Infidelity changes everything about a relationship. How could it not? But how infidelity changes you isn’t necessarily so sweeping and general, regardless of your role in the mess.
Dr. Jay Kent-Ferraro attempts to dispel the cliché myth that “once a cheater always a cheater.” Because of his experience — as a clinician and an unfaithful spouse — he makes the point that affairs are complex and always have a purpose to them.
By seeking to understand the reason and purpose behind an affair, both the betrayed and the betrayer can approach healing — and even redemption — with insight and wisdom.
And that’s true regardless of whether or not they stay together.
How infidelity changes you depends not only on who you and your spouse are heading into the affair, but who you are committed to becoming once the affair is exposed.
No matter what circumstances led to the affair, no one in its wake will be left unscathed. Yes, that goes for the cheater, too.
Again, there are always reasons — not excuses — and a purpose behind the unfaithful spouse’s choice to stray. But “once a cheater always a cheater” doesn’t have to be part of the aftermath.
If you have been betrayed by your spouse, you can probably imagine how infidelity changes you. You may already be living it.
If you are the betrayer, you may not have thought about the impact on your spouse and family. And you may not have even considered the lasting effects on your own life.
The effects of infidelity run the gamut from emotional to physical to neurological. The agony isn’t just in your head; it’s in your body.
Let’s first look at how infidelity changes you if you were betrayed.
Your self-esteem and self-worth are shattered.
You wonder why you weren’t “good enough”…and why someone else was “better.” Because your self-esteem is destroyed, you start looking for ways that you caused your spouse to stray. Surely it must have been something you did (or didn’t do).
You feel stupid…and wonder how you didn’t see the affair.
Trust is never quite the same again.
The affair is always in the back of your mind. And even if you stay together, trust isn’t as unencumbered and naturally given as it once was.
You’re afraid to love again.
The prospect of either falling in love again with someone else or staying with your spouse is frightening. You never want to give your power to someone again.
Because you become afraid to let your guard down, the world becomes a less happy and promising place in which to live. Holding onto the notion of love is a challenge because you now associate it with unbearable pain.
Your brain takes a beating.
Neuroscience has shown that the rejection from infidelity has both short- and long-term consequences to brain chemistry. Because love is actually as addictive to the brain as cocaine, being cut off by the dagger of infidelity impacts the addictive neural pathways in similar ways.
You physically hurt.
Referring to the same neuroscience, breakups and betrayals activate parts of the brain that respond to physical discomfort. The emotional experience becomes integrated into the physical experience, and you hurt…
You can’t stop obsessing.
Women are especially prone to rumination, constantly replaying all the possible causes, scenarios and consequences of the affair. They are also more inclined than men to feel somehow responsible for a spouse’s infidelity.
Your eyes are opened.
Despite how infidelity changes you negatively, it also affords you clarity after the shock and anger are mitigated. You begin to see what you may have ignored, and learn how you make choices in mates. This allows you to make better choices if and when the time comes to trust again.
Now let’s look at effects of infidelity on the spouse who is the betrayer.
At some point, most, if not all of the people in your life catch on to what is happening. You have failed to protect and defend the very values you swore to honor, and everyone knows. Even people who don’t know you seem to know. And God forbid the news hits social media.
Your spouse has permanent ammunition against you.
No matter your reasons for straying or your efforts toward penance, you will always be “the one who cheated.” Your spouse may use that sin as a dumping ground for everything involving blame, anger, judgment and abuse.
Your children may blame you.
Children will not know how to properly process their fears and sense of loss without professional help, especially if they know something damning about one or both parents. Even as adults, they may reach back and blame you for their own choices or unfulfilled lives.
You can’t trust others to be loyal to you.
As you try to balance your ability to cheat on your spouse against what you know to be a personal core of goodness, you have to face the irony. If you are capable of doing something so unthinkable, what’s to keep someone else from doing the same to you?
Everything you do is questioned.
You know you can’t blame your spouse for not trusting you, but you also can’t live forever under a microscope. Short of having a spouse-appointed chaperone, you will always have the company of “who, what, where, when and why.”
If you and your spouse decide to work on your marriage, you will have to be painfully, humbly transparent while your spouse inches toward a new kind of trust. And that means answering a lot of questions.
You lose credibility.
You may do a lot of soul-searching to answer for your infidelity and take responsibility for it; but there will always be those who resort to the “once a cheater always a cheater” conclusion.
Your confidence may get a boost.
During the affair, that is. After all, neuroscience reminds us that people who are addicted are seeking a dopamine rush. And settling into a long marriage isn’t known for those feel-good jolts.
An affair, on the other hand, can reawaken the confidence that comes from a dopamine rush. As with an addiction, however, that confidence can easily come crashing down in a pile of guilt. And that guilt can play a huge role in your attitudes and behaviors going forward.
The ultimate decision about how infidelity changes you is, of course, up to you. There are plenty of individuals and marriages that heal to be stronger and more vital than they were before an infidelity.
That’s not to say, obviously, that infidelity is a viable consideration for marital improvement and personal growth. But recognizing the many ways that infidelity can change you can help both spouses in the painful aftermath of an affair.
And, hopefully, having the awareness up front will take the consideration of infidelity off the table altogether.
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