My Ex Cheated On Me & It Broke Me. Here’s How I Built Myself Back Up

Photographed by Paola Vivas
"I constantly felt like I was second-guessing absolutely everything," Ruby*, 26, tells Refinery29. "I couldn't trust my instincts and I thought everything was my fault all the time." After years of suspicion, lying and gaslighting, Ruby’s partner finally admitted that he’d been cheating on her for the majority of their three-year relationship. 
The first time she found suggestive messages to another girl on his phone, Ruby’s partner was adamant she’d got things wrong. "He told me I was being ridiculous, completely gaslit me and completely nailed me for reading his messages," says Ruby. "He was trying to put me off the tracks, and it worked." Ruby, who had moved to Romania for her partner, headed back home and the pair continued their relationship long-distance. When he finally joined her, she found more "intense" messages to the same girl. Again, she was told that she was being "ridiculous".
Ruby started to believe that she was making things up in her head. She no longer felt confident making decisions about her own life, let alone her relationship. "I didn’t realise how tiny I’d become. I was just completely fixated on trying to be better so that I'd be loved, which was really intense and horrible," she says.

My perspective on my reality of the world and who I was and how I related to things completely shifted, and I just lost all confidence.

Eventually, Ruby’s partner confessed to the cheating and later, after a drawn-out breakup, confirmed the worst: it had been going on the whole time, with multiple people. "It thoroughly screwed over whatever memory I had left of the relationship," she says. "Up to that point I’d been feeling a lot more confident because I thought, at least for a long time, it was solid and good, and we were happy." Realising she’d been deceived for months and years warped Ruby’s worldview. "My perspective on my reality of the world and who I was and how I related to things completely shifted, and I just lost all confidence," she says. 
While much of the discourse around healing from infidelity is centred on learning to trust others, Dr Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist focusing on solutions-based techniques, believes the focus should really be about trusting yourself and your judgement. "Often, people will very quickly wonder what they did wrong or whether they could have done something different," she says. "That's a huge amount of sort of self-criticism and analysis when, generally, it's really not about you, it's about what's going on with them. That can be quite hard to accept." Sometimes, she says, it’s harder to acknowledge the truth: sometimes people we love do selfish things that hurt us. 
If, like Ruby, you’re facing the task of building back your self-esteem after a betrayal, know that although it isn’t easy, it is possible. While it’s important to work on relearning to trust your judgement and rebuilding your self-confidence, both in your decision-making and your view of yourself, Dr Arroll says it takes a lot of time and it’s important to honour that. As she explains, infidelity is a kind of "betrayal trauma" – the trauma that stems from having your trust broken by a loved one, intimate partner or trusted institution. Betrayal trauma can lead people to lose trust in their judgement of others but also of their own reality. "With betrayal trauma, there can be anger, sadness, frustration: a whole roller coaster of emotion," she says – and it’s vital that those feelings aren’t buried. "If we do try to push those feelings away, we can jump into some maladaptive types of behavioural patterns, like jumping into another relationship before we've really had time to process what's happened or turning to substances such as drugs or alcohol, or even doomscrolling on social media." 

Often, people will very quickly wonder what they did wrong or whether they could have done something different. That's a huge amount of sort of self-criticism and analysis when, generally, it's really not about you.

Dr Meg Arroll
Dr Arroll emphasises the importance of feeling your emotions, even if it’s difficult. "One way to do this is by listening to music, which is a really great way to feel your feelings," she says. "So think about creating a playlist relating to the emotions that come up." If you start to feel sad, she says, find a song that helps you feel sad. "It actually helps you to release some of that emotion instead of bottling up, and then once you've worked through those emotions, you can start to rebuild your self-esteem." Otherwise, she says, you're building a bridge on a foundation that's still a bit shaky. "It's a process," she continues. "We all want that quick fix because these feelings are so unpleasant but it’s important to appreciate the process and give it some time, to allow yourself that time to really heal." 
Once you’ve done that, you can begin to rebuild your self-esteem from a healthy, more stable place. Part of this is understanding your own boundaries and requirements in relationships so that you can embark on a new relationship from a place of self-understanding.
"We don’t often pause and think about what it is we want in a relationship so I think shoring out some of your boundaries is a good place to start," says Dr Arroll. It’s important to dig deep into your own psychology and past experiences to understand if you have developed certain patterns in and out of a relationship and become more acquainted with yourself in order to avoid repeating them. "Doing that work can be incredibly powerful going forward," says Dr Arroll. This is especially important for people who have low self-worth. "These are opportunities to look at your behaviour," Dr Arroll continues. She advises looking at your attachment style, although it’s important to note that this is just one psychological framework and isn’t the be-all and end-all of relationship psychology. "Understanding this will allow you to do work on yourself for future relationships," she says. 
This is something Ruby was able to do through around 18 months of therapy. "With my therapist, I discussed my self-esteem and my lack of trust in myself to make good choices, which I had lost," she says. "It really helped and I'm much more aware of my patterns now, but it's all just about positive reinforcement, and it is really tough." 
Ruby also used therapy to help her navigate making decisions about her future and her career. It’s important to rebuild your trust in others post-infidelity but relearning to love yourself and, vitally, believe in your own self-worth should be the number one priority. But remember that this takes time, and patience is key.
You don’t need to be at the pinnacle of self-love to move forward with your life and we should all be taking the steps to become the person we know we can be. Gaslighting and betrayal can cause self-doubt to weigh heavy but, at the end of it all, no love is more important than the love you show yourself.
*Name has been changed
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