The long term effects of infidelity

Emma Thompson in that famous scene from <i>Love Actually</i>.
Emma Thompson in that famous scene from Love ActuallyPhoto: Screngrab

Even if you’re not a fan of Love Actually, you will remember the emotional scene where Emma Thompson’s character, Karen, discovers that the gold necklace she found in her husband’s coat pocket wasn’t intended for her.

We see Karen open the gift she thinks will be the necklace and watch her face fall as she holds up a Joni Mitchell CD. Her surprise and subsequent heartbreak is palpable. In the next scene we see her wiping away tears as the painful reality hits.

It was a convincing performance from Thompson, and it turns out it was convincing for a reason – like many other women, she’s been there. Last week Thompson told the audience at a theatre fundraising event that, like Karen, she has also had her heart “very badly broken.”

“It’s something everyone’s been through” she said. “I’ve had so much bloody practice at crying in a bedroom, then having to go out and be cheerful, gathering up the pieces of my heart and putting them in a drawer,” she added, referring to her discovery of her then-husband Kenneth Branagh’s affair with Helena Bonham Carter.

It’s something many of us will relate to. When I asked my Facebook friends “has anyone been cheated on by an ex-partner?” the first reply I got was “Everyone in your friends list.”

I was living with my ex-partner, let's call him Larry, in North London when he cheated on me. It happened exactly one week after the London tube bombings, so when Larry didn’t come home after a night out with colleagues the first thing I did was turn on the news. My trust in him was so great that even at that point it was easier to imagine he was dead.

When the truth came out I was utterly heartbroken. My belief that Larry was The One was shattered. And, even though I was open to forgiveness the damage was irreparable. It turned out to be a lucky escape.

But that awful experience did change me. I found myself having crippling doubts about my self worth – post Larry, in my mind, there was something wrong with me. It got better over time. I did learn to trust again. Yet, even now, nearly 13 years later, I do still experience a flicker of doubt when my husband is late home.

For some women, the long-term impact of infidelity is devastating. Claire* a 40-year-old from Sydney’s Inner West, tells me that her ex-husband’s affair has shattered her self esteem and triggered severe anxiety.

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“I feel like I will have the anxiety for the rest of my life, which is upsetting as I was never like that before. Being cheated on totally destroyed my self-esteem and it’s taking a long time (and lots of work) to rebuild it,” she says.

Claire is in a new relationship now, but says that fears her new partner will cheat linger at the back of her mind. “Mike* has been very patient with me, I want to learn to trust again, but it is hard.”

Couples therapist Isiah McKimmie says that Claire’s feelings are totally normal. “Infidelity can trigger feelings of betrayal, hurt and lack of trust that can last a long time,” she says.

“Because of the secretive nature of infidelity and the fact that we often would never have believed our partner would do that, it can also lead to questioning ourselves, our own judgement and the life that we’ve built with a partner.”

She continues: “People whose partners have had an affair will feel that their perceptions of themselves, their lives and their futures are shattered, and often ask questions like ‘what is real?’ and ‘how does my partner really feel about me?'

“For some, there will be a constant questioning in the back of their mind about whether it is or will happen again.”

So can we ever put an infidelity behind us? McKimmie tells me that recovering from infidelity will often mean rediscovering a sense of self.

“Surround yourself with people who love and support you to make the journey easier,” she says.

“Focus on regaining your inner strength and identity.”

*Names have been changed

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