Mental health: Impact of infidelity in relationships
Chido Madzvamutse–Mental Wellness
As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.
The trauma of betrayal, particularly due to infidelity can have a devastating effect on one’s mental well-being. The betrayal by a significant other can result in many difficult emotions in the immediate aftermath of discovering the betrayal but can persist as emotional and mental health challenges long after.
What is the effect of infidelity on
mental health and wellness?
Infidelity affects the mental well-being of both partners in a relationship, the partner who has been betrayed as well as the partner who has been unfaithful.
Effects of infidelity on the partner who has been betrayed include:
Shock, disbelief and denial: in the immediate aftermath of discovering infidelity in one’s partner, one may go into a state of shock and disbelief.
Many people when in a committed relationship may have been very dedicated to their partner with their lives revolving around their partner. The discovery of betrayal for such a person is a catastrophe.
Anger and rage: a wave of anger and rage is commonly seen as someone who has experienced betrayal starts to make sense of what has happened. This anger maybe directed at their partner and the person their partner has been cheating with but many times the anger is also turned inwards with the person who has been betrayed feeling angry and disappointed with themselves for failing to see the signs of betrayal and for failing to be a better judge of character.
Shame and humiliation: many who have been betrayed will feel like a fool and may have a sense of shame and may feel they have been humiliated in the eyes of family, colleagues and in their social networks. This may result in social withdrawal and self- isolation.
Despondency and depression: eventually, feelings of sadness will often set in and some of those who have been betrayed may slip into depression. They may have deep sadness, lose interest and motivation in life activities, they may feel fatigued all the time, they may also struggle with sleep and appetite. They may feel helpless and hopelessness and some may contemplate or attempt suicide.
Damaged self-esteem: infidelity can trigger a lot of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. One can feel worthless and may lose confidence.
Physical health problems: the stress of betrayal can trigger or worsen physical health problems. Sleep, eating habits and energy levels may also be affected.
Stress, anxiety and hyper-vigilance: broken trust will many times result in anxiety about the relationship if one chooses to continue in that relationship. The partner who was betrayed may become hyper-vigilant about their partner’s whereabouts and activities and can become obsessed with monitoring their partner. Even if they choose to end the relationship, they may still struggle with fully trusting any subsequent partners.
Psychological trauma: research has shown that the effects of betrayal are similar to those experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms. Following a severe betrayal, some may struggle with emotional numbness, they may avoid any reminders of the relationship or the discovery of the betrayal and they may experience nightmares and traumatic recollections of the events around discovering the betrayal.
Effects of infidelity on the partner who is cheating include:
The burden of guilt: wilfully hurting someone who trusts you can result in a heavy sense of guilt. While we may try to belittle the effect of this guilt, it does weigh on us and can cause physical and psychological health problems.
Anxiety and fear about getting caught: the major stress of cheating on someone is the anxiety that comes with the constant fear of getting caught and being exposed.
Mental exhaustion: it is physically and mentally exhausting to live a double life and maintain the lies that are needed when being unfaithful. This can eventually take its toll on the one who is cheating.
Loss of a stable relationship and social support: Often, infidelity will result in breakdown of the primary relationship which is often the more stable relationship.
Marriage breakdown in particular will result in social upheaval and loss of critical social support structures in one’s life.
How can I maintain my mental
well-being after I have been betrayed through infidelity?
1. Acknowledge the painful emotions that come with betrayal and find healthy ways to express these emotions. Resist self-medicating with alcohol and substance use or “revenge infidelity,” rather find a trusted friend or mental health professional to talk to and deal with the pain you are facing.
2. Manage your thoughts and self-talk, minimise self-blame. Whatever the circumstances that led to the infidelity, it was still the wilful choice of the cheating partner to betray you.
Even when our needs are not being met in our marriage or relationship, it is still a choice to either work on the relationship and resolve differences or look outside of the marriage or relationship for “relief.”
Many times those who have been betrayed in a marriage experience “gas lighting” from their unfaithful partner, who will attempt to blame them for the cheating behaviour.
It is critical to resist this line of thinking to maintain mental well-being.
3. Reflect, restructure and re-strategise your life goals: Betrayal through infidelity can result in a loss of hope and vision for one’s life. Our dreams and goals are often intertwined with those of our significant other and when they betray us we may feel we are losing ourselves.
It is critical to re-evaluate your life, rebuild your life vision and hold onto hope. You are still a valuable person and your dreams are still important and valid even if your partner has betrayed you.
If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with the mental health impact of infidelity, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.
l Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by: Dr. Chido Rwafa- Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist.