom from anger and resentment.…If they are able to forgive, they’re giving themselves a gift.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, when we choose to forgive, we not only open ourselves up to healthier relationships, but also less anxiety, stress, and hostility, fewer symptoms of depression, and improved self-esteem. It lessens all the mental health symptoms that accompany the discovery of cheating.
And this means forgive yourself for all of it, no matter what you are feeling, what actions you have taken, how you are practicing self-care in the aftermath, and what you want to do moving forward.
“Forgive yourself for feeling angry or sad or hateful or for not knowing what you want,” writes Karen Young for Hey Sigmund. “Forgive yourself for everything you’re doing to feel OK. Forgive yourself for not knowing and for not asking the questions that were pressing against you when something didn’t feel right. And let go of any shame—for leaving, for staying, for any of the feelings you felt before the affair or during it or afterwards. None of the shame is yours to hold on to.”
Finding Forgiveness in the Relationship
If you decide to try and repair the relationship with your partner, there are ways to work toward forgiveness for the affair together. This will start with a lot of open and honest dialogue about what happened and what you both want from the partnership.
“One of the first things that has to happen is honesty and disclosure as part of the healing process,” says Brateman. “There’s going to be a lot of questions at first…and those questions need to be answered, and need to be respected.”
Some experts go as far as comparing the aftermath of being cheated on to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to explain why a partner may want to know all the details about the affair and how that can help them heal.
“It helps to recognize that the betrayed spouse is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder with frequent flashbacks and a need to go over and over the details of the infidelity,” writes Marilyn Wedge for Psychology Today. “Going over and over events during the time in which the affair took place gives the hurt spouse a feeling of control.”
Questions you may consider exploring together to get everything out in the open, according to Young, include:
- What do you feel about the affair ending?
- How do you feel about what it’s done to us and me?
- What made the risk of losing me worth it?
- What is it about me that’s keeping you here?
- What did the affair give you that our relationship didn’t?
- What would you like me to do more of? Less of?
To help with this process, consider engaging a professional couples counselor who can provide a neutral space for you and your partner to get any issues out in the open and work on them in a constructive manner that helps heal the vulnerable emotions.
“As a psychotherapist who sees couples, the couple is my client,” says Brateman. “The goal as a therapist is to improve the marriage, not to excuse or make anyone wrong. The therapist can help them talk about it rather than yell at each other.…The anger is real, and their anger is fine, but we can also reel in to talk about what they need to talk about rather than just accuse each other.”
As you work through the answers to the hard questions about what the affair means to you and for the relationship, then it can be time to work toward forgiveness for the other person. Through forgiveness you gain the opportunity to build a new and improved partnership together, if that’s what you choose.
“Give yourself plenty of time to forgive, and to start to feel OK again, whether that it is in the relationship or out of it,” writes Young. “Be kind to yourself and be patient. You deserve that. You always have.”
But first and foremost, forgive yourself and allow yourself time and space to get your own mental health back on track. If you find that the path is difficult going by yourself, consider taking the step of working with a couple’s counselor.