Breakups are never easy — especially when cheating is involved. We share some tips for combatting thought-cycles of blame that will enable you to grieve the relationship and move 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, confirming their long-held suspicions.
Whatever the circumstances, infidelity is massive 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 infidelity rates as one of the most heart-breaking and disorientating events a person can experience, it can be an opportunity for self-growth, and a chance 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%, but this would be higher if emotional and sexual relationships without intercourse are included. Ideally, in monogamous relationships, partners make every effort to deal with desire and longing within the relationship. If they still can’t get what they need, then it’s time to reflect and move on before having an affair.
While there are never any good excuses to justify infidelity, as humans we don’t always follow sensible pathways, or do what seems best for ourselves and those who depend on us.
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 to assign blame.
The most common reason women give for infidelity is emotional satisfaction, while men cite sexual satisfaction. Other common risk factors for cheating include:
- Low commitment to the relationship
- Low relationship satisfaction
- Emotional disconnection
- Not feeling appreciated
- Differences in sexual expression
Research indicates that in a significant number of cases, the ‘cheater’ admits that there was no real problem with the primary relationship — they were just looking for a different experience.
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 Esther, while affairs are an act of betrayal, they can also be an expression of longing, loneliness, and loss.
To myth-bust those blaming themselves, some research suggests that people who are unfaithful in one relationship are three times more likely to be unfaithful in their next relationship. So, complex analysis aside, some people may just be inclined to be unfaithful.
When we blame them
The stories we develop of what happens to us can be crucial to our recovery. After the discovery of an affair, you might dwell on everything you gave up for the relationship, and how much you looked after our partner. The impulse might be to seek revenge, punish, lash out or, alternatively, fall into self-pity.
Berating and blaming our partner to family and friends might feel satisfying at the start. But at some point, it will no longer be constructive, especially if family and friends start telling us they never liked them.
As time moves on, the narrative must shift from being the ‘badly treated victim’ to being ‘the better person’ and be used an opportunity for future growth. Yes, you were betrayed and 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.
When we blame ourselves
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 led to problems earlier in the relationship. Dealing with issues of self-esteem is essential for future healthy relationships.
If you believe you were cheated on because you are not worth loving, not good enough, or supposedly not attractive enough, then you might be drawn to neglect yourself. Beware of 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, knowing you will cope and don’t have to be afraid of your negative feelings. Let them 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, tormenting ourselves with overthinking won’t help. We may never make sense of what happened.
Find strategies to break obsessive, pointless and painful loops, whether that’s through meditation, speaking with a counsellor or doing something you enjoy. 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. It’s best not to obsessively follow them on social media and ask friends to not tell you about them for now.
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 commitment to change and apology, going on as before is very risky — however tempting it may be.
Fear of separation could lead you to accept less than you deserve. Professional help from an experienced couples counsellor can help you sort out all these different elements and make a decision that’s in your best interests.