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How to be human: what comes after an affair

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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. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Leah,

Not sure if this is still a good way to reach you, but I need some help.

Backstory: I'm a 10-year combat veteran with PTSD. I've lost a marriage, friends, and now my girlfriend of four years.

We've been on-again, off-again for the past two years. Every time it was her decision to break up, and every time I accepted her back. During a few of the breaks I started seeing other women because I wanted the attention. I broke them off immediately and tried to make things work with her.

The last time was another big break, and when we were together, I found some disturbing text messages to a cousin of hers stating, "I wish I was with his fine ass" (referring to a guy she spent time with between each of our breakups this year). Finding those messages made me feel really insecure, and I reached out to a girl who was completely into me, the one I left to make things work out with my ex again. Time had passed and I again was feeling lonely in the relationship, so I cheated on my girlfriend. Fast forward. The girl I cheated on her with told her everything. My girlfriend was devastated, disgusted, hurt, sad, and broken.

At first she found comfort in me, and we slept together twice after the breakup. I had a feeling of hope, that we could work things out. Then a switch flipped — she completely hated me and since then has wanted nothing to do with me.

I've tried reaching out to her, just to feel her out, but she keeps it short and cold. I don't know what to do! I want her back, I helped her raise her daughter for the last four years, and I miss her just as much! It's killing me. I deserve everything that's coming to me, but I want to know if there's something I can do to salvage my mistake and get her back in my life. Please help! Thank you!

What A Mess

Hey WHAM,

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about cheating. Not that cheating is an unusual issue for an advice column, and I’ve gotten letters about them before, but it seemed like there were more of those sorts of letters coming in than normal, at least from people who had cheated rather than those who had been cheated on. Anyway, I bring this up because it reminds me how complicated humans are, and at the same time, how very simple.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about cheating over the years. I’ve talked to a lot of people about cheating — why they did it, why they do it, why they wanted to do it, why they forgave someone who cheated, why they didn’t. I’m going to paint with some very broad brush strokes here and say that people’s reasons for cheating tend to fall into roughly one or more of the following categories:

  1. Humans make dumb choices, rather a lot;
  2. Humans sometimes use a crutch or a wakeup call to get out of a situation, even though it would be better if they would figure things out without one;
  3. Humans have a hard time being honest with themselves and with others, which is why they think that crutch is necessary, even though in retrospect they realize it would have been easier to do something different, like talk about what they need or simply leave;
  4. Humans are often ruled by their dumb lizard brains because we are basically animals with credit cards and anxiety medication;
  5. Humans are capable of extraordinary selfishness and less good at remembering how that selfishness will impact someone else; and
  6. Humans like to think they’re the one who’ll get away with it.

I invite the writers of the other letters to think about which of these categories they fall into. You, WHAM, get to hear it from me: You’ve hit all of the categories. Bingo!

Now, I want you to know that I do not think cheating automatically means you’re a monster or someone who doesn’t deserve love. Lots — lots and lots, significantly more than you’d think — of people cheat. Many of their partners forgive them! Maybe they don’t sleep with someone else but they fool around, or they have an emotional affair, or they do whatever it is that violates the explicit boundaries of their primary relationship. People make terrible mistakes and choices. Sometimes they extend these mistakes into long-term decisions that cause enormous amounts of damage.

Let me be blunt: You and your ex should not be together, at least not right now. Maybe not ever. Something about the two of you doesn’t work, in part because you’re repeating the same pattern over and over, except an escalated version of it each time. I am absolutely sure you love her, and I’m sure that underneath her anger she loves you, or at least she did. But just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can or should be with them. Why am I so certain of this? Because if you two were supposed to be together, you would have worked it out by now and you wouldn’t be leaving a trail of destruction in your combined wake that includes not only you and her but also her daughter and all the other people you two are sleeping with.

Believe me honey, if you haven’t made a real go of it after two years of this up and down business, you’re not going to, not without a long break and a lot of work.

So now let me be as gentle as I possibly can: I think this was your crutch. Not in the “now I know how much I love her” way but in the “something is not working” way. You say you needed attention, but that’s a way of saying you weren’t happy. Except you didn’t tell your ex that you weren’t happy, that the messages made you insecure, and that the repeated breakups made you feel bad. You didn’t tell her you needed something more from her, and this time, it was you who might need to walk away. Instead, you cheated. Maybe it seemed easier or maybe you finally wanted to get back at her. Or maybe you aren’t sure you deserve the relationship you wished you could have, so you accepted the one she was willing to give. The two of you played a very bad game of her dumping you, each of you dating other people, and you welcoming her back, over and over. Neither of you felt secure in the relationship or like you were getting what you wanted, but neither of you got honest about what that would look like and what it would require from each of you.

The way you salvage your mistake is you leave your ex alone for a while. Like, at least a few months, maybe longer. You could send a note that says you want to give her space, but you’d like to make sure you are there for her daughter, and if that’s at all possible, to let you know. That might not be in the cards right now, which is a shame — not as much for you as it is for the little girl.

While you’re leaving your ex alone, take some time to work on yourself. I don’t know if you’re in therapy or if you do any sort of meditation or yoga or mindfulness work, but I get this sense that the up-and-down-ness of your relationship actually felt kind of... normal or okay to you. You’ve obviously been through an enormous amount over the past decade plus, and I am concerned there’s a part of you that’s mistaking this repeated rejection / renewal cycle as something you deserve or the best you can have. You’ve lost a lot over the past ten years — a marriage, friendships, a specific life you probably expected to live for a long time. I want to make sure you’re not repeatedly taking someone back because you’re afraid that’s the only way to keep from losing someone else, and similarly I want to make sure you’re not sabotaging a relationship because you feel like you don’t really deserve it.

The truth is that you did something wrong, and you do need to take responsibility for it. But use this chance to think about what you really deserve more broadly. Two things are true: You made a mistake and right now, and you’re suffering for it; but you also are allowed to want a stable, good relationship that doesn’t require you to take someone back over and over. Just because some people have left doesn’t mean everyone will. Maybe contending with your mistake will allow you to contend with what you’ve lost over these years and what it is you’d really like to find.

Lx