Why Is Infidelity So Painful?

Cheating as a violation of ownership

Posted Jan 16, 2016

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Being cheated on by a romantic partner can be excruciatingly painful. How painful it is often depends on a number of factors:

1. Was it a one-time event? Or was it a repeat event?

2. Was it accidental cheating, for example, cheating that happened at the Christmas lunch after being blasted. Or was it intentional or premeditated cheating, the sort of cheating that a person enters into knowing fully how much pain it will cause the other person?

3. Did the cheating involve only sex or did it also involve doing romantic non-sexual activities with the other person.

There is no doubt many other factors that determine how painful infidelity is to the person who is being cheated on. But let me focus here on what I consider the worst form of cheating--when only considering the above factors.

The absolutely worst and most painful form of cheating is one that involves many meetings, is pre-meditated (intentional) and involves not only sex but also romantic non-sexual activities, such as going out to dinners, chatting the night away over a bottle of wine or watching shows on television. You get the idea.

The big question is why cheating often is so excruciatingly painful to the person who is being cheated on. Many say that it's because it is one of the worst forms of betrayal of trust. Others say that it's because your rights have been taken away from you, at least temporarily. If you are in a monogamous relationship, you have a right not to be cheated on (by the very definition of monogamy), and you have that right even if the relationship is not going well and even if you are taking a temporary "break" that isn't a full-blown breakup (I will write another post about that in the near future).

I think the betrayal of trust and the violation of rights are important contributors to the pain infidelity can cause. But I don't think it's the whole story. The pain is caused in part by the images you have of your beloved and the person he or she is committing the act of infidelity with: your imagining them having sex, going out to dinners, talking for hours on end.

But why are those images in your mind so painful? On my view, it is because you were deprived of something that you should have been taking part in (without the other person). You were replaced by another person at least temporarily. It's a violation of your right to enjoy those activities with your partner, a right others do not have. While you cannot own another person, when you are in a committed relationship you can have ownership rights to certain activities with your beloved, such as romantic dinners, dirty text messaging and sex. When those rights are violated, it can feel a bit like having your car or home vandalized. It's painful to have had a thief go through your personal belongings in your house, but it's even more painful to unwillingly having to share your man or girl with another person. 

There are other factors, too, of course that contribute to the pain of infidelity, factors I will deal with in future blog posts. Infidelity makes you feel that you are not good enough. Your self-esteem plummets from reasonably high, or just okay, to close to zero. Your beloved found someone else that was better and more attractive than you in his or her eyes—at least temporarily. You feel like trash, unworthy of being loved, unworthy of being. That feeling may be the greatest contributor to your misery—what hinders you from healing from the infidelity or even meeting new men or women. It's a dangerous feeling, and certainly not one you deserve to undergo after being treated by your one and only with disdain and disrespect.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love