I found out, after a year of long distance dating, that my university boyfriend had been cheating on me with several different people throughout our entire relationship.
He lived a double life. The person I knew wanted to be a doctor, was the Student Union President, a member of the varsity soccer team, a leader of feminism campaigns on campus, and had actually won awards for his ‘honorable character.’ The same person told girls we had broken up in order to take them home, and ate breakfast with them while I was on my way over. He also brought me to parties where we would all be in the same room, where I would unknowingly give them compliments on their outfits, while they were the wiser.
One of the worst (and best) parts of the situation was that I did see it coming. My instincts told me something was off, but before I knew the truth, he convinced me I was being unreasonable and paranoid. I even had a panic attack at one point and promptly started going to therapy to deal with my “deep insecurity.” Finding out the truth was a relief; it was evidence to support the accuracy of my instincts.
For me, the hardest part was discovering how many people knew about it and did nothing. I could make sense of what he did – an anomaly in an otherwise safe world – but the idea that other people didn’t protect me from his wrongdoing made everything feel unsafe. It took time to restore my belief in the good of people. That was the way he hurt me the most.
Knowing someone is being cheated on is a tricky position; you likely don’t want to cause hurt or meddle in other people’s business. But, for what it’s worth, I think if someone repeatedly makes choices that serve themselves but negatively impact another person, the other person deserves the power to choose how they feel about it. It seems people don’t want to “break” a relationship by being the bearer of bad news, but the person who cheated is the one who did the breaking. You shouldn’t get to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, and take their voice.
I think people heal in many different ways, and these ideas may not be applicable to everyone, but they were the things that helped me:
- Talking to people who had been through the same thing. When I started reaching out, I couldn’t believe how many people could relate with my experience. It helped to know I wasn’t alone, and to realize that beautiful, wonderful, kind, and talented people had also been cheated on.
- Music. Friends and family sent me songs that I latched on to. “Stupid Boy” by Keith Urban and “The Heart of Life is Good” by John Mayer are two examples.
- Feeling the anger. I let myself be angry and wrote a super angry song. I think it was a healthy reaction rooted in self worth – I reminded myself that what he did was not ok, I did nothing to deserve it, and I was worthy of much better treatment.
- Exercise. I took my anger out on the treadmill and did a bunch of Zumba for awhile. My cousin also said to me, “Hey, don’t worry that you can’t eat – at least you’ll be skinny and hot!” Not necessarily a healthy mentality but it was the first thing to make me laugh.
- Leaning on your friends. Fortunately, I had a roommate at the time who let me sleep in her bed until I was ready to sleep in my own bed. Years later, she told me I cried in my sleep and would clutch her hand in the middle of the night, but during it, she just put on Friends reruns and made me feel welcome.
- Making a big move. I decided to spend the summer doing an intensive French program in Quebec, and then took a new job in a new city. (I think going on a trip somewhere would have the same impact.)
- Having experienced previous heart breaks. I think there is value in knowing your own pain process. I was 15 the first time my heart was broken, and it was the most painful breakup of my life because I truly didn’t believe I would ever feel happy again. Knowing that the pain I was feeling would eventually pass was a source of comfort for me.
- Therapy. This became applicable to me years later, once I had met Greg (who I eventually married). After I was cheated on, I took several months off from dating all together, and then dated really casually for about a year. Once I did meet Greg and things were getting serious, some residual fear and hurt started to pop up (in other words, my relationship issues didn’t affect me until I was in a new relationship). I went to 6 therapy sessions to talk through my feelings so I wouldn’t weigh them on my new relationship, and it made a big difference.
- Orange metaphor. This is a Wayne Dyer concept from his book Erroneous Zones. The idea is that you visualize an orange and imagine it being dropped, squished, poked, smashed, etc. The point being that regardless what the world does to the orange, the only thing that will come out of it is orange juice, because that’s what is inside of it. I found this visualization exercise tremendously powerful. Even though I had been hurt by someone, I felt safe knowing no one could change me at my core, and told myself I would remain a trusting, open-hearted person.
- Simply letting time pass and feeling the seasons change. I distinctly remember walking outside after a few weeks had passed, feeling the fresh air and sunshine on my face, and knowing I was still myself, and that I would be ok.
I think sometimes break ups can be messy and straggly. It’s over, but it isn’t really over; sometimes your heart needs time to catch up with your head. In my case, I couldn’t immediately integrate the person I had known with the person who had cheated on me. We broke up in May and I didn’t speak to him for a few months, but by September, I missed him and it felt good to talk again. For a few months, it was like we were back together.
During this time, my friends said, “We love you, we know you make wise decisions, and we trust your heart.” They could have drawn a hard and fast line, called him scum, or judged me. But they chose love, kindness, and compassion. They knew I needed time and could see I was slowly detaching myself from him. By cheating, he took so much control, and I needed time to fall out of love with him on my terms.
If you are someone who is in the process of healing from a similar situation, I want to send you love, strength and support.