'Should I Reunite with My Cheating Ex?'

A people pleaser embraces radical honesty.

Sunset (1900) by Felix Vallotton

Dear Polly,

I wanted to write pleasantries and then I realized that was because I was people pleasing and the whole premise of this letter is to share how I am no longer a people pleaser so aha! No pleasantries for you!

In all seriousness, I grew up with a pushover mother and an abusive father. I watched my mother walk on eggshells constantly to try to keep him happy, all while suffocating her beautiful human self. He would be mad because dinner didn’t taste good to him. She would drop everything and make a new one. And then, like magic, the anger would dissipate and there would be love. Sweet harmony was ours to be cherished if we subjected to his demands at all times.

Both of my parents have grown tremendously from these people who raised me. They divorced and both remarried wonderful people. My dad has cultivated patience and some kindness. My mother is a super power of strength and self worth. It’s nice to see.

However, what I learned in my formative years about dominance and abuse still colors my words, actions, the way I love, the way I hate, the way I am. Years of therapy have helped me reckon with myself. I was a loud, outgoing, spacious person in my life but as soon I entered a relationship I would willfully shrink, putting all my demands and hopes and dreams and goals to the side because I wanted “love.” Many of the men I’ve been with weren’t abusive or controlling, yet I still gave away my power to them because that’s what felt comfortable. Being powerful is scary! I was in relationship after relationship, voiceless, until they eventually fizzled out. I was never happy but I stayed with people because I thought that I could MAKE them happy and in turn I’d be happy. Twisted.

And then two years ago I got Guillain-Barre syndrome which basically paralyzes you and I had to relearn to walk. I still can’t run or do a lot of the things I used to love doing. But during that time, a year or so, I was by myself. I couldn’t do anything for days. All I could do is reflect and get powerful. My years of therapy were a solid foundation and I found a new voice.

After healing, with my newfound power, I met a wonderful man and spent a year of my life with him. I didn’t give him my power. My sickness had taken it away from me and I was sick of giving it away beyond that. I was me and he was him and we had love.

Then, I found out last weekend that he had cheated on me. The woman contacted me. It was casual and happened maybe twice during our relationship. When I confronted my partner, he shared with me that he is a compulsive cheater. He let me know he has done this in every relationship since he was 20 and that he’s become excellent at hiding it, compartmentalizing it. He doesn’t want to do it anymore or compromise our future or his own, he said, and while we broke up, he quickly called a therapist.

We have been in touch every day since this revelation and he has been honest with me in a way I have never seen from him before. He takes responsibility, he is heartbroken, he answers my millions of questions from those about the dirty details to those about his childhood and his motives and his fears. I know trauma bonding is a thing, and we are connecting deeper than we ever have before, and it scares me. This broke us both open.

My friends and family want me to cease contact and I understand why. They don’t trust him and worse, given my people pleasing track record, they don’t trust me to not give away my power. They don’t trust that I can have these conversations without him without wanting to fix him.

The thing is Polly, I don’t know if I can, but I do know that responding to him with compassion and listening has changed him. I see a softer, calmer, more open person. And I know firsthand that real love - clean love without expectations - is healing. And I feel like I’m witnessing that magic right now. I didn’t jump ship like everyone else. I treated him like a human and I’m seeing how it’s healing for him.

I’m not saying I alone can change him. But am I really that weak for feeling like I want to stay? For wanting to use my compassion to be there for the man I love as he navigates the worst and ugliest side of himself? I’ll need my own therapist. I’ll need boundaries and to check in with myself daily to make sure I’m not heading into some old powerless land. But is it so hard to believe that this magic is real? That the love I’m sending him is not a sign of weakness as it’s been my whole life but actually a sign of strength?

Want to Stay

Dear WTS,

I think when you feel compassionate and open and optimistic and full of love, it makes sense to stay in that place.

But I also understand why your friends feel the way they do. You can’t possibly contemplate creating a life with this guy without understanding how it might affect you if he cheats again. Practically speaking, he either needs to go to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous or you need to brace yourself for more cheating (How will that feel if you’re married or pregnant?), or you need to discuss what an open relationship might look like. I’m sure there are other options, too, I’m just trying to explore the loose outlines of how much pragmatic work will be required in order for you to revisit a relationship with this man. You’ve got to understand what you’re getting into here, beyond the first wave of happiness and excitement that arises from entering a new place of extreme honesty.

It feels great to heal in conjunction with someone else. It feels amazing to break new ground together. I believe that you’re doing something very difficult and interesting and exciting for you, and I do think it comes from your strength and your openness. I’m glad you told me all about your health challenges, because it makes perfect sense to me that you’d emerge from that nightmare with a whole new perspective on what’s possible in your life.

But, just as it’s easy to become overwhelmed and boundary-less and to revert to a people-pleasing state as you fall in love with someone new, it’s also easy to get confused when you’re invigorated by a relationship that’s entered a place of rapid growth and radical honesty. For someone who’s a tiny bit addicted to LOSING HERSELF IN SOMEONE ELSE (Hello, almost everyone alive!), the thrill of surrendering everything to someone new you don’t know that well is not dissimilar to the thrill of showering love and compassion on someone you’ve just realized that you never actually knew that well. In your healing compassion for your ex, in your boundless gratitude for him, in your patience with his struggles, there is a delicious flavor of grace. There’s also A HIGH. There is also a level of focus that borders on obsession.

I mean this feels INSANELY FUCKING GOOD. LET’S DO IT AGAIN IMMEDIATELY!

You and your ex are both addicts, in other words. You’re both thrill seekers. You both want to lose yourselves, over and over again.

Don’t assume that’s a damning verdict. You can start with that and build from it, if you want to. And if you’re smart about it, you can support each other’s desire to use such thrill-seeking for good instead of evil. BUT: It’s a little bit like two people meeting in rehab and falling in love. It happens all the time. But there’s also a good reason why people in AA caution against it, over and over again. Because two addicts often trigger each other’s addictions. They also see each other clearly and they see themselves in each other and they have a unique compassion for each other’s strengths and flaws (due to their knowledge of their own strengths and flaws). There’s a lot of electricity and fun and rapid growth there. There’s also danger and a very high degree of difficulty there.

When a situation is inherently difficult but you still want to learn from it, the key is to slow down and open your eyes and monitor how you’re feeling along the way. Remember that you have choices and your feelings matter. Check in with yourself. Make adjustments as needed. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that it can’t work or that you should run the other way immediately. Lots of incredibly dynamic pairings of humans are combustible and also promising. I think two people like you and your ex could be happy together. You could also fuck both of your lives straight into the ground.

If I were your mom, I’d probably say this: You’re young. Take an easier path.

But as your weird advice lady friend from afar, I want to say this: Follow this energy as long as it feels good, but try to look for good energy elsewhere, too. And try to pay attention to which parts of the energy feel good and which parts feel depleting.

(Okay, let’s take a second here to lament the fact that I’m using the word “energy” at all. Phew. I’m sorry about this. I’m as disappointed in me as you are, trust me!)

I think one of the sad things about our culture is that people with a ton of shared energy between them are often encountered as DANGEROUS by each other and by everyone around them. And even though the easiest thing here would be for me to yell “DANGER!” and encourage you to run away, I don’t want to do that. Because life is really strange and mysterious. Even though you’re likely to end up slowly realizing that as an addiction-prone person, you probably shouldn’t be with someone who’s even more of addict than you are, you still might learn a million and one invaluable lessons from this one ill-fated alliance. I swear to Christ, I’m not about to swerve into talking about how it’s normal that Woody Allen married his partner’s adopted daughter. That is not the idea here.

All strong energy has the potential to be incredibly promising and hopelessly destructive at the same time. You’re someone who’s just started to follow her instincts. I get that most people are tempted to tell you to shut it off, run away, power it all down. But what I’ve discovered in my own life is that it can be possible to move toward energy and observe it and learn from it and enjoy it without surrendering your entire life to it.

Like you, I’m a people pleaser with addictive tendencies. And lately I’ve noticed that not only am I pretty goddamn obsessive, but I’m also drawn to obsessives. You could say I’m avoidant and also anxious, attachment-wise. You could say I like avoidant people and now I’m branching out a little and befriending people like me, who alternate between avoidance and anxious need. You could say that I used to bond with people who were straight up avoidant – academics, musicians who take a mathematical approach to music, intellectuals who don’t like talking about their feelings, journalists who are afraid of their own emotions, overachievers of all stripes who manage to fuck up their careers and their relationships repeatedly without quite understanding why or how it happens. And you could also say that these days I bond with people who flip between avoidance and extreme openness – intellectuals who love the intersection of ideas and feelings, former journalists who’ve become gurus, musicians whose songs are exceedingly confessional, novelists who are fascinated by the concept of learning to feel their feelings instead of living like a brain in a tank, artists who are actively trying to excavate their own shame.

One thing I want to point out about this second group of people (see also: my new best friends) is that around 70% of them are in recovery. I also want to admit that I used to be afraid of these people, because many of them are successful and that used to make me feel insecure. I also used to write off anyone who struggled with addiction in a serious way, because that made me question my own addictive tendencies too much. And I used to be allergic to extremely open-hearted people who used the words “journey” and “energy” constantly, because direct expressions of emotion made me judgey, and also because these people were often wearing Tevas.

I made safe choices. It was safe to stick with avoidant types of people, because they would never challenge me to grow. I valued safety over everything else. I avoided danger and didn’t like caring so much about my friends that it made me feel vulnerable. I avoided people who made me feel uncertain and ashamed. I avoided people who made me question myself and my safe choices.

These days, I’m much less concerned with safety and comfort and much more interested in walking toward the boundary of what I know and seeing what’s just beyond the fence. Taking those kinds of risks requires trusting my instincts and also checking in with myself, to see how I’m feeling. It’s kind of tiring, honestly, but it also (paradoxically!) gives me a lot of energy. And by taking some risks and also following my instincts, I’ve grown very close to a bunch of people who would’ve made me feel insecure and unsafe just a few years ago.

Feeling this good looks a tiny bit dangerous to other people. And it is a tiny bit dangerous, because you’re always sort of spilling out all over the place, trying to share your good feelings with everyone around you.

I’m dangerous because I’m wide awake and I HAVE A LOT OF POWER (just because I’m fucking AWAKE, MOTHERFUCKERS!) and I care much more about ALL of the people in my life than I did six months ago. There are multiple reasons for that, some reasons that are easy to explain, other reasons that are hard to explain and embarrassing and super fucking dangerous-sounding to anyone who hasn’t been through literally ALL OF THE SHIT I’VE BEEN THROUGH LATELY.

But the bottom line is this: My heart is with you right now. This energy you’ve found matters. Does anything matter more? I’m not sure. STRONG ENERGY FEELS REALLY GOOD. So many things spring from it: Art, love, belief, sensation, happiness, inspiration, connection, creation, compassion, hope. I could just keep adding words to the list. Everything is here.

But you can’t get lost in the illusion that this energy comes from your cheating ex. In fact, you have to cultivate your compassion for YOUR CHEATING EX while also thinking of him not just as this soft, wonderful, honest, fallible person, but also allowing yourself to think of him as YOUR CHEATING EX, too. That’s where energy and reality meet. You have to meet reality on its own terms. This is the paradox of where you are right now: There’s energy here, and then there’s also reality. Reality can be brutal.

So this energy is magical and it’s also dangerous. Bring it into your life, nurture it, spread it out, build from it, and try not to OD on it. But more than anything else, honor it. You’ve been through a lot. BEING POWERFUL IS SCARY. God, do I feel you on that front. But it’s amazing to be able to take risks for the first time in your life. Suddenly, the whole world is at your fingertips. Enjoy that. It takes a long time for most people to get here, if they get here at all.

Most of all, you need to remember that one person does not and cannot own all of this energy and magic. THIS MAGIC BELONGS TO YOU. You can share it with other people, but it lives inside you even when one or another person goes away. I want you to really focus on that and repeat it to yourself like a mantra, okay?

THIS MAGIC BELONGS TO ME. Write it on the wall.

THIS MAGIC BELONGS TO ME. Say it out loud.

THIS MAGIC BELONGS TO ME. Feel it in your bones.

What will you do with this magic?

You can do anything. Expand your vision of what’s possible. Stay with your cheating ex, or don’t stay with your cheating ex: That part feels almost trivial. As long as you’re growing and honoring yourself and cultivating compassion for others and feeling REALLY FUCKING GOOD about your life, that means you’re still in the right place, because you still know who owns this magic, and you’re not about to give it away again. Because, look, your ex can grow or not grow. You can choose him or choose someone else. You might be happy with him but you can most definitely be happy without him, too. You have choices.

Just never let the world convince you that the things that excite you and inspire you and turn you on must be dangerous and bad. Protect what you love with all of your heart. This magic is yours.

Polly


Heather Havrilesky is the author of three books, most recently the essay collection What If This Were Enough? which was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2018. You can read Heather’s most recent Ask Polly column on New York’s The Cut, where it’s published every other Wednesday. Write to: askpolly@protonmail.com.