Dear Rhonda,

My boyfriend was chatting with a couple of guys online and was planning on hooking up. I arrived unexpectedly and saw his laptop open so I sat down to look. He told me long ago that I could look at anything he has. However, since he was not expecting me he left the website open while he went to the other side of the house. I found his phone next to his laptop. I looked at his history, texting, and Facebook messaging. He was not recently speaking with anyone.

According to the messages on the website and his personal emails, they did not get far enough in their plans to actually meet. Now I’m suspicious wondering if he has done it before and is keeping it from me to not hurt me further.

He says he is ashamed. He is sorry for hurting me and breaking my trust. I told him he could have easily gotten herpes or another STD and passed it on to me. He had an expression of realisation on his face that he could have put my health in danger.

He said he was looking to hook up because he felt bad about himself and wants validation from others and that I’m not very accessible to him. However, I was on my way to his place that same day that he was replying to someone’s ad for a one-night stand, so that excuse is lame.

I have a high libido and I love to have sex and be intimate with him. We have done many other things together, going out and having fun at theme parks, nude beaches, clubs, movies, etc. He has even introduced me to his parents and cousin.

My first gut reaction was to break up with him. It hurts even more because not only is he my boyfriend but I consider him my best friend. I confided everything in him. I was very honest about my life and my thoughts and fears and hopes.

He was married to a TG woman. He has been with many men who were crossdressers. Since he told me about that, I don’t understand why he couldn’t tell me he was still having fantasies. We had agreed to have an exclusive relationship and be monogamous. I told him about my fantasies and he said that he was uncomfortable with me performing them, so I held back (also from fear of getting an STD), so I don’t understand why he couldn’t tell me he wanted to act out in order to boost his ego. We could have performed a similar fantasy between him and me instead of him stepping out.

It’s not like he is a very private person, but I’m just finding out he has a very low self-esteem. He thinks he is worthless but I don’t know if he actually feels that way or if he’s just trying to gain my sympathy to distract me from the real issues. When he was married, his wife cheated on him repeatedly for years, even bringing men home to have sex in their bed. After a while, they had an open marriage and he slept with other people. I don’t know what made him think I would allow an open relationship with me.

We have been talking and even though I wanted to break up right away, I reconsidered. I observed him and his body language. I saw how broken he was and decided to make some changes in the paradigm of our relationship and he accepted.

He has told me a couple of times that he loves me. I asked him not to say it again, at least not for the rest of this year, until we see how this relationship goes. I have not reciprocated because I have been afraid to get hurt. Now with good reason especially I will not say the L word for fear of being further devastated.

We are both going to get tested for STDs. We do not kiss on the mouth at all. We do not have oral sex. Because we both have high libidos, we have sex but only with condoms. Since we are into BDSM there are other fetishes we take part in, either alone or together, that do not require exchange of bodily fluids.

We have already tried going back to hanging out together and it has been extremely difficult. I cry on a daily basis, maybe every hour. The water works just start and I cannot stop them.

He has been divulging more information as we keep talking. It is exhausting having to ask him so many questions but he is answering everything. He has not disagreed with anything I’ve asked him to do so far. Now he even sends me videos of where he is when he is not at work. I wonder how long this will last, trying to appease me and win me over again. I want him to do this for himself, so he can stop screwing up relationships.

When I met him, his profile said he was looking for a long-term relationship. Maybe he needed to add that he was looking for a long-term relationship that was also an open relationship. He knows I can never forget this and how suspicious I am that he will continue to do it or has already done it without my knowledge. I am suspicious that he has more secrets.

We have been reading articles about relationships. I have asked him to write some feedback and share with me and he does. We even went to the bookstore to get a couple of books about how to rebuild a relationship after an affair, another book on self-esteem, another on trust and one on questions and topics for couples to get to know each other better.

He is actually very talkative. He talks about pretty much any subject, but that does not mean he is comfortable talking about his past, being taken for granted, any type of possible abuse or bullying, his low self-esteem or feeling of worthlessness and the need for validation. There are so many issues and I am not equipped for this. But he is willing to work on it. We cannot afford a therapist or counsellor separately but maybe together we can pool our money for couples counselling. The cost is almost $200 for one hour of counselling out-of-pocket.

I told him he needs to have someone to talk to, and he is starting to reach out to his parents who divorced when he was in Middle School.

As for me, I have dealt with my share of infidelity. I am separated from my husband who was a cheater for at least six years. I was cheated on before that as well. I guess I know how to pick cheaters very well.

I am also an adult child of divorced parents. I have dealt with my own issues of bullying and abuse when I was a child and domestic violence with my son’s father who was my first husband. I think I have dealt with all my issues pretty well up until now (except for taking cheaters as boyfriends and husbands).

I was hoping my boyfriend was as mature as he seemed because he was in the military and had the experience of being married and divorced. He has travelled quite a bit. He is very thoughtful, observant, and witty, smart, well-spoken, has a good work ethic, a great sense of humour, and is very affectionate and passionate.

If it’s true that his issue is with self-esteem, then I just assume he will continue to have problems in his relationships after we break up. I honestly don’t know what’s in store for us.

We talked about getting tested soon and then again after three and six months. During that time, I do not intend to have unsafe sex with him, however, I’m not sure I will want to hang around that long if he is going to continue being dishonest with me.

Let’s hope he continues to want to work on his issues and personal growth. I cannot treat or cure him but I can be there as a friend. I really wanted so much more with him but now we’re just taking it one day at a time.

— Heartbroken yet willing, Isabel.

Dear Isabel,

I’m so sorry you have had to go through this. You don’t ask a specific question in your letter, so I am not sure exactly what you are hoping for from me, other than perhaps someone to hear your story, to witness your pain.

It is unfortunate that individual counselling is out of reach for you. Couples counselling would be very helpful if your budget can stretch to that. Have you investigated the possibility of public services? In Australia, some not-for-profit organisations offer counselling for those in need at low- or reduced cost, or on a sliding scale, where you pay what you can afford. In the meantime, I think working through the books you mention is a very good start, as well as reaching out to loved ones for support.

What you are going through sounds very typical of the process couples go through after a betrayal – whether he acted in the flesh or not. There will be trauma to heal, trust to rebuild, anger to expend.

To change, your partner needs to understand where his actions came from, to process and heal those wounds, just as you need to understand and process your pattern of being drawn to partners who betray you. You are correct in saying these things will continue to play out in your relationships until you both decide to own your unconscious patterns and actively work to change them.

If you choose to try to work things out, for you to both move on, your partner needs to sit with the pain he has caused you without going into his own pain and justifications for his actions, to meet you where you are and take responsibility for the betrayal. You will then need to take responsibility for meeting him halfway and allowing him to re-establish trust, and perhaps redefine the boundaries of your monogamy.

He may stumble again. You may fall. This will be a journey for you both. To make it work you both need to commit to doing the work, to climbing the hills, to picking each other up when you fall, and to trying again.

You may decide the relationship is not worth the work and choose to walk away. I encourage you both to continue your individual work regardless, including processing the trauma of the betrayal, before diving into new relationships. I also encourage you to make it clear from the outset when entering new relationships what kind of commitment you expect and negotiate these boundaries upfront.

As for your sexual health, getting tested and playing safe until you get the all-clear is a great idea. Be aware that viruses such as HPV and HSV are very common, and they are transmitted skin-to-skin (therefore, condoms are not 100% effective at preventing transmission). Many people carry these viruses without showing any signs or symptoms. Either of you may have been exposed prior to your current relationship without even knowing, so if you are tested for these viruses (these are not routinely tested for when you present for STD screening, at least, not in Australia) and test positive, it may be unrelated to your partner’s current behaviour. There is no such thing as 100% safe sex, so exercise caution, but give yourself some leeway too.

I recommend checking out the Planned Parenthood website for more information (or whatever service is offered where you live) and remember that many STDs are easily treated (or managed). You might also find ‘My brush with HPV‘ and ‘Mentioning the Unmentionable‘ useful, where readers have shared their experiences with sexually transmissible infections.

You have a tough road ahead of you, but don’t get discouraged. You will get there. Lean on your loved ones and be kind to yourself. Know your partner’s behaviour is not personal and is no reflection on you. This is about his underlying issues and needs. Work on healing yourself so you can get on with your life (with or without him) and so in future you are in a position to choose faithful partners or to negotiate acceptable boundaries.

I wish you the very best,

Rhonda xx

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