When we think of cheating, we often think of the classic trope of the good-for-nothing boyfriend who cheats because he doesn’t see how good he has it with his girlfriend. Once she wises up to his schemes and kicks him to the curb, we all cheer — end scene.
But what about the wife who cheats while her husband is undergoing cancer treatment? What about the boyfriend who has an emotional affair with his co-worker while he and his significant other are in a long-distance relationship? What about the partners who cheat on each other?
Infidelity is seldom black-and-white — and it usually doesn’t look like it does in the movies. Like human beings, cheating is messy, complex and sometimes hard to explain.
Healing from a partner’s infidelity can often be messy as well — especially when it comes to the mental health repercussions. To better understand how a partner cheating can affect mental health, we turned to our mental health community to share their experiences.
In addition, we asked Gerald Chambers, LMFT, and Stacy Hubbard, LMFT and certified Gottman therapist, to weigh in with their professional experience helping couples navigate infidelity. Read what they had to say below.
How Does a Partner’s Infidelity Affect Your Mental Health?
Because everyone is different and brings unique life experiences to their relationships, infidelity affects everyone differently.
“Being cheated on can affect one’s mental health in a variety of different ways, from not having much effect on it to having a great effect,” Chambers told The Mighty. “It really is a subjective experience and is based on who that person is.”
For some, he explained, being cheated on can be a traumatic event. People who experience infidelity as trauma may lose faith in relationships, lash out at others, struggle with sleep, feel depressed or anxious, lean on food for comfort or turn to maladaptive coping behaviors like using drugs and having unprotected sex.
“Some people can start to feel like they can’t trust anyone,” Hubbard said. “Since the person, they allowed to be so intimate and close to them has betrayed them, [infidelity] can be a serious issue to overcome. If the person has past betrayals or abandonment issues when other people hurt them, it can compound that issue even more.”
Mighty community member Hailee A. knows what it’s like to struggle with trust in the wake of a partner’s infidelity. Though her marriage to her ex-husband who continually cheated ended six years ago, she still carries the anxiety from that relationship to her current one.
“The worry and anxiety still affect my current relationship… The pressure in the back of my mind builds and I eventually panic for no reason,” she explained, adding: “The only thing that helps is talking to my fiancé about my worries. I know they are irrational — he’s never done anything to hurt me. It helps that I don’t project my past experience onto him like he’s done the wrong. He reassures me and gives me what I need to help subside the anxiety and depression that come with feeling like you aren’t enough for anyone to love.”
How Do You Heal After a Partner Cheats?
If you are dealing with mental health or trust struggles after the traumatic experience of having a partner cheat on you, you’re not alone.
“Human beings are different than other animals. When we feel overwhelmed or afraid, as a first course of action, we don’t burrow holes, we don’t climb trees, what we typically do is turn to another human being for comfort and relief,” Chambers said. “Now the problem with trauma is that trauma can make us feel like we can’t do that. We feel like we can’t trust another person or we don’t want to turn to another person.”
Healing from relational trauma of any kind often means turning to the very thing that hurt us — a relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean turning toward the partner who cheated (especially if the relationship was abusive), but it does mean turning towards safe relationships as you recover.
Chambers believes the relationship you have with a trusted therapist is one of the most important relationships to cultivate if you’re struggling with your mental health after infidelity.
“It’s not so much the treatment, it’s the relationship you have with the therapist that makes the most difference,” Chambers told The Mighty.
In fact, studies have shown that a positive relationship between therapist and client is a better predictor of successful treatment than any one treatment intervention. This is something Mighty community member Kimberly C. can relate to.
“[My partner cheating] sent me into a deep depression and numerous years of therapy,” she shared. “It was painful and expensive, but thanks to supportive friends and an incredible doctor, I have come out better than I could have ever imagined.”
Healing from a partner cheating can be incredibly difficult to move through, but you don’t have to let it define you.
“A traumatic event changes your life, but it doesn’t necessarily have to change it in a negative direction,” Chambers explained. “You can become more aware, more conscious, more kind, more loving. [You could have] a better relationship with your partner, be better to yourself — it just all depends on how you process it.”
If you find yourself struggling with your mental health in the wake of a partner’s affair, reach out to a trusted loved one or mental health professional. If you need a place to connect with others online, post a Thought or Question on The Mighty with the hashtag #MentalHealth. You don’t have to go it alone.
Can You Repair Your Relationship After a Partner Cheats?
If both partners are committed to repairing their relationship after an affair on one or both sides, healing is completely possible. The Gottman Institute, an organization devoted to studying the science of relationships, has an affair recovery method for therapists that focuses on three steps: atone, attune, attach.
“I would recommend seeking therapy with someone specifically trained in affair recovery,” Hubbard told The Mighty. “I have this training, and it is crucial in my ability to help couples recover and move on into a healthy new relationship. It is absolutely possible to do so with the help of a highly-skilled therapist.”
In the process of affair recovery therapy, couples will delve into difficult topics like why the affair occurred.
“A lot of times, affairs or cheating are the results of someone suffering — and they actually make other people suffer,” Chambers told The Mighty. “But we all suffer in life. Having a better understanding of our emotional lives can help us create less destruction and suffering for other people.”
Mighty community member Jenny J. knows what it’s like to be the partner who cheated. She told The Mighty growing up, she experienced child abuse and later developed PTSD when she began working in the mental health field.
“I started having flashbacks while working in the mental health field and being confronted with situations that had happened to me. I had PTSD. My spouse did not understand, did not know how to help and essentially gave up trying due to my reactions,” she shared.
“I ended up cheating on him with a co-worker who was there for me emotionally. Neither relationship survived. I watched my actions destroy my ex-husband. I also experienced a downward spiral in my own mental health due to the guilt and shame I felt.”
Though the partner who cheated is completely responsible for their actions, understanding any underlying pain that may have contributed to the infidelity through therapy can help both partners heal.