I retaliated by fooling around

I thought my boyfriend cheated on me, so I evened the score. Now I find out I was wrong! Woe is me!

By Cary Tennis

Published December 6, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend of two years kissed a girl almost six months into our relationship. He was 16 and I was 18. I found out he had done something with this girl but not knowing what, I assumed the worst  (we had already been having sex, but we were both virgins before that).

I confronted him and he swore on everything that nothing happened but I knew it was a lie and in a horrible fit of depression I gave another man a hand job.

I thought what I did would even out our misdoings and I could go back to feeling equivalent. Eventually, a year later, he got me a promise ring and the feeling went away. But just a few months ago his guilt caught up to him and he told me what he had done. I had no idea it was so minor. I then told him what I did. Now I'm overly jealous when he even looks at girls. I fear what I did tipped the balance again and that I have forced him into wanting to even out the scale. My mother said, once a cheater, always a cheater. I don't know which one of us is, were we both just so young.

Sex and love, ahh, we didn't know what we were doing. Does anyone know what they're doing? I know he loves me and I love him. As I see it, it was just two young mistakes.

How do I talk to him to find out how he feels about this without bringing up all the pain and pushing him any further away?


Dear Confused,

What if I said to you, "I disapprove of what I think you've done. Therefore, I'm going to do the exact same thing myself"?

That is crazy!

But when we "retaliate in kind," that's what we're doing. We're doing exactly the thing we disapprove of. And sometimes it turns out that we were wrong about what we thought someone did. Then we really feel dumb!

Retaliation doesn't work in relationships.

It doesn't work with people or dogs.

It doesn't work with nations.

It doesn't work.

What does work is patience and honesty. What does work is principled nonviolence.

If you want honesty, then be honest.

You may have thought that retaliating would give you power in the relationship. But if power is autonomy and freedom, then when you retaliate you are losing power in the relationship. You are not defining the relationship, but allowing yourself to be contorted by it.

Rather than retaliate, which weakens and eventually destroys the relationship, it is better to respond to a crisis by working to strengthen the relationship where it is weak.

You can start today. I suggest that you just take it upon yourself to identify things you can do to strengthen the relationship, and do those things. What would strengthen the relationship? Spending more time together? Helping him with something, or asking him to help you with something?

Here is an idea: Get out a sheet of paper and write at the top of it, "Things that would strengthen our relationship."

Write down a bunch of things. Then do one of them.

Cary Tennis

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