This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation and more letters; submissions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app(iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
Growing up, my mother and I were great friends. My dad wasn’t around much. One day my mom became suspicious that my father was cheating on her and convinced me to hack into his email. I found dozens of emails from women. My father had been unfaithful to my mother for a long time. My mom was enraged, but my father denied everything and she decided to stay. She began blaming my sister and me for our dad’s infidelity, saying if we’d been better behaved he wouldn’t have cheated. She lost weight and had cosmetic work done. She told my sister and me that we were not attractive enough to keep a man and urged us to get work done, too.
I’m no longer close with my parents, and I feel horrible about that. I also fear my past experiences with them are affecting my romantic relationships. I was with my first boyfriend for five wonderful years, but I was so afraid of him cheating on me that I eventually pushed him away. I’ve been with my current boyfriend for a year. Seven months ago he met an ex-girlfriend for drinks, and she told him she was still in love with him. He said he knew he should keep his distance, but they’re still in touch. She sends him birthday gifts and comments on his social media posts — even ones that I’m in. He assures me that I’m the only woman in his life, but I don’t like that he continues to communicate with her, while acting like he doesn’t. Do I confront my boyfriend about this, or am I being paranoid because of what I observed in my parents’ marriage?
Never Cheated On
Steve Almond: I don’t think you’re being paranoid. Your boyfriend is still in contact with an ex who declares her love for him. He hasn’t been straightforward about the extent of that contact. That’s upsetting. More upsetting, though, is the pattern you witnessed growing up. Your father was dishonest and manipulative toward your mother. Your mother converted his cruelty into a narrative about female inadequacy, which she projected onto you and your sister. She also enlisted you as a conspirator in unearthing your father’s betrayal — rather than confronting the man herself — then held you responsible for what you discovered. Your parents were troubled people, and in their trouble they set you up to struggle with trust issues in your romantic relationships.
Cheryl Strayed: It isn’t out of bounds to tell your boyfriend you don’t feel comfortable that he has a relationship with a woman who’s in love with him. I’m all for ex-lovers being friends. We certainly have the capacity to shift our dynamics with people we used to date, but your boyfriend’s ex hasn’t done that. By telling him the nature of her feelings for him, she’s made it clear she doesn’t consider him a friend. You’re not being paranoid by feeling threatened by that, though I’m more concerned about your boyfriend’s behavior than I am his ex’s. The upside is that he told you about their conversation, so at least he’s been honest with you. The downside is he has not been considerate of your feelings by continuing to communicate with his ex when he knows it makes you feel insecure. He told you he knew he should “keep his distance,” so I suggest you tell him that you strongly agree. Together, you can figure out what exactly keeping a distance means. It doesn’t involve birthday presents.
SA: I would view this as an opportunity for you to tell your boyfriend more about your family history, so that he can understand why you’re so unsettled by his persistent contact with his ex. He needs to know that his behavior — declaring that he should “keep his distance” from his ex, but continuing to interact with her — is stoking insecurities that you come by honestly. But it’s important that you have this discussion in a moment of calm and harmony, so you can tell him, “This is a real trigger for me and I know where it comes from, but I don’t want it to drive us apart.” The way you keep that from happening is by both of you agreeing to be honest with each other, especially about these issues. You don’t want to fall into the pattern you experienced as a kid, where there’s all this deceit and suspicion and spying. And it sounds as if there’s some of that drama going on already.
CS: While I think your concerns about your boyfriend’s relationship with his ex are valid, I also think you’re right that your parents’ marital problems have magnified your emotions around this situation, and that’s by far the more important issue. As a child you were forced to become a player in a drama that had nothing to do with you. Your mother blamed you for something that was squarely your father’s fault. It’s no surprise that experience has impacted your ability to trust the men with whom you’ve become romantically involved. This isn’t something to lambaste yourself about. It’s simply a wound that needs healing. Your job is to heal it. The good news is you can. I suggest you consult a professional who can help you talk through the ugliness you endured as a kid. A therapist can help you do the deep work that will allow you to eventually step out from beneath the shadow of your parents’ mistakes.
SA: You mention feeling guilt about not being close to your parents. That’s something worth discussing with a therapist, too. Children are deeply loyal to their parents, even and especially damaged parents. Sometimes this loyalty is unconscious. It takes the form of engineering circumstances that replay painful childhood dynamics. Those dynamics are what you need to walk away from to create a happy life; doing so will make it easier for you to forgive your parents — and to forgive yourself for needing to limit contact with them.