Just the Tip is a sex and relationship column hosted by queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. Here you will find interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown.
My ex and I were together for a year and nine months. He was my first relationship and first sexual encounter. He is fifteen years my senior, and we met when I was eighteen. I didn’t know about his actual age, or the fact he had a girlfriend on the other side of the country (we were both new to the area at the time) until a few months into dating each other. I was vocal about wanting a non-monogamous relationship from the beginning, and continued to be until the end. However, he wanted more. When a dirty message (albeit unprovoked) came up on my phone several months after we met, he angrily told me that he didn’t want to be with me if I wouldn’t be exclusive. I was scared of losing him, and know that he knew he was pressuring me into commitment.
I justified my sleeping with other men on two separate occasions, as well as sending explicit photos to others because I gave him a multitude of chances to see things my way (or to leave, which he ultimately did and should have a long time ago, as much as I hate to admit it) and didn’t enthusiastically consent to monogamy. I knew he wouldn’t be okay with what I was doing, but at the time, I thought I was justified in my actions. I realize now that I in no way was and seriously betrayed him, even though I was never caught. I think it may be for the better for both of us now that it is over, although that is no excuse for what I did.
I am seeing a therapist now to work through both the end of the relationship, and how I contributed to the unhealthy environment. I still love and care about him so much. He was my best friend. All of this information makes everything even worse, because I wonder how could I have ever done that to someone I know means so much to me.
Do you have any advice for me on how to work on forgiving myself and move forward?
I love your question, but before we get into forgiveness, we need to address the power imbalance at play. As you’ve described it, this was your first relationship and first sexual encounter, and he was fifteen years older and already seeing someone (without disclosing it to you). I’m not saying you were faultless, but from the beginning, he held more power in the relationship and more of the responsibility to tread carefully with you. And from how you described it, I’m not sure that he did. This needs to be factored into your processing.
For instance, it’s possible to love someone and even be grateful to them and the relationship, but to still hold them accountable for their actions. It’s also possible to need to forgive them and yourself at the same time (and this is the case with most relationships).
But as you sort through what to hold yourself accountable for and how to move on, I really hope you’re also able to recognize what kind of influence he might’ve held over you that helped to create the relationship you had. And this process might take years; you might need to be fifteen years older and in his shoes to understand.
Now, onto self-forgiveness.
1. Challenge what forgiveness means
I want to start by questioning what forgiveness means. That’s one of the first stumbling blocks people (including myself) face. Through forgiveness, we don’t want to let others or others off the hook for whatever they’ve done. Forgiveness is not the same thing as absolution. You’re not diminishing what happened. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
2. Own your part
I think by working on forgiving yourself, you’re fully owning the experience: taking responsibility for it and doing something about it. That’s probably the first step: owning your part in what transpired, which it sounds like you’ve done.
3. The real work: unpacking the layers
And what comes next is the real messy part, because there’s never just one obstacle in the way of forgiveness. Once you’ve unpacked a layer of shame, you might very well find a new nest of fears hidden beneath it. Fears about what this means for future relationships or your own sense of who you are.
The truth is that this is the real work of living an authentic life, and it’s never over. But you will reach various milestones. You’ll wake up one day and realize you no longer feel shame about the relationship. Or that you’re no longer questioning whether you’re worthy of love. These days will come — perhaps sooner than later if you continue to actively work on self-forgiveness.
4. Use this process for good
You now know new things about yourself and what you’re capable of, and hopefully it’s not all bad! Hopefully you came out of this relationship also knowing how you’re capable of caring for someone or standing up for yourself, etc. Regardless of what you’ve learned, you can use this self-knowledge to nurture a commitment to who you want to become.
And, as odd as this might sound, you can use the self-knowledge that you’re capable of betraying someone you love to love yourself and others more deeply.
Here’s the good news: you did something wrong and you feel bad about it. Do you know what that means? It means you don’t want to do it again. It also means that you know the kind of person you want to be in future relationships.
If you’re afraid you can’t be that better version of yourself (whatever that means to you), then that’s where the work is. What’s preventing you from being it?
5. Be prepared to be human
But there’s a catch: we’re never the absolute best versions of ourselves. Because we’re not robots.
In other words, you are not done messing up — none of us are.
But these messy creatures that mess up and require forgiveness and are often filled with fears and doubt … that’s also what makes us beautiful and worthy of love!
What if what you’ve gone through is exactly what makes your next relationship (or the one after that) even more rich and satisfying? Because you’re a more experienced partner with a better understanding of what you need and what you want and who you want to be.
I’m proud of you for doing this work for yourself. My biggest advice? Just keep going.