Living a Lie
Between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-nine, I was with a guy named Mike. We lived together for the majority of our relationship, and were engaged by the time it ended. As completely ridiculous as it sounds in retrospect, during the years when I was with him, I felt like I was way behind the 8-ball. Pretty much all of my friends were married by the time Mike and I got together; by the time we broke up, most of them had kids. Since my friend groups are spread out across the metropolitan northeast and California, it’s an anomaly that everyone got married and started baby-making so young. But I didn’t know anything different, so I just figured I was off-step with everyone else.
Mike cheated on me throughout a large swath of our relationship. I knew in my gut. I called him out when things were suspicious, but he would alternate between crying and telling me I was crazy. Either way, he always swore it wasn’t true. I spent about three years of that relationship with a knot in my belly, trying to reconcile the void between what he told me was truth and what I knew to be true. After a while, I got into the habit of checking his text messages in my quest for truth, which only made matters worse because then, on top of everything else, I felt bad about myself. I knew what was happening, but because he lied with such vehemence, there was always that 1 percent of doubt. Was I crazy? If it was true, how could he lie to me like this? It is difficult to wrap your head around the fact that someone could do something to you that you would not have the emotional capacity to do to them. I don’t know why I felt like I needed 100 percent certainty, but I did. Still, no matter what I tried, I could not get that.
The fact that we lived together made our situation even more complicated. At the time, I was finishing school and climbing my way up the editorial ladder. Mike, who was about ten years older than me, was already settled into a management job in the pharmaceutical industry. He owned a house in Harvard Square, and paid the bulk of the rent for our Upper West Side brownstone when we moved to New York. We had a whole life together, and there was a lot about our life that I loved. I felt dependent on him—and, in some ways, I was. When we broke up, it felt like I imagined a divorce would feel.
Mike’s cheating not only caused me pain, but it caused my good friend Jen pain, too, which I feel bad about to this day. One drunken night, the girl Mike was cheating with (primarily) told Jen about their affair, which put Jen in a horrible position. I’ll never forget when Jen called me up crying. “I have to tell you something,” she choked. Still, Mike lied. This time he lied to me and Jen. He blamed it on the girl he was sleeping with (or, as he claimed, who he was not sleeping with) being “crazy.” I later found out that he made that “crazy” girl call Jen to retract her story.
Ultimately, I broke up with Mike. I came back to my hometown and had dinner with an ex. Mike and I were engaged at that point. Nothing physical happened with my ex and I that night, but sitting across the table from him reminded me what love could feel like. I realized that I felt more for this ex than I did for Mike. And, in that moment, I realized that if I married Mike, I was essentially giving up. I knew there was more out there than what I had with Mike. I had experienced it. I wanted more.
A couple of years later, I ran into the girl Mike had been cheating on me with. She was actually … lovely. I never got closure from Mike, but I got closure from her. She confirmed that everything I had suspected was true. My gut had been spot on every single time. Every time, he had lied. I came to realize that, in some ways, this girl had been hurt more than I had. She and I are Facebook friends to this day. I love seeing the joy she now has in her life, because I understand it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, there was a lot of pain and deception. I am happy for her and how far she has come. I am happy that we got to give each other the truth when Mike couldn’t.
I learned a lot from that situation, and I swore that I would never, ever let myself be in another scenario like the one I was in with Mike again.
For a long time, I wasn’t. During the period of time when I was with Mike, I thought I had to have a life that looked like my friends’. It never occurred to me that what worked for them might not work for me. After Mike, I found myself with a ton of time to dedicate to myself and my career, to travel and adventure. I began to realize that I might not even want what my friends had. I began to look at relationships differently. I got into a few over the course of my thirties, but none of them were that serious, and almost all of them were long-distance. My attention was focused in other directions, and I was happy.
And then, at thirty-six, I met someone who seemed different. He came on strong and seemed to really get me. I trusted him. I remember coming home for Christmas and telling my friend, “Man, it feels amazing to not have to worry about what he’s doing while I’m out of town.” My friend looked at me askance and replied, “Duh, of course you shouldn’t have to worry.” But, after Mike and what I had known with him, it still felt like a relief.
Flash-forward six months and this guy and I had moved cross-country. I felt incredibly alone there. In my old town, I had a whole network of girlfriends. We were a tribe. We had each other’s backs. Out here, I did not have that. I didn’t realize until too late how much I missed it. How much I needed it.
About six weeks after we’d moved, late in the evening and out of the blue, my boyfriend told me he had to go to work. Immediately, my stomach broke out into the same sort of chaotic revolt that had been a constant with Mike. The reaction caught me off-guard. I asked my boyfriend a few questions to try to alleviate the gnawing in my stomach, but it didn’t help. Something felt … off, and I wasn’t sure why.
He left, and I sat at home wracked with nausea. I kept waiting for it to simmer down, but it didn’t. It got worse. I was torn. I had promised myself two things post-Mike: 1. that I would never ignore my gut again; and 2. that I would never again be in a relationship where I so much as felt compelled to check someone’s text messages . The latter only made me feel bad about myself for violating someone else’s privacy. And I also figured that if I felt the need to check in on someone, that was sign enough that something was off. I didn’t really need to know any more.
I debated my options for several minutes and then decided, fuck it, I needed to check his texts just this one time to confirm to myself that my gut was actually wrong. That this was just some strange holdover from my past coming back to haunt me. So, I walked up to his computer, and clicked open his texts.
What I found astounded me. I quite literally had to keep swallowing back bile.
It wasn’t just one text message. It was a slew of them—at least ten, and presumably far more, because I had seen enough. They were texts of all varieties. There were text messages from girls he was fucking. I state that so crassly because that is the only appropriate description. Text messages that said things like, “If I come over to your house, are you going to get blood all over my dick again?” There were text messages to girls who he was inviting to come out to LA with him. These ones packed a double punch to the gut since we were living in a place I paid for, and I had done all of the leg work and contributed all of the financial resources to move us both out there. There were texts with girls he was manipulating in gross ways I had never seen him execute before (but soon would). There were texts with girls that used phrases I used with him all of the time like “special snowflake,” and there were even “I love you” texts. There were star-crossed-lovers texts, and one in particular in which he was trying to convince a woman to leave her husband because what they had was so special and magical. None of this is to mention the texts about him selling Adderol.
I flipped to his email and found messages from girls sending him pictures of their boobs, and it took nothing more than a few clicks to find him on online dating sites. His profile even included pictures I had taken of him, which seemed particularly callous. Not only that, but his location was listed as our current town, despite the short amount of time we’d been there. He really wasn’t wasting a second. I quickly realized that he had never been monogamous with me—it just took me a while to catch on. And, when I thought back, there were signs before this. I just never thought to look for them. I trusted him. I believed what he told me. If I hadn’t, I would have never uprooted my life in the first place. In fact, I would have never seen him again. It suddenly made sense that he constantly deleted texts from his phone to “keep it uncluttered.” It made sense that his social media pages looked as if I didn’t even exist. This gave new meaning to his claim that, “I just want my private life to be private.”
I was shaking like a leaf. Until less than two hours before, I didn’t have even the slightest suspicion. Now I wondered, Who the hell was I living with?!
I ran downstairs to grab a bunch of trash bags, packed up all of his things, and hauled them downstairs to the living room. I would not do this again. I called my parents and a couple of friends to tell them what had happened, and to warn them I would need moral support. I think that, mainly, I did it as a way of keeping myself accountable. Up until this evening, I had loved this person. Instantaneously, my world had been flipped. Everything I thought to be true was not, and my heart had no time to catch up. I felt incredibly violated and like emotional stew.
I texted my boyfriend to tell him to let me know when he pulled in through the gates of our complex so that I could meet him. I wanted to break up with him outside of the house, and I didn’t want to wait a moment longer to get it over and done with. When he arrived, I told him I knew everything. I told him I had found all of the texts, and I knew he was a cheater and a liar. He told me it wasn’t true and then said, “You can look at my phone.”
“Fine,” I said, reaching my hand out for his phone.
He scrolled through it quickly, holding it away from me. When I grabbed for it, he took the phone and went running off into the night. A sure sign of innocence if there ever was one.
I went back to the house and locked the doors—or so I thought. A few minutes later, he came in through the back. He went storming into the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and threatened to cut himself. I wrangled the knife out of his hands after a physical tussle on the floor. He got up and seemed strange, scary. I grabbed my car keys and ran out of the house in my bare feet, then drove over to a friend’s. A few hours later, he called to say “good-bye,” sounding muffled and slurry, like he had just taken pills or something. Terrified that he was going to hurt himself, I called the police. Knowing the police were there, I went back. He seemed fine. I heard the police telling him not to worry about me—he could find another girl online. It was one of the most condescending situations I have ever been in.
This night was the beginning of the end for me. It was the night when I put myself in jail. He threatened suicide, and I was afraid he would do it, so I thought I couldn’t leave. I’m not sure if this was a very well-thought out manipulation because he knew how ripped apart I had been by my brother’s untimely, unnatural death; if it’s his go-to threat; or if his brain instinctually and quickly works like this. Whatever the case is, it’s sick.
He blamed the texts on his ex-wife. Said she had hacked his computer and doctored texts as well as put up online dating profiles. Of course I didn’t believe that, because I’m not stupid, and it’s not even a good lie. It made no sense. Also, the dating profiles sounded just liked him, had the aforementioned pictures I had taken, and included things like his favorite song lyrics and jokes. Things his remarried ex-wife of a decade ago would never know, nor would she take the time to figure out. Let alone the technical mechanics of it all.
“Okay,” I responded, “I’m going to email some of these girls and see what they say.” I told him this while we were out getting coffee. I told him because: 1. I thought maybe it would scare him into telling me the truth; and 2. I didn’t want to sneak around behind his back (ah, the irony). Almost immediately, he disappeared for about twenty minutes. I suspected he was reaching out to these girls before I could. Sure enough, one of them forwarded me a message he had sent, pleading with her not to say anything. He wanted to save his family, he said. He told her he was going to rehab to start afresh. (What??)
I emailed about five girls. Each and every one of them emailed back to confirm he had either cheated with them or attempted to, although most of them hadn’t been aware he was in a relationship. The only exception was the woman who was married; I’m sure she was terrified I would reach out to her husband and bring her entire life crashing down. Of course, according to him, all of these responses were his ex-wife’s machinations. She’s clever, that one!
My boyfriend next shared a series of text messages that had been “sent” to him. They said things like, “I will take you down,” and “This is only the beginning.” Allegedly, these texts were from the hacking perpetrator. What my boyfriend didn’t realize is that while he was holding out his phone to show me the texts, I also saw his email screen, which showed that he had signed up for the number that was texting him these nefarious messages. In other words, he was texting himself.
The suicide threats still got me, though, as did the fact that I was isolated in a place I didn’t know. I had given up an entire life I loved, and now found myself all alone in a place I hated. He appeared more and more off balance. I knew he had cheated. I didn’t believe a word he said. But, still, I felt trapped. I also felt stupid and humiliated. Over time, the story of what happened that night was turned on me. I was the violator. I was the disloyal one. I was crazy.
My parents and the other friends I called the night I found the texts? After avoiding them for a while, I had to call them back and explain the “fact” that his ex-wife had hacked him. Of course, no one believed it, and I was humiliated by them thinking that I did. But I didn’t know how to tell the truth. It somehow felt as if I had become complicit in his lies. I was stuck in a way that I had never before been stuck.
It was after this that the anger and emotional abuse really kicked in, and I had bigger fish to fry. I’m sure he continued to cheat. Despite the fact that I made a concerted effort of not going through his things from that point forward, I still inadvertenly found a variety of things—girls socks in my car, wine spilled in my car after he went for a “solo” drive, girls clothes in his drawer and in our closet when I was putting away his laundry, and things were always weird around the house when I left for a few days. His capacity to use my resources in the course of his cheating was sickening. A couple of my friends ran across his active online dating profiles on multiple sites, and were thrown into a guilty tailspin about what to do. Should they tell me or not? That’s what I hate most of all—that other people were thrown into an ethical quandary because of his shitty (and pretty sloppy) actions.
I brought things up up a few times, but usually the explosion it resulted in wasn’t worth it. And, also, it felt horrible to be lied to. Lied to badly, at that. I think he must have thought I was incredibly stupid. What I actually was is lost and scared and alone. In my mind, that’s actually the worst part of cheating. If you get caught, own it. No matter what you tell yourself, you are not “protecting” the other person by lying and calling their own (accurate) perception of reality into question. This is true in any case, but it is especially true when the cheating is chronic. What you are actually doing is disrespecting them on a far greater level and taking away their freedom to make decisions about their own life based on a realistic set of facts. It is cowardly and pathetic behavior.
For the duration of our relationship, I communicated with my friends less and less. I was living a lie and so innocuous questions like, “How are you?” were almost impossible to answer. I was humiliated. I was miserable. I felt trapped in my own life. Everyone had seen me through my relationship with Mike and, yet, here I was again. Only this time it was way worse. I felt like I had done something wrong. I became more and more isolated from the people who actually loved me and had my best interests at heart.
I tell this very long story for two reasons. The first is because it is incredibly difficult to sort through reality and fiction when someone who “loves” you is lying. I write this in the hopes that if you have stumbled upon this because you are in a similar situation, you will find some solace—and perhaps even strength—by hearing from someone else who has been there. You are not crazy Always, always go with your gut. No matter how much someone is telling you your gut is wrong, whether that someone is the person in question or a third party who has that person’s interests at heart.
I also feel compelled to write because I am in the midst of a lot of processing. It has recently become increasingly apparent to me that I have put a lot of blame on myself for getting into this situation in the first place. But, the truth is, I didn’t know what I was getting into. How could I have? My boyfriend put on an incredible mask for the first few months of our relationship. I trusted him. What I now realize is that as soon as the mask was peeled away, I did exactly what I should have done. I listened to my gut. I took decisive action to end the relationship. I packed his bags and told him to go. The problem is, I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I had no clue that level of deception and manipulation existed. With no basis of understanding, I had no idea how to extract myself. My therapist has helped me realize how quickly I actually did get out in terms of a situation like this, when reality is taken completely off the table and the world turns to chaos and lies.
Last weekend, I saw many of the friends who I cut off a lot of contact with during these couple of years for the first time. I didn’t realize until then exactly how underground I’d gone for a couple of years there. How little I’d shared. How embarrassed and humiliated I’d been. And how much I felt like I had done something wrong. Like there was something wrong with me. That is the worst part of situations like this—it somehow feels like you are complicit in your own abuse and in the lies that are told to you.
Thinking back on all of this has been hard. It’s not a pleasant place to return to. But it has been helpful to understand that I can trust myself. I learned from Mike (who, incidentally, looks like a saint by comparison). I trusted my gut, and I took action. I knew what was going on, at least as far as the cheating goes. But, the thing is, with Mike it stopped there. While he shouldn’t have cheated, and he certainly shouldn’t have lied about it, there was a lot of good in him, too. We shouldn’t have been together after a point, but I have no doubt that he loved me. He took care of me, and we had a bond that was, at least to an extent, based on truth. I know that, at the end of the day, he was good, if flawed. I can, and have, forgiven him over time.
As someone who trusts in the good of people, there was nothing I could have done to prepare for the latter situation. I still believe in the good of people. But I also now understand that not all people are good. Some are too damaged to understand the difference between right and wrong. I also now understand that it is not my job—nor is it possible—to fix them. It is not my obligation to live or in any other way contribute to someone else’s lie.