Infidelity really sucks. Whether it’s NSFW pics, an emotional affair, or a physical situation, it obviously feels like a violation, says therapist Brianna Brunner, LCSW, owner of Couples Therapy Services. It’s probably no shocker, but the reason cheating hurts so much is because, “the person you confided in, trusted, shared intimate and personal experiences with has betrayed you,” she says. “It can even seem like your life was a lie,” making you question everything, she adds. After all, if the person who you love or rely on most can do you like this, why wouldn’t anyone else do the same? So, yeah, it’s very understandable if you’re overthinking after being cheated on and not sure how to stop.
The isolation, anger, and confusion stemming from infidelity can make it easy to get caught up in thought spirals about what happened and trigger mental imagery of what could have happened, says therapist Jessica Fernandez, LMFT. Which, ugh, nobody needs.
On top of that, it’s possible this specific type of betrayal can lead to depressive episodes or anxiety, impacting how you show up for yourself, for your job, and whatever or whomever you’re responsible for, Fernandez adds.
And—because emotions are super fun—just when you think you’re over it, certain situations or even seasons can trigger hard-to-swallow feelings like anger or hurt, says Brunner. For example, if the person who cheated was texting someone outside of your relationship for months, seeing your S.O.—or any future partners—on their phone could make you panic, she says. And if your ex cheated on you while you were on a trip, future vacations might feel way less enjoyable.
Listen, it’s easy to throw shade at cheaters for the emotional earthquake they’ve caused, but it’s worth mentioning here that they’re likely going through some stuff too. See: A need for more of an emotional connection, intimacy, or communication, Brunner says. Sure, cheating can also stem from a place of pure selfishness, but it’s not always that clear.
But back to you! Regardless of how things end—or continue—with your relationship, dealing with the aftermath of infidelity is an excellent opportunity to work on yourself. Forgetting your feelings at the club or crying snotty tears in a CVS bathroom are a start, but there’s a lot more you can do to feel better faster. If you’re still in the rage stage, try reframing your thoughts about the cheating as facts rather than a judgey narrative, says Brunner. From there, a little self-reflection can help you get your values straight and decide what works best for your love life and what you will and will not tolerate. Ask yourself what you want out of a relationship and what kind of partner you want to be, says Fernandez.
But there’s so much more that can help you stop overthinking after being cheated on. Here are the very specific things that enabled people to process their own “I got cheated on” stories and start feeling more like themselves again. "It's your responsibility to live your best life and to work on yourself regardless of the outcome," says Brunner.
1. I focused on myself.
“When I found out I'd been cheated on, I simultaneously broke down and shut down emotionally. It was something I'd been anticipating for a while. He was going off to college, and I had a feeling in my gut that, judging by the way he stopped making me feel secure in our relationship, it could happen. Two months into his first semester, we were broken up and he had moved on.
I unfollowed him on Instagram. I deleted him from my friend list on Facebook. I deleted his number from my phone. We were together for three years, and when you're 18 to 21, that's your entire world. It's all you know.
Because I was so dependent on him for my happiness, I hadn't thought too much about myself and my future. I was thinking about our future. Redirecting my focus and attention to my career was a game changer. I applied to internships in the city, and I found one within months.
I like to think fitness also saved me. I started running on the treadmill and lifting weights. Focusing on bettering myself, for myself, with the encouragement of those around me got me through it. I came out on the other side better than ever.
A year later, I was applying to my second internship, I was physically healthier, and I started dating my now-husband.” —Anonymous
2. I went to couples counseling.
“My boyfriend at the time was always ‘friends’ with my female best friend, and he emotionally cheated on me for the duration of our two-year relationship and then physically cheated on me in the end with her. It made me paranoid, distrusting, and unsure of myself for months.
When I started dating my current boyfriend, I was really skeptical. I assumed everyone was going to leave me eventually. A year into our relationship, I saw a text come across his phone from a female co-worker who happened to just text him out of the blue, and I relapsed emotionally, crying and placing blame on him. We had to go to couples therapy afterwards, where we realized I still hadn’t completely healed and let my guard down from my previous heartbreak.
It took many honest conversations and therapy sessions to realize that my current boyfriend is worthy of total trust. I try to catch myself when I’m repeating old patterns or old defense mechanisms, and I’m constantly learning to let go and trust again.” —Emma C., 24
3. I started to set boundaries.
“When my former partners cheated, it made me feel betrayed and deepened my trust issues with everyone around me. I started to even blame myself and question my own judgment. What helped me move past the betrayal and remove the blame from myself was understanding that bad things happen. You cannot control everything around you; you can only control your relationship with yourself and make healthy decisions. I started to set boundaries for what I cannot accept in a partner and move forward with clear communication.” —Lauren E., 30
4. I soaked in even small moments of joy.
“I was cheated on multiple times in my relationship. I dated a narcissist with serial cheating habits. When I found out the extent of what was going on, I felt numb and lost my sense of self and self-worth. An action I took was to step back and remind myself what brings me joy and then do it (whether big or small) to start the healing journey.” —Anonymous
5. I started seeing a therapist.
“My past partner cheated a lot for a three-and-a-half-year relationship. Half the time I was aware this was an issue. I have been diagnosed with PTSD from his cheating and abuse. In my current relationship, I often have thoughts and reactions that my current partner isn't responsible for. I have trust issues and reoccurring nightmares that he will cheat. I attend dialectical behavior therapy, and we attend couples counseling to better understand each other and help one another. Both have helped immensely!” —Nina, 23
6. I talked it out with my support system.
“Being cheated on made me question everything I believed to be certain and made me doubt myself and my awareness. The first time it happened, I didn't tell anyone. I was too embarrassed and humiliated by the fact that someone had done that to me. Also, sharing it at the time meant that I had to end things because what would people think of me if I was cheated on and forgave him? I ended things a few weeks later.
The next time it happened, I told my closest friends and family. It was difficult for me, but as soon as I found out, I got on the phone and texted a list of my closest people to let them know: This happened, I'm feeling this way, and I'm letting you know that I'm going to be needing your support a lot. In my mind, I see it as me building my literal spider web of support as a coping mechanism!
I went to spend a few days at my parents' house and had a lot of time to cry and share what I was feeling without judgment. Day by day, I felt supported and was able to get back on my feet. It helped me understand my feelings better and have some feedback.” —Francisca, 29
7. Therapy helped me realize it wasn’t my fault.
“Honestly, therapy helped a lot. I went into my college’s counseling center almost immediately for some understanding and flat-out help. The entire situation was very complex, and certain friends were involved, so I couldn’t turn to other friends for help. I think I was more mad about the fact that I, for the majority of the relationship, was the one constantly getting accused of cheating (when I wasn’t), and all of those times were basically projections from him. I didn’t move into my next relationship having trust issues, thankfully, but I did feel confused, closed off, and unsure of why this happened.
Therapy really helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault. I felt very alone afterwards and wanted closure so badly but realized I didn’t need it to move on. Once I realized I didn’t need validation from this person, nor did I need anything else from him, I moved toward healthier activities and friend groups. That made me feel like a weight was lifted from my shoulders.” —Sam M., 27
8. I learned that I’m still worthy.
“Finding out that my partner cheated made me feel worthless and like I wasn’t enough for anybody. I got on antidepressants and got help seeing that I was totally more than enough. I struggle with self-harm, and he said he couldn’t be with someone that ‘has those types of mental issues.’ That is what made me get help but also showed me that the right person will love me no matter what.” —Alyssa Q., 26
9. I tried new things by myself.
“It was soul-crushing. Therapy and rebuilding myself were necessary. I needed to learn who I was without him. I was in a relationship with this person for 10 years, so I didn’t have my own adult identity outside of that relationship. I moved to a new city while in that relationship, so I had to go explore. I had to figure out how I liked to spend my time and who I was. I think when you are young and in a relationship, you sometimes lose your sense of self and adopt a lot of your partner's affinities. You have to make new friends and learn to spend time with yourself and like it! At first it was lonely, but then it is almost as if you date yourself. Go to restaurants by yourself, travel, watch movies! I did all of that.” —Melissa, 45
10. I shifted my perspective on a shitty situation.
“When my partner cheated on me, I was blindsided because I thought everything had been going well. I felt angry, ashamed, and mistrustful. My therapist helped me put the situation in perspective by giving me a journal to jot down my feelings in an uncensored way and get them out of my head. He said writing about the details of the infidelity twice (once when it's raw and again a bit later when there's a bit of distance) can help release anger, but focusing on them for longer than that won't change the situation and can be upsetting.
It's so easy to become depressed, stressed, and worried about your love life when someone who meant so much to you hurts you so deeply, especially when you thought you were going to have a family and a future with that person. It can be difficult to see beyond the pain, but having a solid support network helped me focus on healing. It helped me see that the future is bright despite it being different than I had imagined.” —Ashley O., 30
11. I stopped blaming myself.
“The worst part of being cheated on truly is the violation of trust (both trust in myself and my choices and the trust I had for my partner). I felt like my world was flipped upside down. I couldn’t help but partially blame myself for choosing someone who would do this to me.
Over time, with the help of my wonderful, wonderful counselor, I went through every inch of the relationship. It really helped me put the relationship away and release some of the feelings I was holding inside. Once I got the sadness, hurt, anger, and confusion out, there was less blame to come to terms with.
Then I sat down and made a list of everything I wanted in a future partner, and I realized that the boyfriend who cheated on me barely hit any of the things I was looking for. I had a new sense of ‘this is what I deserve.’” —Maggie S., 24
12. I figured out forgiveness.
“I think being with this person for 12 years of my life was the biggest reason that the cheating cut so deep. The first few days and weeks after finding out, it was hard to get through a day without sobbing. It just came in waves. Sadness felt like a thick, heavy puffer jacket I was wearing day in and day out. I also felt very angry. I was angry that he could ruin everything we built. I was angry at myself for ignoring the red flags throughout our relationship.
But here are the things that helped me pull through: 1) Reiterating to myself that the cheating has nothing to do with me or my worth as a person. It’s a reflection of the cheater's sense of self, their insecurities, and their need for validation and attention. 2) Reminding myself that I am not a victim and that I will make an even better future for myself. 3) Learning that forgiveness takes time and you should never pressure or rush yourself into forgiving someone, but forgiving that person lets you off the hook. It allows your brain and nervous system to break free from them and move on. It's not something that needs to be said out loud or needs to be an action or conversation, but it’s something that you can do in silence in your own head and heart.” —Taylor C., 29
These quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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