A recent study reveals the mental and physical consequences of experiencing infidelity.
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When I was 21 years old, my fiancé broke up with me over the phone. Many years later, I still remember the night clearly. It was a late summer evening and I was outside sitting in the driveway of my parents' house, hidden from the street behind my mom's car. After we hung up—"I don't love you anymore, Kim," he said so calmly after admitting he'd found someone else—I went inside and swiped a cigarette from a pack of my dad's.
Unlike many of my peers, I made it through high school and most of college without ever smoking or even drinking alcohol. I'd never really been interested. But something about being told by a guy I considered my first love, the one who'd put a ring on my finger and promised a happily-ever-after, made me want to try smoking. I guess it was my way of trying to control this fog of disbelief I was in. Later, I'd discover the soothing power of Long Island Iced Teas.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it's common to react to being cheated on by engaging in risky behaviors, such as drug use and binge drinking. That appears to be the case even more so if you blame yourself for your partner cheating (which—I now admit shamefully—I did). As a result, people who've had the experience of a partner stepping outside of their relationship are more at risk for mental and physical problems.
"Infidelity is one of the most distressing and damaging events couples face," M. Rosie Shrout, the study's lead author and a graduate student at the University of Nevada in Reno, told PsyPost. "The person who was cheated on experiences strong emotional and psychological distress following infidelity. We wanted to know if this emotional and psychological distress leads them to engage in risky health behaviors, such as unprotected sex, drug use, alcohol use, binge eating, or not eating at all."
For their study, researchers recruited 232 university students who had been cheated on in the past three months; nearly all participants reported having been in that relationship for an average of 1.76 years. In addition to being asked to analyze who/what they blamed for the infidelity (themselves, their partner, or their situation), participants were also asked to assess their mental health (whether they perceived an increase in depression or anxiety) and how distressed they were after discovering their partners cheated. Finally, they were asked to share if they thought certain health behaviors (alcohol and drug use, not using condoms during sex and how much they ate or exercised) had changed.
According to the study's results, noninvolved partners (the folks who were cheated on) were more likely to blame the partner than themselves, and reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress following the infidelity. They also reported more health-compromising behaviors: the most frequent were eating less or not at all (45 percent), alcohol use (44 percent), over-exercising (29 percent), having sex while high or drunk (27 percent) and marijuana use (19 percent).
"Engaging in these types of health-compromising behaviors might be explained as an attempt to cope with the infidelity by decreasing their negative feelings and increasing positive emotions," the study suggests.
Another interesting takeaway from the research was how gender played out in the results: "The mediated effect of mental health was stronger for women compared to men," the authors write. "That is, women who reported high levels of self-blame or partner blame also experienced high levels of mental health consequences, which in turn resulted in even greater health-compromising behavior engagement following a partner's infidelity."
Shrout offered an explanation on the gender difference to PsyPost: "We think this is because women typically place higher importance on the relationship as a source of self and identity. As a result, women who have been cheated on might be more likely to have poorer mental health and engage in unhealthy, risky behavior because their self-perceptions have been damaged."
As a woman who's been cheated on a number of times, I can confirm this is true.