Hi, Carolyn: My girlfriend and I recently called off our engagement due to some flirtatious messages she found on my phone. I can say honestly that it was an isolated incident, but her anger was compounded by my other messages with platonic girlfriends, which I feel were taken completely out of context. This was not the first time she had looked through my phone.
I have of course apologized and worked on myself to make sure I never make such a mistake again, but I am left with the issue of trying to earn back her trust while feeling that she has violated my privacy multiple times now. What do I do?
G.: Take this implosion as a gift.
Everything good about marriage rests on trust. I don’t just mean trusting you’ll stay married or won’t cheat, either, because a couple who stick it out for 60 miserable years can be technically honoring their vows. I mean trust that you like each other, and yourselves, for who you are; trust that you’re willing to set your own interests aside for the other’s; trust that you know your worst tendencies and will work to keep them in check; trust that you’ll back down when you’re wrong and not back down when you’re right about something that counts. It’s a complicated social compact that’s worth getting right for its power to elevate you both.
It can bring confinement, too, though, and collateral damage — to kids, mostly — when people go into it ill-prepared or ill-matched. If I had to guess which of these you and your girlfriend are, I’d say a little of both. You’re not compatible enough, so you feel not-quite-right together and aren’t mature enough to see that and walk away. Instead, you’re out flirting and she’s in snooping and you’re both feeling the other has done you wrong.
Here’s the funny thing: It’s not for everyone, obviously, but some strong, happy, intimate couples can flirt a little on the side and use each other’s phones. But they do so openly as a byproduct of higher-level trust in each other and in their union.
You two are doing these things furtively, as acts of self-preservation. Flirting might not seem like a protective act, but it often unwittingly is — for people who don’t feel fully themselves with, empowered by or appreciated by a partner.
And if either of you feels compelled to protect yourself around the other, then your relationship isn’t sound — so imagine the lack of intimacy when both of you are in self-preservation mode, as appears to be the case here.
You say you “worked on myself,” which says you understand that the issue isn’t the flirty text, it’s the context. Good.
But as you suggest, such work is only as good as its results, and your result apparently is the same cognitive dissonance you started with: accepting blame as the untrustworthy one from a partner you don’t trust.
So, more work. Call her on the snooping. Ignoring it just to stay together will promote resentment, not intimacy.
Ask yourself beforehand, in fact, why you want her back — and what of your relationship you want back. It’s not enough for you to “be good”; what you create together must also be good for you both, or else its time has passed.