Typically, infidelity is a deal-breaker for most couples. But for whatever reason, some decide the relationship is worth saving. For that to happen, the damaged party has to figure out how to move on from being cheated on.
One couple had been married for 10 years when the wife learned of the affair. It wasn’t a one-night stand—there was a definite emotional connection. The husband apologized, but the effects of being cheated on lasted until the couple, seeking closure, sought professional help.
“Couples infidelity is some of the most challenging work I do. But the short answer is yes. There is healing. There is a path forward,” said Kathie Fitzgerald, the therapist who counseled the 10-years-married couple.
“It’s different for every couple, but there are some common threads. The person who was cheated on can’t heal until the partner understands just how much that person hurt them. But unless the person who was cheated on can forgive their partner, it becomes a life sentence.”
The short- and long-term effects of being cheated on
The obvious effects of being cheated on include eroded trust and preoccupation with the affair itself. But infidelity also causes physical and emotional changes—for both partners.
“The person doing the cheating will generally have enormous regret and they’ll have to heal from that,” Fitzgerald said. “The person cheated on will develop serious trust issues. And they’re both likely to have anxiety.”
Anxiety resulting from the erosion of trust is more than feeling tense or irritable, Fitzgerald noted, and traumatic experiences such as infidelity increase the risk that the condition will develop. Until both partners can recover from the affair and rebuild trust, the symptoms of anxiety will continue, possibly affecting other interpersonal relationships that had nothing to do with the affair.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Difficulty sleeping: Acute insomnia is a common effect of infidelity, according to Fitzgerald. And the Mayo Clinic reports that short-term sleeping problems are “usually the result of stress or a traumatic event.”
- Paranoia or constant suspicion: “Constant suspicion happens a lot, with the person being cheated on feeling like they don’t have the whole story or are missing something,” Fitzgerald said. “To really help, we have to go back to a place of complete transparency. If one partner wants to see the other’s phone, you’ve got to let them do it.”
- Difficulty concentrating or obsessive worrying: “There will typically be a lot of angst about the partner’s movements and behaviors,” Fitzgerald said. “Any hint of dishonesty is a setback, because it hints at the affair.”
- Physical effects such as changes in appetite, feeling weak or tired, stomach upset, and increased heart rate. Infidelity-induced anxiety can cause several physical side effects, according to Fitzgerald and the Mayo Clinic.
How being cheated on affects future relationships
Infidelity has a strong effect on future relationships, whether the couple works through it and stays together or not, according to Fitzgerald. And the biggest effect of being cheated on is lack of trust, which manifests itself through anxiety, and influences how the partners feel about everyone they know.
“People being cheated on continue to exhibit anxiety issues until trust has been built up, regardless of the relationship,” Fitzgerald said. “People in this situation need to go through the process of building trust with every relationship, not just their partner.”
Andrea Bonior, writing in Psychology Today, agreed. According to Bonior, the actions required to build trust are the same, whether the partners are engaging with brand-new people or repairing ties with each other or older relationships.
Long story short, being cheated on doesn’t have to mean a life sentence of never trusting anyone—or never being trusted again. Ways partners can try to rebuild trust include:
- Keeping your word: “Our instincts for self-protection, honed evolutionarily for survival over thousands of years, typically will take note of the proverbial boy crying wolf,” Bonior wrote. “And we will adjust our behavior and expectations accordingly.”
- Showing respect: It often seems that people treat loved ones with less respect than those they don’t know. “We forget that respect is even more important with our loved ones because of the damage the lack of it can do over time,” Bonior wrote.
- Practicing the languages of love: These include using words of affirmation, spending quality time together, performing acts of service, engaging in physical touch, and giving (and receiving) gifts. “This can be an effective starting point in counseling for couples to heal from infidelity,” Fitzgerald said.
How to get over getting cheated on
That depends on the couple, according to Fitzgerald, and on each partner’s willingness to acknowledge, change, forgive and heal. Therapy can aid these changes if both partners are willing to fight for the relationship for the right reasons.
“First, we work on the cheater so they understand how much they hurt the other person,” Fitzgerald said. “It can take many months. But once the cheater can look at their choice and have complete remorse, then the healing starts.”
But recovering from infidelity isn’t all about getting the person who cheated to own their behavior.
“The next thing we do is work on the cheated-on so they can get to a place of forgiveness. Otherwise, they give their partner a life sentence,” Fitzgerald said. “Ultimately, it’s about going back to courtesies and building trust over time.”
Common setbacks couples experience, according to Fitzgerald, include:
- Continued contact from the affair that’s hidden from the partner: Even if the contact is innocuous, a failure to report communication reinforces the cheated-on partner’s belief that the cheater cannot be trusted.
- Failure to practice complete transparency: “Even small things, like being on time or being where you said you were going to be, when you said you were going to be there, are critical to rebuilding trust,” Fitzgerald said.
- Making excuses: If the partners refuse to be accountable for their actions, then rebuilding trust is impossible, according to Fitzgerald.
- Refusing to forgive, even after the cheater has expressed complete remorse: “Giving your partner a life sentence isn’t fair and shows underlying anger,” Fitzgerald said.
On some occasions, Fitzgerald finds that couples who enter therapy following infidelity don’t look deep enough into their shared history or behaviors.
“Sometimes couples think they’re going to heal, but they’re fighting for the wrong reasons. And when the dust settles, they wind up splitting anyway,” Fitzgerald said.
“For example, the husband cheats on the wife. The wife goes into this mood of fighting for the ‘win’ and not the marriage. But it’s still a life sentence for the husband, and it unravels from there,” Fitzgerald added.
“So once the immediateness of the crisis passes, they’re still stuck in this place of underlying anger and inability to forgive. And that happens because of this combination of failure to practice complete transparency and a lack of forgiveness.”
All the broken hearts in the world still beat
“As a therapist, I look at it as a starting point for a new marriage. That seems to work for most,” said Fitzgerald, who also noted that many times the marriage was “pretty fractured” to begin with.
The couple she treated who had been married for 10 years and suffered infidelity found a happy ending, she said, largely by following the rules of the five love languages.
“We went back to the moment when it happened. It’s almost like getting them to date again, bringing them back to discovering what they like about each other,” Fitzgerald said. “This couple started working on that and were able to have a real reconnection. They’re two years post-affair and are out of the danger zone.”