Cheated in a relationship, what to do next?
June 22, 2010 5:56 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a way to deal with the bad feelings, both within me and coming from the ex, after a relationship ended. Problem: I am a massive tool and it was all my fault for cheating on her. How do I say sorry?

My 18 month relationship has completely gone up in smoke and I am trying to work out what to do now. While on a trip away, I got involved with someone else sexually. It lasted a few days, essentially a mini affair. I came clean a few weeks after coming back, also admitting that earlier in our relationship I had kissed someone. The ex, understandably, thinks I am an enormous shit. I have cheated on her, and it was a terrible thing to do. We’re apart now, and although neither of us wants to get back with the other, I do want to do something about the following:

a) How awful I feel. What do I say to myself to work through the guilt and become a better person?

b) Although any efforts now will be very little, way too late, I want to know whether anyone in a similar situation has ever been able to rebuild bridges or at least say sorry in a way that the wronged person will listen to.

I ran into her recently and when I tried to say sorry she wouldn’t accept it. It’s like she has swept up our whole history and thrown it into the box marked “crap”. But then, why shouldn’t she? Wasn’t I doing something similar when I chose to sleep with someone else? She handled herself with such terrifying confidence, claiming not to be hurt in any way, batting away everything I said. She doesn’t want to hear any explanations. It’s like she has resolved that I am nothing but a bad person and the relationship was a big lie.

The conundrum is that I thought there were a lot of good things in our relationship. And yet I slept with someone else. Why? I am trying to understand but am getting nowhere. She seems to believe our relationship was nothing all along and that's why I found it so easy to do. I wish I could offer an alternative explanation that reconciles how I could genuinely care about her and still do something like this – explanations, not excuses (that old chestnut...) . Is that possible, or am I just fooling myself?

I don’t have an explanation yet, and even if I did I don’t think she wants to hear it. But is there anything I can do to help me understand?

I have gone back over what I have written and I think it sounds a bit self pitying. I know what I did and am not trying to escape the guilt. But I can’t stop thinking about what I did to her and I would be really grateful to read any constructive insight into what the cheating shitbag can or should do next. Throwaway is Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think the best thing you could do is leave her alone. She seems to have made her feelings clear, and trying to maintain contact at this point seems more designed to assuage your feelings of guilt.
posted by joelhunt at 6:06 AM on June 22, 2010 [21 favorites]

Honestly, this sounds like it's about you, not her, as though you'd like to her to forgive you somehow, to ease your feelings of guilt.

The truth is this: You fucked up and hurt her and she's done with you. This doesn't make you a bad person forever, but you did make a mistake and you should learn and grow from it. She's probably very hurt, but damned if she's going to show YOU and frankly that's understandable.

Forgive yourself, realize you are only human and you made a big mistake. Examine why you did what you did and decide if that sort of behavior is ok with you. You can't change the past, only the present and future. Grow and learn.

Give her time, she's entitled to her feelings of hurt and anger, but don't think there will be a magical moment or talk in the future when all is forgiven and you two mend fences and become friends. She's pissed, doesn't want anything to do with you and that's perfectly normal and understandable. All you can do is decide whether you want to inspire such feelings in future relationships.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:06 AM on June 22, 2010 [22 favorites]

a) Your infidelity destroyed what trust you two had built up. Working through this will require honesty, responsibility, and change.

b) You don't get to choose what the wronged person will listen to.

Let me repeat that. You. Don't. Get. To. Choose.

She's been cheated on. Regardless of the seriousness (or not) of her feelings towards you beforehand, she's now re-evaulating everything about the relationship's 18 month history (and beyond). She's going to heal in her own way. On her own time. And she's going to need to hear what she wants to hear.

If she asks for an apology, give a sincere one. If she asks for details, provide them. If she writes you off and refuses to ever talk to you again, then shut the hell up.

We all heal differently. Your responsibility towards her now is to let her heal, and provide whatever she needs to do that - be it silence or explanation.

As for what you can do next: live with what you did, but use it an agent of change.
posted by whycurious at 6:07 AM on June 22, 2010 [8 favorites]

Honestly, you're going to have to learn to live with her opinion of you. Your remorse is what YOU doesn't create any obligation for her to forgive you or even to hear you out. It sounds like you are trying to feel better about this by trying to control how she feels about your prior relationship and about you, and that's neither possible nor constructive.

You are going to have to get through your feelings about this on your own, without input or assistance from her. It's good that you feel guilty; you screwed up, and it shows that you have a functioning conscience. I do absolutely think you can start to understand why you did this, but it's going to come through sitting quietly with the idea, alone (or with a therapist), not by convincing her of your nice-guyitude, your remorse, or the quality of your relationship.

And I'll just ask: Why did you do it?
posted by LittleMissCranky at 6:12 AM on June 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

You're trying to apologize to her because it will make you feel better. It won't, at this stage, make her feel better. Leave her alone. (For now.)

I cheated on a girlfriend - and, worse, lied about it, repeatedly - and when I finally came clean the whole thing blew up and it was awful for everyone (her, me, all our friends, etc.). I apologized a lot and we patched things up enough that our friends didn't have to decide which of us to invite to a party. But things still sucked.

Fast-forward a bunch of years. I saw her at the wedding of a mutual friend. I had been in a lot of therapy and we'd all grown up some (the relationship had taken place in college), and I was finally able to make what I call The Real Apology, in which I did not talk about myself at all, but was able to convey that I understood (finally) what effects my actions had on her - the doubts I'd caused her to have about her own ability to judge someone else's character and honesty, the pain of being repeatedly lied to, all that. And now we're friends. Real friends. She and her partner live downstairs.

So. It's possible. But the time it will take is not really of your choosing or under your control. Use it to really work out why you did what you did, and how to not do it again. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 6:32 AM on June 22, 2010 [19 favorites]

What's done is done. She isn't going to sit down with you and give her forgiveness. She isn't going to cry and scream and tell you you broke her heart. I wonder if she did pour her heart out, would you still be so upset? Are you a bit shocked that she is so cool and collected? That perhaps her feelings for you weren't so strong? That your cheating didn't affect her like you thought it would?

Here is some advice for the future: NEVER tell your partner that you cheated. Don't "come clean" and hope for a passionate argument and forgiveness. It very rarely works this way. People will be understandably confused, hurt, humiliated, and angry. Telling your partner was a huge mistake. People tell their partners for their own selfish reasons, not for their partner's benefit.

What you do now is conduct yourself in a decent way. Don't bother her. Don't cheat on people in the future. I think people cheat because they are looking for approval. Most of the time they don't respect themselves, let alone their partner. They want to be desired and loved. There is nothing wrong with these feelings but in the future if you are in a committed relationship do something good for your own self-respect and remain faithful to the relationship. Do you see how crappy this is making you feel? Learn from it and don't do it again. That's the most wise and mature thing you can do right now.
posted by Fairchild at 6:35 AM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think that your internal resolution of this can involve her at all for the reasons other people have stated. I think you should approach it as though you did something stupid and burned your house down with your every Earthly possession in it, and just process it all and move on as you would with a situation like that.

I think that the conventional Christian take on this would be "We are all hopeless sinners. But Christ died for our sins; so though sin is lamentable and unforgiveable, God forgives us in the end." I'm not a Christian and I don't believe all that but I think that religion originated to help deal with grievous situations like yours and is the product of thousands of years of people going through these things. So I think that it can be instructive to reflect on what all that does for them psychologically, fictive crutch though it may be.
posted by XMLicious at 6:35 AM on June 22, 2010

She handled herself with such terrifying confidence, claiming not to be hurt in any way

She seems to believe our relationship was nothing all along and that's why I found it so easy to do.

The opposite is true, of course. The relationship for her was about intimacy, and the intimacy was built on trust.
You should try it some time--everything, including the sex, is better. But you might have to be older to get it.
Most women understand this from the get-go. Age-old dilemma. Mars/Venus.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:46 AM on June 22, 2010

yeah, this is about you. leave her alone and deal with your own shit, alone or with a therapist, and forgive yourself when you can. she has enough emotional crap of her own to sort through now (thanks to you!) and would probably rather sort through it with people she trusts. she may never forgive you, and that's totally fair. focus on your own stuff. and again: leave her alone.
posted by crawfo at 7:02 AM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Surviving Infidelity is a web forum I've seen recommended here, and I think they have a section for the cheater. It might help you understand both sides of the situation better.

Also, you can use the bad feeling as a way to sit down and really look at why you did it. To me, that's the direction of self-forgiveness: rolling back the tape to play key decisions in slow-mo. "Where did that decision come from? Okay, where did that underlying feeling come from?" I don't normally have the patience for this, but it comes naturally around bad decisions for which you feel ashamed. At the end, you know at least one thing about yourself much better, which is so helpful for life (not just your relationships).
posted by salvia at 7:08 AM on June 22, 2010

I think it would be reasonable to send her one letter explaining how sorry you are, and then leave it at that. If she wants further contact, she will initiate it. Other than that, you need to accept that letting her heal on her own terms is the respectful thing to do...your conscience is not her problem.
posted by tetralix at 7:09 AM on June 22, 2010

say sorry in a way that the wronged person will listen to

This isn't something you're going to get in this situation. Some people are able to listen to an apology from a person who betrayed them; others aren't. Time is also a factor. If your ex doesn't want to hear your apologies, she doesn't want to hear them: no magic words will change that, and it's pretty selfish to insist that she listen. She knows that you want to say you're sorry. Knowing that she knows is the best you can do in this regard right now. She doesn't owe it to you to listen to your apology or offer her forgiveness.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:10 AM on June 22, 2010

You're human, you became attracted to someone and you acted on it. That's all the why you need - for whatever reason, this attraction was stronger than the loyalty you felt to your ex. Maybe the context was so different you forgot about her, maybe you were feeling self-destructive, who knows.

Or, well, maybe you WEREN'T satisfied in the relationship. If she was as cold during the breakup as you describe, maybe you felt that she was less open to you in other ways during the relationship, which you picked up on unconsciously.

Not a bad idea to figure out why the brakes didn't kick in in cheating situation, and why her reaction has devastated you so much, to avoid creating a situation like this in the future.
posted by jetsetlag at 7:16 AM on June 22, 2010

I've been the cheater and the cheated.

From the cheated perspective, I've found it's easier to react the way your ex has reacted. It's easier to assume that the other person is just a dick who CLEARLY cares less about the relationship than they appeared to. It's a coping mechanism. Do you really think she wants to sit around all day remembering the amazing relationship you two had? I'm sure that would make her good and miserable for a long while. So, I guess if that's how you want her to feel, then go for it! Keep bothering her! Keep trying to convince her that you really are this amazing guy that she can no longer have. Unfortunately, you really did fuck around with her. You treated her with little respect, and you threw away everything you had for a fling. She needs to believe that you are a huge jerk for a while so she can get past the betrayal and start trusting people again.

As the cheater, there will always be guilt. Sometimes I'll be showering, putting on my shoes, or some other mundane task and it'll pop into my mind (it's been years since my infidelities) and be so powerful that I can't help but cry a bit right there. I'm embarrassed to admit that, but it really still hits me. You need to feel guilty about your behavior. You did something terrible to someone you were close to. But if you're a good person, you will learn from this. The way your ex feels toward you, and the way you feel about yourself, will encourage you to be a stronger, more trustworthy partner in the future.

Good luck!
posted by Lizsterr at 8:04 AM on June 22, 2010 [8 favorites]

Sometimes the best thing you can do is just let someone hate you.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:07 AM on June 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

We make mistakes. We lose people. If you really do care about this person, just letting them get on with their life, without adding even more to their burden, would be best...

You're also demonstrating that you feel contrite. I'd suggest maybe you use this as an opportunity to grow as a person by finding out what causes you to do that sort of thing in the first place, and why it makes you feel bad. Try some counseling maybe? The next woman you are in a relationship with will benefit from you being better at and more comfortable with monogamy... Or, maybe you'll figure out that monogamy is not for you, and concentrate your efforts to find a relationship on women who don't want or expect it of you?
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:14 AM on June 22, 2010

Here's the thing: people are made up of patterns. And in this scenario, I'm leaning toward the notion that your feelings are pretty much your main focus, over and over again. That's the pattern.

Specifically, your girlfriend's feelings weren't important to you when you made the decision to cheat on her, something you knew would cause her pain. But at that moment, in fact repeatedly over that weekend with the other woman, you consciously decided to prioritize your desires over your girlfriend's feelings.

And here, again, I believe your "need" to apologize and not look like A Bad Guy is oh so much about your feelings, not about your girlfriend's at all. You want the guilt assuaged, you want to feel, hey, it was a Big Mistake and hey, she forgave me so it's cool. But it was that bad for her obviously. She cared about someone who deceived her and put her health at risk.

The reality is you treated someone you claimed to care about very, very poorly and there's no time machine that can fix it. Recognize your problematic pattern might just be that you put your feelings first in situations where your partner's feelings should be priority. That's how a good relationship works: balance.

Please leave her alone. Every contact with you re-opens her wound and that's not healing, that's inducing more hurt which you claim you don't want to do.
posted by December at 8:51 AM on June 22, 2010 [23 favorites]

although neither of us wants to get back with the other
Why did you cheat on her? There's your answer. Now leave her alone.
posted by uans at 8:57 AM on June 22, 2010

In my experiences, people cheat for many reasons. People often cheat out of cowardice, and a fear of/inability to commit and be honest about that fact. Instead of having a frank discussion about not wanting to be in a relationship at all or any longer, they'll cheat so there's a clear reason for a break-up- and one that forces the other person to do the breaking. People also cheat out of fear and inability to accept a good situation, especially if they've only been in unhappy relationships- they'll feel like a relationship is going well, so that means it's bound to end soon, so they'll go ahead and create a reason to speed that along. In that case it's self-destruction. Some people cheat because they can, or to see if they can, or to feel powerful and in control. Your reasons are your own, and if you figure them out by being very honest with yourself, you'll be able to avoid repeating this situation in the future (hopefully). But this process is all about you- not her. There's very little you can do at this point for her beyond apologizing without making excuses and then leaving her alone to heal. If she seeks you out to discuss everything, then you can engage in talks about the relationship, but it's not her responsibility to make you feel better, or help you analyze the relationship to figure out "why you did it." In fact, that will only make her take partial responsibility, which isn't fair. Do the work yourself, and don't jump into another relationship, for everyone's sake.
posted by questionsandanchors at 10:49 AM on June 22, 2010

As others have said, it's really not your place to try and force an apology on her. You should reconcile what you've done by yourself. I think trying to figure out why you cheated is also something you don't need her around to figure out.
posted by chunking express at 11:05 AM on June 22, 2010

Search your soul for the essence of what you feel you've lost. Convey this to her in a heartfelt, unselfish way. We're wired to respond well when someone has reached this level of consciousness. You have to do the work alone to get there and bring it up to the light, though.
posted by Pamelayne at 1:26 PM on June 22, 2010

What's been said above: You don't get to erase what you did. She has no responsibility to let you "make it up to her", forgive you, or even interact with you.

The most gentlemanly thing you can do at this point is admit you were wrong (which you have), and respect her space (no contact that she doesn't initiate).
posted by IAmBroom at 3:05 PM on June 22, 2010

You betrayed her trust. You admit this, and that she is (quite understandably) pissed off at you for it.

It sounds like you feel bad. And as other posters have said in better words and more succinctly above, this may be the catalyst that lets you grow into a better person.

But right now? She's hurting. Maybe you're hurting too. But as the one who cheated on her, your (ex)-girlfriend is the ONLY person in the world who can't make you feel better.

Leave her alone.
posted by Hakaisha at 3:46 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone who says to leave her alone. If you genuinely want her to feel better, stay far far away. You will have to feel like shit for a while yet. But it's good you feel like shit because it means you're not the worst person in the world.

The conundrum is that I thought there were a lot of good things in our relationship. And yet I slept with someone else. Why? I am trying to understand but am getting nowhere.

Having good things in a relationship is not what keeps people from cheating; tons of people can offer you good things, from sex to love to happiness and whatever else. Being in a relationship does not mean that truth temporarily vanishes. It's always there. People don't have long, faithful relationships because they're never attracted to anyone else. Most people will feel attraction to other people along the way, no matter how awesome their relationship is.

Making a decision to value your partner's feelings more than your own immediate feelings is what keeps people from cheating. Some people have to do this consciously, others feel an immediate empathic pang for their partner at the thought. It ultimately doesn't matter as long as you're able to do right by their feelings.

I think December nailed this: you care more about your own feelings than your girlfriend's, both when you cheated and now when you want to stop feeling guilty. It's not like you're some monster who cares only about himself -- I don't think there are many people like this, honestly -- but that can actually make it harder to see the problem. You think to yourself, well, of course I care about her feelings. You wouldn't feel guilty at all if you didn't care about her feelings. But it's not a question of caring or not, or even caring a lot or not. It's a question of priorities. When it came to her pain in exchange for your gratification, your gratification won out.

You cheated because you didn't care enough about your girlfriend's feelings not to cheat. It's that simple. It's not always easy to value someone else's feelings above your own when they're in conflict, especially when you really want something. That's the root of a ton of relationship problems, even when cheating isn't involved. Sometimes it's because you just don't mesh well enough with your partner to care more about them, sometimes it's because someone is overly self-centered, sometimes it's a combination.

In the future, if you're on the verge of cheating remember the following two things:
1) you've discovered that you're actually NOT happy when your gratification comes at the expense of another person, and

2) now that you've decided to respect both yourself and your partner by not cheating, do your best to determine why your girlfriend's feelings were not a priority: is it because you're being self-centered or would you really rather be with someone else? If you feel like cheating is inevitable then do both of you a favor and break up before sleeping with anyone else.
posted by Nattie at 4:21 PM on June 22, 2010 [11 favorites]

Agreed with December. Seems to me that
1. It's important to you that she accept your apology, the way that you want it to be
2. It's important to you that she NOT think of you as a bad person, and that the relationship wasn't a big lie
3. It's important to you that she NOT believe that the relationship was nothing, and that it was easy for you to sleep with someone else.
4. You really, really don't want to be the bad guy. If you could just explain it then maybe she wouldn't think all these things.

You have to stop caring about what she thinks (and leave her alone as everyone else said. She wants you to leave her alone. If you really care about her, you would respect that). She will think what she thinks and deal with this in her own way. You have to start caring about what you think and get really, really honest with yourself. What do you think about what you did? Not just with the cheating, but what do you think about how you conducted yourself in the relationship? Did you treat her well? Were you treated well? How did you handle conflicts? What were the conflicts? What did you like about being in a relationship with her? Not like? Also, what did it feel like to have sex with this other woman? You made a choice. You went through with it. You didn't have sex with her once, but over a few days. What were you telling yourself that justified this decision and actions in your head? Did you want to stay in this relationship with your ex?

Similarly, you told her. Why did you make that choice? (Not saying that you shouldn't have, unlike what Fairchild said - sheesh! Terrible advice IMO!) I mean, what were you hoping to get out of telling her, if anything?

The conundrum is that I thought there were a lot of good things in our relationship
I think it's interesting that you phrased it as "I thought there were good things…" vs. "There were a lot of good things…" You know how you say to a friend you're meeting up with, "I thought we were meeting at 8 pm!" and they show up at 9 pm? To me saying "I thought" in this sentence indicates "I thought this, but I could be wrong, what did we agree on again? Sorry if I made a mistake. Please confirm what I thought." vs. saying "We were supposed to meet at 8 pm" - this indicates you are more sure in what you remembered, and you're sure it's your friend who goofed. Similarly, saying, "I thought there were good things…" indicates to me that you're confused. You thought there were good things in the relationship? There weren't actually good things? I could be totally completely off here. But our choice of words can be very revealing. So maybe you thought there were good things in the relationship… but maybe there actually weren't. Again, you have to get really honest with yourself. Figure out the type of partner you want to be, and the type of relationship you want. Don't think in "shoulds." Think about what you really want, even if it's like "I want a girlfriend but I want to have sex with other people at the same time" or "I don't really want to be in a relationship." Find something that is true for you, not what you think you "should" want or be or do.
posted by foxjacket at 5:23 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you should think of it as an important life lesson and move on. Some actions have very dire consequences and you cannot always expect forgiveness and understanding.
posted by meepmeow at 6:12 PM on June 22, 2010

tl;dr? The OP acknowledges she wants no contact and is only looking for help
communicating and gaining understanding with himself.

I feel like I'm standing up for a bunch of OPs lately, but let me just throw out the fact that in every breakup I've gone through, there was something that I really really wanted the other party to understand. One person broke up with me citing a misconstrual of something I said, so in that case I really wanted them to know I didn't think that. In another case, I wanted them to understand how truly grateful I was for our time together even though I had to end the relationship anyway. I had already told them in person but still sat crying at the busstop trying to write the perfect letter about how really truly very true it was.

So, to me, the OP's desire for her not to think him a terrible person and for her to know he valued their relationship (some evidence to the contrary) seem natural and not necessarily part of some pattern of selfishness. They sound like the guilt of hurting someone and the anguish of a breakup. Meanwhile, three-quarters or more of his question, arguably all of it, including most of (b) wherein he describes his contact with her, is about how to live with and move through the guilt and explain his own actions to himself. His search for an explanation ends with him saying he knows she doesn't want to hear it, but he wants to be able to explain it to himself.

OP, I don't know what you can do with all that beyond write letters you don't send and checking out that forum I mentioned above. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 7:30 PM on June 22, 2010

We are all in agreement: you do not want to be a bad person, and you really do not want to be seen as a bad person.

That is a good first step. But I think the reason people are being so hard on you is this: if you always maintain/regain your "good person" status no matter what you do, even if only in your own mind, it is easy to fall into thinking that you can do whatever you want, even the worst things, and still somehow maintain that status. (You might not even think that consciously).

Forget the question of whether or not you "are" a bad person.

Focus on your behavior and actions. Don't focus on what they add to your good person or bad person ranking. Just focus on each of them, themselves. What you do next is just go live your life doing the right thing. I think that's the best thing to do.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:14 PM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

a) How awful I feel. What do I say to myself to work through the guilt and become a better person?

1. Live with it. It's on your permanent record of life now, you're gonna have to deal with it. This is something you may never feel better about, and perhaps maybe you shouldn't.
2. Figure out why you did it (therapy, probably), specifically so you can:
3. Don't do it again when you are with someone else.

It’s like she has swept up our whole history and thrown it into the box marked “crap”. But then, why shouldn’t she? Wasn’t I doing something similar when I chose to sleep with someone else? She handled herself with such terrifying confidence, claiming not to be hurt in any way, batting away everything I said. She doesn’t want to hear any explanations. It’s like she has resolved that I am nothing but a bad person and the relationship was a big lie.

Well, you cheated on her twice. Why wouldn't she think the relationship was a lie? For all she knows you cheated on her from day one at this point. You can't be trusted any more, so she probably does feel like everything you had was a lie. Sometimes something happens in a relationship to color/ruin everything that came before it, and this is one of those things that frequently does that.

Sometimes people do bad things. Sometimes there is no making up for them. All you can do is feel sorry, and learn how to improve from there. The damage is done to your ex. Leave her alone. Maybe in 1-5-10 years or something she'll have cooled off to accept an apology, but don't push it on her now.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:19 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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