DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time reader, first time emailer. This one is a bit of a doozy, and I am very much at fault, but I need your advice on how to move forward.
My girlfriend and I (let’s call her K) have been dating for nearly 5 years. We’ve going through a tough year. We both moved back to our old town after a few years away for work, but have struggled to reacclimatize. The city just isn’t quite the same, moving was a nightmare, but we hate our new jobs (she’s stuck because she needs to work off a student loan and I’m stuck because there’s very few options in my field of tertiary IT education in my country). As a result, we have constantly been up and down in our relationship this year, and every time I felt like we got to a good place, something would come and set us back again. We really love each other though, and we’re committed to making this work through all the shit.
A recurring issue in our relationship is sexual imbalance. K is a highly sexual person and, though I used to be, the stress of moving and work the last 3 years has killed my libido and made me pretty vanilla (to the point where I was scared of toys because of the threat they posed to my shitty fragile masculinity, even though I know that’s not actually the case). I will admit I’ve probably gotten too comfortable in my relationship. Every very time K would bring up this issue, I really would try to be more attentive, but would eventually fall back into old habits. It’s hard to maintain a healthy sex life when I’m feeling like shit in my work life, but maybe that’s just an excuse. I know sexual incompatibility is another bad sign, but like I said, we’re committed to working through it.
Now for the really shitty bit. About 6 weeks ago, I knowingly cheated on K with an old flame (let’s call her Z). Z and I had kept in touch bit from time to time (first mistake). She texted me saying she wanted to come over to see me on the pretense of seeing my dog who is really cute (first red flag). So when K went away on holiday, I invited Z to our house. I didn’t really want to, but she kept pestering me, and I kinda wanted someone to talk to about K – we were in another rough patch dealing with the sexual issues. So she came over and we had a few drinks (though we weren’t drunk) and spoke about our respective relationships and their struggles (Z is polyamorous, but had been struggling with her partner being very stressed, affecting their sex life).
It felt really good to open up to someone about K, especially the intimate things, because I often kept this stuff bottled up. We were getting physically close through most of these conversations, and at some point she started spontaneously giving me a massage (second red flag).
And then it all went downhill. We started kissing, which very quickly led to sex. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was being selfish and in my head I really just needed a win because of my issues with K being because of me. I figured she was in a similar mindset, though she knew full well what she was enabling me to do. I guess we both needed a win.
I thought that was the end of it once she’d left. I knew what a shit thing I’d done. I’ve been struggling all year with depression and self sabotage is a bit of a pattern in my relationships (though not with cheating). So I kinda hated myself for it, but it did give me perspective. I loved K and wanted to throw myself into our relationship as penance for what I’d done.
Soon after, Z texted me again, feeling terrible that she’d helped me cheat on K. I needed to fix this, she said – which meant telling K about what I had done. My stance on this was that no, K didn’t need to know about this thing that was once, meant nothing at the end of the day and was over. She blackmailed me saying that if I ever proposed to K, I better have told her first, or she would. We fought back and forth over text, ended up basically telling each other to fuck off and blocking each other on all social media. I thought that was the end of it.
Now comes the really fucked up part. To cover my tracks, I blocked Z on all of my, AND all of K’s social media (through access to her phone). Like I said, I took the approach that not telling K would be the best option. It was over.
Fast forward to this past weekend, K and I are back in a good place, and went down to somewhere we used to live for the weekend. Knowing this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I proposed to her, and she said yes. I wasn’t thinking about Z, and I thought I’d covered my tracks well and was working through my own self destructive behaviour by being a better person for K.
Turns out I’d forgotten to block Z on K’s Instagram, and the day after our social media announcement I got a text from Z that she hoped I’d told K first , because she was going to. I hopped out of bed, took K’s phone while she was sleeping (wow, I’m a dick) and scoured it to find Z following K on Instagram. I blocked her immediately (no traces of any threatened message) and thought I would be okay. Until Z started making multiple alt accounts and following both of us. She was on a warpath.
Backed into a wall, the weight of my actions crashed down on me and after much deliberation, I caved into Z’s blackmail. I told K before she could.
K was terribly hurt, and I’ve put her in a shitty position now – she can’t take back all the well wishes on our engagement, or tell anyone about my infidelity because there’s no way they would let her stay if they knew. She says she forgives me (to an extent) and understands the cocktail of shit that led me to this shit show. We are both pretty much going through the five stages of grief about this.
I have promised to be better, and am taking steps to go and see a therapist to work through my fucked up psyche (about a year too late but better late than never) and we’re going to see K’s therapist together later this week for couples counseling.
The only bright side to this is that Z has thankfully disappeared (I don’t even even want this to be posted on Kotaku in case she sees and it stirs up a shit storm), and that K loves me (and our dog) enough to want to stick around and try to work through this.
It’s really hard. I am wracked with guilt. I love this person and I feel like we can build our future together on a clean slate now that everything is out in the open. She loves me, but worries whether love is enough. I keep asserting that it is because I don’t want to lose her. Uncoupling also brings with it a host of logistical problems that aren’t worth it, especially if we can (which I believe) work through this.
I know it will take time, and that I’m probably doing most of the good things to fix things already. I just feel like shit, and I guess I’m looking for some sort of affirmation that this will pass and we’ll be okay. I know that’s not your job and I’m probably going to get realtalked into the ground, but even typing this out has been cathartic, so at least that has helped somewhat.
I feel like shit, I need help, and I can’t bear to lose her.
Engaged Pile of Poo
DEAR ENGAGED PILE OF POO: Hoo boy. Someone call the bellhop because we have a LOT to unpack here.
First of all, EPP: this was a mistake that didn’t need to happen. Hell, it was one that couldn’t have happened if you hadn’t set yourself up to make it in the first place. This wasn’t just a case of “whoops, I slipped and failed my Wisdom saving throw“, it was a series of steps that you actively participated in. If you look back, you can see all the ways that you set yourself up to be in a position where you would cheat. You could’ve headed this off at the pass on multiple occasions. You and Z set things up in such a way that it was more or less inevitable that you were going to “accidentally” end up fucking each other; you stripped away any obstacles that stood between your dick and your ex. Any one of these on its own could be innocent and perfectly acceptable. All of them together lead to making a “oops how’d that get in you” a certainty.
Let’s with the fact that you weren’t talking about your issues with any of your platonic friends.
One of the great disadvantages that men have saddled themselves with is that we lack the support network that women have; having people that you can actually open up to and get support from is a major lack in our lives. We tend to rely on our partners for all of our emotional needs, which is troublesome enough. But when our partners are the problem, we’re left with virtually nobody to turn to in hour hour of need. And while I’m a huge and active proponent of being friends with your exes, I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t a great idea to look to someone you used to sleep with to get support about sexual incompatibility issues with your girlfriend… at least, not if you weren’t planning on leaving her, anyway.
But hey, plenty of folks are able to talk with their exes about sex without cheating, which is why this was just a step towards the inevitable. The next step was having her come over to your house while your girlfriend was out of town. Again: it’s entirely possible, even permissible for you to hang out with your ex at your place, while your girlfriend wasn’t around under entirely different circumstances. The fact that it’s the first time you’ve seen her in person in quite a while… well, that brings up all sorts of very pointed questions about just why you’re hanging out with her now, at this specific time and that specific place.
This alone is a pretty good indicator of just where your head was at, my dude. I mean, there wasn’t any logistical need that mandated you meet up at that time and in that location. If all Z wanted to do was see your dog, you could just have easily met at the dog park. Or a Starbucks. Or any other place that didn’t have easy access to your bedroom. Yes, you could have gone from any of those places to your place, her place, even a hotel room… but those would be a series of extra steps, which would’ve given you more opportunities to change your mind.
The fact that Z was pestering you to come over was both red flag and another time you could have pulled things up short. Z being insistent should have been an indicator that things were getting hinky. Saying “you know what, no, I don’t think it’d be a good idea for you to come over” would’ve nipped this in the bud — not only because it would’ve put one more barrier between you and sex, but because it would’ve likely thrown off Z’s hopes to fuck you. Because let’s be real: she was angling for this too.
I suspect that if i had the transcripts of your messages together, I could pinpoint exactly where the two of you decided you were gonna fuck. You may not have said it out loud — it’s a lot harder to downplay it if you say the words — but I’m more than willing to bet that there’s a point where the two of you knew exactly what was going to happen.
And so it did.
So the deed was done and there’s no undoing it. And while I know this is a stance that a lot of folks disagree with, I think you made the right choice in trying to stuff this down the memory hole. Telling K at this point would’ve just caused unnecessary pain to her. Your penance wasn’t trying to fix your relationship with K — and honestly, referring to trying to save your relationship as “penance” is kinda weird dude — it’s having to live with the guilt.
At least it would have been if Z didn’t seem invested in blowing up your relationship. Frankly, her insisting that you have to come clean to K and nominating herself as the enforcer of your morality is, to use the technical term, fucking bananas. It reads somewhere between her trying to absolve herself of guilt for her actions by trying to force you to make amends — something that’s frankly none of her business — and trying to detonate your relationship so that she could have you back.
I suspect the former moreso than the latter; both of you are taking a lot of “well if I do this, then I won’t be ‘The Asshole’,” which is a bad place to be making decisions from. We’ll come back to that in a second.
As it is, the first rule of being blackmailed is to take away their leverage. Once she started trying to hold your cheating over your head, you should have immediately come clean to K. It would have sucked like a turbocharged Hoover, but it would have put you in a position where you could start the healing process sooner and defanged Z in the process. Trying to cover your tracks only ever makes things worse; as the saying goes, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. The fact that you had to go into K’s accounts to try to cover your ass is, in a way, as much of a violation of trust as cheating.
I bring all of this up, not to rub your nose in just how badly you fucked up — because boy howdy did you — but to illustrate just how many steps it took to get to this place. The more you understand what led you to where you are now, the more you can get an idea of why… and what you need to do now.
Now, as for dealing with the consequences of your actions… well, at the very least, I think talking to a therapist is a good idea. If self-sabotage is a part of your pattern in relationships, then it’s going to be important for you to start getting a handle on that. After all: if you hit another low point and you haven’t started to get your shit together, then this will happen again. Maybe not in the same way, but you will find another way of slamming on the relationship self-destruct button… one that may actually stick this time.
However, I think doing couples counseling with K’s therapist is a mistake. And I’m not the only one. After all, Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor. So I reached out to my friend and real doctor and psychologist, Dr. Liz Powell. Here’s what she had to say:
“You definitely need your own therapist and a couple’s therapist. However, I would strongly recommend against seeing your fiancé’s therapist for couples work. Since K and the therapist already have a relationship, it would be impossible for the therapist to be objective in working with you as a couple. In addition, unless there just aren’t therapists in your area, it’s not ethical for her therapist to be both K’s individual therapist AND your couples therapist.”
So there you have it: get a different couple’s counselor.
But if I’m being perfectly honest: I think it may be worth asking yourself whether this is a relationship you actually want to save. The way you frame things in your letter makes me wonder if your desire to fix things is less about genuinely wanting to stay and more about doing this to salve your conscience and reassure you that you’re a Good Person. The problem is that doing something shitty then feeling bad about it — whether it’s getting bent out of shape about sex toys or cheating on your partner — doesn’t make it better. Self-awareness is a lovely thing, but it’s absolutely pointless on its own. Awareness without action and initiative is just intellectual masturbation, especially when it’s about things you know you’re fucking up on.
So I think more than worrying about this relationship, you need to be focusing on you; all the couple’s counseling in the world isn’t going to fix your relationship if the underlying issues — your issues — aren’t being addressed too. At best, all you’re doing is buying yourself time before you have the exact same problem you had before, just with new details.
As it is, I can’t help but feel like there’s a vibe of “I’m doing this because I’m afraid to end things” or “I don’t know if I can find anyone else” rather than wanting to save this relationship with this person. It may be that this was as much of a sign that this relationship isn’t serving your needs and you’d be better off using the couples counseling as a means to ease the transition out of the relationship.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe getting busted and blackmailed by your ex was the head-shot from the Chair Leg of Truth that brought you to your senses. But if that’s the case, my advice is the same: therapy for you and a different and entirely independent couple’s counselor for the two of you.
And in the future? You’re going to have to be the guardian of your fiancé’s trust from now on. If you’re going to make this work, you’re going to have to be a saint who is absolutely aboveboard on everything if you want her to be able to trust you again.
That’s going to take a lot of work.
So now it’s time to get started.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org