My girlfriend and I are in a bad place over her having cheated on me.
Although we’re a committed couple, Ellen was seeing someone on the side for a brief time. I found out through a text message I happened to see and confronted her. She was very forthcoming and gave me an explanation that was slightly comforting — the affair started when I was out of town for two months on business and it was a purely physical attraction to someone at the gym.
She has apologized a lot, has given me her passwords so I can keep an eye on her, but although she seems contrite and I am monitoring her communications, I feel very uneasy about her commitment to me. I’m starting to get paranoid, wondering if she has another phone or email account and I find myself worried about what might happen next, without my knowing about it.
As a result, I am keeping my distance, which isn’t good for our relationship, of course. How can I trust her not to hurt me again so that we can move on?
You cannot have a guarantee that Ellen will never hurt you again. In fact, it is certain that she will; the people we love inevitably hurt us, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. And of course, we inevitably hurt the people we love. How could it be otherwise in adult relationships? Each of us has our own priorities and interests and at times all of us will put these above what is best for our partner.
While it’s a very good idea to think carefully before making a move that will profoundly injure your partner — such as having an affair when you are in a monogamous relationship — people often don’t think carefully (or at all) in such situations. And so if you want to be in a relationship for the long haul, you have to figure out what to do when your partner deeply wounds you.
Rather than you and Ellen both trying to convince you to trust Ellen never to hurt you again, the two of you might work on a far more realistic goal: getting to a point where you can each trust yourself to do your best in a world where all sorts of temptations can arise and all sorts of things can happen.
If I were speaking to Ellen, I would ask her: Is your agreement to be monogamous more important to you than the thrill of a new partner? Is honesty toward your girlfriend more important than avoiding the fallout of having broken an agreement to be monogamous? If the answer to these questions is yes, then Ellen must consider what work she has to do so that she can know with certainty, going forward, that she will behave in a way that actually honors what she believes is most important to her. And through doing this work on herself, she will become a more trustworthy partner.
Some questions for you: In what ways do you need to grow in order to trust that you will be a good partner in the future, even when your girlfriend lets you down? What work must you do to know that you can take care of yourself when things aren’t going well? The stronger you can be when things are bad, the more likely it is that your relationship will survive — if you want it to survive. A related question: Can you trust yourself to know when the bottom line for what you will tolerate in this relationship has been crossed?
I also suggest that you work on trusting your observations and your sense that something is amiss, rather than continuing to examine Ellen’s emails and texts for confirmation that all is OK. When you have a suspicious stance and are looking for incriminating evidence, you are more likely to find what you are looking for. And when people are put on probation, they are often sorely tempted to cheat. Your current dynamic of checking Ellen’s communications is a setup for lack of trust and fidelity and is creating a relationship of adversaries rather than of collaborative peers.
Keep in mind that moving on from affairs and building a stronger relationship is difficult. It’s hard work and takes time to find ways to behave with integrity and to learn how to steady yourself when you are in turmoil. While I hope I am giving you some useful pointers, you both may find it helpful to work ongoing with a skilled couples therapist. Good luck!
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com