It’s easy in the movies. A woman finds out the dirty rat is cheating, and with a face slap, a wry insult, and a slam of the door, she’s out. The epilogue shows the same beautiful woman with a new (and better) man … and fade to black.
But in real life, with no script, it’s much messier, more painful, and at times it can feel like something you won’t survive. Just like grief over the loss of a loved one comes in stages, so too does discovering your spouse is cheating on you. Disbelief. Shock. Anger. Sadness. Shame.
And instead of tidy phases that descend upon you and then move on like a cold front, these emotions come in waves, sometimes overlapping, sometimes returning. “It’s based on your relationship,” says Christine Pruitt-Plasterer, 36, from Stafford, Va. “Some people see it coming. I didn’t. When he first told me, I threw up.”
She and her husband met and started dating in college and got married in 2002. Shortly after celebrating their third anniversary, he left abruptly one night after receiving an “emergency” call from a co-worker. “When he got back, he told me he’d been seeing her, but I couldn’t get my brain around it,” she says. “I said ‘What do you mean? You’re dating? But you’re married … to me.’”
Don’t Go It Alone
In the weeks that followed, as Pruitt-Plasterer tried to figure out if her marriage could be saved, she says she felt overwhelmed by anger, sadness, and shame. “I didn’t want to tell anyone, so I ended up stifling a lot of emotions,” she says. “We had a lot of the same friends. I didn’t want to see them.”
That kind of isolation is very common, says Kathleen Woods, a nurse practitioner at the Capital Health Center for Women’s Health in Hamilton, N.J. “I didn’t talk to anybody,” she says, recalling the turmoil that followed the discovery of her husband cheating on her 15 years ago. “I was 39, I had been married for 17 years, and I had three kids. I had a great house—no money problems. People don’t believe you when you say you didn’t know, but I didn’t know.”
While you may have friends and family to turn to, a therapist or support group can be helpful. “I found a therapist who saved my life,” says Woods. If you don’t know where to look, she suggests asking your primary care provider, who likely has a list of recommended psychiatrists and therapists.
Pruitt-Plasterer also found her way with the help of a therapist. “One thousand percent yes you should see a therapist. Your family and friends want to protect you,” she says. “It’s important to have someone who is independent of that to help you move forward.”
Eat, Exercise, Sleep
Many women in the throes of marital turmoil either lose their appetite or start emotionally eating. As a result, extreme weight loss or gain is common. In the weeks that followed her spouse’s admission, Pruitt-Plasterer suffered from panic attacks, depression, and a loss of appetite. “I lost a ton of weight. I just wanted to drink wine and work out.”
Woods advises her patients to eat foods that will boost their immune system. “I say, ‘I know you don’t feel like eating, so when you do eat, eat something that’s nutritious.’”
She also suggests channeling anger in some kind of physical way. “Join the gym, go for walks, try yoga or acupuncture,” says Woods. “We discuss many strategies for anxiety and/or depression before we consider medication.”
But she realizes there are situations that warrant medication to help a woman shake paralyzing depression and anxiety. “If you’re waking up every day and you don’t feel like going to work, you sleep more than usual, and you lose interest in activities where you used to find pleasure, you should see your primary care provider or a therapist,” Woods says.
When you have the energy to re-engage, delve into hobbies or start a new one, Woods says. Set goals, short-term and long-term. Woods started walking, then running, and eventually did a half-marathon and a marathon at age 46. “As I crossed the finish line, I felt like the strongest person in the world, and knew I could overcome anything.”
Pruitt-Plasterer went another route. “I bought a Valentino coat in New York,” she says, laughing. “I started thinking about things I’d always wanted to do. I decided I wanted to be a little spontaneous—I needed to feel who I was.”
For both Woods and Pruitt-Plasterer, doing things that felt empowering led them both to healthier places. “I went to New York for my birthday, which was a distinct turning point. One of my guy friends pulled my chair out and put my coat on for me,” Pruitt-Plasterer recalls. “It was an expression of caring that I hadn’t felt in my marriage. I realized I had been alone for a long time even before my husband left. That helped me move on.”
Although the ordeal was horrible to go through and still hurts to think about, eight years later, Pruitt-Plasterer is re-married and has a 2-year-old son. And she has discovered who she is, she says. “I learned I am a people-pleaser, which doesn’t always serve me well. When you’re constantly trying to attend to other’s needs, you forget your own,” she says. “I know now if I am happy the people around me will be happy.”
While it’s difficult to see through to the other side when you’re in a dark place, Woods says she knows she came through it a better person. “The insomnia, the not eating, the depression—I went through all of that,” Woods says. “But 15 years later, I’ve met a wonderful person, and we’re going to get married. I’ve run three marathons. I’m going to Drexel to pursue my Doctor of Nursing Practice.
I look back and say, Who was that insecure, weak woman? Now I am thankful for life’s events, as difficult as they can be at times, because I found who I was. Now I’m me.”