What Cheating Taught Me About Love

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
The sound of my cell phone ringtone blaring in my ear shocked me awake. It took me more than a few seconds to open my eyes and figure out where I was. Half my body was awkwardly twisted on a bare mattress; the other half was strewn on a cold cement floor. There was a young woman — a co-worker and acquaintance, as it turned out — passed out next to me. I was butt naked. Shit. My eyelids felt like lead from more shots of tequila than I could recall, and there was a big gaping hole in my memory between the previous night’s burlesque show and the scene in which I now found myself. A vague recollection of bare skin and raw sex darted through my mind. I looked at my phone and realized I was late for work. I had 10 missed calls — five from my boss and five from my girlfriend. Shit.

I scrambled to find my belongings and slipped out into the painful morning sun, careful not to stir my co-conspirator. This was not the worst thing I had ever done. This was a regular Tuesday night for me. I’d dry out. Spend a couple nights at home with my girlfriend in nervous domestication, the air between us heavy with the weight of deceit. Then another invitation for drinks would come from a lover or friend, and with it, the prospect of new hookups. Rinse and repeat. I spent the better part of my teens and 20s letting this pattern play out. I almost always had a “monogamous” girlfriend, but I was never faithful, and rarely honest. Sometimes I got caught, and occasionally I fessed up all on my own. It never ended well. It’s easy for me to blame bad models around me — dysfunction in my family, an adolescence influenced by the wrong types of friends, my own naiveté about what should and shouldn’t be expected in a relationship. I could argue that I always settled for the wrong partners, which left me feeling unsatisfied and unhappy. Rather than acting like an adult and leaving, or communicating, or negotiating more open arrangements, I did the worst thing I could have done and betrayed the people who cared about me. It took me years to realize that I was also betraying myself.
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
For a long time I thought that being a cheater was just who I was and who I was meant to be. Though it never felt good. I felt a constant pang of guilt and unworthiness. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop and for my girlfriends to find out how I was wronging them. I lived in a house of fear constructed on a foundation of my own stupidity. It finally came to a head in my mid-20s. I was living with a girlfriend while dating another woman on the side. I was essentially two-timing both of them, and yet neither was a particularly good match. I wish I could say I had a lightbulb moment when I realized the error of my ways and decided to be a better person. I wish I could say that a heavenly angel descended from above and reminded me that I was a good soul who deserved to find someone compatible and stop the cycle of hurting others. But there was no epiphany. There was no aha moment. I stopped cheating simply because I was exhausted. It was incredibly draining — emotionally, mentally, and physically — to maintain this constant web of deceit. I was just too tired to keep up the charade and keep lying not only to others but to myself, about what I actually wanted in life, and who I was as a person. I finally mustered up the strength to end things with both women (not all my doing, as there was mutual agreement with at least one that all was not well and that we were better off apart). For the first time in my adult life, I was all alone — and I was terrified. But then something strange happened. I didn’t have the desire to run out and drink. I didn’t have the desire to follow strange women home. I didn’t have the desire to be consumed with complex life plots. I was perfectly content without the emotional baggage. Sober and alone, I started to feel something I had never felt before. I felt like myself. I came to realize that I had absolute control over my actions and choices. That I was not destined to live a life of betrayal, or even one of non-monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it's a conscious — and mutual — choice).
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Several months later, I emerged a new person. I felt self-assured and, perhaps most importantly, honest. It was in this place that I met my now-wife. I was able to approach this new relationship with a clean slate and the vulnerability that every love deserves. I was able to give myself to her with full transparency, both about my past transgressions and my true feelings, hopes, and fears. For all the pain it had caused, cheating had taught me just how significant trust was in a relationship. Without it, there was no chance of building a meaningful and deep connection. I knew how easy it was to break that trust, and how difficult (if not impossible) it was to rebuild if it was lost. I held onto that trust in my newfound relationship as the single most important value, and protected it with everything I had. What I found would have been shocking to the me I used to know. It was actually pretty easy and comfortable to be real with myself and my partner. Lying had been the hard part. While I will always be remorseful for hurting others, being a cheater taught me the most valuable lesson about love — and in that sense, I have no regrets.

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