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My loving partner turned out to be married the whole time – and it’s happened before

Ask Roe: This has happened to me on three former occasions, and again, I had no idea. Am I the problem?

Dear Roe,

I’m in my 40s and met someone two years ago at a social occasion. We clicked straight away and the person asked me out. We went out for 18 months. It was wonderful, I felt we had so much in common and were progressing. I haven’t had much luck in relationships before this, I have been used several times. I discovered on a random social media post that the person is married with children. I had no idea, none. I am heartbroken. I’m also very angry – I had given up hope in this area of my life and the person reignited hope. I’m finding it very difficult. This has happened to me on three former occasions, and again, I had no idea. I consider myself an intelligent person, I have a responsible job. I’m very independent in all ways. Do people see something in me that makes me a bit on the side? Why does this keep happening to me? Am I the problem? I’m despairing now.

I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. It sounds like you’ve had a really difficult time with far too many instances of hurt and betrayal. I understand why you feel so heartbroken, but I want to urge you not to give in to despair, to instead feel determined. Despair and determination can arise from the same place – a conviction that we never want to be in these circumstances or in this emotional place again – but the action they fuel could not be more different. Despair leads us to give up, to shrink, to not try again in an attempt to not get hurt again – but of course the shrinking keeps us in the hurt place. Determination, in contrast, leads us to take action, to review how we got where we are and to make different choices to make sure that we move our lives in the direction we actually want, instead of getting stuck in repetitive cycles.

Questions like yours always make me balk a little at giving you any advice, because you’re not the person who has consciously made deceitful, hurtful choices – the people you have been with have, and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that you are responsible for their actions. You’re not. It’s entirely possible that you’ve just had a string of incredibly bad luck with people who are disturbingly talented at lying and manipulating, and that because you have many wonderful qualities, making you desire them felt like validation – and unfortunately, they valued that validation and ego boost more than honesty and transparency and real intimacy. Their decision to lie and deceive to get that validation is not your fault.

But I do want to acknowledge the possibility that, unconsciously, you have been making it easier for these people to lie to you and offer you these ghost relationships that are only a facade of the honesty and intimacy that you really want. Getting with people who are in relationships so many times does indicate a pattern, and as with any pattern that is hurting us, it is vital to explore the role we may be subconsciously playing.

I’m curious by your description of yourself as independent and how this might be playing a role in the dynamics you keep finding yourself in. Of course being independent is a good thing, but when it is something we define ourselves by and take deep pride in, it can become more difficult to accept and name our needs, boundaries and desires, particularly in relationships. When someone else claims to find our independence attractive, it can become scary to express our vulnerability and need for closeness and intimacy, as we fear diminishing our appeal.

I wonder whether your desire to be seen as independent meant that you didn’t ask for enough within the relationship for fear of being perceived as needy, and if your lack of requests and boundaries created a relationship structure that facilitated deception.

Have you ever had a relationship where you felt comfortable expressing your needs and vulnerabilities?

For example, on practical levels, I’m wondering whether during your 18-month relationship, had you met this person’s friends and family? Had you been to their home and had you taken a holiday together? Were you able to be spontaneous with each other and meet up without much notice, and were they as accommodating as fitting in with your schedule as you were with theirs? Again, some people are particularly deceitful and could have concealed a lot from you, but I wonder if by viewing yourself as “independent”, you’re not actually asking for some of the basic things a healthy relationship should be able to easily offer.

On emotional levels, I also wonder how much these people were offering you in terms of emotional commitment and support. Did they show up for you when you weren’t offering them everything and asking for nothing? Did you feel comfortable being around them when you weren’t at your most shiny and entertaining? Were they willing to go through difficult things with you, argue with you, even be bored with you? Going through difficult and routine times and loving your partner for who they are and not just what they offer you is part of healthy, long-term relationships. With these people who were looking for an escape from their actual committed relationship with you, I wonder if you were constantly making yourself the most shiny, needless, accommodating, entertaining version of yourself and not asking for them to show up for you the way a real partner should?

Have you ever had a relationship where you felt comfortable expressing your needs and vulnerabilities, and felt fully loved and accepted – not just romantically, but within your friendship and family? There’s a phenomenon known as “repetition compulsion”, where people have an uncanny attraction to people who share the characteristics of people who hurt them growing up. This could be an early romantic relationship or a parent or caregiver. Often people who have been told (implicitly or explicitly) that their needs and vulnerabilities are unacceptable, or that they’re not worthy of being first choice, will seek out romantic partners who make them feel the same way. When we do this, we’re not trying to get hurt again; we’re trying to master and control the situation and heal the old wound by getting a different result this time – but often just end up being hurt the same way, again and again. This might be happening for you – you feel like if you prove how independent and needless you are that people will love you for it, but instead, you’re actually keeping yourself emotionally unavailable by not asking for the relationship you want and attracting emotionally unavailable people in return.

I may be wrong. But I do think these issues are worth exploring with a therapist who can help you look at old patterns and ideas about your self-worth that may be subconsciously affecting your relationship dynamics and make different decisions about your needs and boundaries in the future. A therapist will also help you change the narrative you have about yourself and love so that you don’t continue to despair. The love life you want is available to you – you just have to be brave enough to own and embrace what you want, and not accept less.

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