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How to be human: I was the other woman — now what?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

I must first mention that English is not my native language, and apologize for the quirks of my writing. I hope I make sense.

About a year and a half ago, I started working with someone and soon became friends. I was in a complex relationship with someone else, and after six months I found in my new friend a receptive and kind listener. I was attracted to him but he had a girlfriend. I was living with someone so I decided not to act on my feelings.

Three months ago, I started feeling really unhappy and vulnerable. My companion was out of town for a month and I called my friend. He told me he had dreamt (dreams are very important in his culture) of me telling him I liked him or, rather, fancied him. The next day, we slept together and he began to talk about us being in a relationship. He told me to break up with my companion, which I did, and that he would break up with his girlfriend. He did not. Instead he told me he had discussed our relationship with her and told her he was really fond of me. He said she was okay with us seeing each other. I kept seeing him, almost every day, pulled and twisted by guilt and fear of loneliness, both happy and miserable.

And, then, at some point, the inevitable occurred: his girlfriend caught us together. They did not live together, but one evening someone rang his door and it was her. She was flabbergasted by the situation. He had obviously not described to her the extensive nature of our relationship. I was just as taken aback and humiliated. She forbid him any contact with me but he did not obey her.

Then, I began to be "less" everything. I was conflicted and miserable. He told me he was going to break up with her one day, then the next day that they had "indestructible bonds," and he was intoxicated for the better part of the day, every day. One night we were supposed to see each other, but he had caught her flu, so I sent him a composed message, explaining to him I could not carry on living in lies and uncertainty. I would not see him till he was in a clear situation. He could choose to break up with her or not, it was his decision.

We both had exams. We passed each other in the halls and he acted very cold, as if we did not know each other. He told me a week ago he had broken up with her but he did not want to be with me, because I am not a well-balanced person and we are not a match. But he wants to remain friends with me and has been calling me every day ever since.

I wonder what I can do. Is it good that I remain friends with him? I feel weird about the whole thing. What should I do?

Thanks,
Puzzled

Hey Puzzled,

I can't beat around the bush with this one, friend: you fucked up.

Hang on! Please know that I'm not saying that to be mean. I'm not judging you, or telling you you're a bad person, or even saying anything much about cheating. Cheating is, like the rest of adult relationships, complicated by the fact that it involves humans. And those humans and those choices are the ones I mentioned above — sometimes people do things they never in a million years imagined they'd be capable of, or things they swore they'd never do because those things are not okay. But these things happen, so rather than condemn them we should figure out why so we can keep them from happening again.

And please know this, too. Me saying you you fucked up is also me saying you can make things better. All people fuck up — all of us do. But not everyone handles themselves well after the fact.

So the answer to your question is straightforward. What you should do is stop talking to this person completely. Tell him you don't want to be his friend and in fact no longer wish to have any contact with him. If he continues to call or text, block his number on your phone. Automatically send his emails to spam or trash. Unfriend and unfollow him from all social media.

Or, in the words of one of my best friends, go listen to Kanye's "Runaway" every time you even think of texting this guy.

But just because this guy is a douchebag (I know English is not your first language, so in case douchebag doesn't translate for you, let's go with asshole) doesn't let you off the hook here. So let's forget about him (forever) and instead focus on you and what happened here.

The whole situation starts with a very innocent-sounding excuse way up in the beginning of your letter. You were feeling vulnerable and unhappy. You were lonely. Your partner was away. So you call up your friend and he, like many manipulative people, knew you were in a vulnerable spot. He made you feel wanted. He gave you what you were looking for, probably even what you were hungering for, and you gorged. It happens. It happens to a lot of us.

Anyway, when you're in this bad place, in swoops Mr. Wrong. Somehow he gets you to dump your partner while convincing you that he doesn't need to dump his. And you believed him. Why? Because insecurity tells you that you're not worth more, and fear tells you to put up with shit you know you shouldn't accept, and unhappiness makes you want to fill the big, sad hole inside you with anything that feels good, even if it's going to feel bad in the long run.

All people fuck up — all of us do

You were in a relationship with someone else. And yeah, you broke it off. But using a crutch to leave someone — again, many of us have done it! — is a bad plan. It's not even a plan. It's an off-the-cuff reaction to something much bigger and deeper, something very real. A bad relationship or a relationship that isn't right. Knowing you want something else but being too afraid to go get it, too unsure that you can do it alone. Too unsure that you can even be alone. Sure, you can say, "Well, but at least I broke up with my partner when I realized I'd cheated" or "Hey, this helped me realize I needed to leave," but those are excuses after the fact.

Do you see where I'm going with this, Puzzled? We don't even need to get to the part where you continued seeing him, even after you knew what an asshole he was to his ex-girlfriend and to you. We don't need to get to how, when you finally stood up and broke it off for real, he suddenly didn't think you were compatible. We don't even need to get to the fact that you'd consider being friends with this guy, despite what happened the last time you were friends.

We need to focus on the fact that you've gotten yourself into a mess because you're not happy. You're insecure. You're terrified of being alone, because then you have to actually figure out who you are and whether you like that person.

Puzzled, as a person who has been single an awful lot, I can tell you right now: being alone is pretty great. It's great because you can figure out what makes you — YOU — happy. Everything you do and don't like about yourself. The stuff you can let go and the stuff you can fix. You can build a life that's all yours and that allows you to feel at home in your own skin. Ultimately, the reward of doing that is your own life. And sure, being healthy might attract healthier people. This life might help you find someone who's actually good for you, and who loves you at your best rather than seduces you at your worst. But the bigger thing it does is provide you with a place from which you can be strong and honest, and more importantly, alone without fear. There's no guarantee you'll be with someone forever, or always have a person in your life. You might get married and divorced, or your life partner might die before you. Yes, there will be other people who you'll love and who will love you, but the only constant is you. So go figure out how to love that person, and hopefully that will keep you from situations that serve only to hurt everyone.

Lx