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Cheating: Should It Be An Eye for An Eye?

I’ve tried forgiving my live-in boyfriend for cheating on me (during a business trip) last year. He came home and promptly confessed, and after several weeks of shock, tears, fights, and a few therapy appointments, I thought I had let it go. Of course he’s sworn it’ll never happen again. I actually believe him, but here’s the problem: Deep down I just don’t think I’ll totally get over it until I pay him back. I want to be honest with him about this, get a free pass for the next time I’m out of town, and finally be done with it. I think, at bottom, I believe in an eye for an eye. But I know that doesn’t sound very evolved or trustworthy, and I don’t want to make more drama with him. I don't just want closure. Closure with consequences is what I want.  

He Said: Before we start any relationship, we evaluate what we’re willing to give versus what we’re expecting to get. And maintaining a balance between the two is fine for business and casual connections. But the deeper you enter into a committed relationship with someone, the less energy you should put into emotional accounting between the two of you because there are now three accounts to keep funded: yours, your partner’s, and your relationship’s. And the more you focus on keeping you and your partner equal, the more underfunded your relationship can get.

What your boyfriend did was wrong, and you’ve got every right to continue to feel cheated and pissed. The switch from anger to forgiveness isn’t a light switch; you can’t just say “I forgive you” and it’s done. It’s a flickering bulb that eventually burns out when you don’t need it anymore. So any closure you’ll receive from forgiveness may be a long time in coming. The longer we are with someone, the greater the likelihood that we will disappoint and hurt them at some point. If you stay with your boyfriend long enough, someday you will do or fail to do something that will hurt him terribly. You may be able to negotiate a “pass” to restore a balance between you two for the time being, but it won’t be a “free” one. In all likeliehood, it will weaken your relationship and make it more likely that when you hurt your boyfriend someday, he’ll want the right to hurt you back as well.

She Said: This is downright biblical. If you’re an Old Testament kind of girl, then an eye for an eye—or a screw for a screw, as the case may be—could certainly be informative, even if it doesn’t solve the problem. I guarantee it will switch things up: You’ll likely feel less angry and more guilty, while your boyfriend will feel more angry at you, and less guilty about his own transgression. Will that eventually balance things out? I don’t know, but I’m not going to automatically dissuade you from trying it if something deep down is saying, “Screw forgiveness. I don’t feel like being a doormat.” Despite the fact that we all shroud our relationship talk in New Agey models of mutuality and forgiveness, deeper down some part of us is always engaging in transactions and keeping score. That part may not like to admit it, or ever speak of it, but if one partner consistently and for many years “makes way” for the other, or gives more, or forgives more, be assured the giver will either suffer the consequences (through depression, illness, and the like) or find a way to act out against the other (through withholding sex, or attention, or help, or through passive aggression perhaps). 

That’s one way to look at it. The other way, of course, is in the New Testament. Turn the other cheek. Love thy enemy, or boyfrenemy to be more precise. You say you’ve tried this, but I’m not sure that a few weeks of drama and therapy quality as true forgiveness. As noted above, forgiveness takes time, but more than time, it takes attention to your own pain. This is why we find it so difficult to do, and why we can hold onto emotional wounds for decades. Try this: When you find yourself feeling angry or hurt at the memory of your boyfriend’s mistake, simply sit with it. Stop what you’re doing and for a few short minutes, let yourself fully feel it without blaming or labeling him (cad, cheater, untrustworthy), the woman he slept with (slut, bimbo, immoral), or yourself (weak, doormat, victim). Feel the anger and hurt in your body and just breathe. If you do this a few times, you’ll soon see that the actual emotions are simply uncomfortable; they’re not the end of the world. If you feel angry at yourself for staying with him, feel that too. Practice this simple awareness of the pain this has caused you for a month, and see if your urge to retaliate has shifted at all after that. 

You’re free to retaliate anytime you want: I hereby give you permission. (You’re also free to retaliate without telling your boyfriend, by the way. You could simply get him back and keep it to yourself, and you might want to imagine that scenario to suss out exactly what you’re trying to achieve with this payback option.)

But you’re also free to pay attention to your hurt, tend to it, take really good care of yourself, and let this be practice for other pains that life will inevitably bring: not just betrayals but illness, loss, and the like. Trying to cancel out the pain, or share the load with your boyfriend, might prove less beneficial in the long run than simply growing big enough, and strong enough, to accommodate it.