Everybody thinks that whether someone cheats or not depends on how much they respect their partner. I can’t speak for everyone, but the reason I don’t cheat has a less to do with the person I am with, and a lot more to do with myself.
We make choices every day as temptation swirls around us in all its magical forms. Get out of bed—or don’t. Work hard—or don’t. Apply to grad school—or don’t. Drink a beer—or don’t.
Every choice we make, no matter how small, has an impact on what we think of ourselves. In turn, your life situation is a reflection of what you believe about yourself. When you make choices that grate upon your system of beliefs and betray the person you want to be, you’re disrespecting yourself more than anyone else.
Maybe you could cheat on your partner successfully for a long time—
Maybe it feels like you’re having your cake and eating it too. It’s warm and safe in the effervescent candyland of denial. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to look yourself in the mirror and like the person you see. If you make decisions you don’t respect, you’re the one who suffers the most.
I could cheat on my boyfriend and he’d probably never find out. He trusts me completely and we have a very healthy relationship. I could get away with murder. But then I’d have to wake up each day knowing what I’d done and knowing I don’t respect myself. I’d have to live with the pain of my betrayal. I’d have to look straight in his loving, trusting gaze, and send right it back, knowing how disgustingly unworthy I am.
And then once there’s a hole in my moral dam, why not indulge in a few more immoral gratifications? A lie here, a betrayal there, a slippery slope. I’d spin bulletproof webs of justification. Slowly my moral compass would loosen and swing free. Before too long, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. It’d be so foggy and empty inside that I wouldn’t be capable of finding any truth and integrity inside myself, let alone recognizing it in others. I’d begin to doubt that I’m a good person. I’d trust no one, especially me. Pretending things are fine is all that I’d have. So I’d cling to it.
Sometimes, it’s not just a few random mistakes that chip away at your sense of self. It can be years of poor decisions that you didn’t even see until they’d stitched together and woven a tapestry of confusion. A beautiful tapestry that keeps you warm and comfortable, but oppressed at the same time—pinned down, lying in the bed you made.
How did all these choices come together to create a version of yourself that you don’t like?
Maybe all these decisions felt right and perfect in the moment. And you remember why you made them. But now, deep down inside you know it’s all wrong. You’re dying, you’re suffocating, you hate yourself. And what’s scarier is, you haven’t a clue how to fix it.
But then the next minute things seem so fun and easy, and do you really have it that bad? Could it work out after all? Are you worrying for nothing? Yes…yes. It’s so easy to pretend…
I’ll never forget the day I hit rock bottom. Five years ago, I was in my parent’s kitchen talking to my mom. She asked how I was and I began to vent about the tension between my brother, his girlfriend, and my alcoholic boyfriend; the tension at work with my boss. The apartment. My car. The police. A lot of difficult things had occurred in the past few weeks.
She sat there for a few moments quietly and I was waiting for her to say something comforting—offer some sage advice. Instead, she started shouting (very out of character).
“Jessica, you are making everyone in this family uncomfortable with your problems. We are all sick of hearing about and dealing with the messes you’ve made. You can deal with all these problems in Boston, but don’t bring your issues here. Not in this house.”
That was the moment I knew I couldn’t continue forward anymore. I needed to make some big changes in my life if I was ever going to feel ok again. I applied to the University of Sydney the next morning.
Figuring out how to escape the oppression of your own life choices is one of the toughest challenges in life. Some people never succeed. They creep toward old age feeling like sad wasted sacks of organic matter, garbage bags caught in the breeze. I had to put myself outside my comfort zone and make some really painful decisions to set things right. And it was a slow process. Nothing ever happens overnight, if it’s worthwhile. But pain and struggle is better than feeling nothing, right?
Nothingness is life’s default setting for a failed mission. It’s resolving yourself to the path you’re on and not thinking you have the strength or the will to do better. But you do and you can. One of the greatest things about traveling and living abroad is that it forces you to completely change your lifestyle. I clearly don’t have all the answers and I have to keep working hard to make the right choices. But for anyone who knows what it’s like to feel out of control of your life and totally off track (professionally, romantically, economically), the best advice I have is not to dwell on the past or the future. The future happens one decision at a time and we are imperfect beings. Try to think of the thing you dislike the most about yourself, and work on that, only that.
And, when faced with temptation, be selfish. Think of yourself first. Can you live and love the person who gives in? Will it be worth it?