Conscious, Deliberate Mistakes

Hey kid, good morning,
You look like an angel.

BY CHELSEA RICCHIO

I watched The Last Five Years recently, a movie I’ve owned for close to a year but never got around to watching. I knew it was sad; I knew it would make me Feel Things, but I didn’t foresee just how much.

The reason for that is because I thought that the story was going to be about the organic breakdown of a relationship that occurs even when both parties are trying their best and doing nothing wrong. And it mostly was, but there was another element too: cheating.

I have never cried harder at a movie. Or any piece of media, actually. I don’t cry at things unless they’re happening to me, generally. But this movie and its songs hit me right where it hurts in a way that is unique. Almost immediately after the song “Nobody Needs To Know” began, the waterworks started flowing.

In this scene, the male protagonist, Jamie, is seen having an affair with multiple different women. That’s pretty typical. What was different was that it was apparent that he actually cared about the women he was with. Normally you don’t see that. Normally what you see is a guy just fucking random girls left and right, telling them he’ll call and then doesn’t and forgets their names. And normally, said guy doesn’t care about his girlfriend either.

I don’t remember when we fell asleep.
We should get up, kid
Cathy is waiting…

I’ve come to believe that real life is rarely like that. My experience was not like that. And it was overwhelming  to see my experience reflected back at me so poignantly.

The song is about two things: 1) Jamie’s guilt for what he’s doing to his wife, Cathy, and the reasons why he is unhappy (some of which are valid concerns), and 2) Jamie’s love for the women he’s with.

You could argue that everything he’s saying is a lie, but if you watch the movie, it’s clear that it’s not, or at the very least he believes that it’s not. You can see that he still loves Cathy and wants the best for her, but feels trapped in a place he never thought they would end up, and now doesn’t know what to do about it. He doesn’t believe that fixing things is possible; he thinks that anything he does from now on is only prolonging the inevitable. And while he’s prolonging the inevitable, he sleeps with other women.

But no, he doesn’t just sleep with them – clearly he has actual relationships with them, or at least one of them, because otherwise she wouldn’t be so upset in the scene and he wouldn’t be saying the things that he does.

And as for me, well, that’s what I had. It wasn’t a relationship, but it wasn’t NOT a relationship. It was this weird in-between thing that confused everyone in my life except for me. It worked, at least for a while.

Look at us, lying here,
Dreaming, pretending.
I made a promise and I took a vow.
I wrote a story,
And we changed the ending

I watched the movie a second time a week later because I wanted to take a closer look at the intense emotions I was experiencing. Yeah, it reminded me of my own various heartbreaks, but lots of things do. That wasn’t quite it.

Upon watching “A Miracle Would Happen” and “Nobody Needs to Know” (I wish I could find the visual for this because the acting makes it but oh well) again I realized what it was – I was feeling the pain and confliction that he felt and maybe still does (I hope not). I was actually empathizing with him not just in theory, not just through my own memories of similar experiences, but in present tense. I was hurting for him.

I can say this from experience – it’s HARD when something you’ve come to depend on for so long falls apart. It’s not just sad. It affects every single aspect of your life, logistically but also emotionally. It’s not a snap decision and rarely is it something that people take lightly. And I’m sure it’s easier to leave than it is to be left but it’s still hard and never something anyone actually wants to do. No one enters into a relationship hoping it will fail.

And aside from that, there’s the fear. Fear of being caught, yes, but also fear of yourself. Worry that you’re making the wrong choice, that you’re going to ruin your life, that you are doing a bad thing and have turned into someone you don’t want to be.

I don’t know if that’s what he felt or not. But I’m willing to bet that this is at least partially accurate.

Hold on, facts are facts
Just relax, lay low.
All right, the panic recedes:
Nobody needs to know.

Here’s the truth – I see myself reflected in Jamie’s character too. I’ve never cheated on anyone. But I think I have the capacity to. Some believe that what I did is almost just as bad. I disagree with infidelity on principle, but I understand it. Personally, I believe that it’s a sign that something is wrong within one’s current relationship that needs to be addressed and solved, and if it can’t be solved, then that relationship should end.

The general idea behind infidelity is that the other person is someone who will fill a need that you have that isn’t being filled by your current partner, and that can be sexual or emotional or both. In these cases there is a concrete problem that they are having that has nothing to do with the person they are cheating on their significant other with.

In my case, I was someone who wasn’t going to criticize him or reject his advances. We were each other’s cheerleaders and made each other feel better about things that were going on in our lives.

He had a concrete problem in his own relationship, which was otherwise fantastic (apparently), that just wasn’t being dealt with. It had nothing to do with me. This is not to say that he didn’t like me, because he did.

Would I ever say that he loved me? No. But would I say that it was vaguely in an adjacent neighbourhood? Maybe. I would say that he cared about me as much as he possibly could given the circumstances we had.

But the reason he was with me wasn’t because he believed I was better than his current partner. We both knew I was temporary, a means to an end, as sad as that was.

Put on my armour,
I’m off to Ohio.
Back into battle ’til I don’t know when.
Swearing to her that I
Never was with you,
And praying I’ll hold you again.

Similarly, two years ago I had the shortest fling ever with a guy who was on exchange from Australia and I filled a need for him too (or at least he thought I was going to) – I was physically present, whereas his girlfriend was not. He cheated on her with someone else before me and they broke up so I justified it to myself that way. I wasn’t better than her and neither of us pretended that I was, I was just THERE.

Sometimes, though, the reason actually is because of the other person themselves.

I’ve been there too. I was in a long-term relationship and living with my boyfriend when I was very young (18-19), and what we had was fine. Sure, we argued constantly, but it was over dumb stuff. We were fine. Even though I knew we could be doing better, I had no desire to be with anyone else. Until I did. I reconnected with my ex-boyfriend from high school and we emailed back and forth for a short while, then texted every now and then. I saw him at a few parties that mutual friends were hosting. I grabbed coffee with him a couple of times just to catch up. Everything was totally platonic and aboveboard. And yet, I didn’t tell my boyfriend about it. I told myself that it was because he would get irrationally upset, angry and worried about it for no reason, so what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. If I’d told him we probably would have gotten into a fight but we would have worked it out and I wouldn’t have needed to feel guilty for months on end.

But I chose the guilt, because I knew that deep down I still had feelings for my ex. I still looked back on our happy times together as the best moments of my life, and it made me sad that I now felt like those exciting, magical moments were behind me. I felt like I had settled for something that was safe and easy, someone who loved me and was committed to me, but in reality it wasn’t so safe and easy after all, because we had our problems too, under the surface. I looked at my high school boyfriend as the love of my life, the one who got away (and by “got away”, I mean “chose to leave me and broke my heart and gave me years of social and trust issues that I still struggle with to this day”).

In the end, I left my boyfriend for three reasons:

  1. Even though I never cheated, there were multiple occasions that I wanted to with my ex, and almost definitely would have if he had made advances
  2. I realized that I HAD been “emotionally cheating”, and that wasn’t fair to either of us. You’re not supposed to think of someone else as the love of your life when you are currently living with someone who you supposedly have plans of marrying one day. That’s fucked up.
  3. I wanted a chance to be as happy as I could possibly be, whether that was with my ex (I hoped so) or someone I’d never met yet. And he deserved the same chance.

In a sense, I left him “for” someone else – because I did believe that someone else was a better fit for me.

The point of all these stories is this: infidelity is not as simple as people think. People have their reasons. Some people have better reasons than others, but there are always reasons. And that reason is rarely “she was super hot and I was horny and wanted to fuck someone”. Sure, that’s always a part of it, but it’s not always the biggest part.

Hold on, clip these wings,
Things get out of hand.
All right, it’s over, it’s done,
No one will understand.
No one will understand…

I just beg of people who aren’t involved in the situation to not be so quick to judge. We all think that we would never “do something like that” until we do. Instead of judging, try to understand. Please don’t disown your friends. If you asked me what the worst part of my situation was, I would not hesitate to tell you that it was the judgment of my peers, hands down. He may be over and done with, but that part sure isn’t.

The other thing I see when I listen to this song is the people who vilified me for my own actions, people who were “on my side” initially but only because they didn’t realize I was serious. I see myself losing my friends, feeling my life slipping through my fingers, powerless to stop it once it had already begun.

I’m angry at our detractors and I have been for a very long time. I’ve kept quiet about it, because how can you be angry at someone for judging you for something that is universally accepted as wrong? But I no longer see this situation in black and white. As with all types of relationships, there are shades of grey. And ours was very grey indeed.

I’m angry because while they see this as a mistake, a lesson to be learned, something I should probably regret, I don’t. I sort of pretended like I held that attitude for a while because it’s easier and somehow less embarrassing than admitting the truth – I regret nothing. I remember his sadness when he thought maybe I was having second thoughts, or when I admitted that this situation was making my life difficult. That was one of the last things we said to each other – “No regrets” – and I meant it.

We build a treehouse,
I keep it from shaking,
Little more glue every time that it breaks.
Perfectly balanced,
And then I start making
Conscious, deliberate mistakes.

The truth is that he is one of the best things to ever happen to me – and not for what we ‘could have been’, but for what we actually were. People aren’t supposed to think that about anyone they aren’t in a committed, long-term relationship with. But I do. The truth is that any negative thoughts that I’ve been made to have about us, about me, came from other people. Other people made me feel guilty – not for doing something wrong, but for disappointing them.

I am so unbelievably angry that this beautiful, good thing was tinged with bitterness and negativity by people who believed that I should act a certain way. I’m angry that this beautiful, good thing had collateral damage.

My friends may see something different than what I’ve described; they may see a woman whose morals have gone out the window and doesn’t care about anyone but herself anymore. But what it feels like to me is being judged, ridiculed, teased and rejected because I happened to love someone.

Perhaps they thought they were doing what was best, but more likely, I think that their preconceived notions of “how things should be” – who I’m supposed to be – and personal beliefs clouded their judgment of what was actually best for me at the time. Would it have been good for me as a long term situation? Absolutely not. I never claimed that it was. But was it good for me for a little while? Absolutely.

I’ve said it before, but this person gave me the confidence not just to be myself, which I always am, but to be myself unapologetically. This temporary situation gave me the confidence to believe that who I am is an awesome person, not a person with a laundry list of quirks and flaws that must be tolerated in order to get to my few good qualities. He taught me to embrace the things about me that make me different which other people have told me I should work on or change. I no longer want to gain weight or change my hair or the things I like wearing, and I no longer care that I talk a lot (and occasionally send novel-length texts), love Disney movies and Taylor Swift, and hate sushi. He is the only person I have met so far who liked me BECAUSE OF those things, not in spite of them. It’s a cliche that I never understood until now.

He did far less harm than good in my life and it is not a nice feeling to be told that something that makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself is wrong and going to cost you. It’s not a nice feeling to have to weigh your closest friends against the person you’re seeing and decide which one you’re going to keep.

All that I ask for
Is one little corner
One private room
At the back of my heart
Tell her I found one
She sends out battalions
To claim it and blow it apart

It ended, as we knew it would, and though I came to peace with everything relatively quickly, I still miss him. Why would you NOT miss someone who treated you like a princess? Why would I not miss someone who thought that I deserved the world (even if he wasn’t the one to give it to me)?

But when everything was over, I was left with no one to talk to about it. There was no girlfriend’s shoulder to cry on or girl’s night out to get my mind off of things. The few times I ever tried to bring it up, I was largely met with silence or a change of topic. The consensus seemed to be: We will forgive you for this, and we will still let you be our friend, but only if you pretend like it never happened and you are very sorry about it. We’re done supporting you emotionally, because you no longer deserve it.

And I find myself wishing more than anything not that I had never done it, but that I had done it and kept the story all to myself. Never told anyone. Because it’s true – no one would understand.

Hold on, don’t cry yet
I won’t let you go.
All right, the panic recedes;
All right, everyone bleeds;
All right, I get what I need,
And nobody needs to know.


CHELSEA RICCHIO

Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 23 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie. 

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