When you find out your spouse or intimate partner cheated on you, the shock can be cataclysmic.
A lot of the symptoms betrayed spouses go through sound a lot like the symptoms of depression, grieving, and PTSD.
You might feel sick to your stomach or actually throw up when you find that undeniable evidence your spouse is cheating.
People write about having to hold onto the wall to even remain standing.
As time goes on, people write about feeling like they’re inside a kaleidoscope.
Their entire history with the person they married flies and tumbles around them, and they don’t know what’s real anymore.
When did the person start lying? Was the whole relationship ever true? What parts do you believe?
One of the first questions you’re going to ask is, “Why?” It’s natural to want to know if there was something you could’ve done to prevent the infidelity.
Yet, take a step back and make sure that you’re asking that question for the right reasons.
The last thing you need to do in this vulnerable moment is compound your feelings of betrayal with unwarranted feelings of guilt.
It’s useful to ask, at this horrible time in your life, “What was going on in the relationship that this happened?”
But you don’t need to turn pejorative guilt on yourself, asking things like, “What was wrong with me that this happened?” or things like, “Why wasn’t I good enough?”
1.) A cheating partner has serious emotional problems that prevent them from experiencing empathy for how you’re going to feel about the cheating.
Examples include when a partner has strong features associated with narcissism, or when there’s drinking or drug use or other serious emotional problems. Personality disorder-level emotional problems.
2.) The cheating partner doesn’t have the skills or courage to persist in standing up for themselves and pushing to resolve tension in the relationship … or to leave when that’s absolutely necessary.
We really can’t ignore problems in the person’s early home life that led to this, such as having an emotionally or mentally unwell parent. We don’t stop to think that when people cheat, codependency could be part of the reason, but we should.
Many times, people who cheat have a long history of close relatives with mental health problems, up through their great-grandparents.
Some of these folks end up in depressive crises, as the late singer Naomi Judd told in her 2016 autobiography.
But many more people just end up with holes in their sense of who they are, in their self-worth, and in how they frame and think about problems in a marriage. (For a great discussion of this, check out the Running On Empty books by Jonice Webb, Ph.D.)
This creates codependency and attachment problems in the person when they grow up. They have no idea how to healthfully resolve issues, because they never saw parents do this growing up. Or they were taught to think of themselves as very unworthy as people.
3.) The last subset of cheaters is the caregiving cheater, where a spouse has a disease like Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember their spouse’s name, much less function as a marriage partner anymore.
The thing to notice here is that nowhere within these reasons is there a number four that says anything like, “You weren’t thin enough, pretty enough, sexy enough, or attentive enough.”
Basically, if you can put the word “enough” after it, it’s not the reason. Because, on this wide planet, somebody exists who would totally think you were “enough.”
It could be that you missed some cues in your relationship that something was wrong. There are those folks who tend to be dismissive of their spouse who asks for marriage counseling, or comes to them repeatedly with some concern.
In some cases, people even do this because they feel like their spouse has ignored their own concerns for years.
But that doesn’t make you a not-good-enough person who therefore deserved to be cheated on.
After all, your partner had other options besides cheating. They could have demanded marriage counseling or threatened to leave if you wouldn’t go, for instance, rather than cheat.
(Why didn’t they? See number two above!)
This doesn’t mean that nothing you did contributed to a negative situation in your marriage that your partner decided to handle by cheating.
Therapist Rick Reynolds has a much kinder way of putting this same idea. He writes, “Now, please don’t hear me say that you don’t need to consider the ways you fell short in your marriage.” He also writes about how important it is to “respond in love to the needs of your spouse.”
But, if you maybe see yourself in these words, it’s important not to overreact, casting yourself in the role of some horrible person.
Perhaps my therapist’s favorite book on affairs says it best:
“I don’t separate the two of you into victim and victimizer, betrayer and betrayed. Each of you must accept an appropriate amount of responsibility for what went wrong. Rather than assign blame, I encourage each of you to confront those parts of yourself that led to the affair, and to change in ways that rebuild trust and intimacy. That doesn’t mean I hold you equally accountable for the affair — no one can make another person stray. But I do ask you both to be accountable for whatever space you created that made room for another person to come between you.”— After the Affair, by Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D.
The trick is to be able to see your own part, and their part, in what happened without collapsing into what therapist Karyl McBride, Ph.D. calls “The Crash:” falling down a well where you feel as if you have no self-worth, just because you may have made a serious mistake.
The healthiest idea I can think of here is that you need to aim for the role of Goldilocks: You need a level of self-worth, when dealing with cheating, that is just right.
You don’t negate your spouse’s every concern about the marriage because they’ve cheated. When you’re over the worst of the shock, keeping an open mind and being willing to listen says a lot about you.
You can acknowledge you made a serious mistake, such as, “Oh, man. I’ve really stayed with a terrible narcissist, here,” or, “Gosh. I didn’t know how hurtful it was to turn my husband down for sex for that long. What else could I have done when I was angry or tired?”
But you still need a rock-bottom, basic level of self-worth, one that doesn’t think you are such a bad person that the level of shock and hurt you are experiencing now is your due, as if you’re globally unworthy. Little children react this way when a parent is abusive; they automatically assume they are a bad little child or that something is fundamentally wrong with them, or else Mom or Dad would have treated them lovingly.
But we are no longer little children, and our spouse is not our mother or our father, tasked with holding us up no matter what, because we are too little and helpless to do that ourselves. Our spouse is a person just like we are, with emotional holes from childhood just as we have, sidestepping pain and making mistakes the same way we do. We are adults, and we are equals.
Everyone has blind spots, and everyone makes mistakes — even serious life mistakes.
People don’t cheat because you did or were something globally unforgiveable, except in the case where your behavior as a spouse was truly abusive (and if it was, chances are you’re not reading this!) People cheat because they were running away from some problem in the relationship or in themselves, or running away from the thought of divorce, because it all looked too hard. And cheating looked easier than confronting it head-on.