Applying the label of “boyfriend” to someone used to give me pause. Not because I didn’t want to, but fear of all the far-reaching implications stopped me. Agreeing to be someone’s girlfriend meant that I was opening myself up to this other person all the way, allowing myself to be vulnerable in a way that previous experiences had taught me generally leads to heartache.
In my first serious relationship, my boyfriend cheated. Funny how easy it is to say it now so many years later, when I did everything possible to pretend I didn’t see it then. I didn’t WANT to see it. As a self-described late bloomer, I was 23 when I fell in love for the first time. My boyfriend was tall, handsome, and a great kisser, and I was determined that because I had waited so long to feel like this, nothing was going to ruin it for me or interrupt our path to committed bliss.
Never mind that months later at a family party he almost took my arm off when I handed him his phone — he had left it behind on one of the tables.
“Did you open it?” He asked suspiciously. (This was in the days of flip phone popularity.)
“No.” I had answered honestly with a sinking feeling in my stomach. Seeing my face, he backpedaled.
“There’s just some gross texts from my brother you wouldn’t like,” he claimed without meeting my eyes.
Add to that all the last minute cancellations of plans and times when his phone had inexplicably been off lately, followed by profuse apologies and/or bizarre excuses like, “I‘m sorry, I accidentally turned it off I think,” or “I went to the movies, but saw two in a row” and my personal favorite, “my mom wanted to talk to me and she insists I turn my phone off, I just forgot to turn it back on.”
But I couldn’t acknowledge these excuses, because then I’d have to identify what they meant. That he was cheating, lying, not caring that he was actively doing something that would hurt me and our relationship. And that was all too much for me.
In the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money, Dan Savage was interviewed back in 2014 by host Anna Sale about the prevalence of infidelity in relationships. Referenced recently by writer Brittany Luse in Refinery29, Sale made a statement back then that resonated both with Luse and myself, which was “I don’t know what I would do with the hurt.”
The hurt was something I can’t put a name to. Can’t adequately describe. Because the action of cheating wasn’t just the broken trust and planned deceit, it also played upon my deepest insecurities. Somewhere underneath the justifiable anger at the person who hurt you, a tiny seed of doubt begins to unfurl and envelop you from the inside, until it’s choking you with thoughts that there was someone else prettier, smarter, and more interesting than you — and that’s why he cheated. That possibly if I could have done something different, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to me. Someone being completely inconsiderate to me and my feelings made me blame myself, and I would bet that I’m not the only one who has felt that way. And yet we glamorize infidelity in entertainment. There are countless movies and shows like Scandal where we excuse the act because it’s okay when the people involved are *REALLY* in love, and the sex scenes are steamy. And I’m guilty that in spite of my romantic history, I watch them and mostly root for the couple. Mellie Grant may be the first cuckold in history who trumps all.
But infidelity can feel immortal. Even after I extricated myself from this relationship, it haunted me. I assumed everyone I dated going forward would lie or stray at some point, and I believed that if I avoided accepting the girlfriend title, no feelings could be hurt. Screaming “no strings attached” until I was blue in the face surely didn’t carry the risk of hearts getting broken…right?
Except emotions themselves don’t care a whit about justifications, rationalizations, or my defense shield logic. I found myself reeling once when one of my no-strings partners told me about another girl he had met. And I realized, just because you think no one can get hurt, doesn’t mean no one will. I was actively trying to censor how I felt out of fear for potential future betrayal., and feigning that I couldn’t possibly be hurt because I was maintaining control. Yet in the end, I was only left with hurt and regret over not telling him how I truly felt.
I can be hurt. I don’t hide that now. I’m sensitive, and I always have been. Pretending I’m not doesn’t serve anyone, least of all myself. Vulnerability isn’t easy for me, but real love cannot exist without it. I can’t erase what I experienced with that first boyfriend, but I can absolutely learn and grow from it. I can choose to not blame myself, choose to not assume every new guy will disappoint me in the same way, and trust my gut instinct when it says to walk away. That I’m not nothing without my romantic partner. That I am in fact everything with or without him.
As the world tries to decipher Beyoncé’s marriage and whether she was autobiographically pouring her guts out in Lemonade (unpopular opinion: I don’t think she was), I can say with some authority that the reason this is such a hot button topic is because experiencing infidelity is common and it changes you. And while we are all different we can still react to the same stimulus in various different ways. No one knows exactly what goes down within a relationship aside from those people who are in it, and so I can only speak to my circumstances and how I’ve coped.
Being cheated on affected how I felt about myself. Made me doubt my own judgment. Which spurred my need to then carefully dip a toe in the romantic pool, even when I wanted to bellyflop at full speed. But I was also in the throes of youthful naïvete and learning how to be a full partner in a relationship and that loving someone doesn’t mean I had to condone disrespectful behavior.
Every relationship milestone serves to make you stronger, even the painful ones. And although it took some time to really believe it, dating someone who cheated on me in no way defines me now, then, or in my romantic future.