How psychological distress from being cheated on can harm your physical health

Everyone knows that being cheated on is a painful experience. But psychologists are now honing in on the particular effects that infidelity can have on both mental and physical health.

A new study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, has found that the attribution of blame — whether you blame yourself or your partner — influences the emotional and physical impacts of infidelity.

“We were interested in this topic for a couple reasons,” explained the study’s corresponding author, M. Rosie Shrout of University of Nevada, Reno. “First, we know that infidelity is one of the most distressing and damaging events couples face. 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.”

“We were also interested in whether perceptions of blame played a role in their psychological distress and risky health behaviors,” she told PsyPost. “Did individuals who were cheated on blame their partners for cheating or did they blame themselves? Did who they blame affect whether they experienced psychological distress or engaged in risky behaviors?”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 232 college students who had been cheated on within the past three months. Nearly all the participants were dating the partner who cheated on them and the average relationship length was 1.76 years.

Shrout and her colleague found a connection between mental health and health-compromising behaviors. Experiencing greater depression, anxiety, and distress after being cheated on were associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in a variety of health-compromising behaviors.

“As we expected, people who experienced more emotional and psychological distress after being cheated on engaged in more risky behaviors,” Shrout told PsyPost. “They were more likely to eat less or not eat at all, use alcohol or marijuana more often, have sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or over-exercise. Being cheated on seems to not only have mental health consequences, but also increases risky behaviors.”

“We also found that people who blamed themselves for their partner cheating, such as feeling like it was their fault or they could have stopped it, were more likely to engage in risky behaviors. However, blaming their partner for cheating was not directly related to risky behavior involvement. It was interesting to find that these effects were stronger for women than men.”

“This gender difference is consistent with previous research showing that women experience more distress after being cheated on,” Shrout added. “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.”

The group of participants was relatively young — with an average age of 20 — so the researchers are interested in examining older, married individuals.

“Most of our participants were young adults in dating relationships who might not have had the same concerns as married adults, such as children, owning a home together, or shared finances,” Shrout said. “However, most participants were in serious and committed relationships with strong emotional and time investments. As such, we would expect that they would still be hurt and experience negative consequences after a partner’s infidelity. Nevertheless, we would like to examine how this plays out in long-term, marital relationships.”

The study was also cross-sectional, meaning the researchers cannot make causal inferences about the directions of their findings.

“We also wonder why people who have been cheated on are more likely to increase involvement in unhealthy, risky behaviors,” Shrout said. “Is it due to damaged self-esteem, lower inhibitions toward risky behaviors, or possibly some form of retaliation toward the cheating partner?”

About 35% of the participants were either in a new relationship or dating multiple people. But nearly one in seven were still in a relationship with the partner who cheated on them.

“Surprisingly, our findings were the same for people who stayed with or left their unfaithful partners. It is possible that infidelity is such a serious and distressing relationship event that these intense negative reactions occur regardless of whether a person stays in the relationship. ”

“As we continue this line of research, we hope to better understand the emotional and physical health toll of infidelity.”

The study, “Infidelity’s aftermath: Appraisals, mental health, and health-compromising behaviors following a partner’s infidelity“, was also co-authored by Daniel J. Weigel. It was published online April 21, 2017.