A psychologist’s guide to grieving and healing from a cheating ex
Breakups are never easy – especially when cheating is involved. Psychologist and CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, Elisabeth Shaw shares her best tips for combatting thought cycles of blame, grieving the relationship and moving forward with support.
One of the biggest fears for anyone in a committed monogamous relationship is the discovery that a partner has been unfaithful. For those who had no idea what their partner had been up to, the cheating comes as a devastating blow. For others it comes almost as a relief – no less overwhelming – as it might confirm what had been suspected for some time.
Whatever the circumstances, infidelity is the ultimate breach of trust. Even in the most well-balanced individual, the discovery can unleash an intense tsunami of emotions: anger, horror, humiliation, self-blame, regret, abandonment, and despair. While it rates as one of the most heartbreaking and disorienting events a person can experience, it can be an opportunity for self-growth and to develop an understanding of how to build healthier relationships in the future.
Research has shown that the lifetime risk for infidelity in marriage is about 20 per cent, but this would be higher if emotional and sexual relationships without intercourse are included. The gold standard for honesty in monogamous relationships is that partners make every effort to deal with desire and longing within the relationship and, if they cannot get what they need, then it is time to reflect and move on before having an affair.
While there are never any good excuses to justify infidelity, humans don’t always follow such sensible pathways or do what seems best for themselves and those who depend on them.
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Who is to blame?
After the discovery of an affair, it is natural for the ‘cheated’ partner to scour the past for missed signs, to unearth lies told, and to torment themselves with visualisations of their partner with someone else. The shock of betrayal makes it hard to find solid ground when the relationship, once a core foundation, has dropped away. An overriding drive is the search for an answer to “who is to blame?”
Despite clear delineation between the ‘cheater’ and the ‘cheated’, the truth is that infidelity is often a complex and multifactorial situation. Common risk factors are low commitment to the relationship, low relationship satisfaction, insecurities, emotional disconnection, not feeling appreciated and differences in sexual expression. The most common reason women give for infidelity is emotional satisfaction, while men cite sexual satisfaction.
Research indicates that in a significant number of cases, the ‘cheater’ themselves convey that there was no problem with the primary relationship, they were just seizing a different experience for themselves.
According to couples and sex therapist, Esther Perel, “Affairs are way less about sex, and a lot more about desire: desire for attention, desire to feel special, desire to feel important”. For Perel, while affairs are an act of betrayal, they can also be an expression of longing, loneliness, and loss.
To burst the bubble of those who like to blame themselves, some research suggests that people who are unfaithful in one relationship are three times more likely to be unfaithful in their next relationship. Complex analysis aside, some people may just be inclined to be unfaithful.
The stories we develop of what happens to us can be crucial to our recovery. After the discovery of an affair, we might feel fleeced and dwell on all we gave up and how much we looked after our partner. The impulse might be to seek revenge, punish, lash out or, alternatively, fall into self-pity.
To berate and blame our partner to family and friends might feel satisfying at the start, but at some point, it will no longer be constructive, especially when family and friends start telling us they never liked them, etc.
As time moves on, the narrative must shift from being the ‘badly treated victim’ to being ‘the better person’ and use this for future growth. Yes, you were betrayed. Yes, your partner did the wrong thing. But not everything is black and white. Recognise the good and the bad of the relationship. Be honest about the good things you offered and also how you might have neglected the relationship. Don’t let what has happened define you.
Some of us blame ourselves for contributing to our partner ‘straying’ – we took them for granted, weren’t there for them, no longer made an effort and did not appreciate them. We also might think we are not worthy of genuine love, loyalty and respect. Blaming ourselves can present real blocks to moving forward and may have created problems earlier for the relationship. Dealing with issues of self-esteem is essential for future relationships.
If you believe you were cheated on because you are not worth loving, not good enough, too thin, too fat, then you might be drawn to neglect yourself by an enticing spirit of self-destruction. Beware self-pity that legitimises self-neglect. Maybe you didn’t look after yourself so well before? This is a time for self-respect and to take care of yourself in every way possible.
Create time to grieve and recover
We are often taught to fear and suppress intense emotions but doing so can leave us brittle and bitter. Create private time to grieve the loss of the relationship. Know you will cope and that you don’t have to be afraid of intense emotions. Let them to wash over you without trying to control them and without fear they will control you. Know they will ease at some point and that you don’t have to carry the remnants of betrayal into future relationships. Focus on what will help you grow and move on.
Disrupt obsessive thinking
Obsessing on a problem is only helpful when it leads to a solution. In circumstances over which we have no control and can’t change what happened, tormenting ourselves with overthinking will not help. We may never make sense of what happened.
Find strategies to break obsessive, pointless and painful loops. For example, make “best not to think about it” a disciplined mantra when painful thoughts cycle through, do anything that works whether that’s playing a favourite upbeat song, or doing something you love, and remind yourself that you are not in this alone.
Make a clean break
The wound you feel may have no chance to heal if you have contact with your ex. While it might be hard, a clean break allows you to recover and strengthen. Best not to follow them on social media and ask friends to not tell you about them for now.
Support and recovery
Seek out self-help books on recovering from infidelity or healthy online forums that help people move on rather than continue to suffer. If you are locked in rehashing the relationship and reliving the hurt, there’s no shame in seeking professional help. Sometimes your supportive friends, who are angry on your behalf, can help initially, but are then out of step with what you need.
If your partner is asking to continue the relationship with you, it is possible to recover, repair and go on stronger than before if you can really learn from the situation. However, unless there is a genuine engagement in change, an apology and going on as before, while tempting, is very risky. Fear of separation could lead you to accept less than you deserve. Professional help from a well-trained couple therapist can assist you sort out all these different elements and make a decision that is in your best interests.
Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.