The Psychology Of Being Cheated On
The Debrief: Why do you want to know about every detail when you've been cheated on? And how do you get over it?
When I was cheated on, I found myself bursting into jagged tears in the weirdest places. I’d be tearing up when I caught my beetroot reflection on the gym’s ab cruncher, or gasping for a glass-fragile breath as some poor beauty therapist tentatively rolled wax over my post-break-up hellbrows.
I’d be sobbing into an armful of avocados in the corner shop, as I realised I could buy more than I usually did, because he hated avos and I had to limit them with our shared shopping budget. Before what happened, anyway. Now I could buy as many as I want. Sweet. Yeah.
Avocados were not a satisfactory exchange.
And far too many of us know that sour tummy feeling and a mouth that tastes like iron filings when the truth comes out. Because of my damn luck – or ability to pick ’em – I have my fair share of horrific cheating stories.
You can check out one of them here, because in the same way I have the ability to pick horrible partners, I also have the gift of being able to benefit from really shit situations, like cheating, with journalistic integrity and the sassy af attitude of a woman scorned.
The emotional stages
We all have our own stories, with varied but equally dreadful set-ups and outcomes. What’s interesting is that despite our differing experiences of unfaithfulness, the reactions tend to follow similar patterns. I can totally relate to Sarah, 23, who told me she constantly felt on edge for months after the incident.
She says, ‘I would wake up at random times during the night with the thought of what happened at the front of my mind. I’d lie there and sweat and play out scenarios in my head. I was always teary and the smallest thing could set me off.’
For me, it felt like a cycle, or a seven stages kind of thing. Some of us experience fiery-pits-of-hell anger, then pure sorrow and self-loathing, to levels of aloofness only a pouty M&S mannequin could maintain. Dr Anna Janssen, a clinical psychologist, explains why we feel the way we do after the discovery of being cheated on.
She says: ‘When anything difficult happens, whether it’s the loss of a life, a negative life event or the loss of an important relationship, we have a way of reacting to that. Individuals will have their own personal stages from which they deal with what’s happened.
‘Those stages, how long they last and what they do to get through them is affected by a variety of factors as to how the person copes generally. Weaknesses or vulnerability spots will affect how that person makes sense of an incident. It will be a real reflection of that person and their life experience to date and their ways of coping.’
So your personality is going to come into play. If you’re pretty in touch with your anger setting, expect to see it kicked up a notch. If you’re naturally self-deprecating, you may be more inclined to find ways to blame yourself for what happened. Insecurities that whisper become weaknesses that shout.
Dr Janssen explains that the raw emotions you feel are part of the ‘default settings’ you revert to when you’re faced with a shocking situation. Kim, 24, says her amplified emotion post-discovery was rage.
She says: ‘I got myself into such a rage I burst a blood vessel in my eye. I’d fall into despair, crying, hating myself. Then I’d jump out again, guns blazing and so angry. I felt like I could deal with being cheated on if I could channel it into an intense emotion I didn’t have to think too much about.’
So the reason behind throwing his Bob Dylan vinyls out the second floor flat window and draining all his bottles of Calvin Klein Obsession into the kitchen sink is that exacting wrath – it’s my sort of safe space.
The physical reaction
Dr Janssen also says that the need for stability affects our body as well as our mind. She says that trying to make sense of a terrible incident, like cheating, can wreak havoc on our physical health.
She explains: ‘Common physical examples can be struggling to sleep, a tense body and the loss of our appetites. In addition to those thoughts, emotions and physical reactions, we also have an array of behaviours that link to how we feel. To some people, the behaviour may be eating more because sometimes that behaviour is comforting. For others, it’s eating less and having that control.’
We do things that help us stave off that vulnerable feeling. So if someone is more predisposed to drinking alcohol, they’ll find that they drink more than usual. We source anything that feels comforting because when we feel vulnerable, it’s hard to be resilient.
Kim says that her loss of appetite was a massive symptom post-cheating. ‘I went through really hazy days in the aftermath where I couldn’t stomach anything. Friends came round with ice-cream or pizza to cheer me up. I couldn’t do it. My whole life had been turned upside down and I didn’t feel like I could function normally when everything was so fucked up,’ she says.
In the aftermath of my own incident, I found myself gorging on the details. I needed – very intensely – to know everything. What she was wearing? What music was playing? Whose tongue was where?
It’s something that Sarah and Kim did, too; torturing ourselves with sordid details that hurt us even more. Every time I found out a new detail, it was like a little pinprick. I became a bloody pin cushion.
Dr Janssen calls this ‘intellectualising’. We find comfort among facts, rather than facing murkier emotions. ‘We feel much safer making sense of facts and use it as a coping method. Focusing on how we feel is painful, and intellectualising the incident distances it from how we’re inclined to feel.’
She adds: ‘We can feel armed with knowledge of the future. You want to know why so you can stop it happening again, so this can be a protective mechanism.’
At some point though, when we’re ready, we make sense of what happened and move on. Dr Janssen recommends knowing the triggers and warning signs that make you feel angry, upset or self-loathing.
‘It’s all about being brave and being honest with yourself, which can be difficult. Find new ways to appreciate things you did before and feel your way. Knowing who your support network is also important if you feel you need to talk.’
Know what it is that keeps you going despite what’s been lost, and use whatever supportive means you have close to you to push yourself away from the most poisonous of feelings.
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