Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I have broken things off with what seemed to be the love of my life. I am 26 and we've been together for nearly 7 years, he is the first and only person I ever loved. He is the first person who supported me and believed in me. We had a quite dysfunctional relationship first few years (verbal abuse, consent issues, he was lying a lot etc), but never ended things because we had a very strong connection, fierce love, and belief that no one could understand us better than we understand one another. I was his first sexual partner and though he was not mine, the experiences I had before were almost all crappy. After around 2 years he admitted he cheated on me with another woman. I was crushed, and it was so immensely painful. I always had very low self-esteem (though it's better now), and we lived together then, so felt like I had no place to go or money to move out, and I decided to forgive. I am not proud of this next part, but I rationalized that if I did the same to him, we would somehow "be even" and could start fresh, so I slept with someone else after the initial pain of his infidelity wore off (1-2 years after). I know that was pretty fucked up. Two years ago, we moved to a new city, and although I have two friends here, my family lives in another country and he has been my main support. Yesterday, I found out he cheated again (though we agreed to be monogamous) and kept it a secret for the past two years. I can never trust him again. He wants to "get me back" and does not believe it's over. It sucks, because the thing I want most is to hug him like before and feel that love, that feeling that everything is alright again. But that would be self-deception? How do I stay strong and not give in? I am so enormously tempted. How do I forget someone I thought I'll spend my life with?
(For context: I developed clinical depression and anxiety disorder in the middle of our relationship, which runs in the family. I am taking some meds, and go to group therapy.)
(Sorry for my bad English, it's not my mother tongue.)
First off, let me say that it takes a lot of courage to end a relationship that isn't working, especially when it involves your first love, years of work, and the mingling of stuff and resources that is cohabitation. But it's clear that you relationship wasn't what you thought or agreed it was or would be -- honest and monogamous -- and you're already going to be in pain because of that. Ending the relationship adds to the pain, but re-starting it won't end it.
At the end of the day, he knows how deeply he hurt you by cheating the first time. You say he supported you and believed in you, and yet knowing how awful cheating made you feel the first time, and how much work you've done to build and recover your self-esteem and deal with your depression, he did it again... and then he waited two years, until you were almost entirely dependent on his support, to tell you. These are not the actions of a person who unconditionally loves and supports their partner, these are the actions of a person who willingly hurts someone who loves him and uses it as a form of control or to give himself a sense of power in the relationship.
That he started the relationship as verbally abusive, coercive, and dishonest but you supposedly stayed together because of your understanding of one another does not give me good feelings either about his supposed reformation. If someone loves and understands you, they don't abuse you or coerce you and they don't have to lie to you, especially if they themselves feel understood. That he might have ended those behaviors after cheating the first time almost suggests that his ways of hurting you got more subtle and harder for you to identify as hurtful and problematic.
I think it is absolutely human nature, after having relied on someone's support through so many crises for so long, to want their support in this crisis. I have myself often cried on the shoulders of the people who hurt me, and sought solace for the pain someone caused me in the arms of the person who caused it. Is that healthy? Probably not really, especially when the person in question here has hurt you so fundamentally and deliberately -- and twice in exactly the same way. What support is he really giving you? If he didn't want to make you cry, why continue to hurt you?
The way to stay strong and not give in is frankly to allow yourself to hurt, and to really think about all the terrible parts of this long relationship rather than focusing on the good things you think you miss. I know if can be hard to assess this when you're hurting, but if he really loved, supported and understood you, he wouldn't have hurt you over and over again -- and, obviously, just because he did hurt you doesn't mean that you can't or won't find someone who gives you the love and support you wanted and wanted to believe you had. But you can't and won't find a person who does if you go back to and stay with someone who's proven time and again that he cannot or will not give you what you need out of a relationship or deserve out of a partner.
And while I applaud the fact that you are on meds for your depression and in group therapy, you need to make sure at this time that group therapy is enough for you. Obviously triggers like a bad break-up can worsen depression, and group therapy might not be the right environment for you to deal with the extra issues brought up by the end of this relationship. Take some time to identify whether it's enough to you, even in consultation with your group therapy leader, and what resources you can line up (including free- or low-cost counseling and a personal therapist) in case your depression worsens because of the triggers you're facing.
And once you've over this hump -- I promise, there is an over-this-hump place after every break-up -- think about what you really need out of a relationship, why you stayed in this rollercoaster of a relationship for so long, and whether that served your needs. Mutual infidelity (i.e., non-consensual non-monogamy) might be a sign that you were dating a jerk and being untrue to your own personal values when you engaged in the tit-for-tat, or they might be a reason to have a conversation with yourself about why you think monogamy is important or why it might not work for you. The fact that you had some early bad sex (pretty common, by the way) does not mean that everyone but your ex is bad at sex, but it's probably important to explore why one of your justifications about staying in dysfunctional relationship was the good sex. The fact that you forgave his first confessed infidelty even though you didn't really want to because of a feeling of financial dependence might be a reason to consider your relationships to money and love, and learn how to build and maintain at least some financial independence even while in a relationship. And, in general, you probably need to dig a bit to unearth the social forces that shape our desires to stay in even bad relationships at some pretty terrible costs, from the way that society values women on the marriage path more to the idea that getting into a relationship, any relationship, is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, and figure out how, if at all, those social strictures shaped your decisions.
Finally: the desire to be understood, deeply and at our core, drives a lot of relationships and relationship-seeking behavior. Finding that with someone can be incredibly euphoric, but when you haven't felt understood before and it comes out of a dysfunctional relationship or a terrible partner, it can also be a powerful obstacle to getting out and allowing yourself to be free to find the understanding with someone who is a good partner and with whom you can have a functional relationship. You have seven years of knowledge about your prior partner, what he's done to you and is likely to do again -- after all, if you keep taking him back, what are the real consequences for his actions? -- and how that hurts you, makes you feel terrible about yourself and makes you want to leave the relationship. How understood and loved can you really be by someone who makes you feel that way?
You won't forget him, because he was seven years of your life, after all. But also don't forget what else he put you through, how you managed despite that to build self-esteem, leave him when you knew he couldn't give you what you wanted and, eventually, that you came out the other side with that self-esteem intact and the knowledge that you can be happy without him and find someone who doesn't just understand you, but understands how and why not to hurt you.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com