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 — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
I was with my ex for ten years. I loved her so much, but I made many mistakes and have learned so much since the breakup. I’ve become such a different person — better. I only ever had eyes for her and thought we would grow old together. It was hard because we both had our own baggage. Long story short, I cheated on her. It was a mutual friend, someone that made me feel normal in what was going on. I did something I always said I never would.
I know you have to live and learn and become a better person and not repeat mistakes. Though I have even moved countries, I am so broken on the inside. It’s not my top-ten goals in life to hurt anyone. And my ex that I cared for so deeply, that in the end I hurt so much — that hurt inside me just doesn’t want to go away. How do I possibly forgive myself, accept and move on? I am so stuck.
The Phone Call
Caller: So how can I tell the person that I’m with, that I always said I wouldn’t have an affair, that I had an affair? And then expect her to stay with me or forgive me if I can’t even forgive myself?
Esther Perel: Do you have something that you have done for which you are stuck, that you can’t come to terms with how you see yourself and how you acted? Where the gap between your self-image and your behavior feels irreconcilable? It sometimes is an affair for some people and other things for others.
Caller: I had an affair while I was with my ex of ten years. And I guess I’m really stuck. My question is, how do I possibly forgive myself, accept and move on? It is four years on. How do I move on from all the what-ifs? What if I didn’t have an affair — would we still be together? How do I make peace with the fact that my ex is with the person that I had the affair with?
Esther: Oh, the plot thickens. Tell me more. Clarify it a little bit for me, please.
Caller: It was a mutual friend; we’re all friends. And like any relationship, there’s easy and hard times. The hard times were really, really hard, and this friend became my soundboard. Became the person I spoke to. We just became closer and closer. And this friend then became an emotional flirt, I guess — flirt friend. And over a couple of years it just became more serious. I then left my ex and this friend just disappeared. No contact. And then suddenly she’s spending more time with my ex, befriending my ex more in this mutual friendship. And then they got together and she told my ex about the affair.
Esther: She’s the person who revealed the affair.
Caller: Yes. And it’s a hard one because we always agreed that I wouldn’t tell my ex because, for me personally, telling someone would just cause devastation unless you wanna stay together and work on it. And she agreed, but then she told her.
Esther: Have you ever had a chance to speak with your ex about … ?
Esther: She controls the narrative?
Caller: Yeah. She was not interested. My ex said that it would probably just cause her more hurt.
Esther: Okay. All right, so let me see if I have all the pieces and tell me which is the one that you feel most stuck around. You are ten years in a relationship. There is an affair primarily defined by you as an emotional affair, but it elicits in you the longing for a different relationship. You leave your partner. You hope to establish yourself with the new person, but she disappears and she actually becomes the partner of your ex. So you have the story of what happened in your primary relationship. You have the fact that you have the affair. You have the fact that the relationship ended. You have the fact that you wonder what would be if it hadn’t ended or if you hadn’t had the affair. And you have the fact that the affair ended up being revealed to your ex by your lover who became your ex’s steady partner.
Caller: Yes, that’s correct.
Esther: Which is the one that keeps you up the most at night?
Caller: For having the affair.
Caller: Because how can I tell the person that I’m with, that I always said I wouldn’t have an affair, that I had an affair, and then expect her to stay with me? Or forgive me if I can’t even forgive myself?
Esther: And what you can’t forgive is the transgression, the lying, the betrayal, the attraction, the secrecy, the duplicity — which piece of it?
Caller: Secrecy, and the lying.
Esther: Mm-hmm. Tell me more.
Caller: It’s the type of person I never thought I would be or could be. If I reflect on my life, I’ve always judged people for having an affair. How could they? So disgusting. I would never. And then I did.
Esther: And when you were in it, how did you square it with yourself?
Caller: It’s so hard to explain. It’s more that I never thought I would leave her. I really loved her. And then I really loved this other person. And even at one point I thought, God, an open relationship would be the solution to everything because I have one person that fulfills all these needs and then another that fulfills others.
Esther: How did they divide? What was the division about?
Caller: Intimacy. My ex didn’t really wanna be intimate with me anymore, and she didn’t see me in an attractive light.
Esther: And that was openly discussed before you wanted an open relationship? Did you have an open conversation?
Caller: She said she found me less attractive because I often asked to be intimate. She didn’t find that attractive. So there was always a reason for why it was lacking.
Esther: Can I ask you something?
Caller: Of course.
Esther: Do you have a feeling that your lover schemed all along?
Caller: A few people have asked me that question.
Esther: Okay. I’m not original.
Caller: I don’t think so. I honestly don’t think so. Because that would mean, in my mind, that she’s a terrible person. And I think they’re both really good people.
Esther: Good. So the big hook is when you keep saying you’re a bad person. How could you do such a thing? This is beyond repair. Forever you need to live with the stain, and you are no longer a person redeemable and permitted to have a future.
Caller: I guess in my mind, if it was forgivable, then wouldn’t the ex forgive me and we’d still be friends? She forgave the other person, but she can’t talk to me.
Esther: But is it she who has to forgive you, or is it you who can’t live with yourself and reconcile these opposing parts?
Caller: It’s mostly me.
Esther: Okay. What would forgiveness look like, or what would responsibility look like? What would it take to turn shame into guilt?
Caller: I feel guilty. I feel shameful. I feel everything. But a lot of people are like, “It’s four years, move on.”
Esther: Are you able to compassionately understand why you crossed a line that you never thought you could cross? I think that that is one of the questions that a lot of people who have transgressions are faced with. Especially when before that they think, This would never be me. I could never do such a thing. But then when they do it, the question is, What propelled them? It’s not like this was a regular habit. There was something, and it’s often a confluence of a few things that made it happen then and there. That helps them understand where they were at then because you judge yourself with where you are at today.
So even when you say, “I felt rejected; my partner didn’t want to be intimate with me, she pegged me as needy. She was pushing me away.” And you just kind of factually recount it. I don’t know if that’s the only thing, but that is often one of the things that people carry with them. And sometimes they even rationalize and justify: “It can’t hurt them since they don’t want me anyway.” Did you ever ask yourself, What pushed me to cross a line that I never thought I would cross? Where I would find myself in a situation where my values clashed with my behaviors?
Caller: I did. I’ve had a lot of reflection. I guess we had very different attachment styles of how we deal with conflict. My way of dealing with conflict was to talk it through immediately to fix things. Versus her way of dealing with things was taking space — that could be an hour, a day. So that was really hard. And, in all fairness, I never gave her the space. Because the more she took time, the more stressed and anxious I felt. So her way of pushing me away even further was to say things and perhaps not very kind things …
Caller: “I don’t want to be with you,” or “I find you unattractive,” and to me, and how I grew up, words mean more than actions. So if you said to me, “I think you’re ugly,” that will probably stay stuck in my head forever. Even if you were angry. So more and more the words just, I guess, accumulated in my head. And I think in some ways when I had the affair, I was like, Well, I want to hurt you back as much as you’re hurting me. Even though I didn’t want her to find out. It’s so strange.
Esther: No, because once she would find out, you would lose the power of the sting. But when you have another person, when you have a third person entering the system, the anxiety goes away. The power of her hurt diminishes. Because you have another person who is appreciating you, desiring you, approving of you, admiring of you, adoring you, wanting your company all the time. And so it offsets the refusals and the rejections and the coldness and the distance and the anxiety that follows about her distance. All of that gets suddenly taken care of, so to speak.
Caller: That is very correct.
Esther: It’s not about telling her or not telling her, it’s the fact that you can soothe yourself, you can diminish the hurt, you can weaken her power over you. You can close the gap that you feel when she takes distance and she takes space because that’s the way she resolves things or at least calms herself. I think that when you try to understand why you did certain things, it’s always important to know the meaning of the affair. What did it come to do? Why did it exist? What was its function in the relationship? It wasn’t just, I found somebody who desired me, and I loved that after I had been so rejected. It’s, I found someone who basically was like an intervention on all the cracks in my relationship.
Caller: There were a lot of cracks. I mean, I think it’s mostly how we functioned, how we thought. I did feel inferior in many ways. You know, I loved her job, loved hearing about her job. She’s so passionate. But she got bored when I talked about my job, so reflecting on what you’re saying, there were just lots of little things that probably became one big ball of things.
Esther: And you are not somebody who would’ve left.
Caller: No, no.
Esther: But, in fact, you were trying to leave. Not that you were trying to leave the relationship per se, but you were trying to leave the structure of the relationship and where that put you. And a third, a lover, often helps us offset the structure of our relationship, of our primary relationship. And when you think, I messed up. I lost my partner, I think it’s important for you to acknowledge that part of you that couldn’t leave because you are too anxious to make that decision. And instead of saying, “I don’t want you,” you find yourself always in the position of, “Why don’t you want me?” These two parts were already in conversation back then.
Esther: And then what happened? You actually did leave? Or how did you dismantle the knot?
Caller: The first year, I guess it was just secret texting. My ex knew we were friends but not the extent to which we were talking, which was pretty much nonstop. And then the second year became this flirtatious emotional affair via text. And about a month before I broke up with her, it got physical, a bit of fooling around, but regardless, at that point, I was already having an affair and I just couldn’t live with myself. I think if that didn’t happen, I would’ve stayed and continued having this emotional affair. This person I had an affair with just kept saying I’d never leave my ex. I felt at that point I created the situation where I was stuck. I loved my ex, I didn’t want to leave her consciously in my mind, even though I was having an affair. And then I had this friend that I had an affair with that I didn’t want to think I was using her because in my mind I wasn’t using her. But …
Esther: Can I ask you something? What is an emotional affair for you?
Caller: An emotional affair is, to me, talking to someone else more than my partner about our problems, that I yearn more to hear how someone else’s day was than I am interested in my partner’s comings and goings. To me, an emotional affair is when I shift more of my heart to someone else.
Esther: And that was because you found a better listener? Because you found someone who was more interested in you? Because she was not bored with your job? Because …
Caller: I found my ex the way she was ten years ago in this friend. At the start of our relationship, my ex was super-interested in everything I had to say and had so much patience and love. But then it kind of disappeared. But then this person was everything she used to be.
Esther: And did that make you go home and say, “I want more between us”? Or did that make you say, “Well, I don’t have it at home, but at least I found it”?
Caller: The second one, which I think is part of the big regrets I’m struggling with because I keep going, What if I wasn’t on my phone 24/7 to this other person? Maybe we still would’ve broken up, but maybe we would still be friends. Maybe we wouldn’t have been. But it’s like I muddied the waters by having an affair.
Esther: Do you feel like before you can forgive yourself, you need to punish yourself, you need to pay your dues, you need to make amends? What do you feel is needed for you to say, “I think I messed up, but it didn’t come out of nowhere either. And no, it’s not the way I imagined the denouement would take place, and I feel very bad, but there’s parts of me that actually do wonder, How would this thing have continued between me and the lover and between me and my partner?” In a way you left because you felt that you didn’t feel like you could be honest. And the only honesty that you had was to keep the secret and go away with the secret, and then you got betrayed by your lover. And so the target keeps moving and you feel like I left my partner for you, and then you left me for my partner. And then you even took the story with you, and now you own the story too, on top of it.
Caller: I don’t know what the answer is.
Esther: You don’t have to have the answer. Do you have that as a question? Does that doubt exist with you?
Caller: Yep. Absolutely.
Esther: Okay. Because you’re not going to have absolutely straightforward answers, but you may need to introduce some doubts rather than these very stark statements that you make to yourself all the time. What you will learn is how to continue to feel somewhat guilty and some responsibility over your own actions in the relationship. Not over what your partner didn’t do. You created the relationship together. One person had an affair, but two people created the relationship. And it’ll coexist with life, when you meet other people and build something new, you’ll keep what you need to be careful of very close in mind. And we live with license, with regret, with guilt, and with permission. They live side by side. And at some point you can write a letter. Have you ever written a letter to your ex?
Esther: Many. And does she ever answer?
Caller: When I say “write letter,” I’ve written a million letters without sending them.
Esther: Without sending them. So you may want to one day write, but what you would like is for her to be your friend so that she can absolve you. And maybe this is not about absolutions. Maybe this is about living with the responsibility of your actions without crucifying yourself because of it.
Caller: That would be good.
Esther: You understand? You have things that you regret having done, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the permission to breathe anymore or to enjoy or to laugh or to fall in love or to be loved.
Caller: That makes sense.
Esther: We carry all kinds of things in our suitcases. So it’s not about making light of this. It’s about understanding it, and it’s about owning the messiness of it, living with the consequences of your actions, having regrets for some pieces of it, but not the whole story, and then taking that along as part of the things that you want to really be aware of closely, attentive to as you continue your life with other people.
Caller: Over the last four years I’ve consciously reflected on, What do I want of another relationship? But more, What do I want out of me? I think that was a big part of it — I didn’t even know what made me happy. So I guess there’s lots of positives out of …
Esther: Give me a few. What are some of the ones that you came up with?
Caller: Good boundaries. Like someone else is not there to complete me. If they’re unhappy, it doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. If they’re happy, it doesn’t mean I’m happy because that’s how I’ve always lived. As long as I can make someone else happy, then I’m happy. My partners need to complement me. Not completely, you know?
Esther: Have you met people and have you met potential partners and sabotaged it in the last four years?
Esther: Mm-hmm. As in, You don’t know who you’re dealing with? I’m a mess. I don’t deserve this. I destroy things on my way.
Caller: I destroy things on my way.
Esther: Mm-hmm. Do you carry a sign around your neck?
Caller: No. I just tell them, you know, and then I get scared when people get too close and I push them away.
Esther: You get scared that …
Caller: I might get into another situation of caring so much about someone.
Esther: Okay, but that has nothing to do with cheating.
Esther: You understand? You’ve got to separate the pieces a little bit. Your fear that when you get attached to someone, you lose yourself. They become the marker of everything. And when they bestow all their attention on you, you are in heaven and you’re in bliss and all goes great. But when they start to not do so, or when they start to react to your demand for this kind of attention as your ex seems to have done, then you go restless, you feel anxious, you don’t know who you are when they are not shining a light on you.
That’s the piece that needs to mature and that wants to be examined. Because that’s the piece that determines more who you have been in your relationships rather than how you have reacted when you didn’t like who you were in the relationship. You’ve put all the focus on the affair and the cheating, which is important, but it was, in big part, a reaction. It was trying to undo something that you were experiencing. It was a response to something. And that something is what you describe as “I’m afraid that if I get attached in a certain way, I lose my boundaries.” And so now, in your next relationships, it’s about that.
Esther: You’ve put all your attention on the way you cheated and you didn’t put enough of your attention on the way you loved or sought love.
Caller: I know.
Esther: Am I saying anything new? Or am I reinforcing things you somewhat know, but don’t really like to …
Caller: No. You’re reinforcing. Like I said, the last four years I’ve changed more as a person for the better. And in terms of understanding myself and what I want in my entire life of 44 years. But then I’m always, like, trapped back into, That’s great, but it came at a massive loss.
Esther: Yes, I got involved in attending to my wounds rather than attending to the way that I had adapted to the wounds of my childhood. And now I know that my focus really needs to be on my own attachment style, on my own ways of loving, on my own ways of being in an intimate relationship with a partner. Because in some way if I keep focusing only on the affairs, I’m missing a big piece of my own story.
Caller: I understand. Thank you.
Esther: I want to leave you with that. Because you spent four years very diligently thinking about a lot of things, and I think that a piece of what you’re asking me in terms of how you get unstuck and how you allow yourself to move on is not about forgiving yourself for the affair only. That may be a piece of it, but it is more so, How do I know that I can love differently from the way that I loved then that led me to the very affair that I then had because I just couldn’t tolerate the consequences of my relationship?
Caller: That’s all very good advice. Thank you very much, Esther.
Esther: Thank you so much.
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