Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I’ve been dating my boyfriend for almost a year and a half. We have a great relationship and everyone thinks we’re perfect for each other.
Recently he was asking me about my religious faith, and I was explaining confession to him. So he confessed. He told me that very early in our relationship, before we said the “I love yous,” he kissed another girl.
He was crying, and I comforted him and told him it was OK. Now as I look back, I’m wondering if I let him off too easily. What do you think?
Katie: Allow me to pay you a compliment: You’re a strong young woman. Many girls (possibly including myself) would not have reacted so calmly. Your level-headedness during your boyfriend’s confession suggests you are not dependent upon him as a pillar or a crutch, which is a testament to the stability of you and your relationship.
The success of a relationship — like that of a suspension bridge — should be measured not in its length, but in its strength. What you must now determine is whether your boyfriend can bear the weight of the other end of the bridge you have built together.
The part of your relationship that has suffered the most is trust. After learning about a partner’s unfaithfulness, no matter when it occurred, it’s natural to feel betrayed. Your boyfriend would understand if you tell him you’re hurt — but make sure your reaction is focused on rebuilding rather than punishing. Instead of wondering whether you “let him off too easily,” consider whether you’re treating yourself too harshly by keeping emotions bottled up.
If he is truly sorry and you are willing to forgive him, you can work through this, though your relationship might be a little different than it was before. After you’ve had the chance to reflect on this change in dynamics, you will need to once again bring up the topic of his confession. Immediately reburying the issue will only allow the doubt you expressed in your letter to build into resentment, perhaps resurfacing in a future fight.
The first step in patching things up is to let all of your hidden emotions out in the open. From there, the loose screws and bolts are his to pick up. He will need to show you that he is capable of being a pillar of strength, even if you can stand up straight on your own.
Dr. Wes: I’m going down a slightly different path than Katie. I’d let the sleeping dog lie at this point and not say much more about it.
I’m no fan of cheating, but given the context you provide and the strength of your current relationship, I think you did the right thing. Don’t mess it up by continuing to revisit the issue.
Katie is not alone in suggesting the “let your feelings out” theory of handling problems. That was the zeitgeist for therapists for many years, particularly in the late 1960s and ’70s when it was still thought that catharsis (purging yourself of bad feelings) was at the core of mental health.
Now, we realize that expressing a lot of negative feelings in relationships brings about a lot more negative feelings.
Of course you should express dissatisfaction to your partner about problems in your relationship. But any time you do so, you need to first ask yourself a simple question: “What is my goal here?” Among couples, the vast majority of fights serve no purpose except to express bitterness about past wrongs or frustration with changes the other party doesn’t want to make. Conflict is too important in a relationship to be wasted like that.
Logically, your goal would be to prevent your guy from cheating in the future. But the only way you can encourage him to be loyal is by making the relationship the best it can be, staying loyal yourself and clarifying that you won’t tolerate infidelity now that you’ve both matured. So if you’ve covered those topics and believe the relationship is worth saving, move on.
You’ve handled this situation well, and I hope your boyfriend is man enough to see what a great girlfriend he’s found, and that he will act accordingly in the future. If he doesn’t, delete him from your life. We’ll give some tips on how to do that in a couple weeks.