Do you know how, on job applications, they always ask if you’ve ever been arrested? And then they invariably follow it up with, “If yes, please explain?”
Do you ever get the feeling that if you write “yes” on the first blank, there is absolutely nothing you can write on the second that will save your application from a permanent trip to the reject pile?
Well, there’s one relationship question that I believe operates under the same premise. That question is: “Have you ever cheated on someone?”
Sure, you can answer yes and try to explain. You can stutter and stall all you want. But, the moment your mouth starts to make that “y…” sound, your forehead will immediately be stamped with a giant, red “CHEATER” in indelible ink.
So, I’ll confess now. Yes, I’ve cheated on a girlfriend. Stamp away. But, I’m still going to give my grand explanation.
Three years into my relationship with Laura*, I was on the verge of proposing. We had already gone ring shopping together, so this wasn’t a surprise proposal by any means. There would be no humiliating Jumbotron letdowns or comically swallowed rings in glasses of champagne.
Unbeknownst to me, however, Laura had been unhappy with the relationship. And the ring shopping was actually an attempt to motivate herself to take the next step, in much the same way someone might motivate themselves to exercise by buying a brand new pair of running shoes.
As is often the case with the new shoes, the solution was only temporary. Before I’d found a ring, Laura’s attempt at self-motivation imploded, and she decided to break up with me. I was reduced to a whimpering puddle of human misery, and I stayed that way for a good three months.
But then, I started piecing together the reasons she had been unhappy. Most of them involved the questionable choices I’d been making with my life: blowing off a career as a molecular biologist to take an $8 an hour job as a tour guide at SeaWorld, fixating so intently on my own life crisis that I never noticed the emotional toll it was taking on her, failing to listen when she attempted to communicate her concerns — basically, every stereotypical, cliché relationship mistake out there.
So, I vowed to fix my issues. Over the next seven months, I molded my career and personal life back into respectable form. I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, and I set myself to actually doing it.
I also vowed to win Laura back. And that’s when I plunged into an extravaganza of behavior that was, uh, let’s just call it borderline sociopathic. I sent her flowers, I wrote her handwritten letters every single day for a month, I composed songs and poetry for her, I pretty much did everything just shy of cutting off my earlobe and gifting it to her.
Cringe all you want, but it worked. After ten months of relentless chasing, we got back together.
There was only one snafu … I had gotten over her.
The time apart allowed me to finally see our underlying personality differences—those not-quite-tangible, difficult-to-articulate reasons that had contributed to her breaking up with me in the first place. I finally realized that we weren’t perfect for each other. I wasn’t blindly, hopelessly in love with her anymore.
Yet, I had worked so hard to win her back. It just didn’t make any sense that I could’ve gotten over her already. So, I simply blocked out my festering uncertainty. Over the next year, every time we talked again about getting married, I felt a squirmy pang of doubt. And every time I felt that squirmy pang of doubt, I shoved it back into the dankest, darkest corner of my subconscious.
Like the ring shopping, that misguided solution was also temporary.
Eventually, I met and became friends with Sarah.* Sarah and I had everything in common that Laura and I didn’t, and we started hanging out more and more. One night, Laura was out with her friends, and I was out with Sarah and my friends. Somehow, Sarah and I ended up back at my place, and that’s when it happened.
The next morning, I went with Laura to—ironically—a wedding shower. Here we were, at an event celebrating something we ourselves were supposed to be headed towards, and all I could think about was what had happened the night before.
At the same time, I didn’t feel any guilt. I felt horrible that Laura had no idea what I had done, but I didn’t actually regret what I had done. Over the next few days, I realized that there was a reason I had allowed myself to cheat: My mind simply couldn’t reconcile the fact that the girl I had cried for months over was the girl I was no longer sure I wanted to be with.
I needed to give myself a reason to break up—one that would take the disconnect between my feelings and my actions and make it all moot.
Cheating gave me that reason.
So, I told Laura what had happened. To my surprise, she wasn’t angry. It was almost as though she, too, just needed a reason for us to break up.
And we did. Just like that.
It worked out for the best. Less than a year later, Laura went on to meet the man she’s now married to. And I went on to regale the internet with my dating escapades.
Somehow, Laura and I managed to remain friends to this day. I told her that I wanted to write about us. We were revisiting events that we’d hashed out years ago, but I instinctively cringed at the scathing judgment that was surely about to be unleashed on me.
A huge sense of relief warmed me over when Laura agreed that the cheating was only a symptom of our underlying incompatibility. The truth is, we were both sliding down a path that neither of us really wanted to go down, but neither of us could find a good enough reason to stop. My hooking up with Sarah gave us the brakes we needed.
Looking back, do I wish I’d been strong enough to give up on Laura when I should have? Of course. Cheating was certainly not the right thing to do, but it was, sadly, the best thing I could have done. Because I just wasn’t strong enough to admit that I was no longer in love with the woman I was once ready to marry.
And that’s how I realized that life isn’t black or white. People can’t just be grouped into cheaters or non-cheaters, branded as such for life. People are complex bags of irrationality. Just because someone has cheated doesn’t mean they’re a terrible person.
As far as some harsh observers out there are concerned, I am the asshole who cheated on his girlfriend. I can never escape that label.
But, you know what? As long as Laura understands, I can live with being judged an asshole.
* Names have been changed.
This article was originally published at The Frisky in November 2012. Comments for the article can be found here.