How I Made Peace With My Ex — And Myself — After I Cheated

Over holiday break in 2016, my mother and I were thrilled to watch the revival of our favorite show, Gilmore Girls. As we sat watching Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life, just as we had done when I was in high school and the show was still airing, I couldn’t help but feel my stomach drop. Lorelai Gilmore was preparing to leave her home and partner, Luke, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail as seen in the book by Cheryl Strayed, Wild. Everyone but Lorelai knew she was going because she was going to leave Luke, and in that moment, I realized this was the exact same thing I did when I bought a one-way ticket to Europe during the summer of 2015 and cheated on my ex.

It was a year after I graduated from college. I was in my early 20s and living with my then-boyfriend, let's call him Pat, in a studio apartment neither of us could really afford. On the surface, I had everything: a steady enough income, a solid group of friends, a committed partner, and a nice place to call home. Even though I seemingly had everything I ever wanted, there was still an overwhelming feeling of unhappiness following me around like a lost puppy.

Everything about the relationship fit into the plan I made for myself when I first moved to New York to attend school.

As this unhappiness began to grow, it soon mutated into a feeling of guilt. Why was I unhappy when everything seemed so right? Why was I doubting my relationship? Was something wrong with me? To complicate things even further, I didn’t open up to anyone about these feelings I was having because I was the one who initially pushed our relationship into the cohabitation that I began to hate.

Pat and I met at a friend’s birthday party two years before. Neither of us knew many people there and we were quickly drawn to each other. By the end of the night, we shared a kiss and I gave him my number. Shortly after, we were dating, which turned into the relationship talk, which turned into “I love you”s, all within a matter of a few months. While he was in his late 20s and working toward a Ph.D., I was only a senior in college about to enter the world with a degree in theater that I wasn't sure what I would do with.

Everything about the relationship fit into the plan I made for myself when I first moved to New York to attend school. I always wanted to date someone who was older with a secure job while I figured out how to pursue my artistic goals. He checked every box and then some. Eventually, I broached the subject of moving in together just a few months before our one-year anniversary.

I’m from a small town in Maryland where people get married and purposely bring children into the world before their 30th birthday. Although I had no conscious desire to fit that particular mold, unconsciously I felt pressure to create a stable home with a significant other even though I was only 23. When I told Pat that I thought we should find an apartment together he was hesitant, to say the least. We fought and nearly broke up over the subject, but in the end, he relented and we moved into a studio apartment on the Upper West Side.

Fast forward to nearly a year later. I was perusing through Facebook when I noticed a friend of mine, who was also living with her long-term boyfriend, was looking for a sublet. I quickly called her for details and found out she was planning on leaving her boyfriend because she had fallen out of love and didn’t want to prolong the inevitable or hurt him further. The second she articulated everything that I was feeling my body went numb, like it was bracing for impact.

Pat and I were tremendous partners in life. We had intellectual similarities that made me believe there was no better match out there for me. However, throughout the relationship, there was also a dichotomy between our emotional relationship and our physical relationship. While I knew our outlook on life was strikingly similar, I couldn't help but notice a lack of passion and intimacy growing toward him. This tension between what I wanted and needed grew more severe over time. However, instead of being mature and following in my friend’s footsteps, I, like Lorelai, ran away from my problems.

Once I touched down in Europe, I felt free.

We had been living together for nearly eight months or so, and I was tired of fighting the feeling that the path I carved out for myself was the wrong one. Before I knew it, I booked a one-way ticket to Ireland and let my employers know that I was leaving and would hopefully be back in two weeks. Once I touched down in Europe, I felt free. I turned my phone on airplane mode and rarely checked my messages, even when I had access to Wi-Fi. I bopped around from Ireland to England and back again, sleeping on couches, floors, and hostels. Eventually, my travels brought me to the person I wound up cheating with.

Honestly, this man could have been anyone. I didn’t cheat because I loved him or had an ounce of true feelings for him. I cheated because he provided an indefinite escape from the dread I felt when I thought of returning home. He also made me realize the many ways that I felt unfulfilled and undesired with my ex. My two-week trip turned into a month of me staying with this guy, living with him as I lived with Pat back home.

Soon, I knew that I had to return home and face the music that I’d so messily composed. When I finally returned home, Pat was out of town on a research trip. He was gone for months, leaving me alone to face the shame and guilt I had looming over me from my actions. During this time, I started going to therapy and processing the reality that I had done the one thing I knew was Pat’s hard limit.

We fought, we made up, we fought, we made up, we fought, I cried, he yelled, we made up, and we fought again.

There was a week when he returned home for a visit before departing again on the same research trip. When he was back with me, he could tell something was wrong. I couldn’t look him in the eye, I could barely even look at myself in the mirror. While I personally couldn't tell him about what I'd done, I guess I sent enough non-verbal cues for him to take matters into his own hands. One day while I was at work, he was on a mission to find evidence of my infidelity, which he ultimately discovered while looking through the messages on my computer.

What followed was nothing short of a storm. We fought, we made up, we fought, we made up, we fought, I cried, he yelled, we made up, and we fought again. The cycle was never-ending and made it clear that there was never going to be a true reconciliation of our relationship because I betrayed his trust past the point of no return, and he was unwilling to listen to the factors that drove me away.

Needless to say, we broke up and I spiraled into a depression that deserves its own spin-off. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t look at myself without breaking down, and I desperately wanted Pat to forgive me.

It wasn’t until months of therapy made me realize that I couldn’t seek forgiveness from him until I learned to love myself again. Instead of telling myself that I was an evil person, I realized that I was a young person who made a very bad choice. My immaturity kept me from making a tough decision from the beginning and allowed me to hurt the one person who provided some sense of stability in my shaky life.

So, how exactly did Pat and I get to a point where he and I were able to talk and even hang out as friends? Well, it’s unfortunately not as simple as saying “I’m sorry” and giving a peace treaty hug. I had to allow him to take the space that he needed from me, but I also had to rebuild myself up into someone who no longer walked around in a shame cocoon. The day I stopped believing that I deserved to be treated badly for the choice I made is the day Pat and I ended the toxic cycle.

There are still days that I think about my Euro-trip, but instead of feeling my body tighten with anxiety over the painful memories, I am able to view this time from a grounded perspective. Now, Pat and I talk here and there with no hard feelings or grudges held. I’ve moved on and am in a happy, loving relationship that’s taught me what it truly means to be an equal partner, and my ex is focusing on himself and his passions.

The last time I saw Pat, we briefly discussed the eruptive nature of how our relationship ended, and he finally said what I’ve been waiting to hear for years: “Just so you know, I don’t blame you for what happened, we were not in a good place and you acted in the only way you knew how at the time. And to me, all is forgiven.”