It's A Pleasure
My Ex Wants To Get Back Together. Do I Need To Tell Him I Cheated?
Our relationship was losing its spark and I accidentally slept with my previous ex.
Q: I broke up with my boyfriend three weeks ago after over two years of dating. The relationship ended up being less passionate over the last several months. I felt like we still had the element of being best friends but the spark was dying, and no matter what I tried I couldn’t bring it back. Towards the end of the relationship, I slept with a previous ex of mine. It wasn’t intended but it happened once and I figured the relationship just couldn’t be saved anymore and I never told him. Now that we broke up, I’ve been trying to embrace my hot girl era, even tried kissing a girl, and haven’t spoken to my ex at all. I’ve been feeling pretty good. Until yesterday, when he called me and read a letter he wrote saying all the things I’ve needed to hear, including proposing to re-create a new relationship with fun and adventure and love. I’m considering going on a date and not jumping into it but slowly giving him a chance. Do you think it’s worth trying and if so do I need to tell him about the cheating?
A: I have a lot to say here, and it might not feel very pleasant to receive — not because you're a bad, immoral person or because you’re in trouble with me. Please, please, please internalize as best as you can that I’m being honest with you about my opinion. I’m just a stranger. You can reject what I say summarily. Please use this letter as a jumping-off point to investigate yourself, not to disparage yourself. I think there’s a lot of growth to be done, and I am absolutely rooting for you to do it, because you are beyond capable.
Let’s start with the idea of the spark in a relationship. It’s fake. You aren’t a cabbagehead for thinking that “sparks” are or feel real. We have been sold that idea through the media over and over and over again. Disney movies weirdly get a lot of the blame, but I mean everything from horny Pablo Neruda poems to How I Met Your Mother has us convinced that chemistry and passion are the bedrock of compatibility. This is, I’m sorry to report, utter bullsh*t. I’ve said this before (many times) but long-term romance feels a lot more like wearing a warm pair of socks than it does riding a rollercoaster. It’s not meant to excite and thrill you constantly. In the words of psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel, “Love is not a permanent state of enthusiasm.”
So much of what we have categorized as passion is actually… anxiety. Thoughts like “Do they feel the same way I do?” or “Will they stay with me?” or “Do they love me?” give us some level of, well, fear— a fear that feels like a thrill. It’s the same way a rollercoaster works. That is fine in the short term, but of course it fades. You have mistaken fading desperation for fading love, when really, that is often when love arrives.
Now, is that boring? Hell yeah! Sometimes love is very boring. It’s often a delightful slog. Once you get to the point where you’re present for a person clipping their toenails, you’ve pretty much… seen them. You know them. Do people change? Perhaps. Are you obligated to stick it out with someone you find dull or uninteresting to be around? Absolutely not. Is all love boring all the time? God no! It should not be. I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture here. Love is beyond great. There’s a reason we’re shooting our shots in DMs and squealing over the Mr. Darcy hand flex. But love will never, ever, ever, ever live up to the excitement of f*cking someone new. Ever. It cannot. But also, hooking up with a stranger will never live up to the intimacy of someone taking you to a scary doctor’s appointment or watching a bad reality show on a Thursday night and agreeing that the designer’s collection lacked cohesion.
I don’t know what on earth your ex could be promising you via the written word that would ensure he is always new, always novel, always exciting — and always will be for you. I don’t know what anyone could write or do that would make that true. And until you accept that — which is a crappy thing to have to accept, I agree with you!!! — you will have a hard time. You will turn away partners who truly care about you because they aren't as exciting as the hunk making eyes at you on the subway. If you only value people for their excitement factor, long-term love will always feel like a compromise. If that takes serious relationships off the table for you for a while or forever, that’s OK! You are not required to date anybody.
I am not in favor of you doing anything again with your ex. In general, I’m a few steps past skeptical when it comes to getting back together with someone you broke up with (not to mention, someone you cheated on and haven’t even been honest with about that). Getting back together only works if both parties have significantly and purposefully changed the patterns and actions that led them to breaking up. Breaking up after years together is serious, and it doesn’t happen for no good reason. I do not think either of you has changed. It’s been three weeks. The most I’ve changed in three weeks is when I tried a different milk alternative in my coffee. You are not different people now; all the factors that led to your breakup are still true! Getting back together right now will not work for many reasons, not the least of which is that when you broke up — three weeks ago — you guys weren’t good enough or honest enough communicators for you to tell him you cheated and why. I’m certain that you have not grown yet. That’s OK. It takes more than three weeks!
You are trying out people like gelato flavors and the second they aren’t novel enough for you, you’re moving on. The question is: why?
I know you haven’t grown because you describe multiple scenarios in which you use other people for your pleasure, with a general disregard for their emotions. You start by very flippantly describing cheating on your partner. Then you completely refuse to take any responsibility, saying “it wasn’t intended.” What do you mean? I mean, seriously. Did you slip down a large hill and land on top of your other ex? You did intend to cheat and you did it. Own up to your poor choices. The fact that you won’t say to me — a person you didn’t hurt — that you messed up and did something cruel is very telling. I don’t think people who cheat deserve all bad things for the rest of time. You don’t need to flagellate yourself for 10 years as penance. But you can’t absolve yourself of this hurtful thing without some serious introspection first. You could have broken up with your ex and then slept with someone else if you “knew” the relationship was over; you chose and followed through with a callous act instead. And you did it with another ex — someone you used to feel better about yourself momentarily. You have to figure out why you were cruel and hurtful to a person you dated for two years.
Then you continue saying, rather cavalierly, that you “tried” kissing a girl. Another disposable person who is simply there for your pleasure. You seem to be doing a performance of a fun and carefree person, trying to prove to someone — yourself? — that you are Having Fun, that Life Is Exciting. But in the meantime, you are mowing people over emotionally. You are trying out people like gelato flavors and the second they aren’t novel enough for you, you’re moving on. The question is: why? What void are you trying to fill with fun, with diversion, with excitement? What’s making you feel like life isn’t enough or you aren’t enough? Journal about this, talk to a therapist, talk to a friend who is a little too brutally honest — although I recommend the first two more. Ask yourself this: “What is it that I’m so afraid of that made me feel like cheating on my partner was my best choice?” Then listen to yourself. Pay attention to your fears.
Should you tell your ex that you cheated? I wouldn’t, honestly. I think instead you need to cut off contact with him with a nice text about how you need to work on yourself a bit. (Seriously, this self-growth won’t work if you have a bunch of people in the wings who are willing to pump you up with romantic attention and validation every time you’re feeling down.)
If for some reason, however, you ignore everything else about this letter and do get back with him, then you must tell him. It’s not fair for him (or for you, I suppose) to enter into a relationship with someone who has done something hurtful and violating to you in the past and not know it. It begins the relationship just how it ended the last time: with a lie, with bad communication, with dishonesty.
When you are ready to stop treating people like items from a Shein haul, then you can start thinking about getting together with another person long-term. You absolutely should not get back together with your exes — either of them, or anyone else right now. Be alone. Confront yourself. Reckon with your patterns. Learn how to validate yourself, how to excite yourself, how to sit in your boredom and discomfort. This right here is the real hot girl sh*t. It’s independence. It’s learning who you are and how you treat people. It’s being OK on your own without outside sources of excitement. (Outside validation is a perfectly wonderful thing to receive and rejoice in, but when your self-esteem requires it, you mold yourself around other people.) Good things are on the other side of this process. It will be painful, but it will also be so gloriously worth it.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every other Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com or fill out this form.