Cheating may have left you with a barrage of questions: Why did this happen? Was there anything I could have done differently? Is there something wrong with me? Was it my fault?
It’s probably safe to say that everyone who’s ever been cheated on has a hard time not overthinking at least a little bit, for some period of time. It’s an experience of shock and betrayal, and so it makes sense that it would send you into a tailspin.
April Kilduff, LMHC, LPCC, LCPC, a therapist who specializes in OCD and anxiety disorders, says, “If you keep in mind that our brain’s number one goal is to keep us alive, and it’s constantly on the lookout for threats and danger, being cheated on and having that kind of betrayal can truly feel like a threat.”
Overthinking does not automatically mean that something is wrong—you might just be having a natural human response. However, if you’ve found your way to this article, you’re likely finding that your life is disrupted by your overthinking.
If you find that overthinking is dominating your life, impacting your ability to function, or otherwise hindering your life, you could benefit from learning more information about certain mental health conditions (and ultimately seeking help). Read more for why you might be overthinking, how you can stop, and what help is available to you.
Why are you overthinking?
Kilduff says, “Being cheated on is a painful situation, and it impacts your ability to feel safe. This is natural, but it can come at a big cost to your mental health.” Thus, we want to find answers to our questions, to try to gain some sense of control or certainty.
If you have an existing mental health condition, you may be prone to overthink and fixate on these questions more intensely. Another word for overthinking, used particularly in diagnostic settings, is rumination. When you ruminate, you turn the same thoughts, ideas, or questions over and over in your mind. You may spend hours a day doing so. There may be the belief that you can just “think your way out” of your thoughts and feelings or “get to the bottom” of them.
Rumination is a hallmark trait of both obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and various anxiety disorders. While overthinking after being cheated on isn’t necessarily the sign of a mental health condition, it could be involved.
In any case, there are therapeutic interventions that can stop overthinking from ruling your life, whether or not you receive a specific diagnosis. First, let’s take a look at some potential underlying causes for what you’re going through.
What mental health conditions could overthinking be a sign of?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD, a condition that very frequently includes overthinking and rumination, is characterized by distressing intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, doubts, sensations, or urges (obsessions), and mental or physical responses (compulsions) done to relieve the distress or keep something unwanted from happening.
Examples of obsessions related to experiences of betrayal and infidelity include:
- What if everyone who ever said they loved me was lying?
- Were there red flags that I missed?
- What if I’m destined to be alone forever?
- What if they cheated on me because I’m a bad person?
- What if I did something to make them upset, and it’s my fault that they cheated?
- What if I get cheated on in my next relationship?
- I want to stay with this person, but what if I can never trust them again?
Everyone has intrusive thoughts or asks themselves “what if?” questions from time to time. The difference in people with OCD is that they have an intense, anxiety-filled reaction to these thoughts. They feel the need to “solve” them with 100% certainty and relieve their anxiety or doubt immediately.
Unfortunately, because they take these thoughts so seriously and respond to them so strongly, these thoughts end up returning more often and bringing even more distress—it becomes a vicious cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive responses.
There are many different compulsive responses that you might refer to as “overthinking.” Here are some examples:
- Rumination. Rumination, or compulsive overthinking, is a highly common compulsion. Those who do this tend to feel like they can just “think their way out” of the intrusive thoughts or “get to the bottom” of them.
- Mental tracking. For example, if you’re worried that anyone you ever date will cheat on you, you might start looking for “signs” for future infidelity when you go on first dates.
- Mental review. For example, if you’re worried that you were responsible for your partner’s cheating, you may look back on various interactions to try to find moments where you “provoked” them.
- Avoidance. You may, for example, avoid dating, avoid hearing other people’s stories of cheating, or avoid stories about people who are older and single.
- Reassurance-seeking. If you are dating again, you may seek reassurance from your new partner that they love you and would never cheat on you.
Unfortunately, compulsions only perpetuate the obsessive-compulsive cycle. Left unchecked, over time they grow stronger, taking up more time and causing more impairment. They attempt to bring you relief, and they might in the short-term. In the long-term, though, they keep you stuck. That’s why treatment for OCD focuses on teaching you to stop engaging in compulsions.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry and, often, rumination. Similar to OCD, anxiety disorders involve various feelings of distress—anxiety, panic, shame, guilt. There are two anxiety disorders that may be especially likely to get triggered after being cheated on: generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by a pervasive sense of worry over various situations and stimuli. The worry is not necessarily limited to specific themes or instances, but can latch onto anything and everything. Though anxiety disorders do not present with specific compulsions, they do present with excessive worry and “safety behaviors,” particularly avoidance, distraction, and rumination.
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by worry over being negatively judged, criticized, and/or humiliated in front of others. As such, social and romantic rejection can be especially hard for someone with this anxiety disorder. After being cheated on, someone with social anxiety might wonder, did I not say and do the right things? Did I not play the role of partner the “right” way? Is there something wrong with me and how I present myself? If other people find out, what will they think about me?
OCD and all types of anxiety disorders are painful and debilitating. The good news, though, is that both have evidence-based treatments that have proven highly successful in reducing symptoms and distress.
How can you stop overthinking about being cheated on?
As you’ve probably gathered from this article so far, as well as your own lived experience, it’s hard—impossible, even—to just make yourself stop overthinking. Therapy exists to help us change the way we think and behave in ways that we can’t do on our own.
If you resonated with the information about OCD and/or anxiety disorders (it’s very common for people to have both), the gold-standard treatment is the same. It’s a form of therapy called exposure and response-prevention (ERP). In ERP, you gradually, intentionally confront the situations and thoughts that trigger you, and you learn to resist the urge to engage in compulsions like rumination or avoidance, all with the support of a specialized therapist.
Ultimately, it teaches you to accept and tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. Rather than trying to “solve” or “get to the bottom” of why you were cheated on, what you could have done differently, or whether you’ll be cheated on in the future, ERP would help you learn that you simply can’t know the answers to those questions for certain—and that you can live with confidence despite uncertainty. Kilduff says the goal would be to learn to “live with the idea that this may or may not happen again, rather than endlessly searching for absolute certainty that it won’t.”
There’s no way around it: being cheated on is painful. It can be isolating and lonely. But there are many others who can understand your experience—and experts who are able to help you get better.