Surviving infidelity is a unique kind of pain. When the person you trusted most in the world breaks that trust, it can be hard to know which way is up and how to move forward.
When you’re working on surviving infidelity, you may start to immediately wrestle with the decision of whether to stay married or in the relationship or to move on. It can be an overwhelming choice, especially if you have a family and especially after such intense heartbreak.
But while the betrayal of an affair may feel isolating, you are not alone. In fact, 20% of men and 13% of women reported that they’ve had sexual relations with someone other than their spouse while married, according to data from the General Social Survey (GSS).
The impacts of cheating can be lifelong for a betrayed partner, children, extended family, and even the person who has been unfaithful and the affair partner. When considering how to move forward after cheating, it’s important to explore the personal impacts of an affair and the environment that resulted in infidelity.
Recovering from Infidelity: Put Yourself First
It’s not selfish to think about your own needs after a betrayal like a partner cheating. Infidelity is a unique betrayal, and it’s important to understand how an an emotional affair or sexual affair has impacted you – and how it may continue to – physiologically, psychologically and socially.
Research shows that betrayal trauma, or trauma perpetrated by someone close to you, is strongly associated with a range of negative health outcomes. In fact, one study of college students found that betrayal trauma had a bigger impact on mental and physical health than other forms of trauma.
In understanding how a partner’s infidelity may affect you, it is important to consider that there are often emotional, physical, sexual, social and spiritual implications inherent in betrayal trauma. Emotional symptoms of trauma can include shock, denial, anger or rage, sadness or hopelessness, guilt, shame, confusion, irritability, fear, inability to concentrate, avoidance and more.
From a physical perspective, someone who has been betrayed might expect to experience physical agitation and anxiety, shaking, sweating, panic attacks, digestive issues, overeating or undereating, insomnia, nightmares, racing heartbeat, aches and pains, fatigue, headaches or muscle tension.
Spiritually, betrayal and leave someone angry with God, disinterested or disenfranchised with prayer or religious meditation, feeling isolate from your spiritual community or leaders, or overwhelming feelings of abandonment or doubt.
Sexually, some betrayed spouses or partners feel a loss of libido, disgust at the thought of being sexual, shame regarding their sexual desires or prowess, or feel compelled to be sexual with their partner for various reasons.
When reviewing your symptoms, it’s also a good time to seek help from a therapist. While a couples’ therapist can walk through relationship issues with you and your unfaithful spouse or partner – if you want to do so – an individual therapist can help you address the trauma that comes from a betrayal like cheating.
Surviving Infidelity: Understand Why People Cheat
Once you’ve taken the time to focus on yourself and your needs after a betrayal, an important step of surviving infidelity is to take stock of the relationship and to examine why people cheat in the first place. It can be tempting to simply turn your back and walk away, but even if you do leave the relationship or divorce after infidelity, you can learn important lessons by examining what went wrong.
Digging into the reasons why people cheat doesn’t excuse the infidelity, but it can give you closure or insight to take with you as you work to mend the relationship or move on.
Reasons Why People Cheat
Anger and revenge are common reasons for cheating. One partner feels slighted or ignored and acts out their anger by engaging more with a coworker or having one or more sexual dalliances. This gives the cheating wife or cheating husband a feeling of having re-established a sense of equilibrium in the relationship, after feeling less than or put down.
People who cheat are often looking to gain a sense of control when they feel disempowered, helpless, or wavering in their relationship. By acting out their anger with sexual thoughts or behavior, the cheating spouse is essentially acting out a desire for revenge, dispelling their own felt or unconscious shame and humiliation onto an unsuspecting partner, like a game of emotional hot potato.
Not surprisingly, low self-esteem is a common part of why people cheat. When one partner feels invisible to their partner, or down on themselves, the allure of attention from another can be a big chemical boost to the brain.
With the advent of social media and apps, it has become easier and easier to get a quick hit of attention from others, or the fantasy of what life might look like if you were with another person. That can quickly snowball into blurred boundaries for the partner who feels invisible and is ill-equipped to find a way back into their partner’s main view.
3. Fear of Scarcity
A fear of scarcity can also be a factor in why people cheat. If sex or attention is infrequent or nonexistent in a relationship, this can kick a partner into a fear-based survival mode, yearning for physical touch and connection.
To be clear, this does not excuse infidelity, but the desire for connection is prevalent in all humans. People are hardwired for connection and when their sense of connection with a primary partner is compromised (however real or imagined), some people can swing into a fierce mode of self-protection.
This can include securing intimacy outside of their relationship in case the primary relationship does not pan out. This primitive survival strategy can trick even the most sophisticated of brains into a momentary lapse in judgment, leading a partner astray.
In her book, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” Esther Perel remarked that why people cheat can frequently be tied directly to boredom. A reaction to the boredom of everyday life, she argues that infidelity can often be in service of a quest to find oneself. Life without an investment in keeping things new and exciting together can become just another dreary day in paradise. Wanderlust is to be expected in some form or another throughout the lifespan and can be healthy, and even help a relationship, when it does not lead to infidelity.
The missing piece that prevents wanderlust from becoming infidelity is healthy communication. Often fueled by shame, anger or fear, boredom that transitions into cheating is typically coupled with inadequate communication in a relationship. Boredom is to be expected, but communication and co-created growth brings couples together, not down a path of infidelity.
5. Forbidden Fruit
The taboo or a draw to the forbidden can also be part of why people cheat. For some people, arousal is tricky to come by unless there is an element of breaking the rules. When something is forbidden, like a partner outside your relationship, the allure can present a boost of arousal that aligns with a sense of power and the satisfaction of having gotten away with something. In other words, secrets can be sexy.
Surviving Infidelity: How to Solve for Why People Cheat
Reduced to the most common denominator, all the reasons for cheating boil down to one simple construct: unmet needs. If you want to put a stop to or prevent infidelity, marriage and other relationships must be built on a strong foundation of communication.
It’s not enough to simply know the signs of cheating or understand why people cheat. Getting in touch with one’s needs and learning how to assert them in your relationships is imperative. And don’t forget that your needs – and the needs of your partner – are constantly evolving and need revisiting.
It’s easy to get lost in today’s fast-paced culture and fail to make time for this kind of introspection and communication. But you have to take ownership of your needs and be able to communicate them clearly with their partner.
When couples build and reinforce this commitment to voicing their needs and discussing how to navigate competing needs (because every relationship will come with competing needs) they are building in the necessary protective factors against infidelity and a stronger foundation for long-term relational happiness. This level of communication is also key to surviving infidelity.
Whether you decide to stay in the relationship or move on after cheating, understanding how to take ownership of your needs and share them with those around you will serve you well as you work to heal from the trauma of betrayal.
Carnes, S., Lee, M., & Rodriguez, A. (2012). Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts. Wickenburg, AZ: The Gentle Path.
Goldsmith, R., Freyd, J., & DrPrince, A. (2011). Betrayal Trauma: Associations With Psychological and Physical Symptoms in Young Adults. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(3): 547-567.
Perel, E. (2018). The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. NY: Harper Collins.