October 22, 2020 | Feature
for the first time
trusting myself after cheating
When I cheated, when I lay next to someone else, all I could think about was my partner and how much hurt he would feel when he found out. In the moment, I didn’t think of myself or my present guilt, I didn’t think of the person lying behind me, hand on my hip, or what my friends and family would think. I thought only of my partner.
At the beginning of the relationship, I told my partner that I would likely hurt him, that I had a history of doing so. Maybe I told him this as a warning, as if this could alleviate any future hurt. When I cheated, my relationship was temporarily long-distance. I existed at an in-between of friendships, equally emotionally distant from everyone. I had come to rely on my partner for my emotional needs, and the distance between us reinforced a loneliness within me. I told him that when I feel lonely, I often seek comfort in the temporary but tangible intimacy of hookups. I said I was telling him this to prevent myself from doing so. I thought I was being honest and therefore courageous, and maybe I was, but I was also hurting him. He responded, “Break up with me.” I felt confused and refused. Why not break up with me himself?
I learned that cheating consists of many steps. There was meeting, a couple years ago, the person I would cheat with. There was lying down at home alone and thinking of our past intimacy, of the possibility of temporarily not feeling lonely. There was talking and texting, planning to meet up; there was excitement. There was telling, or convincing, myself that our meet-up would be purely platonic. There was the knowledge of being in control of my actions but also the desire to feel out of control. And when we met up, there was allowing lust to manifest, allowing myself to be touched. Then there was thinking of the man I was hurting. There was hurting the man I was thinking of. There was stopping, sitting up, and feeling a certain strength in stopping, but so much more weakness in what I had done already. There was being told by the man I lay down with that I had done nothing wrong, that our touching was nothing, but knowing that was wrong, and knowing how my partner would feel. Throughout it all, there was the constant guilt, present from the start. The guilt of being dissatisfied and not having the courage to express it, the guilt of thinking of and wanting to be with someone else. The guilt of having a someone else to turn to. Guilt should be an indication to take action—to communicate with my partner and work on the relationship, or to let him go and work on myself. But sometimes it’s not enough.
When I told my mother I had cheated, she came into my room and sat on my bed. She looked into my eyes and her fingers twisted around each other as she stumbled over words that were incapable of fully expressing her pain. When my mother is upset with me, she stops speaking in her comfortable, rolling Mandarin and forces herself to speak in my unwelcoming English. When she could no longer find the English words to name her pain, she cried until she gasped. She was so wrapped up in the pain of having raised someone who went out into the world only to hurt someone else, she asked how she could trust me for anything anymore. How could she believe me when I tell her where I am, who I’m with, or who I am? “The most beautiful part / of your body is wherever / your mother’s shadow falls,” Ocean Vuong writes in the poem Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong. I no longer felt my mother’s trust in me or her shadow over me. Without my mother’s shadow, was I still as beautiful as I thought I was? This makes me think of the line in Ruth Madievsky’s poem Bridge, Shadow, Hands, “can I just share this theory / that a person can fall down her own shadow.” Sitting in the consequence and hurt of my mother’s reaction, in her belief of who I had become and lost belief in who I had the potential to be, I thought to myself resolutely but mostly desperately, I will never cheat again. I wonder, if my mother hadn’t come into my bedroom and looked at me, if she hadn’t so openly shown her pain in the red lines of her knuckles, if she hadn’t voiced her hurt and hurt me in return, would I have made this promise?
After I told my partner I had cheated, I saw his heartbreak and pain and avoidance. I felt guilt and shame and love and confusion, but I had done it. When I saw him around campus, my heartbeat would accelerate, and I’d become flustered and heartbroken and heartbroken for his hurt. I cried in my dorm room and I cried to friends and I wondered if I had the right to cry at all. I melodramatically felt like the only relevant label for me was cheater. I recalled conversations with friends who previously said they could never forgive cheating. Hadn’t I become the person they could never forgive?
In studying relationships and intimacy, psychotherapist Esther Perel says that people who commit infidelity “are looking not just for another person but in a way they’re looking for another self.” Afterwards, when my friends asked me why, why did I cheat, I’d think about Perel’s statement and wonder if it was true for me. Who was I in the relationship that I had turned away from, and have I now found a new self? I don’t know that our different selves are so easily distinguishable, or even fully understandable.
I told my therapist I had been thinking of a woman who spoke to my high school class about her experience with substance abuse. She said that even though it had been years—over a decade—since she had used any substances, she specifically calls herself a recovering, not recovered, addict. Every single day, she explained, she continues to consciously avoid substances in order to remain in the state of recovery. Remembering her words, I told my therapist that my past act of cheating is something I will always be working away from. Perhaps now that is the self that I am turning away from. As Ocean Vuong writes: “The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed.” Gradually, turning in a new direction, I am learning to trust myself; not again, but for the first time.