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Ask Izzy: Moving through infidelity when you live together

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Photo by cottonbro / Pexels
Photo by cottonbro / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Looking for some more guidance? Submit your question to [email protected] with the subject line: Ask Izzy Submission.

Dear Izzy,

I think my partner might be cheating on me. We've been together for a little over five years. He's started staying out late with coworkers. Says he's just getting drinks, but sometimes he doesn't get back home until 2:00. And on his days off, we don't really see each other, even though we live together. He's spending more time with his coworkers at shows or bars or something. When I try to make friends, he gets jealous. I'm starting to feel like I only exist to the one person I love inside our apartment. Like I'm not even real to him when he's not looking right at me. Not sure if I can afford to move out, and I don't really have a support system in the city. What do I do?

— Ghost Boy

Dear Ghost Boy,

Let me start by saying I am so sorry you are in this situation. Especially with someone you have spent half a decade with! This experience sounds difficult, and my heart hurts for you.

But to be unabashedly honest, it sounds like you already know the answer to your question. As Taylor Swift once said, "If it feels like a trap, you're already in one."

This might be hard to hear, but I feel like you know in your gut that he isn't the person for you. Not only is he being shady as shit and mistreating you, but it also seems like he is also trying to isolate you, which is a huge red flag.

Isolation, jealousy, and gaslighting are common tactics that abusers use to exert power over their partners. And for many in situations like yours, where you can't afford to leave and don't have anywhere to go, it works.

Because of this, my first advice is to confide in someone IRL and make an exit plan: a colleague, casual friend, or your favorite librarian. Hopefully, there is someone whose couch you can crash on should you decide you no longer feel safe in your home.

I also want to mention that free and confidential help is available 24/7 at the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) or by texting START to 88788. Your safety is the priority.

Next, I recommend starting to get out of the house. One of the scariest parts of being in an abusive relationship is that sometimes you don't know you are in one until too late. Bring your work to a coffee shop, and find a new class or activity where you can meet other people in your community.

If this is anxiety inducing to you, I understand. Because of the pandemic, we have become so isolated, especially if you work from home, and it's hard to take yourself out of that comfort zone. But that doesn't mean you can't do it. Start small — you might surprise yourself with how much you missed meeting new people.

What resonated with me so much about your question is the line "I'm starting to feel like I only exist to the one person I love inside our apartment." I was in a similar situation a few years back, and things felt bleak. For months while I was in that relationship, my self-worth got so low that I just stopped getting out of bed. The people we love hold so much power in the fact that their words carry weight. If they make you feel like nothing, then you must be nothing, right? WRONG.

In therapy recently, my therapist and I were talking about relationships, both platonic and romantic, and she asked me to define the characteristics of a friend. A simple task, yet daunting! I said, "A friend should be supportive, kind, caring, and trustworthy." Correct, she said! Huzzah, I won therapy!

She didn't laugh. Instead, she said that there are 12 characteristics that make up a friend. Here they are:
• Sharing of common interests
• Kindness
• Caring
• Support
• Mutual understanding
• Commitment
• Loyalty
• Honesty
• Trust
• Equality
• Ability to self-discipline
• Conflict resolution

According to my therapist, the more characteristics the people in your life check off, the better friends they are. The fewer they check off... well, you get it. Probably not someone you want in your life.

Now, looking at that list, where does your partner fall? Based on your message, it seems to me that they aren't showing loyalty, honesty, trust, support, caring, or even kindness. That is 50% of the things on the list.

Hopefully I am not the first person to tell you this, but as a human being on this earth, you are entitled to a friend or partner that encompasses all the characteristics on that list. Given, of course, that you are reciprocating.

While I believe that most relationships can be repaired through hard work and lots of couples therapy, I think in your case, you can do better. It's clear to me from your message that you deserve so much more.

But given your living situation, this breakup might take a bit of time. My advice is to move into another room, if available, buy a lock for that door, and start saving your money to move out as soon as you can. If you can't do that, have your partner sleep on the couch. And no sex whatsoever. Set boundaries and stick to them.

You have a journey ahead of you, and ending a five-year relationship with someone you live with is not going to be an easy task. But you are strong, and I have absolute faith that you will come out of this with more love for yourself than ever before, which will ultimately let you attract someone you actually deserve. You can do this!