I split up with my longterm live-in boyfriend last year, and toward the end of the relationship, when things were going progressively downhill, I cheated on him and managed to keep it a secret. At the time it felt freeing, but now that I look back with more perspective, I feel horrible for betraying his trust. I feel like I've ruined the memories of our good years together by breaking my commitment at the end. I can't seem to forgive myself. Help.
He Said: There are no less productive emotions than guilt and regret. Guilt, because it is places a false morality on what you describe as a complicated, one-time event. Regret, because it forces you to obsess about something that you can do absolutely nothing about any more. The combination of the two is particularly debilitating, making it hard for you to move on. It seems that you have misplacing a larger sense of loss at what was once a solid connection onto the sexual transgression, a trivial matter in the large scheme of things. (An affair by definition requires keeping a secret, and at the time there were valid reasons to keep the truth from your partner.) I would suggest that you find a talk therapist, but focus more on unresolved feelings about your breakup than on your supposed sexual transgression. Good luck!
She Said: You didn’t ruin the memories of the good years you spent together, during which you honored your commitment. You made a mistake at the end—a very common mistake, by the way, that a lot of people make as they exit long relationships. That’s not to say it’s right. It’s only to point out the messy, imperfect nature of love and loss. Think about it. How many people do you know who jump immediately from one marriage to the next? I personally know at least three who moved straight from their spouse’s house into the house of their new lover. This is all to say that you’re certainly not alone. I agree that you may be focusing on the betrayal as a way to flagellate yourself about the great loss you now face. It’s an understandable pitfall—maybe if I didn’t cheat, I could have saved things and I wouldn’t feel this terrible loss right now. In grief parlance, it’s called bargaining. But it’s not going to get you anywhere. And—this is very important—it’s not helping your ex either. In fact, guilt helps no one. It is meant to be a temporary emotion and exists for one reason only: to show you how to adjust your behavior in the future. I personally believe that many societal rules and norms—about infidelity for instance—are well and good on paper, but not truly learned until they are lived in the flesh. Committing this infraction has taught you a valuable lesson—that when you betray your commitment to a partner, you also hurt yourself. You don’t buy any solace or escape pain. There is no such thing as “cheating” your way around it. It hurts, even if the betrayed never finds out. And now that you know this, there is only one course of action. Resolve to not do it again. Let that be the silver lining. Promise yourself you will not cheat ever again, and then forgive yourself. Forgiveness is the only way forward, no matter what the offense, and no matter whether it’s ourselves or someone else who has committed it.
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