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Sex + Relationships

What cheating does to us and how to cope with it

No one asks to be betrayed. Neither did I. On the contrary, I explicitly asked my ex-boyfriend in the beginning of our relationship to break up with me, should he ever be on the verge of cheating on me. Betrayal was literally the one thing I was most afraid of and never wanted to experience. But life is not a wish granting machine, right?

My ex-boyfriend and I were dating for two years. Overall I’d say we had a pretty normal relationship with no big fights. Nevertheless, one summer evening, he broke up with me out of the blue. As he could not really name a reason, I asked him if he ever cheated on me and he refused.

We stayed friends after our breakup. About half a year later, I suddenly felt like the main character in a very bad love-story: He apologized to me, saying he always loved me and still does. If I would give him a second chance? I didn’t want to. Then, still trying to win me back, he admitted that he cheated on me twice. And in order to rebuild a healthy relationship with me, he had to confess it to me and now we could restart with complete honesty. I am able to laugh at this situation today. But back then, I felt nothing but shock. NEVER would I have expected anything like that. I always trusted him completely. Later I asked if it was ‘only’ twice or if there was more. ‘Only twice’, he reassured.

What was even worse, apparently he told our common friends about his cheating and nobody told me. It felt like everyone around me knew, and I was suddenly ashamed of myself. I called one of our friends immediately and confronted him. And if I wasn’t already before, then this talk threw me completely off track: Our common friend admitted that my ex didn’t cheat on me just twice, he did it countless times. Afterwards he told them that he regrets it and that he wants to confess it to me. Of course the latter part never happened.

It was not the physical betrayal, it was the emotional betrayal that hurt me the most. And as I suffered through this break of trust, I sometimes felt super helpless and wasn’t sure, if anything will ever feel normal again. The good thing is, it will! The bad thing is, it will take a while. For me, when I put this guide together, it felt like those moments when you listen to a song which describes exactly what you feel. So, if you experience something similar, hopefully you might better understand which phases you are going through and how to deal with it.

The official term is called partner betrayal trauma. According to psychologist Sandra Shachar, there are four different stages of betrayal:

  1. Shock and devastation

In this phase you might be crying, unable to eat and/or sleep, you may feel depressed, anxious or panicked, which are all completely normal reactions. This phase will not last, which can help getting through it.

  1. Anger

After the first shock, anger and maybe also the desire for revenge will come up. Revenge doesn’t help most of the people as much as they hoped it would, and mostly they regret it later. Be cautious if you want to know all the details about the betrayal: Texts, images or knowing about specific sexual acts cannot be ‘unseen’. The betrayed partner often finds it even more traumatizing.

  1. Grief and difficulty feeling grounded

After the very intense phase of anger, sadness or even depression might settle in. There is the realisation that nothing was like it seemed. Trusting will be much harder and there are a lot of feelings that are confusing. It is normal if you feel like you don’t know how to move forward. Fortunately, this phase will not last forever, but it is longer than the ones before.

Personal note: I had a very hard time getting out of this phase. What helped me most was when I drafted a letter to my ex at one of my worst moments. I included everything that I wanted to tell him, how mad I am, how much it hurts me and how I cannot understand how he could lie to me over and over again. But instead of sending it to him, I read it out lound in front of my best friends (who helped me through the whole process) and afterwards tore it up.

  1. Healing and Rebirth

After the third phase, you will start to redefine yourself and maybe your relationship. It might take months, or even years to rebuild trust.

There is no shame in getting external help in any of these phases. I highly encourage everyone who feels overwhelmed to seek professional help.

Finally, here some tips hopefully helping you to recover from the betrayal:

  • Try to acknowledge what happened instead of avoiding thinking about it. If you are trying to avoid it, it may affect other areas of your life. You can’t suppress the thoughts completely, so if you try, they might turn up in dangerous situations like when driving a car.
  •  Try to accept difficult emotions. Normal feelings are being ashamed or humiliated, but also you might feel furious, vengeful, sad or sick. Recognize and name the emotions coming up. This builds a better emotional awareness, with which you can find your personal strategy to cope with the feelings better.
  • Turn to others for support. Even though your trust is broken and you might find it hard to open up to anyone – besides that – most of us don’t really want to talk about the fact that our partner cheated on us – try it! People need emotional support. 
  • Focus on what you need! You aren’t hungry. That’s okay. Try to eat energy-boosting snacks instead. And even more important: stay hydrated! Take a bath, watch a movie you like or listen to soothing music. Try other hobbies that boost your mood.
  • Rebuild trust by considering the reasons behind the betrayal, communication and forgiveness – forgive yourself too.

Again, no one asks to be betrayed, and more importantly, no one deserves to get cheated on. The betrayed partner suffers a very long time from the injuries, for which he/she can do nothing at all. Play the game of love, but please play it fair.

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Nadine Koch

Northeastern '23

Nadine is an exchange student from Zurich, Switzerland, studying business law. Besides studying, she is an outgoing, active person and likes to explore new places, meet new people and do anything fun.
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