Why Does The Trauma Of Being Cheated On Linger Even Once You’ve Moved On?
The Debrief: ‘I’ve settled into a happy routine but that dormant sickness has begun scratching at the corners of my consciousness again’
Illustration by Rachel Tunstall
It was a Monday morning like any other. My alarm went off, I rolled over in bed and grabbed my phone, ready to scroll through the headlines as I always do first thing. This time, though, I was greeted with an unusual barrage of Facebook messages. As I clicked through in my freshly-awoken fog, my blood ran cold; on the screen not six inches away from my squinting, puffy eyes were pictures of my boyfriend. Or, more specifically, my boyfriend with his dick in his hand. And they weren’t just pictures either – they were screenshots, sent to me by the girl who received them from him only days beforehand. ‘I thought you should know’, read the accompanying message.
So that’s how I found out that my boyfriend of nearly 18 months had been cheating on me. My boyfriend, the guy I had known for eight years before we got together and the guy who had supported me through life’s ups and downs. My boyfriend, who had sworn time and again he’d never treat me as poorly as my previous ex. My boyfriend, who moved heaven and earth for us to be together despite a period of seeing each other long-distance. My boyfriend, who talked about marriage as if it was an inevitability.
He was on holiday when it happened. I hadn’t been able to get hold of him for a few days, which was unusual, but when we reconnected he blamed tech issues. He told me he’d gone for a jolly to another city for the weekend and lost his phone charger. Sent me photos of the local landmarks. Photos that, it turned out, he’d just pulled off the internet. But, at that point I had no reason to distrust him, so I didn’t. Back then, in the ‘before’, I handed out trust to friends and lovers like sweets at Halloween. Would the pain of it all be more bearable if I’d been more guarded and less trusting? That’s what I asked myself a hundred times a day in the weeks that followed.
Being cheated on is like being struck down with an unshakeable illness – it’s a sudden shock and nothing takes the pain away. No number of platitudes, apologies or promises can cure the sickening feelings of anger, worthlessness, grief and jealousy that rage inside you like a fever. No amount of alcohol, drugs or kissing strange men in grubby nightclubs at 3am on a Wednesday morning can take the edge off the unrelenting ache. It’s a curse, and the cruellest thing of all is that it lies dormant long after the initial symptoms have passed – you become a carrier.
Still, fast forward several months and I’m in a new relationship. I wasn’t looking for it. I’d made a vague deal with myself that we would take a meaningful amount of time out to heal. I was going to learn to love my own company and all the other shit you read on inspirational Tumblr posts. I’d been going to the gym, seeing friends and exploring new hobbies; all the stuff the self-help guides tell you to do. But, still, I wanted romantic attention. Sue me, who doesn’t?
Tinder gave me a much-needed ego boost. That’s where I met Him. Our first date lasted 12 hours. On the second I met his friends. Less than a month later we were Facebook official, and if Facebook says so it must be true, right? It all happened so fast but it felt right and I didn’t question it. After it all, this new thing felt like a soothing balm on my frazzled soul and in the beginning stages of love you feel invincible.
But now we’ve settled into a happy routine and that dormant sickness has begun scratching at the corners of my consciousness again. He’s loving and attentive and kind and gives me no reason to distrust him – but therein lies the problem. I had no reason to distrust my ex, either, and look what happened. The ‘what ifs?’ are sometimes deafening.
I feel under pressure to always be my ‘best me’ – not from my boyfriend, from myself – because there’s a little voice in my head telling me that he could easily go elsewhere, to someone who doesn’t have blue days, or who keeps their hair squeaky clean all the time, or doesn’t eat an entire packet of biscuits in one sitting, or any of the imagined rubbish that comes to me in moments of paranoia, like when his phone buzzes and he doesn’t look at it (reality: it’s just a news alert), or he takes his time getting drinks from the bar (reality: it’s just busy).
I talk to him about this. He knows what happened. He understands the impact it’s had on me. He gets the impact it has on us. He’s patient, understanding and makes my feelings valid, but there’s nothing he can do to change the past and sometimes I almost feel angry at him simply for having the potential to hurt me in such a devastating way. Being vulnerable is hard when you’ve felt its negative consequences.
Of course, everyone’s experience is different. One friend’s marriage ended in divorce after she found out about her husband’s year-long affair. She says it’s the best thing that ever happened to her, and that she’s happier than ever with her new partner. Another friend, whose ex-boyfriend had a one night stand on a stag do, tells me she can’t even listen to ‘songs about attractive women without feeling sick’ to her stomach. 'If [my new boyfriend] and I are on a night out and a sexy song comes on, I feel irrationally angry and I take it out on him,' she says. 'I can’t help but picture him with someone else, even though he’s not given me any reason not to trust him.'
There’s that word again: trust. According to Hilda Burke, integrative psychotherapist and couples counsellor, trust issues that stem from infidelity are often just as much about the trust we place in ourselves as that we do in our partners. 'You chose to be in a relationship with your partner and they hurt you,' she says. 'So it’s natural that you end up second-guessing all aspects of your life where you’ve made decisions, and, eventually, your decision to enter into a new relationship. You think, "will this decision end up hurting me as well?" You can’t know the future, so you end up seeking confirmation for those thoughts.'
Psychologists have worked with the concept of negativity bias for years. This refers to the idea that things of a negative nature, such as unpleasant thoughts and uncomfortable emotions, have a greater effect on someone’s mental state than neutral or positive things. 'Everything with your current partner could be absolutely perfect,' Hilda explains. 'But then something will remind you of your past experience, and negative emotions will outweigh the current positives. Then their phone might beep, or they’ll be late coming home from the pub, and this endorses the fears you can’t otherwise confirm.'
This resonates with me deeply. It’s not in my nature to embrace the unknown, and sometimes I wonder whether I’d actually be happier if he just went out and cheated on me. If he’d just confirm my fears and put an end to the low-frequency paranoia that constantly hums in the back of my mind.
I know. That’s messed up, right? It’s no way to live and I worry I’ll feel like this forever. I reassure myself that once, I couldn’t see how I could get from one day to the next, but the feeling passed. I remember how I felt unfathomably stupid and embarrassed around mutual friends when they found out what had happened, but the feeling passed. I remember rethinking my whole career, convinced it was as worthless as my ex had made me feel. But, the feeling passed. It all passed, eventually.
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