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My boyfriend betrayed me. Should we break up?

Ask Roe: Establish some very clear boundaries in order to avoid any Ross and Rachel shenanigans

Dear Roe,

Six months ago, I found out that my boyfriend of four years had an emotional affair that was getting close to becoming sexual. He has cut off contact with her but we haven’t really recovered. He has apologised but says that we need to go back to normal and that I can’t keep “punishing” him. I’m not trying to punish him but I just don’t trust him in the same way so I find it hard to be affectionate or have sex.

In the middle of our last argument, the idea of taking a break was thrown out and the idea makes me relieved because I feel I need some time away from the tension but I also don’t know what a break is for and if it would just makes things worse. I don’t want to see anyone else and if he went near another woman I would lose it so I don’t know what the difference is between a break and some days not talking.

I’m sorry that you’re going through this. It sounds like your boyfriend’s emotional affair was a really destabilising, hurtful event that has left you feeling betrayed and unsafe. On top of processing the emotional affair, you’re also going through the current experience of your relationship – the thing that is supposed to bring you love, support, safety and comfort – becoming a source of stress, arguments and tension. That’s a huge amount of emotional pain and uncertainty to face for such a long time.


There are two questions here: what you and your boyfriend have already done to address this breach in trust and what a break could do for you, moving forward.

One thing that feels important to note is that when your boyfriend says he wants things “to go back to normal” is that this may not be possible or even desirable. When things were “normal”, he turned to someone else. It’s understandable that you’d be wary of simply going back to that and if you want this relationship to survive – which is a big “if” that only you can answer – it might not be about “going back to normal” but doing the work to move forwards, to somewhere new.

I’m curious about how your boyfriend has been apologising and how your conversations around his affair have been going. What conversations have you had about his reasons for turning to someone else and what was going on for him emotionally that he was seeking validation and connection with someone new? Has he expressed self-awareness around this and what has he done to address what was going for him.

For example, if he was experiencing low self-esteem or a lack of novelty in his life and went searching for it from another woman, what is he doing to work on his ability to work on himself and find validation and fulfilment within his life and hobbies and relationships (friendships, family, you) so that he won’t again turn to someone else the next time life his confidence falters or life gets routine? Has he acknowledged the choices he made and boundaries he crossed with this person or has he been using passive language like, “It just happened”?

If you’re not ready for sex, have you both talked about the ways you can connect and express affection and slowly rebuild intimacy – both physical and not? For both of you, have you discussed where you want this relationship to go and what you’re holding on for?

You’re entitled to be angry and hurt by his behaviour but if your feelings are stuck, it could be that these questions or other questions haven’t been answered and addressed in a way that’s giving you the comfort you need.

If you haven’t already, have you contacted a couples’ counsellor and are you both willing to go so they can help you work through what happened, how you’re feeling now and look at ways to move forward, if you wish? I think this will be really important.

A counsellor will also help you decide if a break is a good idea. If you don’t see a counsellor and are still thinking about taking a break, you’re right to want to know what the intention is and you need to think about what a break could offer – or what a break could be a cover for. If you know in your heart that you can’t or don’t want to move forward with your boyfriend, is a break simply a way of postponing the break-up you’re scared to initiate and will it simply prolong your hurt and uncertainty?

If you do think a break could be helpful, identify your purpose. Is the break to gain some perspective away from each other, to reassess your feelings, to take some self-care actions so you’re in a better place mentally and emotionally to deal with each other respectfully and make important decisions while clear-headed?

It will also be important to establish some very clear boundaries in order to avoid any Ross and Rachel shenanigans. You’re clear that you see this time as still holding the same boundaries around fidelity and promising to act and speak kindly and respectfully to and about each other seems like another good guideline. What other boundaries do you want to set? Will you be in touch with each other? It’s also vital that you set an endpoint for the break so it isn’t simply an indefinite period of uncertainty, which will likely do more damage than it will fix. Setting a time limit of one to three weeks, for example, will keep some of the uncertainty at bay and keep your both focused, which you need to be.

During this time, you should be paying attention to the questions, concerns and feelings that arise for you. Journaling and speaking with an individual therapist will help you see what recurring thoughts and feelings are coming up.

At the end of your break, you will need to have a serious conversation – or ongoing conversations – about how the break felt, what you have been thinking and feeling and what you would like to do now. Do you want to break up or stay together? And, importantly, when you know what you want to do, you need to think and talk about how you’re going to do it. If you’re going to break up, is there a way of ending that is a reflection of your best selves? And if you want to stay together, how are you going to reconnect and focus on healing and find a new, more honest, more vulnerable way of being together? You’ve been through a lot together – are you able to find meaning in it and grow together, now understanding each other in a new, more painful and complicated but more real way?

Either option – staying together and doing the work or breaking up and healing and moving forward without your boyfriend – will be difficult and will require bravery. You’ve been though a lot. Think about who you want to be, what your vision of love is, what decision will bring you closer to the future you want. Whatever you choose, don’t forget to choose yourself.