When you, a deeply committed spouse, find out about your partner’s sexual infidelity, it’s the emotional equivalent of being hit by a truck. You’re hurt, bruised, angry, and broken. And you tend to react accordingly, with bouts of fear, rage, tears, vindictiveness, pleading, placating, and all sorts of other highly emotional responses. Moreover, you may move from one reaction to another with no warning or provocation. Frankly, your response can look and feel a little crazy to you and your cheating mate.
To understand your reactions, it helps to first understand the true nature of infidelity. Put simply, the pain caused by infidelity has little to do with any actual sexual act. Instead, the pain centers on lying, manipulation, and keeping secrets. In other words, the deep pain you feel as a betrayed partner stems not from a particular sexual act, but from the psychological distancing and loss of relationship trust.
Think of it this way: Your best friend, emotional confidant, lover, financial partner, co-parent, and compatriot in life snuck around and had sex with someone else, and then lied and kept that behavior secret, completely undermining your entire relationship. Ouch.
In a general sense, how you react after learning about a partner’s infidelity depends on the following five factors:
1. What happened.
Surprisingly, this is the least important of the factors. In fact, you probably don’t really care if your partner’s cheating involved webcam masturbation, a strip club lap dance, or oral sex in a back alley. What matters is that your relationship vows were violated, and this violation was covered up and lied about. So no matter what sex acts occurred, you are likely, as a betrayed partner, to think or say, “How can I ever trust you again?”
2. The duration of the cheating.
Typically, a one-time sexual encounter is not as devastating as repeated infidelities or a long-term affair. This is because serial cheating and long-term affairs undercut everything that happened in your relationship while the infidelity was taking place. You may think or say, “All those times you said you loved me, you must have been lying.” Or, “That time we went to the winery and drank too much and made love in the car, were you really ‘with me’ or were you thinking about him (or her)?”
3. The identity of the infidelity partner.
Cheating with known individuals tends to be more hurtful than cheating with strangers. If your partner was sexual with someone you know, it will probably hurt more than if he or she was sexting with random people on hookup apps. If the outside partner happens to be someone you not only know but like and trust (like a friend or a sibling), the betrayal is doubled—each layer of connection increases your pain.
4. How the cheating is discovered.
- Walking in on your partner in flagrante delicto.
- Getting an anonymous call, text, or email—most likely from an affair partner who is hoping to wreck your relationship and steal your spouse.
- Hearing about the cheating from friends and neighbors who have clearly known about it for some time.
- Getting a call from the police because your significant other has been arrested in a prostitution sting.
- Being told by a doctor that you’ve got an STD, and knowing that you’ve only been sexual with your spouse.
5. Your history of relationship safety.
The degree and duration of your reactions to infidelity may be driven as much by your childhood trauma and past relationship history as by what is occurring in the present. Essentially, if you were abused, neglected, or otherwise traumatized in the past (by parents, siblings, teachers, or former lovers), your sense of relationship safety may be compromised, leading to what— on the surface—seems like one overreaction after another. (You may find yourself reacting to past traumas as well as your current situation.)
Regardless of the above factors, shock is an almost universal reaction to learning about infidelity. In part, this stems from the fact that while your partner has known about his or her behavior for a long time, you are just now finding out. And even if you had an inkling that infidelity might be occurring, you may be shocked to learn that your suspicions were true, and by the extent of the betrayal.
As a comparison, think about a lingering illness. For a few months you feel unwell. You’re tired, and there’s a pesky cough that just won’t seem to go away. Eventually, you go to the doctor, hoping for antibiotics that will clear things up. Instead, after careful examination, you are hit with the news that you have a life-threatening illness. Even if you suspected deep down that you might have a serious problem, you still feel blindsided when you learn about it.
That’s what it feels like when you find out about your partner’s infidelity. So is it any wonder that you would respond with fear, rage, and insecurity? It shouldn’t be, because infidelity is a violation of emotional intimacy and trust perpetrated by the one person you never thought would cause you pain.
In a future post, I will discuss the longer-term aftermath of relationship infidelity—the emotional roller coaster that betrayed partners typically experience, and how long this very rough ride tends to last.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction and a forthcoming volume about surviving relationship infidelity, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.