Bianca Bagnarelli

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Dear Therapist,

My boyfriend did not tell me he was married for the first three months of our dating because he didn’t feel the timing was right for him. Eventually he apologized and explained that he had been afraid of losing me, and I forgave him.

Two years later, we are still together but it’s been an incredibly exhausting struggle to get him to take the steps necessary for the divorce. He would promise to do a specific task at a certain time but then continuously forget to do it. We also fought a lot about how much his wife should be part of our lives: I didn’t want her to continue to contact him about random casual things given that they were separated and childless, but he felt I was too harsh and refused to budge for many months. Eventually he agreed to keep her away after I got a therapist to help us. In the meantime, we were otherwise incredibly happy and in love with each other and set up a lot of important building blocks for our future together.

Now that the divorce is surely going to be concluded in the coming six months, I am flooded with feelings of doubt about the relationship because it feels like we never really healed from that initial breach of trust, and I am afraid of what all the subsequent broken promises might reveal about our compatibility. He has asked me to give him a second chance and shown much remorse. I wish I knew how to heal from a betrayal of trust in a relationship.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

There are several ways to look at this situation, and I want to help you consider a couple of them so that you can see these events differently.

When I see couples for therapy, I’m always interested in their origin story—how they met, what those early months were like, and what meaning each person gave (and still gives) to the events as they played out.

One way to tell your origin story is to say that your boyfriend wasn’t trustworthy and that you have evidence to support this: He didn’t initially tell you that he was separated rather than divorced; he kept in contact with his wife while you were dating; and he didn’t take the steps you asked him to take to move the divorce forward even though he said he would.

This version of the story could play out in various ways, but most likely it will keep you locked in place. Even if you find your boyfriend to be completely trustworthy going forward, you might carry the pain of this early time into your future, along with the belief that his not pursuing his divorce in the way you wanted reflected some deficiency in his love for you and/or deficiency in his moral compass. And viewed through the lens of this pain, you might never truly trust him. Needless to say, this isn’t a solid foundation for a relationship.

Another way to tell your origin story, however, goes something like this: Your boyfriend’s marriage was ending, but like many marital endings, it wasn’t clean and it was painful for both people involved. One or both of them might have been ambivalent. One might have wanted the divorce and the other didn’t. Or the decision to divorce might have been mutual but both still had to grieve the loss.

It might sound counterintuitive that exiting a bad situation would result in grief, but few relationships are all good or all bad. Most people choose each other because they genuinely enjoy many of the same things—they often have similar interests, ways of seeing the world, senses of humor, and sets of values. They might not match up exactly on all of these, but generally there’s enough emotional glue for them to choose to marry, for them to commit to a future and think, We’ll be happy going through life together.

But when a marriage ends, so does everything that came with it—not just the parts that weren’t working, but also the parts that were, all the comforts that the marriage provided: time invested in getting to know each other intimately, the built-in company and daily routines, all the private jokes and references, the shared memories and experiences. We can still miss aspects of people and the relationship we had even if we don’t want to be with them.

I don’t know how deeply you got to know your boyfriend as he went through his divorce, but my guess is that your anxiety about where he was in the process didn’t leave much room for your curiosity about his inner life, nor was he left feeling safe enough to share it with you. You met him at a major crossroads in his life, when he was trying to navigate the end of his marriage and the beginning of his relationship with you, and while he tried to accommodate your needs, I don’t know how aware you were of his.

Consider: People sometimes lie or “forget” to keep their promises when they’re asked to do something they don’t want to do but the consequences of sharing their truth—I’m not ready to do this—feel intolerable. While you needed the safety that you hoped would come from your boyfriend being further along in his divorce (both emotionally and logistically), he needed more time to settle into a new relationship and let go of his old one. Similarly, your boyfriend’s desire not to hurt the woman he had married by cutting off all contact in a way that felt “harsh” might not reflect his insensitivity to your feelings so much as his sensitivity to hers. In a way, it speaks volumes about his capacity for compassion and empathy. Imagine what his wife must have been going through, watching her husband find a fantastic new partner just months into their separation. Imagine how hard it might have been for him to hurt her in this way. Imagine if you’d been the divorcing spouse watching your husband fall madly in love with somebody else, and this person demanded that he cut off all ties with you. Your boyfriend could picture this in a way you couldn’t.

It’s interesting to consider, too, that you stayed with him for two years, presumably in order to have a future with him—setting up important building blocks, as you say—and only when he becomes available and you’re about to get everything you’ve been asking him for, do you contemplate leaving. Prior to this, you had plenty of opportunities to leave, to say to him, “I’m not comfortable being with you until you’re divorced, so let’s stop dating and see where we both are when your divorce is final.” But you didn’t.

So here’s an important theme in your origin story, and one of the most meaningful: Neither one of you wanted to risk losing the other. Both of you made sacrifices to be together despite the unfortunate timing of your getting together. But now all those earlier obstacles have been removed—and you’re racked with doubt.

Where will this story go? Well, that’s up to you. You can find your boyfriend unworthy of your trust and either leave now or cause him to leave later when he feels that there’s no possible way to earn your trust, or you can understand more about why you’re having doubts at the very moment the safety you wanted is in sight. Yes, there’s some healing to be had, but maybe it’s going to be less about his proving something to you and more about your expanding your capacity for considering another person’s story line alongside your own.


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