The Physical Toll Suffered by the Betrayed Partner After Discovering an Affair
© 2022 Judith Kilborn, PH.D. Edited by Richard Chandler, MA, LPC
When an affair is discovered, the betrayed partner's mental and emotional burdens frequently result in physical disorders. Substantial agreement exists about the biological effects of infidelity on the betrayed spouse. In addition to the genuine risk of contracting STDs and STIs discussed in our companion article, the physical fallout includes:
- emotional eating
- loss of appetite
- sleep loss
- lower energy
The Betrayed Partner's Emotional Eating: From Binging to Loss of Appetite
Bulik names infidelity "one of the triggers…that might send someone down the path of an eating disorder." On one end of the spectrum of eating disorders is emotional eating, sometimes called "binge eating"; on the other is loss of appetite, which might include simply failing to eat, excessive dieting, or anorexia.
Bulik illustrates these two disorders with examples from a colleague, Baucom, an "expert on couple interaction" (Midlife Eating Disorders Triggers: Infidelity | Psychology Today).
Emotional/Binge Eating after Discovering the Affair
Baucom talks about how infidelity triggers strong emotions and might lead to loss of control and binge eating.
- The discovery of your partner’s infidelity might generate a “deeply visceral sense of shock, disgust, and disbelief”—emotions leading you to question “all that you believe about your partner and your relationship.” You might also feel that “your sense of control is gone,” that “nothing” is left that feels predictable and “safe.”
- Baucom argues that “Many betrayed husbands and wives experience a desperate urge to escape from the horror immediately”; in some cases, that “distraction from the interpersonal nightmare” becomes the “momentary pleasure“ of an “out-of-control binge."
- Baucom acknowledges, however, that such comfort “is destined to fail beyond the moment because the road to recovery from an affair is a long and complex process that does not start in the refrigerator.” (qtd. in Bulik, Midlife Eating Disorders Triggers: Infidelity | Psychology Today)
The added weight that results from this emotional or binge eating affects the binger's emotions and self-esteem, leading to recurring cycles of negative eating. If you find yourself in such a cycle, counseling or treatment for the eating disorder might help you to gain control over your eating and your weight and, in this way, regain lost self-esteem.
Loss of Appetite after Discovering the Affair
The tsunami of emotions resulting from discovering your partner's infidelity—including, perhaps, feeling you weren't good enough or attractive enough—might initially motivate you to work out, eat less, and get in better shape. Or you might find that you're not hungry, you're nauseous, or you don't have the energy to cook a meal or to go to a restaurant.
You might try some simple things if you notice that you tend to skip meals because you feel nauseous or lack appetite. For instance, Stritof suggests you "snack on energy-boosting foods and keep yourself hydrated" (2022, 8 Tips for Coping When Your Partner Is Unfaithful). Many of these foods require little or no preparation and have the additional advantage of increasing energy and maintaining weight.
Take notice if you find yourself losing too much weight—or losing it too quickly. This happened to "Dawn," who Baucom said, "became determined to lose 10 pounds. The 10 pounds became 20, and so on.“ In such situations, Baucom considers infidelity a significant “stressor on both the relationship and the individual level” and a “prominent trigger for midlife eating disorders. ‘If only—if only I were younger; if only I were petite; if only I could make myself more appealing, people would love me and wouldn't leave me’’ (qtd. in Bulik, Midlife Eating Disorders Triggers: Infidelity | Psychology Today).
If like Dawn, you find yourself losing too much weight—or if those around you indicate concern about your weight loss, you might want to seek the help of a therapist or treatment center. This is especially important if you or those around you think you might be anorexic.
Mayo Clinic also stresses the seriousness of this eating disorder and the need for expert help in returning to healthy eating habits:
- Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Mayo points out that “Anorexia isn't really about food”; instead, “it's a highly unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia, you often equate thinness with self-worth.”
- Mayo also notes how challenging anorexia can be: “Anorexia, like other eating disorders, can take over your life and be difficult to overcome, especially without professional help.” Mayo assures those who suffer from this eating disorder, however, that “with treatment, you can gain a better sense of who you are, return to healthier eating habits and undo some of anorexia's serious complications” (Anorexia nervosa—Symptoms and causes—Mayo Clinic).
Loss of Sleep after Discovering the Affair
Sleep loss commonly occurs when you learn of or even suspect that your partner has been unfaithful.
- If you and your partner are still living together, you might be uncomfortable and perhaps unable to sleep in the same bed.
- And whether still together or alone, your sleep may be disrupted by thoughts about your partner's infidelity and how it affects you and your family's unity.
- You might find yourself waking up multiple times during the night, focusing on:
- the instability of your romantic relationship or marriage
- the possibility of separation or divorce
- worry about how you'll get things done if you are parenting or running the household alone
- relentlessly playing a blame game in your head along the lines of "If only I'd done x, y, or z."
Your fears and emotional responses to this infidelity—the known and imagined details— might populate your dreams, plaguing and interrupting your sleep.
In such cases, take actions to calm yourself and help you to sleep. For instance, "Instead of lying awake cycling through distressing thoughts, try aromatherapy, a warm bath, or soothing music to relax and improve your sleep" (Stritof, 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/cope-when-spouse-is-unfaithful-2300654).
What you do, however, might vary depending upon the severity of your symptoms and whether you're experiencing insomnia or chronic sleep deprivation.
- If you have insomnia, according to Web MD,
You have trouble falling and staying asleep.
- “The condition can be short-term (acute) or can last a long time (chronic). It may also come and go.” (Sleep Disorders)
WebMD describes the complications of insomnia this way:
- You have “a higher risk of health problems like high blood pressure, obesity, and depression.”
- You have a “higher risk of falling, if you're older.”
- You might have “trouble focusing,” or might experience anxiety, or grumpiness.
- Finally, you might find that “slower reaction time increases your risk of an auto accident.” (Sleep Disorders)
Some researchers, like Fugère, believe that "Women are more likely to suffer physical symptoms such as insomnia" (Suspected Infidelity May Impair Mental and Physical Well-Being | Psychology Today).
If your spouse’s infidelity triggers long-term insomnia, according to Web MD and others, it is called Chronic Sleep Deprivation.
Berg ("the founder at Somni—a company working to improve sleep for better health") defines chronic sleep deprivation as "routinely sleeping less than 6-7 hours per night." And this chronic sleep deprivation might lead to the following emotional or physical results, according to Berg:
- “Decreased performance, vigilance, and motivation
- “Increased risk of severe depression or anxiety
- “The inability of the emotional control centers of the brain to properly function
- “Higher resting levels of the stress hormone cortisol
- “Increased moodiness and aggressive behaviors
- “Higher probability of developing Alzheimer's.” (Our Infidelity with Sleep and How It Affects Our Mental Health)
See the links in Berg's article for more information about these outcomes of sleep deprivation and what to do about them.
Loss of Energy after Finding out Your Mate Cheated
Loss of energy is a common effect of insomnia/chronic sleep deprivation, eating disorders, and the stress, anxiety, and depression often experienced by those whose partners have been unfaithful. Raising your energy begins by addressing your partnership's betrayal, loss of trust, and uncertainty.
You might also find it helpful to know how the physical effects of gender and men's and women's reporting of their symptoms differ.
An Aside About Gender & the Physical Effects of Infidelity
Know that there are differences in physical effects based on gender. For instance, Fugère—reporting on Weigel and Shrout's 2021 report of survey data (page 880)—indicated that
- Women were "more likely" than men "to disclose…physical symptoms," including headaches or trouble sleeping, in response to their suspicion or discovery of infidelity.”
- Men tended to report "riskier behaviors," including "alcohol and drug use," as reactions to infidelity. (Suspected Infidelity May Impair Mental and Physical Well-Being | Psychology Today)
Data suggesting an association between infidelity and heart problems have often been gender-related, too:
- Millar points out that "A number of studies have found that men who cheat are more likely to have heart attacks; while 'broken heart syndrome' (stress-induced cardiomyopathy) is real—it typically affects older women who have experienced emotional trauma" (How an affair affects your sexual and mental health).
- Lehmiller also mentions the risk of heart attacks in unfaithful men. Although he acknowledges that “the risk of having a heart attack during sex is relatively low,” he notes research showing that “when heart attacks occur during sex, they more frequently happen to men when they're cheating than when they're having sex with their spouse.”
- In general, Lehmiller points out, “scientists have argued that cheating induces psychological distress (e.g., by creating feelings of guilt, anxiety, or stress) that, in turn, can harm cardiovascular function.” (10 Surprising Facts About Cheating And Infidelity—Sex and Psychology )
Overall, it's not unusual for the mental effects of infidelity to lead to physical conditions. Even if you feel you don't have the time, that you're overburdened with things you need to do and people you need to take care of, remember to take care of yourself too. Taking the time to eat, rest, and sleep can help you lessen the stress, anxiety, or depression you might experience and help you to recoup your energy and heal.
Finally, if the infidelity has resulted in health conditions that seem overwhelming—eating issues, sleeping issues, loss of energy, depression, or even PTSD—be sure to connect with professionals that can help you work through these mental, emotional, or physical conditions.
Please take care of your physical health as you work through the betrayal's aftermath; best not to do it alone.
- Anorexia nervosa. (1998-2022). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anorexia-nervosa/symptoms-causes/syc-20353591
- Berg, M. (2018, November 26). The True Cost of Life Without Adequate Sleep. Mind Share Partners. https://www.mindsharepartners.org/post/our-infidelity-with-sleep-and-mental-health
- Bulik, C.M. (2013, March 14). Midlife Eating Disorders Triggers: Infidelity. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/midlife-eating-disorders/201303/midlife-eating-disorders-triggers-infidelity-0
- Fugère, M. A. (2021, April 17). Suspected infidelity may impair mental and physical well-being: Responses to mere suspicion include anxiety, insomnia, and risky behavior. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dating-and-mating/202104/suspected-infidelity-may-impair-mental-and-physical-well-being
- Lehmiller, J. (2015, October 2). 10 Surprising Facts About Cheating and Infidelity. Sex & Psychology. https://www.sexandpsychology.com/blog/2015/10/2/10-surprising-facts-about-cheating-and-infidelity/.
- Millar, A. (2017, November 17). How an affair affects your sexual and mental health. Patient. https://patient.info/news-and-features/how-an-affair-affects-your-sexual-and-mental-health
- Stritof, S. (2022, June 09). 8 tips for coping when your partner is unfaithful. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/cope-when-spouse-is-unfaithful-2300654
- WebMD. (2021, July 21). Insomnia. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/default.htm
- Weigel, D. J., and M. R, Shrout. (2021), “Suspicious Minds: The Psychological, Physical and Behavioral Consequences of Suspecting a Partner’s Infidelity.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 865–87, https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520975851