You Need Help: How Do I Stop Thinking About the Ex Who Cheated on Me?

Q:

I’m in my late 20s and until recently, I’d never been romantically involved with anyone. I’d never been asked out, never been on a date, never really had a crush, never anything. Then a couple years ago, I met someone who very quickly became my best friend. I’d never had such an intense, close relationship before. We had so much in common and we clicked in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. We quickly became inseparable and ended up dating for several months. I really loved them, and I felt safe and happy with them… until they dumped me out of the blue and essentially dropped out of my life overnight. Though they’d been telling me they loved me, they backtracked said that they’d always meant it as a friend. I was confused and hurt, but I accepted it and tried to move on. I later found out that they’d cheated on me towards the end and began a serious relationship with someone new before they broke up with me. This news devastated me. But I went to therapy and I worked very hard to heal and I put myself back together. I can confidently and genuinely say that I’m no longer in love with them. I know that I deserve better. I know I didn’t do anything wrong and that their actions are a reflection of them, not me.

But I think about them all the time.

It’s been over a year, and they’re still on my mind. When they left, they said they wanted to be my best friend forever, but they never made any effort to communicate or try to repair our friendship. They never took responsibility for cheating. We haven’t spoken in months, but I still think about this every day. I don’t miss them anymore, I just wish they’d apologize, but I know they never will. I don’t understand why they said they wanted to be my friend and then disappeared. I don’t understand why they told me they loved me and then took it back. How can I let go? How can I forgive them without condoning their actions? It’s clear they don’t actually want to be my friend, so why can’t I just accept that? I don’t want to be haunted by this anymore. Please help.

A:

Your use of the word “haunted” is apt, because betrayal is a haunting. You say that you are no longer in love with this person and yet you think about them all the time. I don’t think you’re inundated with thoughts about this person because you’re hung up on them; I think you’re experiencing the deep mental side effects of being betrayed by someone who you trusted. And unfortunately, that’s a force that can sometimes linger even longer than a breakup where someone is holding onto feelings for another person.

To be completely frank, it is going to take loads of time and a lot of emotional work to get to a point where you don’t think about this person all the time. Betrayal burrows into brains. When cheating comes to light, there’s a tendency to obsess over the minute details. You’ll replay things in your head, wonder how they were able to get away with certain things, and sometimes even be hard on yourself for it. These can become really obsessive thoughts. It also means that this person who hurt you is taking up a lot of your brain space.

Therapy helps immensely, though I know it’s not an option for everyone. I found the book Why We Think the Way We Do and How to Change It helpful. There are also small things that you can do to take yourself out of this obsessive space, but it looks different for everyone. Puzzles or other activities that require a lot of concentration can help in the short-term. I personally found silence to be really hard when I first experienced betrayal from a long-term partner (meditation was definitely not an option for me, though it does work for some), so I kept a steady stream of music, podcasts, and radio shows on. Meanwhile, I was unable to watch TV and movies as a coping mechanism, but it’s sort of different for everyone! One thing that can help is if you find yourself going several hours or a whole day without thinking about this person and suddenly they do pop into your head, instead of following whatever dark path that first thought might take you, pause and think back to what you were doing in the time leading up to the first thought. You might then be able to unlock what distractions work for you and then replicate them.

As you’ve probably gathered, I went through a similar but not exactly the same experience. I’ve learned through talking with friends who also went through similar things that a lot of cheating experiences have a ton of overlap. The backtracking on loving you part is something that happens a lot. People who have cheated will sometimes try to absolve themselves of some of their guilt by convincing both themselves and the person that they cheated on that they “never really loved” them or loved them less than they previously said. It’s easier for them to justify their own actions of stepping outside of the relationship if they claim they were never fully committed to the relationship in the first place. Of course I can’t say for certain that that’s what’s happening with your ex, but I think it’s a very strong possibility. They could be downplaying the relationship in order to make themselves feel better about cheating. I think especially because this person has not taken responsibility for the cheating that this is very likely the case! And it sucks, because it makes you question your own sense of reality and your feelings about the friendship and the relationship. Distorting reality and cheating often go hand-in-hand.

You do not have to forgive this person. If you really, really want to forgive them, then that is definitely a personal choice you can make. But I think it would be incredibly difficult to do when the other person never even took responsibility. When I went through my cheating experience, I wish someone had told me that forgiveness did not have to be the goal. I think pop culture and other forces fetishize forgiveness. I think it gets conflated with the concept of “letting go.” In reality, sometimes realizing that you don’t need to forgive someone is what letting go really looks like.

You said yourself that you KNOW this person is never going to apologize. How could you be expected to meet that with forgiveness? And not forgiving someone does not equate to holding a grudge. There are still ways to healthily move forward in your life without complete closure or forgiveness. It will take a lot of work, but it’s work that you really have to do for yourself, because they’re not going to help you with it. Perhaps accepting that it is okay to not forgive them will help you to even think about them less. The desire to forgive can sometimes become a counterproductive obsession and a way to continue to give that person power over you.

You do deserve better, and their actions are absolutely not a reflection of you, so I’m glad you have come to those realizations on your own. I’m sure it took a lot of work to get there, and I’m sorry if it sounds scary that there’s still probably more work to be done on yourself to get to a place where you are thinking about this person less. I do think that letting go of the idea of forgiveness could be extremely helpful in this case, and I also think you shouldn’t read too much into them backtracking on loving you, because people will say all sorts of things after they’re caught cheating and you can’t really take it at face value. The haunting will lessen over time as you develop more ways to keep it in check by really focusing on the things and practices that make you feel good and keep your mind from wandering to that person. But don’t be hard on yourself when you do think about them, because that’s only going to worsen the feeling of being haunted. Accept that thoughts about this person and this experience aren’t necessarily holding you back from still moving forward. The betrayal is the reason you’re holding on, and that’s not your fault. Be patient and be gentle with yourself.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Las Vegas. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 222 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Wow this was exactly what I needed to read on this Tuesday morning. Thank you writer for so clearly articulating the pain of betrayal. I have never been able to think about it so concisely before. I went through a period about 5 years ago when I was betrayed by an entire community at once, (let’s hear it for evangelical christofascism) and then this last year a woman I loved deeply (both as a friend and crushing on her) displayed her true selfishness and how little she cared about our relationship.

    Kayla every thing you said is *so* relevant and helpful for my pain. Thank you. I’m going to go buy the book you linked to now.

  2. This is perfect advice! I also wish someone had told me straight up that I didn’t have to forgive her and it wouldn’t make me a monster. Or that I was allowed to be angry.

    Shit sucks, but on the small upside – there’s a kind of automatic intimacy between those of us who have been cheated on – welcome to the club ❤

  3. there’s forgiving and there’s choosing not to focus on a negative experience. it can be an overwhelming feeling to keep thinking about it, but it might just be missing that person and settling for an option that keeps them a part of your life, even if it’s a painful one.

    the suggestion to actively choose behavior that changes your focus to something you can and do enjoy is great. asking yourself what you get out of continuing to think about someone who has a negative effect on how you feel might also help; if you examine the mechanism maybe you can avoid the impact. make it a tool to put the focus on you and your needs rather than a thought cycle that you know isn’t helpful to you.

    when i’ve struggled with thoughts that don’t help, really it came down to discipline and committing to changing my behavior. it’s easier to write that than i remember it being when i had to actively do it. but as an example, one time i just said the word ‘sucker’ to myself every time i thought about the person who wasn’t helpful to me. sometimes i was taking about myself, but sometimes i was talking about them for missing out. eventually i started to laugh about it when it came up – which doesn’t happen much, if at all, now.

    hope it gets better for you soon.

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