Infidelity

Sexual Infidelity: The Post-Discovery Longer-Term Aftermath

Riding the post-infidelity emotional rollercoaster.

Posted Nov 25, 2016

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

My last post discussed what typically happens immediately after you learn that your long-term, supposedly monogamous partner has cheated on you. In particular, I noted the emotional lability (hyper-reactivity) that cheated-on partners typically experience, plus a couple of things cheaters sometimes do to make things worse. This post focuses on the aftermath of the immediate discovery—what one can expect to experience over the ensuing weeks or months. 

After you discover infidelity, your emotions are out of control. Cheaters are typically OK with that—to some extent, they expect it. Unfortunately, your emotional reactivity will likely remain for many weeks, or even months, dissipating slowly (if it all), and only as relationship trust is re-established. So you and your cheating partner can expect a very bumpy ride for an extended period of time. In therapy, we sometimes refer to this as the emotional roller coaster.

For the betrayed partner, no matter how warm and generous you normally are, there is no such thing as immediate forgiveness when it comes to sexual infidelity. And you will never forget it. For you, there is now Before the Cheating and After the Cheating. The fact that your trust has been betrayed—not just through sex, but lies, manipulations, cover-ups, and secret-keeping—is not something you can easily move past. And the only way to heal you and your relationship is through the rebuilding of trust via a program of rigorous honesty and accountability maintained over time. (I'll discuss this process in future posts.) Until that occurs, you are likely to display one or more of the following perfectly normal symptoms of deep emotional betrayal:

  1. Detective work. Because betrayed spouses no longer trust the cheating partner, you may seek the truth by doing “detective work.” In your search for evidence of infidelity, you might check your partner’s phone bills, browser history, emails, texts, wallet, credit-card receipts and bills, phone apps, and more. You might hire an actual detective to help. You might surreptitiously install tracking software on the cheater’s phone and other digital devices. This hyper-vigilant behavior is likely to occur even if the cheater is now being open, honest, and trustworthy about his or her whereabouts and actions—because relationship trust has been decimated.
     
  2. Mood swings. Cheated-on mates can be sad and depressed one minute, filled with rage and anger the next, and then desperately affectionate, loving, and even sexual the next. Your moods might swing from one extreme to another with little or no warning. The most innocuous triggers might set you off. For instance, you and your mate could be happily watching a movie on TV and one of the performers might look similar to your cheating mate’s affair partner, and suddenly you're filled with tears and rage. Yet, five minutes later, you may be apologetic and embarrassed.
     
  3. Shame and loss of self-esteem. For many betrayed partners, self-esteem is tied (at least in part) to having a successful relationship and family life. In other words, you may have worked very hard on “us.” If so, your self-esteem will have taken a huge hit because of the cheater’s infidelity. You might suddenly feel unattractive and unlovable, even if that doesn’t reflect reality. In response, you might overcompensate by trying to lose weight, dressing differently, trying to be overly sexual with the cheater, etc., all the time thinking that if you can somehow “get it right,” then the cheater will stop fooling around.
     
  4. Global mistrust. By engaging in infidelity, cheaters violate their mate’s trust in them and their relationship. This trust must be re-earned, and that takes time and effort. As such, cheaters need to temporarily accept that you will question everything they do and say. If they arrive home five minutes late, turn off their computer too quickly, or play with their iPhone without telling you what they are doing, mistrust can be triggered. As a betrayed spouse, you will tend to doubt the cheater in every aspect of life—finances, child care, dinner reservations, etc. Essentially, your reasoning is that if the cheater lied about something as important as sex and relationship fidelity, then they are capable of lying about absolutely anything.
     
  5. Control, control, control. Because the relationship feels out of control and you no longer trust anything the cheater says or does, you might try to micromanage everything, from family finances to child care to household chores. In other words, cheaters might not have much say in the day-to-day rhythm and decision-making of their life and your relationship. Even worse, you might resent the cheater for “forcing you” into all of this extra work.
     
  6. Raging and attacking. Betrayed partners may at times behave like a feral cat backed into a corner—hissing, snarling, and lashing out with reckless abandon. You may verbally attack the cheater, calling him or her names and devaluing even the good things he or she does. You might also “lawyer up,” or tell your kids what the cheater has done. You may recklessly spend money as a way to punish the cheater, have an affair of your own as a way to get even, toss the cheater’s clothes onto the front lawn, or bash the cheater’s car with a nine iron.
     
  7. Obsessive questioning. At times, it seems as if betrayed spouses are obsessed with the cheating—as if there is no subject in the world that interests them morel. You may want to know what happened, where, with whom, how many times, and other minute details. Your obsession may cause you to experience sleeplessness, nightmares, and difficulty concentrating and focusing. No matter how much information the cheater gives, you will ask for more. When the cheater stops providing information, even if it’s because there is no more to give, you might accuse him or her of holding back.
     
  8. Avoidance. This is the opposite of obsessive questioning, but equally likely. Basically, cheated-on spouses may work to avoid thinking about and/or talking about the betrayal, possibly engaging in escapist behaviors and denial as a way to tolerate the pain and shame they feel. You may act like the cheating never happened. You might even avoid talking and interacting with the cheater altogether, except for the most superficial communication. Even more perplexing is that you might flip-flop between obsessive questioning and avoidance. One minute you want to know everything, the next you want to bury your head in the sand.
     
  9. Escapist behaviors, including addictive behavior. Betrayed partners may be so distressed by the cheating and the inherent breach of relationship trust that they need to temporarily escape their feelings. Drinking, drug use, binge eating, and compulsive spending, gambling, use of social media, exercise, sexuality, and the like are all common responses.

Needless to say, none of these perfectly natural responses are fun either for you or your cheating partner. In fact, the emotional roller coaster is very likely to anger you both, at least occasionally, no matter how understanding your cheating spouse is about the fact that he or she is the cause of this wild ride. When you and your partner become upset, you need to make a choice. You can react to the emotional lability and make things worse, or you can ride it out, understanding that these are normal reactions and a necessary, albeit unpleasant, part of the personal and relationship healing process.

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.