I’ve dug through your archives but haven’t seen anything specifically on this topic–apologies if I’ve overlooked something–but I’m wondering what advice you have to give for partners who make the decision to work through a mistake and rebuild confidence in each other.
Long story short: I’ve been dating my partner for a few months, but we’ve been very close & important presences in each others’ lives as friends for about 2 years before we began dating. About a month ago he made a very stupid, but not unforgivable, mistake involving an ex of his as they tested the waters to see if they could function as friends (turns out, no, they can’t). He has been nothing but honest and forthright about it since it happened, and although we were both unsure before this happened as to how seriously we could commit to each other (eg: neither of us felt comfortable using boyfriend or girlfriend as a term then or now, but agreed what we are is much more than just “seeing each other.” It’s somewhere in between), since this all went down we have both doubled down on supporting and prioritizing each other as a couple.
We are also both going through the joyful process of cutting an ex out of our lives, because in both cases they love us more than we can ever love them & cannot healthily function in a 100% platonic environment with us at this moment. So space and time is in order for healing. Which is giving us both anxiety (both for ourselves and for each other) and making us very sad. We are trying to balance that line of support–historically we have leaned on each other during times of anxiety and stress–and also take into play your “not my circus, not my monkeys” rule to manage our anxieties and control issues (eg: I think he’s taking the “typing http://www.google.com with one finger when he could just use Chrome” route to cutting his ex out, and desperately want to tell him to metaphorically scooch over so I can do it for him, but his path cannot be my problem so long as he handles it in a way that doesn’t hurt me).
We both lead full lives with hobbies that we share, hobbies we don’t share, friends we share, friends we don’t share. I’m doubling down on the self-care and detachment (from trying to control the way he handles his issue with his ex) and he is staying present and vigilant about executing his goals while also practicing self-care. Even still, it’s difficult. Now that the holidays are over it has been particularly hard not to ruminate, and while I’m journaling and working through several aspects of this within myself, I also feel the need for support. (Just today I emailed my old therapist to see if she takes my new insurance) After keeping it to myself for a couple days I finally confessed to him that I’m still struggling and feeling sad/hurt/anxious. He said he is too, but that we’re living with it as we work through it, which feels very accurate. And then I felt guilty for bringing it up at all, which is a whole different barrel of social conditioning worms (I am female, partner is male–late twenties, early thirties respectively).
I guess my question is: we’ve decided to stick it out and work through a difficult time… now what? Both of our ingrained reactions are to cut and run when things get messy, but we want to try (with the understanding that it could fail anyway) and I’m feeling a little lost for what to do. Is this just how it is?
Longing For A Reset Button, Would Be Happy With A User Manual
Dear Looking For A Reset Button,
What I am getting from your letter is that your old friend/new romantic partner a) messed around with his ex after starting to date you, b) has agreed to cut said ex out of his life, and c) has not done so yet. – (“I think he’s taking the “typing http://www.google.com with one finger when he could just use Chrome” route to cutting his ex out”)
You are also cutting your own ex out of your life, and your current partner is the one you would normally talk to to talk about these things, but since the… incident… you’ve both agreed to not talk about it for a while to spare each other’s feelings. Which means, practically, that there is all this dramatic “stuff” going on which you are maturely and rationally deciding to not talk about together, so…there it sits…Not Talked About. But not Gone, or Unimportant.
You weren’t necessarily technically exclusive when your dude messed around with his ex, so you’re not sure you should use the word “cheating” to describe what happened, and yet? You kinda feel cheated on. “We can’t ever be friends because we can’t trust ourselves not to sleep together”/”I’m cutting off all contact with Ex…verrrrrrrry sloooooowwwwwwly” (aka he has not yet cut off contact) is the emotional territory of the “mistake” he made and his relationship with is ex and the source of the ongoing anxiety between you. But because of your very kind and mature “not my circus, not my monkeys” approach of trying to let him work everything out on his own time, you feel like you can’t even ask questions like “Hey, are you still talking to/hanging out with your ex? Do you really think that’s a good idea? Are those 10 or so texts* vibrating on your phone across the room in the last hour from your ex? Do I have anything to worry about? I really want to be cool about everything, but I honestly can’t relax because I’m worried about more ‘mistakes’ down the road. Can I get a little reassurance here?”
(*The screenwriter in me can’t help picturing a scenario where your phone is almost out of battery so you see if you can use his to confirm the showtimes of the movie you are about to see and instead of reflexively handing over his phone he is like “I’ll look it up!” (even though he is driving) or he does hand over his phone and when he does a text from Ex comes in and it’s like “It was so great to see you yesterday! xxooxx“)
I think you are doing the right stuff by reaching out to your support system for additional perspectives. Call that therapist you’ve been thinking of reaching out to. Make plans with your friends and make sure your free time isn’t revolving around the relationship right now when it feels so unsteady.
Furthermore, give yourself permission to stop being so cool/chill/laid back and spell out what you want, stuff like, “I want you to have whatever level of contact with your ex is comfortable for you – you work that out however you need to and I don’t really care. However, I do care a lot about how much that whole thing is allowed to impact me and us and it bothers me that this is a source of conflict between us so early into our relationship. If the merest contact with Ex is still a temptation to have sex/If a message from Ex or thoughts of them can still throw off your whole day/OUR whole evening together, then maybe you just need more time to sort your stuff out before you try to date me, or you need to work a little harder to talk to a therapist or some close friends and get that stuff out of your system so it’s not looming over my time with you. I love you, and I want to be with you, but for me a good relationship means being not having to work at being in each other’s company. You can’t be down your phone-hole all evening, or sigh dramatically and then say ‘nothing…well…I can’t talk about it because of…our agreement’ when I ask you, ‘what’s wrong?’ If you need more time to sort yourself out before you can relax and just be with me, I’d rather wait a bit and have us both come correct than fuck it up.”
I’ve imbued your probably perfectly lovely partner with the personality of Emo Kylo Ren in this blog post strictly for hyperbolic illustration purposes, so don’t feel like you have to defend how great he is against my unfair “dramatic sigher” mischaracterization. If you’re also recently out of a breakup, you’re probably used to your romantic life involving a lot of work, and telling yourself stuff like: “We’ve got to work through this” “Let’s work it out!” “I’m willing to do the work, if he is.” “Good love takes work!” “We can work it out!” You’re two-ish months into a great new relationship, and you’re writing to me because this thing that should be making you very happy is making you very anxious instead and your effort to be the cool, chill, relaxed girlfriend is backfiring because YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY RELAXED RIGHT NOW. Whatever happiness and trust in a relationship looks like for you, write it down for yourself and remind yourself what that is, talk it out with trusted folks, and ask your partner for it.
My other suggestion is to regularly check in with yourself about how you are feeling. I’ve been having good luck with iMoodJournal, an app which reminds me a few times a day to record my mood and to assign key words to certain moods. Since I suck at naming my own feelings, it’s been pretty helpful to have a prompt to record them and simple words/color associations to do it with, and it’s been REALLY helpful to have the data and the associations over time, like, “Hey, this certain day of the week is always crappy, what goes on on that day that brings me down? Huh, it’s the same hashtag of (terrible coworker’s name)(most hated task) all the time, how interesting,” or, “Look, right here’s where the new head meds kicked in. The day-to-day didn’t get perfect, viewed but over time, the whole curve corrected slightly upward.”
Whether you use an app or a journal or a mood ring, maybe try gathering some honest FEELINGSDATA. So sexy and romantic, right? This is my reasoning, though:
If your relationship with this guy is gonna work (and by work, I mean, “make you feel happy and good”), it is going to take time. By forgiving his “mistake”, by agreeing not to pry into how he handles things with the Ex, by being careful and gentle about each other’s feelings, by admitting that you both have tendencies to bail at the first sign of trouble and pinky-swearing not to do that this time, what you are buying in exchange is that time – “We need a little more time to work this out. I think that the prospect of a romance with you is worth the trade-off of this awkward time.” During that awkward time, you hopefully build up new associations and memories to chase the bad ones out, and you both refrain from doing anything that would open old wounds or repeat bad behaviors, and then you figure out if what you’ve built is worth sticking around for.
But how much awkward time? When do you get to relax and be happy? I think this is where the data can help. Another few weeks or a month of things being weird and unsettled between you? Maybe okay? Another three months of things being weird? Verging dangerously into “uncomfortable is our baseline” territory. Data over time combined with your friends/counselor as sounding boards can really help here, too. If your friend asks you, “So, how are things with New Boyfriend?” and you vomit out a 45 minute Tale of Unhappy Feelings, maybe it’s a very off day and you’re just venting. If you do that every time the subject comes up for several months, maybe things are…not good?
I hope you can trust him and I hope everything works out the way that you want it to. For now, rebuild some trust in yourself – in your own instincts, in your enjoyment of his company, in your friends, in your ability to take care of yourself when you feel off-balance. That’s the part you can control.