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Auntie SparkNotes: My Ex Betrayed Me and I Can’t Trust Anyone

Dear Auntie,

Last year, when I was a junior in college, I started dating for the first time I know it seems late, but I felt it was right). My first ex (who I’ll call B) was very emotionally abusive and often lied to me. Our relationship ended when I found out that he’d cheated on me and shared explicit images of me without my knowledge or consent (I’ve reported it to the police and they followed up, but not much further action was taken). It had left me very hurt and confused, but around 1-2 months later, I met a new boyfriend, A.

A is good guy, but he has a tendency to check out other girls, and he often tells me he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it most of the time. I’ve told him on many occasions that it hurts my feelings, especially considering my past relationship (which he knows all about), but he still continued to do it. When I confronted him about a particular situation, he denied doing it, and we ended up getting in a huge fight that resulted in us breaking up. He’s very mad at me for accusing him of checking out other girls, but I truly believe I was right. 

So my problem is this: I’d like to remain friends with A in the (distant) future, but do you think that’s a good idea? How do you think I should go about this? I plan on taking some time to myself just to heal from everything, but I’m afraid that I may not be able to date the same way again because of my trust issues. I’m currently seeing a counselor and often visit my sexual violence clinic on my campus, but I’m still not sure that that is enough, and I wonder if this feeling will ever go away. I feel incredibly lonely despite having good friends, and just so so hurt, and every now and then I don’t feel capable of handling the pain. I don’t know what to do.

The short answer, Sparkler, is that you’re doing it.

It’s just that you need to keep doing it, because these things take time—and as you’ve discovered, when you rush it, you just end up repeating old, unhealthy patterns that you have to then start from scratch to unlearn. You went through something legitimately traumatic, you know? Your first boyfriend was the kind of nightmare jerk who not only makes everyone else’s bad boyfriends look like Prince Charming by comparison, but who requires a solid period of post-breakup detox before he’s fully out of your system—and definitely before you can date someone new.

And on that front, your failed romance with A is a great example of what happens when you don’t give yourself enough time to really work through something. You said it yourself: you couldn’t trust him! And not even because he was a bad guy, but because you couldn’t distinguish his ordinary human foibles from the massive flaws of the bad guy who came before him—which of course wasn’t fair to anyone and ended up killing the whole relationship. All that Evil Exboyfriend baggage acts like a dirty lens over a new romance, magnifying the most innocuous issues into huge, deal-breaking conflicts (and in your case, leading you to indulge in absolutely bonkers behavior like policing the movement of your boyfriend’s eyeballs to make sure he’s not looking at other girls).

That’s why your plan to take a break from dating is a good one (and also why the question of whether you should resume a friendship with your ex is best left until later, when you’re not hurting so much). Time is what you need—however much it takes to stop holding your new boyfriends accountable for the bad things the first one did to you. When you’re so raw and wounded that you can’t stop seeing the potential for betrayal everywhere, that’s a clear indication that you yourself are not ready for another intimate relationship yet. And that’s okay; you just have to trust the process that will eventually get you there. Keep spending time with your friends, keep seeing your counselor, and keep in mind that this is a part of life you’ve only barely begun to explore. You have plenty of time, not just to heal from your heartbreak and develop a better sense of what a healthy relationship looks like, but also to find out how much fun those relationships can be. There are good things ahead for you, kiddo, and there’s no rush.

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