The moment you realize what’s been going on is when the tunnel vision starts.
Maybe you’re blindsided. Maybe you’ve been suspecting for a while—it doesn’t matter which.
Now, you know the truth.
Your ears start ringing. You can’t catch your breath. Your brain is flooded with questions that are only half-formed because as soon as you start to realize what you’re asking, the grief and panic set in.
As if you’ve suffered a concussion, you can barely see what’s around you. You’re moving through the room like you’re in a slow-motion nightmare. You can’t get out of there fast enough, and then you realize you haven’t actually taken a single step—and you’ve been speaking. You’ve started a discussion about your discovery with the person who’s betrayed you before you even know which way is up. Nothing they say makes sense.
Over the next few days and weeks, you go through all of it. Bargaining, grief, rage—so much rage. You think you can get past this, you can save the relationship. They were “the one.” Then there’s fear—unending fear—about what’s going to happen when it’s over. Then you’re angry again at them, at the situation, and about how your life has imploded. You don’t know how you’re supposed to feel, act. You do and say all the wrong things.
You’re sleeping alone and it’s strange—and are you even sleeping? Because it feels like you haven’t in years. You don’t reach out to people for help because you feel so ashamed. You wonder if your heart can physically break, like a widow suffering from broken heart syndrome, even when nobody has died. Maybe it’s you who has died.
So, okay, that’s pretty dramatic.
I mean, you hear about people cheating in their relationships all the time. It’s in 50 percent of the television dramas I watch these days. Shrug, right? It happens.
But for some of us—this event is pure, molten trauma.
For some of us, it rips our lives to shreds, particularly if we’ve already built a life together with the person who has cheated. It’s not just about the heartbreak, though that’s a large part of it. I consider that to be just the starting point.
Your whole world, your life as you know it, is shaken up soon after. You don’t trust anything or anyone anymore. As the wheels of a breakup are set in motion, more awful things happen. You become more awful. They become more awful. Your children are also going through trauma and upheaval. Your finances will never be the same; belongings that you once had double of are now separated and you don’t have a bed or a couch or a kitchen table. You have to find a new home. The pets need to be figured out, which can lead to even more heartbreak and trauma. You start to attend events alone, if you can even gather the courage to go in the first place—people ask questions.
It’s a lot.
It’s too much.
So as dramatic as that description may seem, it’s the reality that many people go through. Some would even consider it to be a valid cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Here are just three results of this kind of trauma that must be healed:
It’s hard to un-know the feeling of being blindsided. Now, you realize anything is possible, that the worst is always possible. You stop yourself from entering into any kind of serious relationship because the question forever hovers over you: what’s stopping them from cheating, too?
You stop trusting people at all—particularly in romantic settings, but this trickles into many other types of relationships, too. If the person who you thought loved you most could lie so blatantly to your face, is anyone good in this world? Are all people terrible?
It will take years for you to regain your trust in people. But even then, it will never be the same. You’ve learned a hard lesson that life can change in an instant, and having control is an illusion. You understand that yes, no matter how carefully you choose your next partner, it can happen again. There’s a lot of hard inner work that must be done to stop fearing this fact so intensely so you can move on with life.
There’s an article at Elephant Journal titled “The Most Important thing to Remember when we’ve been Cheated On,” and the last line is one that anyone who’s been cheated on needs to use as a mantra for every time the shame hits.
And there is a lot of shame. Many people feel as though they are the reason why someone made the choice to sneak, lie, and gaslight. Everything they might have done or said imperfectly, every minor mistake they made, becomes highlighted and amplified in their own minds. They start to think they deserved for it to happen. That they are the reason it happened. They begin to believe they’re a horrible person, and no wonder their partner sought solace and comfort in an affair.
No! Get that out of your head.
There is never a justifiable reason for infidelity, and you are not at fault. If someone is unhappy, they can and should end the relationship, but never like that.
“Though commonplace, infidelity is one of the most damaging transgressions in relationships, with the noninvolved partner (i.e., the partner who was cheated on) experiencing heightened mental health symptoms, including posttraumatic stress symptoms, depression, and anxiety (Bird, Butler, & Fife, 2007; Gordon & Baucom, 1999).” ~ Coping with infidelity, The moderating role of self-esteem
The shock of what has happened (and is about to happen) to your life hits hard—and it hits your mental health harder.
You enter into what feels like a permanent fight-or-flight mode and you’re on constant high alert. Physically, your body is reacting to the stress. You may eat more, or not at all. You might turn to other substances for comfort, for relief. You can’t concentrate at work. You suffer from obsessive, unwanted thoughts. You start dealing with intense gastrointestinal issues. You’re triggered by anything that reminds you of your ex-partner and what happened.
This will have profound impacts on your everyday life. Yet, many people who go through this kind of trauma make the mistake of thinking they need to hide, to act like nothing has happened, and they don’t seek mental health help.
If you’re going through something like this, don’t wait. Find any resource you can to help you through it, whether that’s therapy, online forums, or family support. There’s no doubt you’re going to suffer, but trying to do it all alone only prolongs it and in fact makes it worse.
In the very end, I hope all those who have gone through this in their relationships come to the conclusion that the person who inflicted this pain did so because of their own underlying issues—and it’s not your fault.
We may never know the full, truthful “why” behind their actions, no matter how much we try to understand it. How could they have lied like that, broken our hearts? Who are they, really? Did they change overnight to be the kind of person who would do this? Even if they offer an explanation, it might not feel like it’s enough, or that it makes sense. So, it’s up to us to move on without those answers, because we’ll probably never get them.
The bottom line is that regardless of the reasons why a relationship must end, it doesn’t have to end like that. I repeat: there is never any good justification for causing this kind of trauma to someone.
Healing the trauma of infidelity and moving on requires a delicate balance of forgiving the person for causing it, recognizing that we didn’t deserve it no matter what happened in the relationship, and remembering that we can still be whole in spite of it.