Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is My Wife Cheating On Me With Her Toxic Ex?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My girlfriend says she was emotionally abused by her ex boyfriend. He had anger and jealousy issues. He would isolate her and dictate the activities they would do together. He would even say hurtful things to her like that she’s not marriage material or that she’ll be alone forever. They dated for about two years and then she broke up with him. He tried desperately to get her back. He would write long elaborate love notes and even drive 4 hours to show up at her front door unannounced. This went on for about a year. She started to date other people and she slowly cut him out of her life.

About a year ago, she received a job offer at the same job that he works at. This would mean they would work in the same city and the same building. This was her dream job so she said yes. When she moved down here for the new job, they began communicating again. Deep feelings for him began to resurface. She discovered that he had a new girlfriend and it really hurt her. She cried for days when she found out. She was confused why she felt like this after the way he treated her in the past. She tried to get back into a relationship with him but he refused because of his new girlfriend. This hurt her even more.

She decided to just try to maintain a professional working relationship. She began dating again and a few months later, she started dating me. She told me the whole story of their relationship. As we began to become serious in our relationship, she decided it was a good idea to keep our relationship a secret so that he does not cause drama at work. I also work in the same building as them.

The next few months was a struggle. He would call her almost every day and she would pick up the phone every time. He would send long texts apologizing for the past and saying that he would like to get back together. She was very transparent with me about these conversations. She said it was important to maintain a professional relationship with him because they work together but it was clear that he wanted more than just a professional relationship. She said she was working on cutting him out of her life but she needed time and to do it her own way. I obliged and allowed the communication to continue between them. They would speak almost daily.

Our relationship continues to progress and by this point, we are serious about each other. We are saying “I love you”, meeting each other’s parents and even talking about the future. Yet, during this same period of time, I would catch her lurking on the new girlfriends social media page. If the ex would post a new photo with his girlfriend, she would see it and her mood would immediately be ruined. They would have phone conversations where they would argue and cry about the past for hours. She said what she was feeling has nothing to do with romantic feelings and everything to do with the aftermath of the emotional abuse she received. I was very confused by this but she confidently said that she was never in love with him. It still hurt when I would see her continue to have these conversations with her ex and see how bothered she was by his new girlfriend.

I did not like how she was handling the situation but I also tried to remain empathetic. I urged her not to text back or answer his calls but she simply could not. She knew that their communication made me uncomfortable. I was often frustrated and it would lead to arguments. When she couldn’t go no contact, I felt that she cared about his feelings more than mine. It seemed that she had this attachment to him. I began to feel like I was being emotionally cheated on. Yet, she always remained very adamant that she was in love with me and not him. She attributes her feelings and tears to the emotional abuse. She knows he wasn’t the one for her.

I told her that he it is unhealthy for them to be in contact and it would be best if she blocked him from everything. It took quite a bit of convincing but she eventually did. We’ve now been together for 6 months and she hasn’t been in contact with him for about three months.

We are still in love and she firmly maintains that she never felt the same love for him. I believe her but I wonder if there are feelings that she can’t fully understand because of the pain she went through?

I know that it can be very hard to detach from a manipulative ex and I admit that I don’t fully understand the effects of an emotionally abusive relationship. I write this because I want to understand how a past emotionally abusive relationship can affect a current loving relationship and how to navigate those difficulties.

I worry that her ex was like a drug, responsible for her highs and lows, and she was going through withdrawals while dating me. I worry that she has been so conditioned by the emotional abuse that she has come to expect it. I want to be assured that I was not emotionally cheated on. I think that is my biggest fear.

Is it possible that she simply did not have enough time to heal from him? I feel like I had to push her to make the decision to block his number. If she was truly over him and healed, wouldn’t she have willingly blocked him for the betterment of our relationship? I recently asked her to unblock him because I felt that blocking him was just an easy way of not having to confront the problem. I never seen her not text back or not pick up his calls and that is still the one thing that makes me believe she was not over him. Unblocking him was my way of testing her to see how she would react if he does reach out again. Was this a bad idea to unblock him? It seemed to be working but I always wonder how far the communication would have gotten if I didn’t push her to block him.

I feel stuck and don’t want to question her anymore. I don’t want to smother her in pursuit of this clarity and understanding that I crave. Please help me understand all of this.

Stuck In 3rd

DEAR STUCK IN 3RD: There’s a lot to unpack here, but I think it may actually be better to toss the entire suitcase out.

I’m going to give you some advice which is going to save you and your girlfriend a lot of pain and conflict in the future: you need to ditch the whole “she was cheating on me emotionally” angle. Like, right the hell now.  There’re a whole host of things wrong with this outlook, not the least of which is that it’s centering her struggle — and it is a struggle — around you and your feelings. I mean, Jesus f

k dude, you’re “testing” her to see if she’s over him? You don’t “test” a relationship like that, especially when it means putting her in contact with her abuser.

But the bigger issue is very simple: you don’t understand how abuse f

ks with someone’s head. It can be very hard for people to process what’s been happening to them and even harder untangle the whammy that it’s put on them.

Let’s start with the “go away, come back” game that her ex plays. You may have noticed that whenever it seems that she was going to leave him for good, suddenly he’s sorry for everything, he’s on his best behavior and swearing up and down that he’s going to love her until the end of time. He’s deluging her with affection and attention to such a level that it’s hard to resist. This is known as “love bombing”; he’s doing all of this positive behavior because it floods her brain with oxytocin and makes her feel almost high from it. It feels so good that it’s very easy to forget that, oh, right, he’s King F

kstain of S

t Mountain. After all, it’s very easy to cast doubt on our own memories and think “well, maybe it wasn’t that bad after all,” especially when he’s making such huge gestures and promising her the sun, moon and stars.

And your girlfriend wants to believe that he’s better, that he’s not this hideously toxic person. Not because she still has a thing for him but because people in general don’t like to think that they’re the sort of person who’d get stuck in a toxic, abusive relationship. It’s more reassuring to see the abuser’s behavior as a glitch in the Matrix, rather than a genuine part of who he is. Otherwise how else can she reconcile her having dated him, the good memories she has (and yes, survivors of abusive relationships can have good memories of the relationship… these almost always come from the start of the relationship) and the complicated feelings she still has for him. And, yeah, those feelings are real, they’re legit and they’re completely understandable… and perversely, they’re because of the abuse.

One of the things that a lot of abusers do — some unconsciously, some deliberately — is called “intermittent reinforcement”. This involves a seemingly random system of rewards or punishments that don’t conform to any particular response or stimulus. Those rare moments of getting the reward gives such an endorphin rush that you get hooked on it and want to figure out how to trigger it again. That pattern of anxiety and pain and random rewards (and the accompanying endorphin rush) are how casinos and game publishers convince you to keep throwing money into slot machines or loot boxes in games; the rush that comes from even those minor rewards is insanely powerful and it creates a pattern that is very hard to break.

And part of why it’s been so damn hard for your girlfriend to break that pattern with her ex? It’s because she can’t get away from him. He’s part of her life at work, he still has access to her through social media and her phone… he’s able to keep performing that pattern of anxiety and relief that f

ks with her head.

So yeah, she still has feelings for him. That’s not surprising. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy about having those feelings. I mean, imagine if you still found yourself attracted to someone who you knew, intellectually, would only hurt you. Imagine how f

ked up you would feel if there was this thing that you knew did nothing but cause you pain and you still wanted it. That would tear you up inside because you’d feel torn between the guilt and self-recrimination for feeling this way and still wanting it. 

And here you are, getting pissy with her because she’s got scars from a toxic relationship.

Look dude, she ain’t cheating on you, she’s not holding onto a relationship because she wants to get back into it and she’s not thinking about this guy because she’s just not over him yet. She’s dealing with the aftermath of an abusive relationship and those are incredibly difficult to leave.

Also: holy hopping sheep s

t Charlie, telling her to unblock him after she finally blocked him was the wrong f

king move. She doesn’t need to “confront the problem”, she needs to excise him out of her life like cancer. She also needs to talk to a therapist, preferably one who has a lot of experience and training in helping people who’ve been in abusive relationships. What she needs right now is support, healing and distance. What she doesn’t need is a guy who’s pushing her one way (block him!) and then the other (UNblock him!) because he’s trying to prove a point to himself.

Now in an ideal world, she wouldn’t just cut him out of her life, she’d find a better job or, at the very least, arrange things so that he had no contact and no access to her at work. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards at the moment, which means that she’s going to need Team Her in her corner to prop her up and run interference, both when she’s having moments of weakness and when this dude starts trying to replay the old patterns. And if you care about her and want her to be happy, you’ll do that without worrying about “what this says about her feelings for you.” She needs a lot of love and support right now, not people questioning her motives, her feelings or trying to test her.

And if you can’t let go of the question of whether she was “emotionally cheating” on you, then you need to let go of her, so she can be with someone who can support her in the way she needs.

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