He cheated and now wants me back

-- Question for John --

I am 26 years old and my boyfriend just ended our 4 year relationship because he was “confused”. I was devastated and at the time had a feeling it was another girl. He denied it and said he was just confused and needed time. Days after our break up, I found out that in fact there was someone else. He says the reason he did what he did was because he hadn’t been happy in our relationship.

He admitted to me that he had just recently met her and that they had exchanged emails and had shared a train ride home together on several occasions. I’m sure more happened but he would never admit to it. He says that I never trusted him and he felt trapped. I was angry that he wasn’t taking responsibilities for his own actions and instead blaming me. The fact that I didn’t trust him was true because he had done this before. About a year into our relationship, a similar situation took place where he met a girl at a bar one night and came to me suddenly claiming he was “confused”. He had his fling with her and then came crying back to me saying he had made a mistake. I took him back because I figured people make mistakes and I really did love him and wanted to try to make things work.

The problem was I could never let go of what he did mainly because he was never really good at making me feel reassured. everytime I would get upset about what had happened he would just sit there quietly while I vented. Or he would say “don’t be stupid. you know I love you” but he was never really passionate when he said it. In short, I couldn’t let go because I didn’t really feel that he was sorry for what he did. He also took me for granted. Many times I would talk to him and it was as if he was somewhere else. I could always see the wheels in his head turning and there were so many times that I felt something was wrong. I would ask him if there was anything bothering him and he would close up and say, “No I’m fine. Stop asking me if I’m OK.” I felt as if the mistake he’d made years ago was mine to deal with and I never felt like he was trying hard enough to gain my trust again. It was if I was on my own to deal with my emotions. And deep down I always felt like he was going to it again one day. And sure enough it happened again a few months ago with the girl on the train. It was like deja vu. identical situations.

He told me that the reason he did what he did was because he wasn’t happy. Now he wants to try again. And I’m just not sure what to do. I still love him. But I don’t trust him. And I definitely don’t look at him the same way. And i’m scared of getting hurt again. I can’t go through that again. I pretty much had an emotional breakdown. I told him that if he wasn’t happy during our relationship, he owed it to me to let me know so we could try to fix things and that he can’t go run to someone new everytime he’s unhappy. The truth is I don’t believe he was that unhappy because weeks before we broke up he had started talking about getting married. He even took me to try on engagement rings. And talk about marriage was initiated by him. I never pressured him. I never even mentioned it because I didn’t want him to feel pressured. So when he did start talking about getting married it took me by surprise and I had actually finally let go of all the hurt he had done years ago. I was convinced that he was ready to commit to me entirely. And then he went and screwed everything up again.

Now he wants to try again but he says that he can’t go back to the way things were. He wants to be trusted. He wants a clean slate. Not realizing that it is going to take hard work especially on his part to put this back together. And what about me? How am I supposed to go back to someone who for years didn’t tell me how he felt and then one day decided he wanted to throw everything away because of some girl he met days before on the train. The thing is I could forgive him but I would need his support and reassurance and he would need to build that trust again. I just don’t feel he’s capable of it. And i’m scared that he won’t learn to be honest with me and the next time he runs into another girl this will happen all over again. I’ve already given him two chances. How many more times are we going to have to go down this road? The other thing is that now that we’ve broken up and we’ve spent this time apart, I’ve opened my eyes to new things. I’m going out with my friends and having great time. I’ve even started dating. I was actually over the worst part and was on my way to moving on. And getting back together with him would put me back in square one.

But I also do not want to move on and always wonder “What if we had tried one more time?” I can’t live the rest of my life with doubts. But then again if I try again with him, I will have doubts just the same. I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t. How do I make a decision that I can be happy with?

-- Answer from John --

You seem pretty aware of all the variables involved in this. You are also clear on what it would take to make it work, if you were to choose to get together with “confused” again. Except I’d have to say, you have probably underestimated the work that would be required to get beyond the 2nd infidelity wound.

There is only one sign that I would look for in evaluating the probability of success in making such a 3rd attempt to make it work. The sign would be that you would hear from him — entirely 100% unprompted by you — the following kind of things:

He would claim to understand that his own fear was at the root of his “confusion pattern” and he would commit himself to work on overcoming that within himself. This would mean, at a minimum, that he would actually commit to personal counseling for a period of not less than six months, and more like it, a year.

He would also claim to understand the deep wounding and undeniable trust-breaking he has caused you, and commit himself to whatever work was required to overcome that within the relationship. This would mean, at a minimum, that he would actually commit to couples counseling for a period of not less than six months, and more likely, a year.

He would show his commitment was reliable by, at a minimum, paying in full for both and actually showing up for weekly sessions consistently. Within the couples sessions, you would see consistent non-defensive, open listening from him, and full ownership of his behavior and its consequences. From his personal sessions, you would see personal growth showing up in the relationship: good listening to you, and validating your feelings, and trust-building actions.

Do you get what I am saying? This would be the only kind of sign I would see as showing any indication that something different might happen a 3rd time around. And he — not you — would be the one proposing these things. I am not at all in favor of the approach that you would try to drag him into counseling. That’s a complete waste of time. He would have to be the party who is actually more motivated than you. Get it?

Oh, and by the way, did I mention that if I were you, I would make no internal commitment to the relationship until at least six months of his actions, as explicitly defined above, had definitely demonstrated to you that he was fully involved in making this work, in healing your wounds, in taking mature responsibility for his behavior, and for backing up his love with loving action.

There’s an old saying, which is absolutely true: If you just keep doing the same old things, you will just keep getting the same old results.

He wants to be trusted, a clean slate. Just like that! How wonderful for him. But it reveals a complete lack of mature understanding of what is actually involved in an authentic relationship. It is no less than the exact opposite of the sign for potential success this time around that I would be looking for.

Sure, I can fully understand that he is a scared little boy, who has been hurt by your not trusting him, who was afraid of deepening the commitment with you, got confused and jumped away again, just to come back around to his fear of losing you. And I can even sympathize with him. I wasn’t all that different in my mid-20’s. And I definitely was not to be relied on. And my smart girlfriends recognized that. And when they were ready for something more stable in their lives, they moved on.

If you keep doing the same old thing, you will keep getting the same old result. You can count on it.

So my question to you, in trying to make your own decision about this is:
What of the following would represent personal growth on your part (you can pick more than one) — and which would not?

1. Moving on and opening yourself to another relationship?
2. Telling this guy that he is not making you an offer you can accept?
3. Getting back together with him and pretending you trust him?

Do you even think you can do the latter? What would that take. Ignoring your own authentic feelings?

Hmmmmmmmm…. That has never — really, never — worked.