When you discover that you have been cheated on, your mind immediately begins spinning with questions – “How could they do this?” “Why is this happening to me?” “Am I ever going to be okay again?”
Those questions are completely understandable. After all, the person who trusted the most has betrayed you, ripping the well-loved rug of your life from beneath your un-cushioned feet. You’re lost. Confused. Sad and angry. And probably more than a little frightened.
Nothing makes sense as normalacy has been bathed in pain, the betrayal permeating every fiber of your being. The answers that you once seemed so sure of have been replaced with questions. The certainties shoved aside for the great unknowns.
While you’re in this maelstrom fueled by the realization that you have been cheated on, ask yourself the following questions to find some clarity and to begin to regain your footing.
Am I still breathing?
Since you’re able to read, I am going to go ahead and assume that the answer is, “Yes.”
Now, are you breathing deeply? I wager not. Right now, I want you to take a deep breath, all the way down to the bottom recesses of your lungs. Pull it in and sigh it out of your open mouth. Try it again. Maybe even a third time. Do you feel just a little bit of that panicked tightness release?
The discovery of betrayal may not place us in physical danger, but it definitely qualifies as a threat to your life. As a result, your body responds by sending out fight or flight signals. And one of the first things to suffer is the breath.
It becomes a vicious cycle – stress tells your body to breathe shallowly and rapidly and shallow breathing tells your body that it is stressed. Since you can’t undo the stress caused by the infidelity, work instead to interrupt the cycle by controlling the breath. Several times a day, ask yourself the question, “Am I breathing?” And then make the answer, “Yes!”
Is there a person or place that helps me feel a sense of safety or security right now?
After I learned of my husband’s double life, I purchased a super-soft and fuzzy throw. I found my safe space within its comforting folds. Whenever the world began to feel overwhelming, I wrapped myself inside of it, a cocooning caterpillar dreaming of better days.
Do you have something similar in your life right now? A place, a person or even a silly object that makes you feel grounded and helps you believe that maybe the entire world hasn’t gone all topsy-turvy? When we’re spinning out of control, it helps to have something to hold onto.
What has been taken from me?
This question may seem easy to answer at first. In fact, I bet the answers will practically burst from your mouth. Release them. Let them go.
And then explore what’s underneath that initial purge. Those losses are often much more subtle, more nuanced than the major ones we see at first. Yet they are still important. Being cheated on is a death, a theft and a swindle all in one. There’s quite a bit there to uncover.
And underlying all of it is that it occurred without your consent or complicity. Of all that was taken from you, perhaps you discover that your agency was the biggest loss.
What do I wish my spouse could understand?
Because they don’t understand, do they? If they did, they wouldn’t have been been able to do what they did.
Unfortunately, even as science has allowed us to peer into the brain to begin to understand its inner workings, we have yet to develop a way to transfer our feelings to another. So we have to resort to words and gestures.
So, what do you wish they knew? What feelings are you experiencing that you want them to comprehend?
If you’re talking with your partner, you can share these. If you’re not, it can still be helpful to release them in writing, even if left unsent. Whichever route you take, be aware of the limitations of your words. You can share them, yet you cannot control how they are received. Speak and then be willing to listen, even if the only response you get is your own thoughts about the words released on paper.
Why do I think my spouse might have made this choice?
The initial reaction to a discovery of cheating is often – and rightfully – anger. The cheater is painted as a villain. One-dimensional, completely selfish and manipulative.
And I’m not denying that those traits are often present. Yet that’s rarely the entire picture. After all, if that’s who they are, why did you marry them in the first place.
Take a step back. And another. Try to look at the bigger picture, not as a betrayed spouse, but as a detective. What factors, either environmental or behavioral, might have contributed to them making this horrific decision?
These contributing factors are not an excuse for the behavior – that was a choice. However, understanding what may have led up to this can help you release some of the anger. Not for the cheater’s benefit, but for yours.
What if it’s not about me?
I know I initially saw my husband’s actions as a direct assault on me. He was the arrow and I was the target brutally pierced by his betrayals. And then I asked myself this very question.
And the answer that came to me was powerful indeed. I realized that his myriad deceptions and despicable choices were all about him – his pain, his cowardice, his inability to deal with his issues. I just happened to be in the way.
Am I allowing my partner’s words or actions to define me?
Betrayal rarely comes without some sort of gaslighting or emotional abuse. Are you permitting your cheating partner’s words to or about you to take up residence in your mind? Are you taking the blame for their actions? Or, are you letting them convince you that you are not enough?
Now that this has happened, what could my partner do to make it better?
This is a telling answer. If you respond with, “Nothing,” then it’s a sign that it’s time to move on. If your partner is forthcoming, remorseful and working towards change, you may a different answer.
Either way, there are limits to what your spouse can do. They cannot wipe your memory clean. Nor can they instantly restore trust and security. They can help you bandage the wound, but ultimately healing is up to you.
What insight does learning that I’ve been cheated on give me into myself?
I know. This is a big ask.
I’ll share my own insight to help give you some ideas.
My own parents divorced when I was a child and my dad moved across the country. He never actually abandoned me – there was an open line of communication and the child support was always on time. Yet, once my husband left, I realized that I harbored a fear of abandonment that traced back to my parent’s divorce.
That fear made me shy away from confrontation with my husband. It allowed him to easily manipulate me into believing what I wanted to be true. I certainly didn’t cause my husband’s cheating, but I didn’t allow myself to see it coming either.
Since the betrayal, I’ve found my confidence. My fearlessness. My fight. I’m no longer afraid of being abandoned because I know that I’m enough on my own.
So how about you? What have you learned about yourself now that you have been cheated on?
What do I want to do now? Do I have to make a decision immediately?
When you find out you’ve been cheated on, it’s common to want to make big sweeping changes. To run away from the entire situation and pretend that it was all a terrible dream.
Yet, as you’re probably aware, your thinking isn’t very clear right now. Your rational brain may feel like it has vacated the premises and has been replaced by some primal and instinctual beast.
Identify those actions that need to happen now and allow the others to wait until your brain is fully operational again.
Who do I have in my life that you can talk to without concern of judgment?
Betrayal is weird. The ones who do it often seem unscathed. And those that are its victims often carry the shame, enhanced by the judgment of others (“What did you do to make them cheat?” is the scathing undercurrent in many exchanges).
What areas of my life have been relatively untouched by the betrayal?
Betrayal – and divorce if that’s in your cards – have an impressive way of impacting seemingly every area of your life. Even those regions that are on the surface, completely unrelated.
But look deeper. Do you have anything in your life that is still unchanged? A hobby? An interest? An acquaintance at work that doesn’t know about your situation?
I bet you do.
Make note of these. They are a precious reminder that there is still life in you now and that there will be life again when this is all over.
What warning signs of cheating are only visible to me in hindsight?
Now that you’ve been cheated on, do you know what signs to look for?
I bet you do.
Some signs can be quite subtle, can’t they? And then there’s the part that nobody tells you about – the internal (and often subconscious) bargaining and flat-out denial about what you’re seeing.
I think that’s the biggest lesson from the clarity of hindsight. If cheating is happening, there will be no head in the sand again.
How does this impact how I view relationships?
Once you’ve been cheated on, you lose some of your innocence around relationships. Examine your feelings. Are you painting all men or women with the brush tainted by your cheating spouse? Or, are you swearing off relationships altogether?
Being cheated on will change you. Make sure you remain aware of those alterations and that you steer them in healthy directions over time.
Because that’s the biggest question to ask yourself –