I blame my long-held notion that finding a partner cheating would be dramatic but simultaneously provide significant closure and satisfaction on Adventures in Babysitting. Actress Elisabeth Shue catches her boyfriend on a date with another girl, is gallantly defended by her charges, and — after her now-ex has been sufficiently embarrassed in front of an entire restaurant — parades out triumphantly. Also, she kisses a much cuter guy way later.
But my beliefs weren’t because I couldn’t differentiate between real-life scenarios and one of the greatest movies ever made (I will fight you on this). Cheating always sounded so clear-cut. If you discovered a partner cheating, either it was completely over, or they apologized and attempted a reconciliation. Two definitive outcomes.
My experience with it did not fall into either one of those camps. Mainly because it was tied up in emotionally abusive behavior, and when I questioned my boyfriend about anything that seemed suspicious, his reactions ranged from old-fashioned lying, to gaslighting, to scoffing that I was paranoid. He managed to simultaneously carry on significant relationships with both me and a woman he worked with for more than a year.
The truth about cheating is that you can love someone who hurts you.
When someone you’re in love with uses that love as a means to cover up their deceptions and infidelity, you end up the one shouldering guilt for your perfectly reasonable behavior. Meanwhile, they’re allowed to continue on with their deceit. Looking back, I feel that his behaviors were deliberate in a way to make me complicit in his cheating, as difficult as that is to admit. I could have pushed a little harder and outright accused him of wrongdoing, and yet I didn't.
I didn’t truly know the extent of his philandering until years later thanks to a dare from my co-workers to Google him, making it clear that two of us had been able to claim him as a boyfriend for the exact same amount of extended time. I found that digital footprints can still wreak havoc on your emotions even after so much time has passed. Betrayal lingers like that. It lies dormant, forgotten, and then when reawakened, reaches its grimy fingers into your brain to remind you — taunt you — with the falsehood that you once weren’t enough.
The truth about cheating is that you can love someone who hurts you. You can keep forgiving someone who hurts you, even though you know it’s wrong. And you can find out that claims of "I love you" can just be tantamount to emotional blackmail and manipulation designed to keep you from breaking away, rather than representative of the sincerity you crave.
This dangerous cocktail of infidelity and emotional abuse from my partner had me constantly doubting my instincts, avoiding what was right in front of me. Things for which I had always believed I would stand my ground. But there were excuses that just passed for plausible about everything. Plausible if you didn’t want to face reality, which I absolutely did not. Cancelled plans were blamed on a family emergency, an entire day of not returning texts or calls on a lost phone, and a broken date for a holiday party on "company policy says we can’t have a plus one." And so I mostly swallowed my hurt, because otherwise I’d have to accuse him of lying.
I trusted him instead of trusting myself.
He did his best to make me feel paranoid and guilty if I ever attempted to question any of these things so that I often found myself apologizing to him. When we had arguments and I’d say I wasn’t sure we should still be together, he’d beg and beg for forgiveness, show up at my door, and promise that he loved me so much, more than anyone he’d ever known. "I need you," he’d plead. He paraded me around to his family, nuclear and extended, and they all already knew so much about me. I wanted to hold onto these flimsy reasons as an excuse to believe him and hold onto us. Why would someone have you be so involved with their family if they weren’t being monogamous? What person would actually do this if they didn’t love you back? These were my mantras so I could silence the little voice in my head shouting that something wasn’t right.
So often, we paint the act of cheating with these dramatic, heart-crushing moments. Walking in on your significant other with another person, seeing an intimate sentiment in a text message or email. But rarely do we talk about all the tinier moments strung together that work to keep someone from leaving. Or that cheating can just be one bad decision on someone’s part — an inconsiderate action — but other times, it can be calculated and pathological.
I was 23 years old and mindlessly infatuated when my boyfriend cheated on me. But now, more than a decade later, with far more relationship experience, I remember the deflections of my questions that I chose to ignore. How I listened to his words telling me one thing when his actions clearly stated another. I trusted him instead of trusting myself. I allowed him to become my baseline for what I deserved.
He had been my first love, and with that came all these fantasies in my head to be fulfilled: having someone I’d be excited to bring to friends’ parties and family functions, who’d stay up late at night to talk about everything and nothing and do anything possible not to hurt me on purpose. When most of that didn't become our reality, I pretended that his vague answers and unexplained disappearances were all part of a typical relationship. Owning up to the idea that he was cheating meant that I had to own up to the fact that my choice in a partner was abhorrent — I couldn’t bear to do that.
But no relationship has to be anything except an experience. You're allowed to be disappointed. You're allowed to accept that you've made bad decisions when it comes to romance, whether it's for the first, third, or 10th time.
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