DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: First of all, English is not my first language so I’m sorry for any mistake in my letter.
I’m writing to you because I have a problem, and honestly I think it may be the most boring and common problem in the history of romantic relationships. Nevertheless, it’s driving me crazy and I could really use your help.
I’ve been in a relationship with my girlfriend for nine years. We’re both 31 and we met when we were 22, so we spent the better part of our twenties together. We moved in about 4 years ago and it has all been generally great. I still have feelings for her and I’m still attracted to her, and life together has been fun. We’re not planning to get married or have kids, but I do see my long-time future with this person and I’m committed about it.
Problem is, I recently met someone.
A couple of months ago, I met a girl through mutual friends. We share a few common interests and we started chatting on Instagram, sharing links and exchanging opinions. Sometimes the conversation turned flirty, but from my prospective it never represented something to actively pursue, like actively trying to make something happen. I don’t think I was doing anything wrong in flirting with this person via chat, and I don’t think flirting is necessarily bad, or that it means that you’re cheating on your partner or anything like that. I couldn’t really tell if this girl liked me or saw me as a romantic prospect whatsoever, but I didn’t care. I was having a good time.
Except for a little detail: I never mentioned to her that I was in a relationship. And for that I suck. I think I was afraid to put a stop to this thing that maybe I was enjoying a little bit too much. I often found myself ignoring my partner and prioritizing this non-existing new relationship that was new, exciting and interesting. This girl was very funny, incredibly smart. She was cute too. And she was different from my long-time girlfriend, who I decided never to mention during several weeks of chatting.
So I kept going, and finally decided to ask the girl out. Again, I never mentioned my relationship. To be fair, she never asked me and I don’t know how she never found out that I was with someone by looking me up online (I don’t share a lot about my personal life on social media), or simply by asking some of our mutual friends. Still, I know it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t a good thing by my part. I think that, more than the idea of cheating, that never crossed my mind until a point, I was really happy just to be liked by her. I found her somewhat intoxicating, and when we went out the first time I rapidly realized that I had developed a massive crush.
We want out three times. In two occasions, we stayed at her place (you can’t really go out much, there’s a pandemic after all) and just hang out. At the end of the third “date”, we kissed. When it looked like something more could happen, I finally panicked: I told her I had a girlfriend, and she didn’t take it very well.
She was reasonably upset and decided to end “whatever that was” right there. We kept in touch and are still talking, and I don’t know what is making me more sad and confused: the fact that I hurt someone by hiding the fact that I had a very serious relationship, the fact that I messed up something that was potentially very good for me by being a coward, or the fact that I basically cheated on my girlfriend and had a pretty intense thing with someone else. I don’t even know what I should do now: talk to my girlfriend and tell her what happened? Break up with her, even if I still very much love her? Maybe what happened was a sign that my relationship wasn’t as sure as I thought. Maybe I just had a stupid little crush, it’s just an accident and I should forget about it. It’s not easy, but I know I want to.
I also know that I missed the other girl. I especially miss being liked and I hate the fact that I hurt her more than I feel guilty about “sort of cheating”. Does it make sense? I hope it does, but I don’t know anymore.
I know I haven’t been honest with both of them and that lead me to feel like s--t for multiple reasons. Now I just would like to reconnect with my girlfriend without the shadow of what happened leaning over me all the time, but, deep inside of me, I know I also would like to clean up the mess with the other girl. I know, a little too much to ask.
As I said, I like someone else, and I’m also still in love with my girlfriend. Most boring problem in the history of romantic relationships. But why does it feel like a f--king greek tragedy right now?
Thank you, hope to hear from you.
DEAR CHEAT-ISH: Alright Cheat-ish, let’s get this one off the top: some of what you did was pretty s--tty. Not the kiss — that’s not great, but honestly, on the scale of cheating, that’s a minor infraction. It was the leading your crush on part that was s--tty of you. I can get why you did it, and I can empathize but it was still pretty s--tty of you. However, the reason why it was s--tty isn’t really for the reason that you seem to think.
Let’s pick this apart, shall we?
The first thing to get out of the way is that monogamy isn’t magic, nor is it mind control. When you make a monogamous commitment to somebody, you’re making a promise that you’re not going to have sex with someone else. That doesn’t say a damn thing about not wanting to… and to be perfectly blunt, it’s a fool’s errand to try to enforce that. One of the things that people don’t realize — or like to think about — is that our concept of romantic love and commitment can be unrealistic. The fact that we love somebody, truly love someone, doesn’t mean that we are no longer capable of being attracted to other people. We are, amongst other things, a novelty-seeking species, and our brains reward us for novelty. We are always going to notice other people, be attracted to other people and want to bang other people. That happens independently of everything else. Having a crush on somebody doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your relationship. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your girlfriend or boyfriend. It just means that you’re a primate with a sex drive. That’s it.
Crushes happen. Crushes are fun. It’s a thrill to have a crush on somebody; you get a taste of that same New Relationship Energy that you had at the start of your current relationship. But simply having a crush — even enjoying it — doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong. It’s what you do about that crush that makes the difference.
Part of why we get crushes on people is because they’re new and different from our partners. Some of what makes the early stages of a relationship exciting is that you’re getting to know this person, discovering new things and experiencing things differently than before. That pleases the novelty-seeking parts of our brain. One of the things that makes long-term relationships difficult is that while familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it does mean that there’s less novelty and newness. When a new source comes along, our brains will latch onto it. And with this new woman came new perspectives, new conversations and new experiences. It’s understandable that you developed a crush.
Similarly, it’s understandable that you got a thrill out of the fact that she was into you. That, again, is a very normal and universal experience; even when we’re happy in our relationships, we like the thrill of knowing people still desire us. Yes, we know that our partners are still into us and vice versa… but it’s always nice being reminded that other people see you as a sexual being as well. That doesn’t mean that you would do anything about that… but it’s always nice to be invited to the party, even if you aren’t gonna go.
And honestly, having a flirty friendship with someone isn’t a bad thing either. Flirting in and of itself is fun, and plenty of folks will flirt without intent; that is, they flirt because they like flirting.
The problem is that you let yourself get a little too caught up in the good feelings and didn’t want them to end. You knew that if you brought up the fact that you were in a relationship, the flirty side of your friendship with this woman would almost certainly come to an end. So while you may not have made the conscious decision to not bring your girlfriend up — at least at first — you didn’t. And that’s the problem. Not because you didn’t shut down the flirting, but because you let things go too far and — in the process — lead this girl to believe that there was something going on that wasn’t actually there.
Being flirty over text and DMs is one thing. It’s a little on the enh side, but it’s ultimately harmless, especially if it’s not taking away from your time and attention with your girlfriend. However, it’s the fact that you went on actual dates with her, and dates that were pretty clearly leading up to things, that crossed the line into your being s--tty.
First of all, let’s be real here: the fact that your dates were hanging out at her place were already putting things on the borderline. You may not have been intending to cheat, but you sure as s--t were putting yourself in a position where cheating could happen. There’s a difference between “ooops, we had some drinks and I failed my Wisdom saving throw” and setting things up to the point where you know that you were going to need to make that saving throw AND that you’d be making that saving throw with disadvantage.
Second of all, by not ever bringing up your relationship, you were leading your friend to believe that a relationship with you was possible at all. She wasn’t going into these dates knowing that she was out with a guy who was in a monogamous relationship; she was on these dates in good faith, believing that you were actually available. You weren’t, and that meant that she was spending time investing in a relationship that, unbeknownst to her, could never happen. That’s time that she could have spent finding someone who was available for a relationship, rather than building things up only to get hurt at the end. That was cruel of you and unfair to her.
That is the crime here.
Now you notice that I haven’t brought up the unfairness of all of this to your girlfriend as well. That’s because while you may have tiptoed up to the line, but you didn’t cross it. That’s good. It doesn’t get you off the hook for the rest of it, but that’s good. You haven’t done something that’s going to be a lot harder to come back from. That means that what she doesn’t know isn’t actually hurting her. I know a lot of folks vociferously disagree with me on this but this is a time when not telling her is the better option. For all the times that people say they’d rather know if their partner had cheated on them — even for something as minor as a kiss — the truth is that when it actually happens, they almost always say they wish they’d never found out. Especially when — as in this case — you pulled things back and you aren’t likely to make this mistake again.
Here’s how you move forward. First: you apologize to the woman you had a crush on for leading her on. Then it’s on her to decide whether she accepts that apology, if she wants to continue her friendship with you and under what terms. That’s all for her to decide.
Second: stop diminishing what you did. You didn’t have an accident. You chose to do these things. The accident you didn’t have was the one you set yourself up for, only to pull out at the last second. Until you take ownership of your actions, you aren’t going to learn or move forward from this.
Third: you stuff this down the memory hole and never tell your girlfriend. Despite what a lot of folks will say, telling her is going to hurt her needlessly and it will ultimately be about making you feel better… just at her expense. Letting her keep her vision of her relationship with you is the kinder option, especially considering that you pulled things back. And the guilt that you feel over what you’ve done is going to be your penance for having done this in the first place. If you want to expunge it, then you’re going to have to do so by recommitting to her and being the best boyfriend you can be.
Fourth: let the way you’re feeling now inform how you treat crushes in the future. The next time you have a crush, enjoy it… but plow those feelings and the sexual charge into your existing relationship. You don’t get to act like you’re single so you can keep it going. You don’t need to try to force it away or avoid it; just accept it, let it flow through you and take the energy it brings and invest it into the relationship you already have.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org