DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I just got engaged to my boyfriend of 6 years and was extremely happy until I found pictures of an old fling in his email. They weren’t dirty pictures, which I actually found more offensive. They were just pictures of her smiling and doing regular things.
The thing is, he cheated on me with her for the first 2 years of our 6 year relationship. I should have left him at the time, but I didn’t because he insisted they’d never been intimate, they just would flirt and kissed… once.
A year ago I bought him a new phone and from the date stamp on the email forward, I can see that he transferred the pictures from his old phone to his email.
This is just making me question everything about our relationship. Is this girl the One for him? Am I just holding him back from true love with this home-wrecking hussy?
Standing In The Way
DEAR STANDING IN THE WAY: Man, it was literally just yesterday that I was asking someone why they were with their partner in the first place and here we are again…
OK, SITW, it seems like it’s time to reiterate my opinion on people who go snooping through their partner’s stuff: it’s almost never justified and almost never a good idea. Under the best of circumstances, you’re violating their trust for no good reason. At worst, you’re going to find things that you would rather have not known and won’t be able to un-know. And, quite frankly, snooping is pretty much only ever justified retroactively. And to be very blunt: it really wasn’t justified here.
In fact, let’s be honest: this is precisely the sort of thing that I warn people about. You went snooping and you found something that has now utterly ruined your happiness, and it’s not even anything all that shocking or incriminating. You found… normal pictures of another person in his email. Pictures that he wanted to keep for reasons that, quite frankly, are ultimately known to him. Maybe he’s got feelings for her and never got over her. Maybe they were friends whose friendship got a little too intense but he still has good memories of their friendship. Maybe he’s just someone who keeps mementos of his past because they remind him of good times from that period of his life.
The only person who does know what those mean would be your fiancé. But since you found these by violating his privacy, asking about them means that you’re going to have to admit that you went snooping first. That, needless to say, is not a great way to start a conversation about how he may or may not feel about someone or why he has photos of… a friend, an ex, a rando he was sticking it to, whatever. Especially if those are photos with an innocent explanation.
And yes, context in this case matters, especially context surrounding the relationship between him and this person he cheated on you with. That’s going to explain a lot about why he has those pictures and what they mean to him. Especially if she was someone who was part of his life before you two got together. The idea that exes get retconned into non-existence after we start dating someone new or that we can’t have fond memories of a past partner – or friend – because we broke up is absurd, unrealistic and in many cases, toxic. Expecting someone to pretend that they never had a past or that their past has to be something they don’t look back on with fondness is mindblowingly bonkers.
But let’s talk about the why of it all, for a second. Why you went snooping and why you found those pictures. Because that’s the real issue here, to my mind.
Straight talk, SITW: I would be very hard pressed to call what your fiancé did cheating. If the sum totality of what he and this person did was be flirty and kissed one time, then that’s not cheating; that’s someone who danced up to the edge of making a mistake and pulled back from it. I’m not going to say that this wouldn’t, shouldn’t or didn’t hurt to learn. That’s all very real and very valid. My opinion on whether this counts as cheating is irrelevant when it comes to how it made you feel. If that hurt you, then that hurt you.
That being said, my opinion of whether it would be cheating or not or to what degree comes back in when it comes to your response to it all. I would think that breaking up with a partner of two years over flirting and a kiss would be out of proportion to the nature of the offense. If that’s all it takes for you to throw things aside, then I’m wondering how things will go when the two of you handle far worse conflicts… ones that’ll have nothing to do with sex or attraction.
And while I’ll be the first to say that my views on infidelity are nuanced and that I don’t think that cheating is the worst thing someone can do in a relationship… honestly, a single kiss isn’t something that I would say validates four years of hanging onto a grudge. Especially if you’re still so pissed about it that four years later, you’re going through his email and checking on him.
Now, to be fair to you: yeah, he says that things never went further than flirting and a single kiss. Maybe he’s lying to you about it to cover his ass. That’s a thing that happens all the time, god knows. Plenty of folks will plead to a lesser charge if they think it’ll get their ass out of a worse one when they’ve been caught dead to rights.
If you truly believe that he wasn’t telling you the truth then, if you can’t trust him? Then, yes, you should have broken up with him back then. Because, quite frankly, if you’re going to take someone back after they made a mistake but never forgive them and never let them earn your trust back? Then you’re just being cruel to them for no reason other than you feel justified in continuing to punish them for their transgressions. If you’re forever going to be going through their s--t to keep tabs on them, then there’s no point in continuing the relationship. Either they’re a cheating piece of s--t who can never be trusted – in which case, why are you still with them? – or there’s literally nothing they can do to prove that they’re sorry or make things right and treating them like this is just being hurtful for the sake of hurting them. In either case, breaking up would be the right answer.
And let’s be real here: you clearly don’t trust him. This wasn’t a “oops, his browser was open to this specific email”. This wasn’t a case of “I asked to use his phone to send a text and I couldn’t have not noticed”. This was “I deliberately went looking through your private effects for proof of something and oh look I found it.” That ain’t cool and that is not the basis for a long, happy relationship. If you’re either going to be continually violating his privacy or if he doesn’t get privacy where you’re concerned? Then break up with him now. All you’ll be doing by staying together is prolonging the fighting, the misery and the anger, and life is too goddamn short for that.
If this was a one-time thing, a moment where you failed your particular saving throw and you regret it… well, I would hope that you could have similar compassion for him having done the same thing. If so, the best thing you could do is stuff this down the memory hole and work with your fiancé – and a relationship counselor – on forgiveness, rebuilding trust and communication. But that’s going to take a lot of work and a willingness to actually forgive and move on. If that moment of betrayal from four years ago is still so fresh and present in your mind and it’s always going to be something you’ll be holding over his head for the rest of your relationship? Then end it now, work on issues around jealousy and trust and start dating someone else.
It’s the best thing you could do… for him as well as for you.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org