My BF cheated; I want to move on--how?

My boyfriend cheated on me but he says he’s really sorry and that it’s never gonna happen again.

OUR BEST FRIEND:

It’s me, a girl stuck in a classic heterosexual situation: my boyfriend cheated on me but he says he’s really sorry and that it’s never gonna happen again.

I actually do believe he won’t cheat again — but I’m not sure if I can forgive him. I still love him and want to be in the relationship, but I feel myself being cold/mean every time he talks to me or tries to initiate something physical, no matter how loving and reassuring he is about wanting to regain my trust. I can tell he’s trying, but I don’t know how to be open to his good-faith attempts.

How do I build up respect & attraction again toward someone whose actions I find so unattractive? Any advice on how to forgive a cheating partner?

ASK A QUESTION!

SOPHIA:

Howdy howdy howdy!!! First of all: I’m so fucking sorry that he cheated. What a bullshit fucking thing to do in a world that is full enough of bullshit and does not need any help. What painful, cliched fuckery on his part.

There is a lot of nuance to what the word “forgive” might actually mean. Does it mean you totally absolve him of all wrongdoing? Does it mean you wipe your memory of this ever happening? Does it mean you agree to live the rest of your life with him with a knife lodged in your chest because you agreed to carry the pain of this around forever to prove that you stay when things are hard?

Someone cheating on you is at bare minimum a water ring on a wooden table. It’s there forever. He always will have done this to you. That—in my mind—is the hard part of this shit. You don’t get a day off, a day back at the beginning of you relationship. Or even a day from seven months ago when you didn’t know this had happened. There are no breaks from the knowledge, somewhere inside of you that he not only has the capability to do this, but that he did do this once before.

The way I always imagine unpleasant and constant knowledge like grief, abandonment or betrayal (for no good reason, my brain is just bizarre) is a tiny tiny man at the back of my brain screaming. For the rest of your time with this guy that tiny tiny man will be in the back screaming. Now, this scream won’t stop everything. Maybe some days he’ll take a little rest and you won’t think about his cheating for days. Or weeks. Or maybe even months. But something will happen— your boyfriend comes home later than expected, he has a close friend who he flirts with, his coworker is sooooo hot— and here the tiny man is again, ready to shout.

As far as I can tell, forgiveness is not a one time act any more than loving someone is a one time act. It’s a kindness to yourself sometimes and a slow drudgery most days and it’s a hot fire poker stuck in your leg other days. Forgiveness is not fun, it’s grace, and being graceful sucks shit most of the time. So you should know going in that while working towards forgiveness may give you a wonderful—perhaps even better—relationship than before, it will not ever be as light and fun as it once was. Maybe maybe if you stay with him for like 39 years and you guys have six kids and four dogs and a grandchild on the way or some shit, you’ll find yourself barely remembering this but I don’t know that there is a way to get rid of it entirely.

So you have to accept that first. He does, too. You both have to sit down and admit (probably out loud is best) that things are not going back to the way they were before. Again, this does not mean that you cannot have a good relationship with him in the future. It means you will have to build the relationship back up together brick by brick and some days you’ll be carrying those metaphorical bricks and you’ll really want to turn to him and be like, “REALLY??! I have to fucking build a new relationship because you got horny/lonely/sad/scared of the future and fucked someone? Really? REALLY?!”

ASK A QUESTION!

The first thing you guys need to figure out, or if not figure out entirely, then at least address is his why. What feeling was it that made him feel like cheating was his best option? It’s not like he didn’t know it would gut you. But what was more scary to him than hurting you? What was worse? Is he sad? Is he lonely? Was he a late bloomer and he’s worried he didn’t get laid enough in high school? Does he crave attention? What the fuck is it that led to this? Because without that information neither of you is ever going to get anywhere. It’s like not finding out what allergy made your throat close up and just hoping you never eat that food again.

The answer will not be some open/shut Blues Clues case or anything, it’s not like you’re going to sit down for a 10 minute convo and Socratic seminar it out and then find one perfect, unimpeachable answer. The answer is probably embarrassing and shameful to him in some respects, and it might take a while, but he’s going to have to open up and then (AND THIS IS THE IMPORTANT STEP) he’s going to have to find people to talk to about this issue— probably therapists and close friends and you—to help guide him the next time he’s feeling lonely/sad/attention-seeking/etc.

There is a concept in forgiveness (esp around cheating) called a transfer of vigilance. This means that instead of you being the one to have to watch out for his behavior around other people, his boundaries, his temptations, he must be the one to watch out for that. He has to do the work. He has to not get into situations that might be tempting for him. He has to establish rules that protect you and protect the relationship from harm, boundaries that might have seemed extreme or bizarre before. Not because they are punitive now; punitive rules will not help either of you and will only lock you guys into a dynamic where he is always The One Who Ruined Everything and you are always The One Who Was Wronged. HE has to do this work. He has to be the one to have anxiety about the relationship, not you. That is not your shit to carry. If you decide to stay with him, you have to decide to give the job of worrying about him cheating again over to him. Same with the job of worrying about preventing him from cheating.

There is nothing that you could have done to stop him from cheating on you, by the way. There is no way that if you were hotter or friendlier or richer or less busy or hornier (or whatever the fuck you might be filling in the blank with) that he would not cheat. That is not how cheating works. He is the only person who can stop him from cheating again. The only thing you can decide, the only thing you can control is if you trust him to take the necessary steps.

All of this might sound like a lot of work BECAUSE IT IS!!!!! It is writing-a-PhD-dissertation-while-having-a-full-time-job level of work. Which means that is going to take time. Of course you aren’t ready for him to be nice to you! Or be physical with you! That is incredibly normal!!!! Your job is to verbalize that rather than to be ashamed that you aren’t auto-healing like the creature from Shape of Water. You just got cheated on and you’re asking why you aren’t over it fast enough!!! I would say to him, “Look, it’s going to take me a while before I’m ready to X, Y, and Z. I wish I had a date when I knew I’d be ready, but I don’t. I do appreciate you trying, but right now, I don’t want that. What would be helpful is if we did X”

Just make sure that you aren’t just enjoying being cold/mean simply because it punishes him. If that’s the case, you have some more work to do on your end. Punishing people who have hurt us is, undoubtedly, really fun. It feels great in the moment and it’s very difficult to hold back. But it will not move you forward.

Lastly, please remember that you do not have to stay forever to stay now. You are allowed to change your mind. You’re allowed to break up with him in a year because you can’t get over this. You’re allowed to break up with him in a year for a totally unrelated reason. You’re allowed to take it one day at a time. In fact, I encourage that. You do not need to commit to marrying him or moving in with him or staying with him until you die; you don’t have to decide on day one that you’ll forgive him forever and ever and always be ok with this.

It’s not ok. It wasn’t ever ok. And yet, you’re staying. Both things can be true. Give yourself a break when you think petty thoughts, but try not to act on them. Give him a chance to re-earn your trust. Ask for what you want when you can find ways to articulate it. Ask for what you want again when it changes. Keep talking to him. Keep admitting the ugly stuff to each other.

As one final note (even though I already used the word “lastly”): both of you should read State of Affairs by Esther Perel. It’s perhaps the best book on affairs and surviving infidelity. She’s brilliant brilliant brilliant. It will help you both, I believe.


Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.