Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
In 2018, I was struggling to find a job after I had just lost one. And a week before our son was born, I got a call and I got a new job. (“Our” is me and my then-wife.) The birth was incredible. You know, we embraced each other and cried together. We had the perfect relationship on the surface, I suppose. By July of the next year, I was asking my wife for a divorce. I had started up an emotional affair with a co-worker, and my reaction was to take a leap and dive headfirst into a divorce and a relationship with someone who didn’t say all the right things at the moment. Fast-forward to now: I professed my love to my ex. I want my family back desperately, and I asked my affair partner to move out. (We had gotten engaged in 2021.) I have told all this to my ex, and she has since asked her boyfriend to move out. And we’ve just been slowly texting each other. She asked me to go for coffee. She said she wants to know 100 percent yes or 100 percent no. But what I’m struggling with now is this idea of redemption. I don’t like myself right now or what I did to her. I don’t know that redemption is even possible.
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: What I understand so far is that you are in a transition.
Caller: Very much so.
You are hoping to be able to reunite with your ex-wife. You were together for about seven years.
Yeah, married seven and together 13.
Okay, and the last time you were in a transition, you had just had a new job, you had a child, you had a new house, and you let it all go. You fell in love with another woman. You instigated a rather expedient divorce. You have been with this other woman since, and at the moment of the next transition, which was to marry this new woman, you freaked out and you realized that’s not at all what you wanted.
And you were about to meet with your ex for the first time again as a date, not just as co-parents.
She wouldn’t call it a date, but I did.
You called it a date. She called it an identity check?
I guess you can say that she told me she wanted to see me, to see if it’s worth getting back into it.
And your big question is, Do I deserve this? You used the word redemption, which is a very big word, and as I was listening to your question, my first thought was, What does he mean by redemption? What is redemption for you?
Redemption is winning her back. She’s always been my home, and I broke her in a very devastating way. I realize that my question is a little bit — I don’t know if convoluted is the right word because I know it’s up to her, really. But I’m having trouble at this moment even knowing that I deserve forgiveness.
That is a good question. Can I ask you, before then — talk to me about your experience of homelessness.
Yeah, I’ve never felt home. There’s a reason why my ex feels like home to me. Our love story is one that I’ve cherished for our whole relationship.
How old were you when you met her?
Whew, 18, I think. When I first saw her and became infatuated with her, probably 15 or 16, before we actually even met face to face. Then years later, we met actually officially. We reminisced over going to the same high school but never meeting. And our sisters were friends with each other. When we met officially, I always used to poke and prod her to go on a date with me. But she had a boyfriend, so it was always kind of a joke. After, she left for college, then she came back. She had broken up with her boyfriend, and she told me and we were together ever since.
So talk to me about homelessness.
I never felt at home with anyone. I actually just went over this — I wrote her a long letter, but I talked about how I’ve never felt accepted by anybody. I’ve never felt just liked. I’ve always been very self-conscious, and I’ve always kind of adapted myself to fit in. When I found her, she was the first person to really accept me.
More than you accepted yourself?
More, yes. Much more.
And did you feel deserving of it then?
No, I never did. I always thought that she was better than me. I mean, she never made me feel like she was above me, but I felt like I was reaching up. I felt like she could have anybody and she chose me.
So what happened around that time, how do you make sense of it? Do you?
I mean, everything changed for me at that point in my life. I had somebody that loved me and that I loved. Besides just relationships with friends, I never really had great relationships with women. I was always turned down. I was on cloud nine. It was like a movie kind of love. We sang songs together. We did everything together. We grew up together. We got our first house and a dog, had our son. We were living the American Dream.
And what happened then?
I think over the years, we stopped communicating. I don’t think we ever stopped loving each other. I mean, I know that I never stopped loving her. And even when I was on my way out the door, I was telling her that I always loved her. But I think we were just kind of living lives in parallel instead of together.
And did you bring that up to her?
You just went from silence to blowing everything up? These kinds of bombs are usually not just a product of whatever is happening in the relationship. People have reached and built so many things that they dreamed of and never even dreamed of, and one day they detonate and they explode the whole thing. It usually comes from a different place.
Well, I’ve never talked about my feelings. I’ve always kind of stuffed it down.
Where did you learn that?
Honestly, I don’t know. When I was a kid, I was made fun of for showing emotions, so I just stopped. Everybody around me seemed tough. I got picked on a lot, so when I was younger, I just stopped trying to care about things.
Of course, of course, of course. And at home?
My home was difficult at times. My parents were divorced when I was young. My mother dated some questionable humans and uprooted our lives a lot. So we all bounced around from place to place, never truly felt stable. It’s part of the reason why I never really had lasting relationships with people. I think somewhere along the way, I didn’t let my emotions show anymore. I just went about life.
Right, right. And when you ask yourself, What made me push the eject button and throw overboard everything I had cherished? That’s a question you must have sat with for the last few years.
And where does it take you?
Toward the end, I didn’t feel loved by her. I rack it around my brain nowadays ’cause I think it is probably some deep-rooted feelings that weren’t really about her, and maybe they were just triggered by her and I never spoke to her. She never spoke to me, either. I mean, she just admitted to me recently that she was going through a lot after we had our son and so she shut down at a certain point. But up to that point, neither of us had admitted that to each other. It’s only in the recent few months that she’s even remotely said anything like that to me.
Right, which is kind of a deeper conversation than one you had before, in which each of you is able to tell the other, Here’s what I was going through.
Yeah. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface, you know?
And how much have you been able to share with her? Your remorse, your guilt?
So what happened was, after these years of going on with another partner who I’m calling my “affair partner,” we just grew more and more distant and a lot of the reason was because I just never dealt with my unresolved feelings for my ex. The more time went on, the more me and my ex somehow had a better and better relationship and were co-parenting very well together. I just was thinking about her more and more and being a family with her again. It kind of all exploded in December when she said something that triggered me, something that my son said: He never really realized that me and his mother were married, and somebody had mentioned it to him and he had this, like, burst of joy. I wasn’t there, and it kind of made the floodgates open. I told my ex that I have all these things that I’ve been wanting to say and I just haven’t. And so she ignored that, but a couple weeks later, she was like, “I want to hear what you have to say.” So I wrote her a long email kind of expressing everything to her — that I have all this remorse and regret not only that I left her the way that I did but that I left her, period.
What’s the thing that haunts you the most? Do you have a moment or an image?
Yeah. Breaking her.
But you’re seeing it in a particular moment? Because I see your eyes seeing it.
Her begging me to do anything to fight for us, and I had put my head down and I just wrecked it all. I made a decision, and I just went forward with it.
Was it a decision? Do you even feel like you were making a decision, or do you feel like you were driven by invisible forces?
I remembered something that my grandfather had told me, which was “You gotta deal with the problem in that moment and make a decision and go forward with it.” I kind of took that as like, Okay, no matter what, I’m gonna go through with this. This is when I was 30, and I had made a decision to try to get my family into family therapy and nobody came with me but I went anyway.
For a few years. Then when I was thinking about all the emotions I was experiencing at the time of thinking about leaving my wife, it was almost like a hero kind of agenda, like I know what’s right in this moment, and I’m just gonna make the decision and do it and take this huge leap of faith.
Can I tell you what I just wondered?
I mean, you know, my mind wanders in strange ways, but you … So we can take a trip together, but the sense you are conveying to me is I spent so many years feeling like I was never in the driver’s seat. People moved me around. My mother moved me around. My dad — I don’t know ’cause you didn’t say a word yet.
He’s never really been a great father. He was never meant to be a father.
Okay, so My dad is absent, my mother busy with her boyfriends moving us around. Teased in school. I have some very good friends but feel that, in order to be accepted, I have to shut down an entire emotional part of who I am. And I meet this woman who I think is ahead of me, so to speak. Now she’s the driver. And at first, I love it. I love where she takes me. I love where we can go together, and I am, for the first time, still in the passenger seat but happy to be in the passenger seat because I found a driver that I really cherish. And then, as the years unfold and I start to not like where the driver is taking me, something happened — which I’m gonna ask you in a moment — with my family, and my grandfather basically says, “If you’re gonna be a man, you’re gonna need to know what you want. You need to make a decision, and you need to stand by it and not think twice.” And I kind of took the first thing in front of me, the biggest thing in front of me, the most meaningful in front of me, that was gonna give me a sense that I finally have made a decision over my life, even if it was to wreck everything. But at least I felt like I had made the decision, taken a step, not looked back, and was the driver myself. Hot or cold?
Yeah, I increasingly felt like this driver, who I knew inside and out, sometimes wasn’t this affectionate person. I knew she wasn’t this lovey-dovey human. A lot of people have said that she’s cold at times, but to me, she was never. Toward the end, she was cold to me. At least that’s how I felt.
But you had removed yourself too. You were responding to each other. She wasn’t just cool to you.
We responded to each other, and we never talked about it. I have racked my brain over how bad of a partner I was to her over the years. I think I felt entitled to her at a certain point. It felt comfortable enough for me to feel entitled. So when she asked me to do simple things, I just didn’t do ’em. And she’s somebody who — she needs control, she needs to do things. But she wants somebody to help her, but she’ll never ask for help. I made her feel guilty for asking me for things. I think we always fed off each other. We had this love that we had for each other, and we built a life together and everything was good but we had these things that we just never talked about.
So I need to ask you about two moments: the one with your grandfather, the one where you wanted your family to come to family therapy, and the one with your son. Tell me.
My grandfather, he never said that in a negative way. He wanted us to be people who just took care of what you had to take care of. I mean, he was my father figure. When I was on my way out the door, you know, my ex used to tell me, like, “What would your grandfather think?” Because she knew it would hurt the most.
And he was around to tell you?
No, he wasn’t. He had passed away a few years before. He just wanted us to do what was right in the moment. You need to do what you have to do to take care of your family. We didn’t come from rich backgrounds. We were all working class, so that was his mentality and maybe I skewed his message a little bit and added this heroic theme to it. But my family has been quite dysfunctional over the years. I have a twin brother who’s suffered being an alcoholic and being depressed, and he’s been on medication and going to rehabs. He’s had a very intermingled relationship with my mother where my mother kind of enabled his abuse as long as it benefited her. At one point, we were all at a big event and my brother, the known alcoholic, was there drunk. And I walked in and my grandfather said, “Could you please get your brother?” And I said, “What am I supposed to do? He’s not my responsibility.” I did babysit him that night. But my mother was the one who kept on antagonizing him for money; she wanted him to keep buying her drinks. In the process, he was buying both of them drinks, and he just kept getting drunker and drunker and she didn’t seem to care. And then me and him took a walk. He and my wife at the time had had a little tiff the week before at a family wedding where he called her a not-so-nice name. And then the following week, we’re at this big event and half the reason we all think he showed up drunk was because he was scared to interact with my wife. But we took a walk, and he started saying stuff about her that I didn’t like and then he finally screamed at the top of his lungs that same name that I won’t repeat. I hit him in a parking lot and got kicked out of a place. That night, I called a friend of the family and asked her if she can refer me to a therapist, and I tried to get my family to go but none of ’em would come with me. So I just went by myself.
That’s good. You know you needed help, not just because you had hit him; you waited that long. You’ve needed someone to talk with you and to sort things through for a long time. When your little boy discovered that you and his mommy had been married, you realized that this divorce had created a different life story for him? And that maybe you don’t wanna repeat. You’re a very different dad than the one you had.
Oh yeah, I don’t think for one second that I’m like my father. I mean, my pattern may be like my parents a little bit.
I just talked to my father recently. I’ve admittedly been reaching out to anybody I can at this point because my mind is just going crazy at all times. But him and my mother had a terrible divorce, and one of the reasons was because my mother cheated on my father. He told me that he wished they would’ve done anything to stay together, but they were just too immature and too young. He could never forgive her for what she did. As he was saying that, I was thinking to myself, It’s so different but so the same. They had their skiffs and their fights and they separated and they got back together and they separated and they got back together and they tried, but all they did was fight.
Oh, so they are an on-and-off marriage too?
They’re an on-and-off marriage … And that’s where you think, Am I beginning to do that? Well, I don’t want to do that, and I know that my ex won’t allow that. She is keeping me in check, I suppose, still.
If you were to talk to your grandfather, what would you say to him?
That’s a tough one.
Yeah, let it go. Let it come.
He was a model human with my grandmother. They were a love story. And he treated my grandmother like gold. A lot of me feels like he would be ashamed.
So how would he help you on the road to redemption? A man who had clear values, a clear compass, a deep, deep love and affection for his wife and for you.
He would probably just tell me to do whatever I could to get her back. And if it didn’t work, then at least I tried.
But do you want her back so that you can feel less ashamed about you? Or do you want her back because of who she is and what you want to bring to her? It’s not either-or, but it’s not the same.
I was gonna say I think it’s a bit of both. I never processed our divorce in a way that was healthy because I went from one to another.
And you’ve done to the second one what you did to the first one. I mean, this woman didn’t expect what just happened to her either.
No, and she hasn’t taken it so well. Understandably so. I’ve never not loved my ex. In the beginning, it was easy to ignore because this was at the height of COVID. When we started going through our divorce, I was at the most uncomfortable I’ve felt in my entire life. At that point, I moved outta my house. I was still paying bills there, but I wasn’t living there so I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. So I stayed with my sister. COVID hit, and I happened to be staying with my affair partner, and she was living with her parents. I quarantined there and then ended up staying there for five months, six months, whatever it was, until it was all opened back up and we got our own place together. It was really at that point that everything settled down and me and my ex started to get along better because some time had passed. I’ve always just looked to her to be my guide, and so I’ve found myself doing that. I still look to her to help me be a good parent, to acknowledge when I’m being a good human. I’ve just always wanted her to love me.
But she did. You didn’t leave her ’cause she didn’t love you. You didn’t even leave her ’cause she wasn’t paying enough attention to you. You feel like you’ve landed on an understanding of why you did what you did — except you recognize that it’s a familiar story, and maybe in this moment, instead of wanting her to guide you, she may want to know if you can guide yourself.
Well, that’s the thing that I’m trying to keep on telling myself day to day.
You want her to trust you more than you trust yourself? You wanted her to accept you more than you accepted yourself from the beginning?
I want her to forgive me, and I don’t even know if I forgive myself.
Okay, so in order to forgive yourself, in order to be able to have compassion for yourself and accountability, how do you go about that? How do you own it, make sense of it, process it, and then engage with the repair?
Well, I’ve wanted to talk to her about everything. There’s a fear inside of me that I’m fighting to get back to something that’s just gonna fall into old patterns with her. I want to have the hard conversations with her, but she’s distant enough at this point to not even entertain those conversations yet. Very briefly over text message from time to time, she has said little things of what she was going through at the time.
Right, but I think that you started in a different way that may be more conducive for the beginning. You’re not going for the outcome. But no matter where you land, you know that there’s a few things you need to do at this moment so that you can breathe clean air inside of you. So you can write her a novel, which she may or may not read, but you need to write it.
She read my letter to her, and she briefly acknowledged it and said she can tell that what I’m saying is genuine. And she said that she had every emotion under the sun reading it, including laughing, crying.
Okay. So you continue: Here is what I understood about what happened. Here are the questions I still have. Here are the fears that roil inside of me. Here is how I’ve experienced my guilt towards what I did to us, to our little boy, to my life. Here is where I feel trapped. Here is what I wished I had been able to say. Here is what I wished I had been able to do. Here is what I’m doing now. And you just stay with you. You don’t have to go instantly back into whatever negative cycles you were into with her at the time.
I will admit that it’s just tough. I’m keeping myself reminded that this is gonna take a long time.
No, it’s not about time. It’s about how you would like every time you put something out for her to give you a little bit of security back. And that ain’t gonna happen right away. This is not, I say one thing to you and you instantly, you know, make me feel like I’m not out alone on a limb. And you are out alone on a limb. What you know is that you have a willing listener. You have someone who has made space on her side to be able to examine this. She’s cautious. She was deeply, deeply hurt, and she has no reason to trust you yet. So it’s not one email that’s going to increase the trust tank. It’s actually gonna increase more if there is less of a feeling that you’re doing this in order to get something else. You do this because this is what you need to do. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s your moral compass. It’s your emotional compass. It’s your fatherly compass. It’s a lot of things.
I know that I have to sit with the uncomfortable feeling that it is, and I know it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the emotions that I put her through.
So you’re gonna address that, too.
I just don’t know how to address it right now because I’m caught in a space where I know what’s right in the sense that I know I have to not put things out there just for an outcome. But I also want her to know that I know the error of my ways and I’m still discovering them. I don’t know, it’s just crazy-making at times.
Yes, you share it with her. That is correct. You will land in a particular place, which will be, I’m a good human being who’s flawed, but I can still hold myself in high regard. If you put the regard in her hands, you will reenter the very structure that brought your relationship down. She held my regard in her hands. She lifted me up and then when she ignored me, she put me down and it was all she doing to me. You’ll turn your shame into responsibility. I did wrong things doesn’t mean I am a wrong person. You’ll acknowledge how it affected her. You’ll try to connect it to whatever you know is part of your own history. It’s so interesting. You can easily say, I am so not with my boy the way my dad was with me, but I’m not so sure I’m that different from my mom. That’s the parent that haunts you. So by learning to sit with yourself in front of her, by being connected to your own truth while staying connected with her, you have a greater chance for her to actually see the change that has occurred in you.
Yeah, I’m trying to let it go.
And write. Write. You’re a good writer. You do have your words. My summary when we began this conversation was all of your words. If you need a therapist for a while to help you sit with it, that’s okay too. It may be very helpful.
Yeah, I’m seeing a therapist now.
Good. How is this conversation so far? Because we’re gonna have to stop.
I mean, it’s amazing. I know that the road is long for me, and, like I said, this idea of redemption, I know it’s in her hands, but also …
Mm-hmm. Finish the sentence, but also …
But also mine.