My partner recently told me that he has been cheating on me for five years. In the process of trying to acquit himself, he told me that one of his friends has also been cheating on his girlfriend. After dealing with the shock of my own betrayal, I was enraged because this girl is wonderful and loving, and I am very fond of her. She doesn’t deserve this.
This has put me in a dilemma. I don’t want her to be deceived for years like I have, but I also don’t want to inflict the pain on her that I’m experiencing. Being a silent bystander, especially after what I’ve been through, seems wrong. What should I do? Tell her boyfriend to come clean? Should I try to tell her myself? Or should I keep quiet and helplessly watch on?
Eleanor says: First of all, I’m sorry. Infidelity sucks; finding out sucks; it’s all awful. From my ragged heart to yours just know that the sensation of time passing will eventually return, and when it does it will help.
That said – your dilemma here calls for a particular kind of emotional discipline at a moment when you may least want to exercise it. It calls for you to treat her situation as her situation.
This is very difficult to do with infidelity. We must know, intellectually, that affairs differ – that the right way of reacting here might be the wrong way of reacting there. But that doesn’t stop us adjudicating other people’s with the force and certainty we had about our own. I’m sure you’ve already encountered this from friends who unwittingly litigate their own betrayals by issuing certainties about yours: “Honey, all relationships have problems”; “He’s a pig, they’re all pigs!”
I think you’re right to hesitate – neither your situation nor mine nor anyone else’s is a blueprint for how she would manage hers.
That’s why I think you should go for secret option #4: tell her boyfriend you’re on to him, but not necessarily so he comes clean. So he figures out why he’s doing this and stops.
Considering the operatic heights of the taboo against infidelity, it often turns out to have really pedestrian explanations. Someone sabotages their chances at real intimacy because their father taught them they don’t deserve it; someone repeats interchangeable flings because they only like themselves through the eyes of an enchanted stranger. It’s all so boring – you’d almost rather they were a sociopathic Lothario than another moderately sad person who should have gone to therapy.
But this guy should go to therapy. He should figure out why he’s doing this. Maybe he was a loser in high school and is collecting women like Pokémon now to make up for it; maybe he loves her but is so afraid of committing he’s manufacturing secrets to retain some separateness. Who knows, he might be as confused about why he’s doing this as you are. If the goal is to make him do right by her, he needs more than condemnation – he needs to know why he was doing wrong.
It’s true that she has a right to know, but the problem is not all of us would choose to exercise that right. Finding out can be so traumatic. Lies about sex seem to burrow into an obsessive part of the brain in a way that money-lies and whereabouts-lies just don’t. For some people it means years of nightmares and intrusive mental images; for others a paranoia and an insatiable hunger for proof that will make subsequent relationships extremely difficult. You have to be really sure of what you’re doing to risk causing that much damage to her.
Confronting him in private might at least have the chance of getting justice for her, without causing a huge amount of pain. And in a position like yours, with so little information, sometimes that chance is all we get.
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