Understanding the Pain and Rejection of Infidelity

Submitted by: Erica Manfred

Erica1Women who have been left for another woman describe the experience in extreme terms:  Stella, sixty-two, whose husband left her for someone else after thirty-three years of marriage was typical:  “ I cried every day for two months.  I still cry two years later.  And railed and screamed in the car and burned his suit in effigy in the backyard, every witchy, crazy, demented thing you can think of.

I drove by their house and hid in the bushes.  I could be at work, get overwhelmed and go into the mini gym and cry and walk on the treadmill as fast as I could until it passed.  I lost thirty pounds but gained ten back.  Jangled nerves, twitching eyes, hyper alert. So sad like you wouldn’t believe.  This is the guy I’d been with since age twenty-three, the only guy for more than half my life and all my adult life.  It was depressing that he was pulling away into alcoholism anyway but this was the coup de gras.”

Carol Taylor, fifty-two, who unknowingly moved her whole family to a different state because her husband had a girlfriend there, says, “I was blindsided, every emotion you can imagine.  Furious, sad, terrified, overwhelmed, guilty because I hadn’t been able to protect my children.

I don’t know why I didn’t see the warning signs, he moved because his girlfriend was in Florida.  The move really hurt the kids.  I cried for two years every day so loud you could hear me in the neighborhood.   I found Al-Anon, they got me through.  It’s a godsend and it’s free—you can go fifty times a week if you need to. “

Romantic rejection actually triggers changes in our brains according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has studied the chemistry of romantic love.  Her research was an eye opener for me.  It answered many questions about my own reactions to being cheated on, rejected, and will probably shine some light on yours.

In Cut Loose she describes how brain scans of rejected people suggest that they secrete excess dopamine and cortisol during the initial phase of being rejected.  That’s why rejected lovers get frantic and tend to relentlessly pursue the beloved.  They may also take humiliating measures to reconnect with him, anything from writing letters to storming into the other woman’s home to begging him to change his mind.

Paradoxically, along with the stress and the impulse to protest, abandoned lovers also feel renewed passion.  This has a biological basis.  Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that produces romantic love.  But when love is thwarted, dopamine-producing neurons in the brain’s reward system prolong their activities.  As the beloved slips away, the very chemical that contributes to feelings of romantic love becomes even more potent, creating protest and romantic passion, which impels the abandoned wife to go to extremes to get him back.

I certainly sprang into action as soon as my husband told me he was leaving and tried desperately to hang on to him.  All of a sudden, I felt intense love and attraction for him when previously I’d felt mostly indifference.

Erica3If you ever wondered, like I did, where the intense rage that we jilted wives experience comes from, brain chemistry goes a long way to explain it. .  It seems that love and hate/rage are connected in the brain.   The primary rage system is closely linked to centers in the prefrontal cortex that anticipate rewards.   The common response to unfulfilled expectations is known as ‘frustration-aggression.’

In short, when people and other animals begin to realize that an expected reward is in jeopardy, even unattainable, these centers in the prefrontal cortex trigger fury.   Both love and hate produce excessive energy, drive you to focus obsessively on the beloved and cause intense yearning.  They can exist simultaneously, which is why we vacillate wildly between love and hate when in the throes of being rejected.

“You can be terribly angry at a rejecting sweetheart,” says Fisher, “but still very much in love.”  This reaction explains why jilted lovers stalk and sometimes kill their exes, or even resort to suicide.  Men commit the majority of homicides while women may attempt suicide.

Luckily, many suicidal women fail to kill themselves because they’re probably making the attempt to manipulate the rejecting husband into returning.  However, many do succeed even if they didn’t really intend to die.  Even though our strongest drive is survival, the drive to love can triumph even over the will to live.

Eventually these feelings wane and you must deal with another form of torture, hopelessness and despair.  In a study of 114 men and women who had been rejected within the past eight weeks, some forty percent experienced ‘clinically measurable depression..  The expression, dying of a broken heart, is not just hyperbole.  People do actually die of a broken heart.

They expire from heart attacks or strokes caused by their depression.  These statistics probably come from a study of rejection in college students where most psychologists do their studies.  If clinical depression is that common after rejection when you’re just dating, imagine how severe it is after twenty years of marriage.  Fisher compares the process to the infant mammal when separated from its mother.  When you isolate a  puppy in the kitchen at first it protests.  Eventually, however, it curls up in a corner in a despondent heap.

It’s amazing so many of us survive, and actually bounce back to find a better life.  As severe as our response is to grief, for almost all of us the will to survive is stronger.  We’re programmed to forget and go on.  I often think of what it must have been like in earlier days when women lost so many children before age five.  Their grief was just as intense as ours would be at such a loss, but they got over it and bore more children or the human race wouldn’t have survived.  We have inherited this ability to grieve and go on.   The expression “time heals” is very accurate.

Of course, not all of us suffer equally.  How we react depends on many things, including our upbringing.  The same women who deal best with loneliness because they had secure attachments as children, have the self-esteem and resilience  to overcome a romantic setback relatively quickly.

Those of us who grew up in tense, loveless homes where we constantly had to deal with chaos or rejection, are often left with few defenses after being dumped.  Biology plays a part as well. We all know women with sunny dispositions, who always see the glass as half full.  They take everything, including being left for another woman, with more equanimity and bounce back more quickly.

Erica Manfred is the author of He’s History You’re Not, Surviving Divorce After 40.  She has written for Cosmopolitan, New York Times Magazine, Ms., Parenting, Women’s Day, and Bottom Line/Personal.  She currently runs a women’s divorce support group in her hometown of Woodstock, New York.


  1. 1


    I think we’ve all felt, at some point in our lives, these intense feelings that you’re talking about. If we were animals that relied purely on instinct then we would succumb to our less rational natures. Fortunately for most of us we are able to save ourselves in time with reason. While we certainly have the impulse to damage either ourselves or our partners in the name of love we have the benefit of being able to restrain ourselves. That’s most of us. Some people can’t control themselves and that’s when you see the suicides, the crying all the time, murders and stalking. Makes me glad we aren’t all a bunch of monkeys. Of course, some people really aren’t much better. Thanks for the good read!

  2. 2


    A few comments. Often we take our spouses for granted over time. Then, when they are leaving, whoops, I better do nice things and think about not having him/her.

    Hard part for the jilted is the cheater has already left the building!
    Very difficult to go to bed in love with your spouse, and then expect not to be after being told the next morning he/she is leaving for someone else. Brain just can’t handle that stimulus and sort of goes into spasms. Reasons for such major reactions and emotions. Not hard to understand, but devastating to cope with.

    So many things done after the split is done to get the others attention. Either hoping for the return, or showing I am just fine without you.

  3. 3

    Joyce says

    My husband cheated and was the woman’s sex slave (tied to her bed) for ten years. I am so embarassed. Is is possible to forgive a man that went that far in an affair?

  4. 4


    Hi Joyce, has he asked for your forgiveness. For me forgiveness would depend on how willing he is to work through the issue and pain his behavior has caused you.

    Only you know if the marriage is worth saving or he is worth forgiving. I wish you well regardless of what decision you make.

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    Jane says

    10 days ago, I found out that, for at least 3 years, my husband (of 25 years) has been having sex with the woman who he brought into my home as his ‘secretary’ (he works from home) while I was out at work. I found various sex ‘toys’ hidden in the office and after his initial denials, the game was up. I always suspected it but he denied it every time I asked him. He says they didn’t do it in my bed but I no longer believe anything he says. Of course, he blamed me for everything – I wasn’t a loving wife, I didn’t seem to need him, blah blah blah. I am utterly distraught; I can’t eat or sleep, I have pains in my chest – I have no idea where I go from here. Interestingly, as I write this, he is in the kitchen enjoying the meal he has just cooked himself. I can only consume gin and tonic. And, while my marriage is now over, his mistress comes away unscathed because her husband doesn’t know a thing about his wife’s behaviour. My dilemma now is, do I drop him a line?

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