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How to be human: I cheated on my girlfriend — is it possible to win her back?

Janet Ramsden

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 wish to start by saying I have NEVER reached out for guidance via a column, but for progress we must try new things. I am 29 years of age. You can call me Andres.

My story will seem to be an age-old tale: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, then boy cheats on girl (stupid boy / men).

My ex-girlfriend and I were together for 15 months. Now that I look back, those months were beautiful. I know, sometimes after a breakup we put our previous relationship on a pedestal, but it's been three weeks to a month since the breakup, so I believe I am seeing it clearly. Our relationship was good and fair; she was great and so accommodating to my needs, as I attempted to be to hers, as well.

But in the end I strayed with someone I had dated before. I believe I strayed only for sexual gratification and that, in the end, I loved my then-girlfriend. She was the only person in my heart, even though I shared my body and time with someone else. Needless to say, my now-ex found out and she made me realize how damaged a person — not to mention a man — I am. During the breakup, I took the time to reflect. I apologized to her and I reached out to some women in my past and also apologized for hurting them.

I have accepted responsibility for my actions and the hurt I have caused. I am disgusted with myself. That emotion sneaks up on me at random moments, and it takes effort to fight back my tears. I was shown that I have a problem with lying and expressing myself clearly and honestly (thanks to my ex). I want to be with her in the end because, when I am a better person, I do believe we can have the "happy ever after." The thought of another person hurting her like I did hurts as much as the idea of what I caused. Please help me, Leah. I don't know how to navigate this period in my journey of life and self-discovery.

Andres

Hey Andres,

In my last column, I answered a letter from a woman who couldn’t get over her cheating ex. So I guess this week I’m flipping things around to look at a very similar situation, but from the other side.

Oh, Andres. You definitely fucked up. Like I’ve said before, we all fuck up. Sometimes in big, big ways. But this one’s yours so I’m not going to sugarcoat it, because that would be a great disservice to you. You’ve asked me for help, and I think you really want it. Please know I’m going to be tough on you, but there will be good things, too.

So yes, you hurt and betrayed someone who loved you and was a good, kind partner. You broke her trust.

I know you know this, or you wouldn’t have written me, but I don’t know if you really know it. It’s not clear that you truly get how badly you hurt your ex. You know why I say that? Because right now you’re focusing a lot on how badly you feel. Like, when you think about what you’ve done and it seems to rip open your guts every time. Or when you run out and apologize to other women you’ve hurt, which maybe is sincere but maybe is more about you looking for validation from other women who can tell you you’re really an okay guy and not as bad as the cheating makes it seem. You feel so badly that you’re telling me, "It’s been three or four weeks since the breakup but okay, okay, I totally get it! I want her back! I DO NOT WANT TO FEEL THIS SHITTY ANYMORE."

It’s not clear that you truly get how badly you hurt your ex

Ah yes. You want to feel better about yourself and what you did. In your subject line, you say you want to be able to forgive yourself, but what I think is you want is to stop feeling guilty. You want your ex back because that will mean you’re forgiven and can stop feeling so shitty. And also now you’ve learned the hard way that being with her is what you want.

Don’t get me wrong, Andres, these are completely normal desires. And honestly, I do want you to be able to forgive yourself. It’s going to be necessary for this journey you’re on. Plus, I don’t think "you fucked up" means "you should be tormented and miserable for life." Although, I confess, I have wanted that for certain exes myself.

But first I want you to sit for a minute and consider this: fixing things, feeling better, and getting your girlfriend back is making it about you. And don’t you think that’s kind of been the problem all along?

You’ve spent years making things very much about you

You tell me you have a pattern: you lie and are bad at expressing yourself clearly and honestly. A lot of people have trouble expressing themselves clearly, so I read this as "sometimes you lie outright, sometimes you lie by omission, you fudge the details, or you rely on loopholes and technicalities." Maybe this pattern also means you’ve cheated before, or maybe you’ve hidden the truth in ways that have betrayed and hurt people who cared for you. Whatever it is, it’s a selfish way of being. You’ve spent years making things very much about you: your needs, your desires, your comfort, your feelings. Lying and hiding and cheating are all part of acting like the world revolves around you, that your desires are paramount, and that other people exist only as reflections of you. It’s like those people are concepts or ideas, rather than human beings with feelings and needs of their own.

I would like to pause here to highlight something: remember what I said last week, about that ex? How his cheating was always about him and wasn’t a reflection of her? Same here. This isn’t about the women, it’s about you. This is about something going on inside you that makes you act selfishly, some way of seeing yourself and being in the world that keeps you from seeing how much your actions affect other people.

What I don’t see in your letter is anything about how your ex-girlfriend feels (besides super fucking angry for very reasonable reasons). And good on her for being very honest about them in a way that made you sit up and take note. But Andres, you don’t acknowledge how shitty she feels right now. The whole letter is about you: how she was a good girlfriend to you, how she is in your heart, how she got you to see what a shit you were, how you’ve reflected, how you’ve apologized, how you want to just feel better. Don’t you think she wants to feel better, too? And maybe her feeling better might be more important right now, even if it means you don’t get what you want?

Here’s some good news, Andres: I think there’s a part of you that sincerely wants to change this. I believe it. I think you finally hurt someone in such a way that it hurt you; it caused you to lose something you realize you wanted very much. Which is a little bit of what these women have experienced over the years! Yeah, that’s still a selfish way of being, but let’s take our victories where we can.

Accepting responsibility is a great first step. I’m glad you’ve apologized, and I’m glad you see what a huge mistake this was. But the next step isn’t "reach out to a bunch of women I previously hurt so they can hopefully forgive me and make me feel better." The next step is also not "when will my ex forgive me." There’s so much to do first.

I know it seems like an eternity since you broke up, because few things make time pass like sludge in a backed-up drain like the terrible shitty feeling of heartbreak that you caused. But it’s only been four weeks. FOUR WEEKS. That’s the blink of an eye, my friend. Real change doesn’t happen that quickly. Real change takes time and a lot of hard work.

Accepting responsibility is a great first step

Most importantly, you need to do more than reflect if you want to change this part of yourself. You need to do that hard work. You need to figure out how to change this pattern of behavior, how to stop lying and hiding the truth. Find a therapist who can help you get to the bottom of this, help you identify when and why you do these things, so you can learn different ways of being in the world and treating other people.

Your ex-girlfriend forgiving you won’t fix this, because the thing that needs to be fixed is inside you. This one huge epiphany doesn’t mean you won’t do it again, or you won’t fall into familiar habits. Changing those behaviors is work you need to do. In doing that, you probably have a better chance of her forgiving you, although I have no idea whether she will. Hurt, betrayal, and broken trust don’t heal quickly. They certainly don’t heal in four weeks. Moving beyond something like this requires a lot of work, and the problem is that you need to work on yourself first. This isn’t a one-time mistake, it’s a pattern.

You forgiving yourself is a part of the process, yes, but changing and forgiving yourself isn’t just about making you feel better. It’s about making you better.

Lx