Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I have been dating my boyfriend for eight months. However, we started “talking” over a year and a half ago. At the time, he had a girlfriend and they were about to buy a house. He and I just clicked immediately. We sat next to each other at work and talked all day every day and then it became physical. We started texting in December 2016 and in April 2017 he told me he was in love with me, but that he just felt stuck where he was. He ended the search for a house when he realized he was interested in me. Still, he took about 10 months to actually break up with her, out of fear and “feeling stuck.” He was 32 and I was 24, and it felt like he was really going through something so I always made excuses.

Although we have been dating exclusively now for eight months, and he has been only good to me, I randomly and somewhat regularly freak out on him. I picture them together all the time and get so frustrated that we even went through that period of time.

I hate that I was involved with him for so long while he had a girlfriend and kept breaking his promises of leaving her, but it felt bigger than any relationship I ever had and it truly is. Still, it worries me that he was capable of doing this. I can’t help but think he’s going to do the same thing to me.

What can I do to regain trust and break myself from that part of our story and move on with him?

Catherine
Philadelphia


Dear Catherine,

I can understand your concerns, and you’re wise to consider what your history together means for your future together. There’s a difference, though, between dwelling and examining, and I would encourage you and your boyfriend to examine your fears about the affair that you both were a part of. “Freaking out” and obsessing are simply forms of anxiety, ones that go away once the anxiety has a more productive outlet, like an open, honest dialogue.

This is why when someone cheats, it’s important to understand why they cheated and what they learned from the experience. While some research shows that people who cheat are more likely to cheat again, it’s also the case that more than half of those who cheated before aren’t repeat offenders. Sometimes cheating is related to problems in the relationship—not just things that aren’t working, but the fact that the couple isn’t talking about the fact that they aren’t working. Sometimes affairs are about something in the person’s psychological makeup—issues with intimacy or attachment. Sometimes people have affairs in response to a life-altering crisis: after the death of a loved one (a parent, a child) or in the midst of a partner’s serious illness.

In your boyfriend’s case, even though you two have a strong connection, it sounds as if the affair was at least partly related to his ambivalence about his relationship with his girlfriend. He felt paralyzed, unable to decide whether he wanted to be with her. It may even have been the search for the house that forced him to acknowledge whatever questions had been percolating.

That’s all understandable—many people have doubts about their relationships, and better to discuss them before buying a house together. Maybe you can even have some compassion for what he went through—how excruciating it must have been for him to have so much invested in this relationship, to be at an age when people are planning their futures, and to wonder whether his partner was the right one.

But then there’s this: Despite his fear of making a decision he’d regret, despite his not knowing for certain what he wanted to do, he wasn’t direct with you about his confusion. He didn’t say to you, “Hey, I know there seems to be something between us, but I’m in a relationship and I need to figure that out right now. If and when I do become single, let’s see where we both are.”

To understand more about how your boyfriend handles his feelings, you’ll want to get a sense of what was happening with his then-girlfriend, too. I don’t know what he told her about why the house search was called off, and I wonder how the two of them dealt with this. Did they talk about his ambivalence? Or did he choose the path of avoidance—“Work’s really busy now, so let’s resume the house search in the new year”? Meanwhile, when the two of you were “talking” at work, what were those conversations like? Did a lot of the conversation revolve around his complaints about his girlfriend—issues that should have been discussed directly with her?

It may well be that he and his then-girlfriend weren’t compatible, and that the two of you are, but if so, you’re going to have to discuss the hard stuff in a way that it sounds like he didn’t in his previous relationship: When you “freak out on him” now, how does he respond? Does he reassure you that he’ll never cheat on you—something no one can do because life isn’t as certain we think—or do you talk about what those 10 months of his being in a relationship with both you and his girlfriend were like for all involved? Does he understand more about himself after having gone through this, such as what his paralysis was about, what prevented him from bringing up issues in his previous relationship before they got to the house-buying stage, and what made him choose to have an affair rather than work this through with his girlfriend first? How does he feel about not having had any time to be single after his breakup, or to date different people? What have his previous relationships been like—what has he struggled with? In the past, has he cheated when it came time to move forward? Does he blame his ex for the problems in their relationship, or can he see his own role in them, too? In other words, what has he discovered about himself that would make him deal with tough issues more openly and honestly in your relationship?

And then there are the questions for you. Often in affairs people focus on the person betraying his or partner, but this is an opportunity for you to learn something important about not just your boyfriend, but also yourself.  You might be thinking, “Wait, I didn’t cheat on anyone! I wasn’t in a committed relationship back then.” But you did have a relationship with somebody who was committed to somebody else, in the hopes that he would leave her. Like your boyfriend, you could have said, “I’m really drawn to you, but you’re not available now. If that changes, let’s see what we could be.” Both of you were doing something that you knew to be deceitful, so you’ll want to examine why you participated in this betrayal with him. You may not have robbed the bank, but you willingly provided the getaway vehicle for the crime.

Once you two start talking about yourselves and your relationship on this deeper level, it will make it easier to move past the affair and bring up the kinds of things couples who are seriously dating should talk about. In your case, that might be your age difference and what you’re both wanting at this point in your lives—are you ready to get married in the near future if you two are indeed a match? Is he? Are you both interested in that? How does each of you feel about kids and finances and your careers and the division of labor in your household if you end up together for the long haul?

Now that the affair is over, you two have the opportunity to see yourselves and each other much more clearly and realistically. Though these conversations can be hard, the knowledge they provide can help you both figure out what you want, so that no matter what ultimately happens with your relationship, it won’t become a repeat of his previous one.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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