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I cheated on my boyfriend but I can't get over the guilt

A few years ago, I cheated on my long-term boyfriend. We've since put in a lot of effort to put it behind us.

However, I still feel guilty, ashamed, sad and upset about what I did. We've always got on really well, laughed and joked together and been able to talk about stuff. He is the nicest, kindest, most patient person I know - he's a really good person who loves only me.

Since the affair, I've really struggled to be intimate with him. Hugging is ok but anything more feels too much for me. I feel like kissing and sex means getting into a headspace that I'm not ready for yet. My boyfriend says it’s all in my head, and I agree there's a bit of a mental block. I know it sounds ridiculous, but being intimate feels "disloyal" to the person I had an affair with - it's too much emotion and vulnerability to handle.

Despite this, my boyfriend seems quite positive about the future, whilst I can only see how much I have hurt him and ruined things.

My friends have suggested I leave him as I've been unhappy for a few years now. More though, because of my depression (I'm in counselling) and my crying, lethargy and feelings of guilt. I wish I could turn back time, but I can't and equally I can't deal with the reality either. It's like it's impossible for me to feel at peace or settle which is heartbreaking.

Where on earth has all this guilt come from? You're in a relationship with a man (it sounds like) you love more than anything else and yet you’re thinking about leaving because you made a mistake. Yes, having an affair wasn’t the most helpful thing to do in a relationship (more about that in a moment), but let’s get real about this: relationship problems happen and sometimes affairs are the cause or the apparent antidote. In either scenario, the key factor in recovery is understanding and forgiveness from both partners. From what you say, your boyfriend has embraced this concept a little more readily than you. So what’s going on?

I have found myself wondering if for you, maybe this affair has triggered some thoughts and feelings that actually relate to an earlier event. Perhaps something happened previously where you either felt blamed or unforgiven, or maybe you have found it difficult to forgive someone else. Because families, too, can have all sorts of family ‘scripts’ about getting things right and what it means if you get it wrong. In some families, there always has to be the person who gets the blame for everything when others can apparently do no wrong. Any and all of these experiences can mean that as a child, we naturally react to them as children. So, feeling powerless to influence an outcome or to speak up in one’s own defence are things which understandably can mean that a child ends up feeling that they have no voice in what’s happened. Unfortunately the legacy of this is that as adults, we sometimes experience mistakes as if we were children again, i.e. as overwhelming, ruining and unrecoverable.

Of course, all these feelings are very likely to make it extremely problematic when it comes to self-forgiveness. These feelings can be so powerful that we carry them around and unknowingly take them into adult relationships. Then when we make a mistake, it becomes almost impossible to see that we deserve to be forgiven. It’s almost like because we’ve done something that perhaps wasn’t helpful or even caused someone else pain (in this case your boyfriend) we just aren’t lovable enough anymore. Lots of people grow up with a buried belief that they’re not really lovable. So when someone comes along and does just that – love them -  it can be really difficult to trust that it’s for real.  So testing it often becomes quite an art form.

Now, testing comes in all shapes and sizes and one of them is having an affair or cheating – whatever you want to call it. Having an affair in these circumstances creates a gap or void between you and your partner. So, although you crave emotional intimacy, you’re so fearful of losing it that in the end, it's slightly less painful if you do things that potentially push a partner away because by doing this, it’s you creating the gap or even ending the relationship. In a funny sort of way, it helps you to feel more in control. But then, losing everything reinforces the idea that you weren’t quite good enough to keep him and you’ve proved that by having the affair. So as you can see it’s a vicious circle of longing, fear and grief.   

Of course, another scenario might be that although you have very strong feelings for your boyfriend, part of you actually doubts he’s the person you want to be with. Maybe having an affair was a way of trying to tell him that, but you’ve ended up feeling so guilty that you stay simply because you feel too guilty to leave – almost as if you owe it to him to stay in the relationship because of the hurt that your actions caused. But whatever the reason, it all comes back to the same thing, which put simply is that you can’t forgive yourself. 

Now, obviously I don’t know if any of this rings true for you – possibly not, but even if it doesn’t, the depth of the guilt you describe feels like a real burden based on the fact that you just can’t forgive yourself. I suspect that no matter how many people tell you that you have a right to recover, feel OK about yourself and fully engage in the relationship with your boyfriend, you can’t accept that they’re right – even though they are.

You tell me you’re having counselling for depression. There are different types of counselling and I don’t know what you’re ‘covering’ with your counsellor, but if it’s not specifically about the guilt you experience – you might want to consider, with your therapist, if work in that particular area would be helpful. I don’t think you can crack this one on your own because as you rightly say, the trees are in the way and you need to create a space in the wood where you can really learn to love yourself and let others love you.

My final point, though, is this. Your friends are telling you to move on. They’re wrong. Moving on will only mean that you take all the guilt and distress with you. But if you get the right sort of help this may enable you to accept that you deserve to see what happened in a different light. You need to even get to a point where you allow yourself to cherish whatever the affair offered you and to realise that it’s a normal and healthy response to have to something that, even though disruptive in one context and perhaps deeply regretted now, nonetheless meant something important. I hope you find the necessary peace in making the right decisions - whether that’s to stay with your boyfriend or not. Either way, you’re still (and always were) an OK person.

This final message is for all readers of Ask Ammanda.

Rebuilding trust after cheating takes time. One Session Therapy is a solution focused, one off appointment, which can help you navigate through these feelings, process what has happened and discuss how to move forward from the betrayal, either in your own time or with further Therapy. One Session Therapy equips you with tools to communicate effectively, set boundaries, and work towards rebuilding trust, either on your own, or as a couple. 


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Ammanda Major is a sex and relationship therapist and our Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice

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