Infidelity as a Form of Self-Loathing

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That feeling ate away at John, a pseudonymous reader:

There were certainly parts of Olga Khazan’s account of Laura’s relationship that resonated with me, mostly the complexity of something like emotional abuse. I think in some ways I conceive of myself as both a recovering emotional abuser and victim—an idea that Khazan’s article begins to approach near the end, when it discusses how Lauren would “push back” against her ex. Not that I think she was an abuser herself, but certainly in her ex’s memory, there were plenty of times where Lauren perhaps behaved in a manner that could be described as abuse, though not to the same magnitude.

After my ex and I split, I would describe some experiences with her to other people (mostly women, actually) who identified them as forms of emotional abuse against me. The constant fight-picking, threats to leave the relationship over minor disagreements about things like my opinion of news articles, belittling of my feelings, and the dredging-up of old arguments got to the point where I fantasized about cheating on her and keeping it to myself. Not because I actually wanted satisfaction elsewhere, but because I knew the pent-up guilt would make me feel like I deserved to be treated how she treated me.

Perhaps that qualifies more squarely as toxicity—something where both people are at fault—than it does as abuse. (I’m sure my ex has some choice stories about things I have said or done that would qualify as abuse.) I don’t think either of us met the other and said “I’m so excited to waste years of my life making yours miserable.” That kind of dynamic develops over time.

I long ago deleted the anxiety-inducing texts and emails and chats that my ex and I exchanged, especially near the (very bitter) end. In my final analysis, I think we were both so happy to be with someone that we ended up trying to force a relationship that should have ended before. There were certainly good moments—of which I am reminded by Facebook’s “on this day” feature—but I think our fears of being alone and not wanting to blow up the life we had built together made the relationship drag on past its expiration. Being in our early 20s and being relatively inexperienced with things like communication and conflict resolution, and living in a city in which it is a lot more expensive to live alone, also didn’t help things.

Though I regret my mistakes and mistreatment of my partner, and I’m still not perfect, I am thankful for an experience that revealed my faults, so that I could understand myself better and become the all-around better man I am today.