What I wish I knew when I got cheated on
He was my first love. We met at a mutual friend’s birthday party when I was nineteen and he was twenty-four. It was pretty much love at first sight. To a girl (me) who didn’t have much experience with guys, and never thought much of herself, he was a catch: a tanned, laid-back surfer with bright blue eyes and strong arms. He loved the ocean, camping, Stevie Nicks, and Modest Mouse. Though his interests were different from mine—I loved Hollywood, fashion, reading, and Elton John—he made my heart flutter, and I was flattered that he seemed taken with me. Huddled on the porch outside the party, we talked for hours that first night, and when I reluctantly left at two o’clock in the morning, he asked if he could call me the next day. True to his word, he did. We were inseparable from then on.
Fast forward through three years of birthdays, camping trips, weddings, Superbowl parties, and nights drinking seven-and-sevens while playing cribbage with his grandparents. We’d vacationed in Hawaii. We’d bought a surfboard together. Everyone—our parents, our friends—thought this was it, that after I graduated from college, we’d get engaged. That’s what I thought, too, even if deep down a little voice questioned if I wasn’t a little young and inexperienced to say “I do.” But every time the little voice raised the question, I silenced her.
And then one night everything changed. He’d just been laid off from his job and was a little down on his luck. After a week of staying at my apartment listlessly job hunting between trips to the beach while I was at school and/or work, he finally had something to do. He was picking his mom up at the airport and planning to sleep at home for the first time that week. That night, before I went to bed, I sat down at my computer for one last email check (this was in the days before smart phones) and realized that he was still logged into his email account on my computer.
I swear I didn’t mean to look.
As I was guiding the mouse to log him out, somehow the cursor landed on the “recently deleted mail” folder. I couldn’t help myself. Some sixth sense told me to click on it, and when I did, what was revealed landed with a thud in my chest. It was a defining moment; forevermore there would be the before and the after. I would never un-know what I was about to learn, but I wasn’t thinking in those terms when I started to read.
The folder was full of emails from his ex-girlfriend depicting details of their recent night together. It was clear he considered the night a mistake, that he wanted her to go away, but she felt used and was full of threats and promises to contact me and personally fill me in on the dirty details. In an instant my vision of our happy future shattered. Hands shaking, I dialed his number. When he picked up he was in the car with his mom. I didn’t care if she heard me yelling. He tried to silence me with a meek, “can we talk about this later?” and I responded with “we’ll talk about this tonight. I’m on my way.”
Knees knocking, I drove to his mom’s house.
On that drive I tried to calm down, to settle the quaking inside, to keep the tears at bay. I longed to dissolve into a betrayed heap, to wail inconsolably, but knowing I needed to put on a happy face and welcome his mom home, to do him the honor of holding his secret—though I was certain my tear-stained face would say it all—I tried to be logical. And strangely, when I stripped away all the hurt and denial, in the pit of my stomach I detected another emotion; relief. In some twisted way I was glad this happened because now I had a reason to leave. Deep down I longed to be free, felt he was limiting me, keeping me from living up to my true potential. Knowing this, I should have driven to his house and ended it for good, but instead, after I smiled at his mom and asked after her trip, we escaped to a grocery store parking lot and I unleashed on him. We cried, we yelled, he threw up. Then he started begging. He told me he messed up, that he loved me. I forgot about the relief. All momentary doubts about how truly perfect our future seemed were erased. All I knew was our idyllic existence was forever ruined, and I wanted nothing more than to have it back, undefiled. I wanted to stay. I wanted to forgive him. I wanted to love him, too.
And I did forgive him. I continued to care about him. But I wish I’d held on to that relief, listened to what my buried wants were trying to tell me. It would have saved a lot of tears. I wish someone would have told me…
Listen to what you want
If I’d paid attention to that relief I would have realized our relationship wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t everything I’d always dreamed of. Not even close. I wasn’t being honest with myself. On paper it was “supposed” to be everything I wanted—he’d eventually have a good job, his family was kind, he had a good sense of humor, would make a good dad—but I was ignoring the longing buried deep in my chest. The truth was I wanted the fairytale. I wanted to go full on Hollywood, to be a costume designer, to belong in a room with actors and models and writers and musicians. When I recounted the tale of our first date I wanted to say he swept me off my feet with some storybook grand gesture, instead of taking me to a diner and asking me to pay because he was broke. (I told him—and myself—it didn’t matter. I was smitten. Part of me couldn’t believe someone so beautiful was interested in me and little things like the lack of a steady job, and the fact that he still lived with his mom, I let slide.)
And when I moved to LA and mentioned my Hollywood dreams, dreams I held close to my chest, and only half-jokingly said, “maybe I’ll take up acting, do some commercials,” and he said “why would anyone want you to do that? Nobody would hire you,” I let it go—wrote my dreams off as stupid—even though I was crushed.
Looking back I realize I was putting myself on hold for what was expected—for what I thought was safe. I was letting him confirm my fears that I wasn’t good enough, taking solace in the notion that if I never tried, I’d never fail. Oh, how I would have regretted staying on that path! I wish I’d escaped sooner and started dipping my toe into the pool of possibility, but instead, for months I tried to make it work. I forgave him, let things go back to the way they were. I wrote an angry email to the ex-girlfriend telling her to leave him alone and let “us” get along with our life together. I tried to keep up appearances, hiding the misdeed from our families, burying it all, hoping my wants would go away.
They didn’t. Thank goodness they were persistent
I broke up with him, this time for good. I listened to my gut and did what it was telling me to do, regardless of what anyone else thought or how heartbroken our friends and families would be. If deep down you want to stay, stay. But don’t stay because your friends and family want you to. It’s okay to walk away. It’s okay if you don’t want to fix it. Every situation is different, and of course something like this can be overcome if both people are committed to making it work. But in this case, because I wasn’t honest with myself, because I did what everyone else wanted me to do instead of going after my wants, I wasted a lot of time trying to make him feel better—trying to make us okay—grinning and bearing it when in my heart I knew I wanted more. I didn’t want to settle, but I tried to. I wish I’d had more confidence, I wish I’d known earlier that…
It wasn’t your fault
I was good enough, smart enough, pretty enough. I was enough. And you are enough. It was insecurity and weakness on his part that made him do it, some need on his end that probably had nothing to do with me. He likely still loved me for all the reasons he fell in love with me for in the first place. In fact…
You are the only you
And someone out there will love you for you, for the stories only you possess, your quirks, your likes, your dislikes. I’ve long held a belief in finding “Team Adventure”, that person you can’t bear to be without, who will listen to your wants and encourage you to go after them, who will follow your dreams with you, and in turn you want to follow their dreams, too. Your mission is to find that person and not to settle. Have experiences, try on different personas until you find the room you belong in, know yourself, get comfortable in your own skin. Take a risk. Give up security, give up safe. Start over. You may fall flat on your face, you may stumble on the new path, but I promise someday you’ll look back and be grateful you looked fear in the face and said, “Get out of my way,” because guess what…
Sometimes what seems like the end of the world might just be your path realigning
Waiting around the next bend might be something wonderful and unexpected that you never imagined was coming. I started dating my future husband a few months after the break up and he brought me into his circle of artist and writer and musician friends—people living their creative dreams—that ultimately gave me the courage to live mine. He made me believe I belonged in that room. Encouraged me to stay in it. That never would have happened if I didn’t close a door and start knocking on others. I can’t believe I almost missed him. But in the meantime I found out…
It’s okay to be alone
I was so wrapped up in my ex’s world, I’d abandoned my own, let friendships fall to the wayside, let him be my everything, so breaking up with him meant severing ties with all of our friends. This meant I had to endure the lonely, sleepless nights that stretched endlessly on, where it felt like all was lost. But eventually the sun came up. Every day. And I realized that on the other side of the darkness is light and rebirth, an opportunity to re-invent yourself. To be the new girl. Take the time to mourn your loss—it’s okay to be sad—the death of a dream hurts, but as soon as you can, take a deep breath and embrace that…
You don’t have to have it all right now—plans change and the ride is what matters.
Maybe your timeline isn’t going as planned. That’s okay. Thirty is not old. Forty is not old. Fifty is not old. Have fun and take your time getting to wherever you’re going. It’s never too late to follow your dreams. Hold out for Team Adventure. Do not settle for anything less. After all…
You’ve been given a gift
When he cheated on me, it cracked open a chasm in my chest that I thought would never mend. But eventually, the hole was stitched together with the threads of the trust I relearned until it was wound so tight it was bound to hold. It took time, but I learned to trust again, and I’ve come to recall this part of my life, specifically the night I first read the emails, with pleasure. I now view his misdeed as the universe presenting me with a present—a chance to escape, an opportunity to live up to my fullest potential, to be true to myself—all tied up with a pretty bow. And I guess the biggest thing I’d tell myself is it’s worth it. The tears are worth it. When they dry, you’ll realize you wouldn’t have it any other way.