In her former life, Emily “Gynomite” Gordon was a couples and family therapist licensed in 2 1/2 states. In this life, she’s a freelance fighter of your emotional woes with Ask Gynomite. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org- all emails stay confidential. Today, Gynomite takes on post cheating relationships when you’re the asshole.
A brief summary: I broke up with a 1.5-year boyfriend last June and immediately started talking to his charming-but-skeevy friend online. Things got sexual fast, I bought a plane ticket to go and visit him in August. In July, I started hooking up with my best friend in Chicago. It was fun but I didn’t trust him to want to be in a relationship. He said if I went to Houston to visit the other guy, we would be over. I went anyway, lied about it, and he found out. He forgave me, sort of, and we started dating. I told him I had stopped talking to the other guy, which wasn’t true. I went to visit the other guy again in September, cheating on my boyfriend. In October, my boyfriend read my email and found out everything, including a lot of not-flattering emails I sent to my friends about my boyfriend, his intelligence, etc. etc. Really, really shitty stuff.
My boyfriend and I are still dating, and everything is awful. For the last nine months (and keep in mind we’ve only been dating 11), our entire lives have revolved around what I did. He gets angry a lot, I get sad a lot. I can’t go three minutes without thinking about what I did, how terrible I am, how I ruined my life, etc. Oh, also, since October, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with my boyfriend. I don’t understand why I cheated on him, except that I was completely infatuated with this manipulative, alcoholic douchebag (who I don’t speak to anymore, since my boyfriend found out). My boyfriend is so funny and interesting and hot and awesome at sex. Last night I brought up this poem randomly, and he was like, “GOD I LOVE THAT POEM.” This doesn’t just happen with anyone; we’ve known each other for years and I’ve always been into him. I just want to marry him, and I can’t because of what I did.
I don’t know what to do, Emily. I feel absolutely tortured constantly. I know I’m an awful person. I cannot forgive myself for what I did to him. He says we need to break up, but we never seem to — every day, it’s just easier to go home (we live together, though I have my own separate apartment) and watch TV and play DIII and say we’ll do it tomorrow. I just don’t know how to get over what I did. It hurts so much. I feel like I had this chance to be happy with my honest-to-God soulmate, and I blew it because I’m a selfish bitch. It seems so difficult to move out, make new friends, talk to other guys — without thinking about him and comparing other people to him constantly. We get along so well, and I don’t feel that way about everyone.
Holy shit, this sounds like a miserable situation for both of you. I feel for both of you, but obviously perhaps him a little bit more, but I’m not going to try to shame you more than you’ve probably already shamed yourself.
The absolute first thing I will say is that you have to stop tiptoeing around this issue, and you need to start aggressively dealing with it. Like, tonight. You need to sit down with him and the two of you need to decide that now is the time to focus on the betrayal and whether or not your relationship is salvageable. It’s just going to keep festering otherwise, because betrayals don’t go away with time- they shrink, slightly, with effort and respect and understanding. They never go away.
You absolutely must get into couples counseling immediately. This stuff is too dangerous to handle on a Tuesday when you both have lunch hours free. This needs to be dealt with in a sacred, safe space that doesn’t belong to either of you. If you want to stay with him, this is essential. Before you go to therapy, I do have a few questions for you, and I don’t need to know the answers as much as I’d like you and your boyfriend to consider them for therapy.
1) What on earth caused him to stay with you after he found you cheated on him only a few months into the relationship? Was it a decision that he made, or was the decision to not do anything and just keep things as is?
Part of this is that your boyfriend has been fairly powerless in this situation, and he needs to get some of the power back. If he wants to be with you, then he needs to make the decision to forgive (the process of forgiveness can be worked out in therapy), and if he wants to decide to not be with you, that decision needs to be made too, rather than just being another thing that he’s powerlessly been sidelined into.
2) What’s your day to day status- is he constantly holding it over your head, are you constantly holding it over your own head? Are you feeling punished on a daily basis?
I don’t get a real sense of your boyfriend, but if every day for you is “Well, I could do the dishes, but you cheated on my several times so maybe you should do them?”, then you need to get out. A relationship that is built only on resentment and revenge is not a relationship.
3) What was going on with you when you made the decision to cheat on your hookup/boyfriend the first time? Why was he more appealing than the guy you were with, and are still with?
Because here’s the thing: there is something going on with YOU that caused you to flee a burgeoning relationship, lie, and go sleep with a douchebag. Cheating that requires a round trip flight is serious fucking business, done with intent. You have to figure out why you did it- it had nothing to do with either guy, but rather something in yourself. Cheating never happens in a vacuum, but for both your boyfriend’s and your own sake, you need to work this out. Perhaps you only enjoy things when they feel illicit and new, because it keeps you from having to be vulnerable in front of other people. Perhaps you are so frightened of actual commitment that you only fall for people you cannot have- a douchebag in another city, a man you cheated on. Perhaps you’re more in love with a fantasy of a love story rather than the day to day doldrums of a love story. This is something that you need to be aware of in yourself, and something that it probably wouldn’t hurt to reveal to your boyfriend either.
4) Are you sure that you actually fell in love with him after the cheating, or are you just obsessed with your own repentance, and that self-flagellation looks a bit like love?
This is important. From what you described, it does sound like you specifically love him and are not just trying to spin your wheels in a relationship that was killed shortly after it began, but for his sake, please make sure that you are actually in love with him, the person.
If he’s willing to do all this with you, then he’ll need to see specific, concrete behaviors that will indicate your trustworthiness and his willingness to trust again. It’ll need to be a slow, well-documented process. It’s doable, but it’ll be tough, and both of you will need to be on board.