what your therapist really thinks

‘I Love My Girlfriend. So Why Do I Keep Cheating on Her?’

Dear Therapist,

I’m a 27-year-old guy who has been in a mostly happy and loving relationship for the last three years. I say mostly because there is one problem that always threatens to ruin everything. I have had multiple incidents where I deceived my girlfriend by flirting and secretly communicating with other women, and have had two incidents where I actually kissed other women. I’m ashamed of it, but it’s been a pattern in all of my relationships.

Both times my girlfriend found out, and it created incredible upheaval for us. She’s always devastated and immediately wants to break up and wants nothing to do with me, which I understand. I have been lucky in that I have convinced her to stay, telling her how badly I want to change (I do) and what I will do to make this work. I think it’s also helped that the physical stuff has not gone very far, but she says it’s the lying and deceit that hurt her more.

I decided to start therapy after the last incident. I’ve been at it for a couple months and though there’s been some progress, I don’t feel like I really have the tools to be 100 percent confident it will never happen again. I don’t think it will. But I thought that after the first time. I’m not even sure I know why it happens. My therapist thinks it’s tied to my childhood, and she’s probably right.

I have a pretty difficult relationship with both my parents, but especially my father, who for my entire life has had a romantic relationship with another woman besides my mom. Though my parents remain married, my dad spends much of his time with this woman, even going on vacations with her. We rarely talk about it in the family, though everyone knows. The only time it comes up is when my mom is trying to get me to break into my dad’s phone so she can read his texts or is telling me it’s all because he “needs sex” or is crying about how deeply unhappy she is and that I need to move away from my girlfriend to be by her because she’s lonely.

I never want to be my father and ruin my family the way he has, but I worry that seeing and experiencing all of this as a kid somehow screwed me up for life. I worry that I’m repeating his mistakes. I’m worried I’m permanently broken.

I also think that some of this is about validation. I never really felt loved or supported by my parents who have always been really hard on me. I know deep down they love me, but they were sometimes outright mean to me as a kid and would even call me stupid. I worry that the love and support I needed then is now being satisfied by me going out and getting attention from girls. I’ve always needed to have a girlfriend, but even when I have one, I can’t seem to be faithful.

I know all of this probably makes me sound like a huge jerk, but I promise you I love my girlfriend more than anything. I can’t imagine finding someone better for me. I want to marry her someday. But I know if I do this again, it will be the last straw. Our relationship is already suffering so much because she doesn’t trust me.

Please, how can I prevent this? I’m still in therapy. I’ve given up drinking (which is usually a component in my cheating). I’ve been working on telling my girlfriend absolutely everything and being completely honest with her. What else can I do? What is wrong with me? Will I be this way forever?

Please Help,

A Shitty Boyfriend

Dear Boyfriend,

When I sat down to respond to your long letter, my first thought was, I need to edit this down.  In the same way that people in therapy might take a while to get to the point, I wanted to get to the crux of your question.
But there was a problem: I couldn’t figure out what the crux was.  If you and your therapist were already exploring all of the questions you asked in your letter, what, I wondered, were you asking of me? Whether you’re doomed by your past? Whether you’ll ever change? How to ensure that you won’t cheat again?

I could, of course, point out that you aren’t destined to be like your father, because your father didn’t go to therapy like you’re now doing to try to understand your behavior and its impact on your girlfriend. I could help you to see that unlike your father, you’re open to talking about the infidelity and are making concrete changes, like drinking less. I could help you to unpack the terrible dilemma you face in being torn between protecting your mother from heartache and protecting your girlfriend from heartache — and allow you to see how the rage and resentment you likely feel at being obliged to make your mom feel safe might get played out in making your girlfriend feel unsafe by not being faithful to her. I could help you to recognize that in doing so, you protect only yourself, because it’s safer for you to betray your girlfriend than it is to betray your mother. I could tell you that you don’t sound at all “like a huge jerk” and that I believe you when you say you love your girlfriend deeply. And I could point out that chasing guarantees will get you nowhere: nobody, even someone who has never cheated, can be “100 percent confident” that he or she won’t one day stray.

But I was sure that your therapist had already told you some version of all this, and that’s when I realized that I couldn’t edit down your letter because the entire letter is, in effect, another betrayal — only this time, you’re cheating on your therapist. You see, Boyfriend, by writing to me, another therapist, you’re doing what you do with your girlfriends when you start to get close to them — you run away to someone else.

I’ll bet that your therapist, like your girlfriend, is kind and caring and invested in you. You say that you’ve made progress with her; you sound as though you feel understood by her; and she seems to be helping you to go through the process of sorting things out. You also likely know that a therapist can’t undo in two months a pattern that took a lifetime to establish, so it makes sense that you’re still struggling despite the progress. So here you are, forming an emotionally intimate attachment to a reliable woman (your therapist), and yet you feel the urge to bring those intimacies to another woman (this therapist).

Sound familiar?

Despite asking for my reassurance, Boyfriend, I don’t think that you reached out to me — or that you reach out to your other affairs — for validation. I think you do it for safety. In fact, it’s the validation that may make you run elsewhere. Your girlfriend’s love is validation, but instead of feeling satisfied (or safe), something inside you says, uh-oh. It says, what is this foreign and scary thing coming my way? I’m loved and respected and admired? What if I can’t live up to this? What if I’m no good? What if I’m an inveterate cheater? What if I really am stupid? (Similarly, with your therapist: What if she’s just being kind because it’s her job? Why would she even care about me? What if she thinks I really am a huge jerk?)

You don’t trust the validation you do get, so you reach out to another girl at a bar (or another therapist). It’s as if the validation goes into a colander instead of a bowl — as soon as it comes in, it seeps through the holes, then you seek more, and it never stays full because it drains out the second you get it. Your girlfriend’s love comes in, but that doesn’t feel safe, because safety for you feels unfamiliar and therefore suspect. What feels familiar to you is being called stupid. What feels familiar to you is being asked to do something you feel uncomfortable doing, like breaking into your dad’s cell phone or playing surrogate husband to your mom. What feels familiar to you is having knowledge of an ongoing betrayal but not being allowed to talk openly about it. Your girlfriend is the opposite of all this: She doesn’t think you’re stupid; she adores you. She doesn’t ask you to do something unreasonable; she asks you to do something reasonable, which is to be faithful to her. She doesn’t ask you to cover up a betrayal; she asks you to be transparent about it.

What you need more than validation is a sense of safety, and that requires rejiggering the glitchy pathway in your brain that tells you what to run from and what to come closer toward. The only way to rejigger this is to stay in the room no matter how strong the urge to flee — whether that’s the room with your girlfriend, the room with your therapist, or the room with yourself in the present instead of time-traveling to a room from your lonely, scary past in your childhood home. The more you stay in the room and see that it’s safe in there, the less time you’ll spend trying to escape from a building that isn’t collapsing.

Don’t cheat on your therapist, Boyfriend. Talk to her about your discomfort, about how you’re struggling to trust her, about how intellectually what she says makes sense but emotionally you’re conflicted and all stirred up inside. Tell her about your lifelong anger and pain and disappointment and the deep, deep sadness underlying it all. Tell her that the only way you know how to deal with this stew of excruciating feelings is to run away and make any reliable person who comes close to you furious with you, as furious as you are every minute of every day with your parents and yourself and your therapist who can’t provide a guarantee and the girlfriends who love you when you don’t believe you’re worthy of it. Tell her that when you’re not enraging the people who care about you, you turn that rage inward, because though it feels bad, it also feels good, like relief, like a way to atone for your so-called sins, the only real sin being that you’re so unfairly cruel to yourself.

Like your other mistresses, I may seem all shiny and new, all full of promise and insight and a brilliance that your therapist doesn’t possess, but I ain’t all that. The women you stray with aren’t all that either. Don’t waste your time on us. We — the people you run to — can’t give you what you want. It’s the people you’re running from who can.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapy@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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Dear Therapist: ‘I Can’t Stop Cheating on My Girlfriend!’