If you’ve never been cheated on, you may not have experienced the literalness of heartbreak. If you have been cheated on, all the clichés suddenly become constant reminders of your situation: it’s like a knife in the heart, a weight on your chest that affects your breathing, a rug pulled out from under you that throws you off balance and leaves you bruised. You feel used, old as dirt, like garbage, abandoned, beaten-up, worthless.
“Infidelity is extremely traumatizing,” says conflict resolution and affairs expert Sharon Rivkin, a couples and relationships counselor in Santa Rosa, California. “It hits us at a very primal place within ourselves. It affects the basic foundation of our beings in that it puts everything you thought was real in yourself, your life, and your relationship into question . . . nothing makes sense anymore.”
Judy Ford, author of “Every Day Love: The Delicate Art of Caring for Each Other,” describes the results of infidelity as “a tsunami of heartache. When one partner cheats and betrays trust, life as it once was is shattered. The emotional and spiritual aftershocks are as painful as the initial discovery and have to be dealt with. It is a long and difficult recovery.”
Although my husband (now ex) and I got back together after his first affair, I gradually understood that my heart was not the same. I would never trust as I had in the past. The pain of betrayal had healed to some extent, but I felt there was a piece missing from my heart. Something was gone that could never be replaced no matter how much hard work we put into our relationship.
In retrospect, I was lucky I didn’t suffer a heart attack. Your heart can literally be “stunned” after days of adrenaline surges and other stress hormones that can be secreted during emotionally stressful events such as finding out about another’s infidelity, according to Dr. John M. Kennedy, a Los Angeles cardiologist. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy is also known as “broken heart syndrome." Although in many cases patients make a full recovery, the "broken heart syndrome" can be serious and can be a cause of acute heart failure, lethal ventricular arrhythmias, and ventricular rupture.
In addition, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often a consequence for a victim of infidelity. Many times, betrayal comes as a shock so severe people report that it is as if a bomb has gone off, lifting people off their feet and dropping them back down into a world they don’t recognize as familiar and that does not feel safe. Cheating affects relationships with family and friends, work competency, sleep, nutrition, basic hygiene. When people realize their trusted “other” does not care about them, they often stop caring about themselves. Symptoms can persist for decades without treatment.
Experts agree that the damage is two ways, as if you have been hit by a car, removed to the side of the road, and then hit again. Not only do you lose your trust in your partner, which could affect all future relationships, but you lose trust in yourself. "The victim blames the self for allowing it to happen,” says Debbie Mandel, author of “Addicted to Stress”: “‘How did I not know?’ ‘How did I not see this coming?’” The suffering and disorientation is compounded by distrust and loathing for yourself.
So how do you put yourself back together again? Therapists, friends, antidepressants, exercise, and scads of self-help books. The one that helped me the most through my experience of betrayal and my subsequent divorce was “He’s History, You’re Not,” by Erica Manfred, who had walked in my shoes.
Three years after discovering my husband’s last affair of our marriage, my heart has calmed down (although I do have a murmur I did not have before). My PTSD is stable. And I’m happy.
But am I ready to date? Nope. I need to guard my heart a little longer before opening it to someone else.
Judy Kirkwood is awaiting the result of an echocardiogram.
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