My ex-husband fell in love with an outgoing, self-confident, passionate, and independent 20-year-old.
He fell in love with my childhood mask.
I came from your typical broken home. Domestic violence, divorce, infidelity, and secrets were hidden behind a flashy picture of wealth. He grew up in a grounded, middle-class family where vacations took precedence over new cars.
My eccentric nature and off-the-wall antics kept him on his toes. Five years my senior, he embodied the stability absent from my life. With a moral compass in one hand and a secret life in the other, it was only a matter of time before my shadow would eclipse the light of the girl he thought he knew. I couldn’t have warned him because the truth was that at the time, I didn’t realize how deeply scarred I was.
I had lived my whole life feeling oddly stranded: in my childhood household, in school, in my marriage, and in my body. My escape came in the form of a quick fix or temporary high. My daddy issues, eating disorder, and depression proved to be a triple threat no amount of love, green juice, or meditation could balance. Walking the domesticated, straight-and-narrow line was like trying to hold a beach ball under water.
Throughout the marriage, we both dueled with my demons, and just as I had done in my childhood family, I unknowingly crept into the role of the identified patient, taking on the pain of my family unit. We both naively believed if we could just figure out what the hell was wrong with me, all other issues were bound to magically disappear.
We had a life most people pray for, yet I moved in and out of depression and anxiety while remaining empty inside. I wanted to be someone for him that I felt incapable of being, and the inability to do so left me sitting in decades of unhealed shame. Besides my eating disorder, he was the other constant in my life, and the two could not coexist.
He loved me without limits. The problem was I didn’t love myself.
In hindsight, I was searching for guidance, healing, and to escape from my fragmented past by creating the perfect external life. I was looking for a father figure, and only now do I understand this was a loaded role nobody could fill. Without knowing this, the wild child within me hurt a good man in the process of hitting rock bottom.
I had an affair.
My ex-husband was loyal, safe, good, honest, and kind. He was all the things I said I wanted, yet these traits were so unfamiliar that I couldn’t hold the relationship safe. And so I cheated with someone else. I left before I could be left and hurt someone before I could be hurt.
I left a good man to face my own demons and be with someone who was familiar and who mirrored the chaotic and messy parts of myself I tried to keep hidden. This other man and I were wounded on the same level. I was ungrounded, unraveling at lightning speed, and I made him my scratching post, unconsciously using him to soften my impending fall from the illusion of perfection.
We were drunk on the idea we could heal each other’s brokenness. Half-conscious with emotion, I led the way as he trailed behind in a heedless daze. He unknowingly taught me about my own darkness and I was determined to show him the light. We were both seeking redemption from our broken childhoods but neither would say it out loud.
He contained his energy for few to see and that was the attraction. I sensed his pain and his passion along with his creativity and his lack of confidence. He was not afraid to tamper with my darkness and I was not afraid of his—DUIs and all. I could touch his depth in a way I could never touch the intimacy I desperately craved from my father. After a half-lived life of smoke and mirrors, his ability to be f*cked up and own it was an odd security blanket I refused to be weaned from.
At the same time, there was an unspoken understanding that we couldn’t live like this forever, even if we were each other’s air for the moment. It wasn’t sustainable. I knew from the second I saw him: I had to let him go. The spiritual responsibility I felt to not break his heart tugged at my intuition. He seemed to be unaware of his role as the crutch that would enable my self-destruction, and if he was, his loneliness hushed the very thought.
We were predestined for a fierce love and soul-crushing ending. I mistook reckless rebellion with the freedom I so desperately craved within my marriage and my life. Addicted to the intensity, my well-intended desire to stay away from him became only a casual promise I’d choose to ignore. I was torn between wanting to save him and knowing I had to save myself.
The problem was that the broken parts of me could justify anything, no matter how dangerous. I was enslaved by his ability to distract me from doing my personal work. He was my whole messy childhood family in one imperfect person—hence, the attraction and pull I felt to fix him.
I wanted to tell him to run for his life: stop texting, calling, and pretending there were no demons beneath my perceived physical beauty. I wanted to tell him he would only sink deeper in my presence. I wanted to tell him I am skilled at escaping quicksand. Instead, we took another shot of whiskey.
And when it all came inevitably crashing down, I was left with myself and the damage I had caused. I was left numb, in my therapist’s office, knowing I had repeated the same patterns from my childhood I despised and resented.
I would tell my counselor I didn’t take my marriage vows seriously. Her response was automatic. “You don’t take anything in your life seriously, Rachel.” And she was right. Of course I couldn’t take marriage seriously. I had almost died from an eating disorder yet continued to engage in the behaviors.
I didn’t even take death seriously.
I know writing this puts me at risk for backlash and judgment. That’s okay. Nobody will be harder on me than I have been on myself.
I can’t take back the past. None of us can. I also cannot tie up the loose ends and pretend I’m fully past the guilt of harming another human being who only tried to love me the best way he knew how. The truth is, I’m still learning. I’m still uncovering my blind spots and trying to understand the self-defeating patterns blanketing my 20s. I can only share my story and tell you what I know from the perspective of a woman who was the cheater.
>> I can tell you my cheating had nothing to do with my ex-husband. It was my own fears, lack of self-love, and unhealed trauma. It was my fear of commitment to anything good, my limiting belief that I’m not deserving of real love, and my reckless shadow in perfect unison. It was a reflection of me, not my ex-husband.
>> I can tell you I’m sorry. I regret very little in life, but I do regret this. I hate that more than one person was hurt by me. My hope is that someone reading this can see a piece of themselves in my story and release some of their own shame, guilt, or regret. Maybe someone reading this can internalize that they were not cheated on because they were a bad person or did anything wrong.
>> “Once a cheater, always a cheater” is not a true or fair statement. If we choose to do our work, and understand the reasons behind why we cheated, we will not repeat these patterns.
Ownership is key. I can blame my childhood, my free-spirited nature, or my genetics, but the truth is, I chose this. I caused and created pain, and I alone need to take responsibility for that.
We’re all human and we all have a shadow side. Hurt people, hurt people—and I was a hurt person. The key is to touch the places that hurt, examine them with a microscope, and heal them so we don’t cause external harm due to the state of our internal world.
With all this being said, I would like to coin a new phrase: “I was once a cheater, until I decided to heal what was lacking within me.”
Author: Rachel Dehler
Image: Neto Baldo/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Callie Rushton