A private e-mail is a private e-mail, until it’s accessed by a jealous girlfriend. I had always been suspicious of my boyfriend who would never answer direct questions about other girls. He told me repeatedly that I was paranoid and that he’d never crossed the line. I tried to believe him but kept having recurring dreams where I’d catch him in the act and my dream self would slap him in the face.
We had met at a college house party on the front steps. The first time I saw him I thought he was out of my league and continued to believe that throughout our relationship. I felt like an ugly duck masquerading as a sorority girl. His interest in me was electrifying, helping me forget that I was the girl who didn’t get any dates in high school.
He was a former fat kid turned compulsive weight lifter who had more eating neuroses than any woman I’d ever met. He was also the sort of guy whose mother would drive across state to do his laundry and then he’d tell her he’s too busy to meet with her. When we got together, he played on my insecurities and reinforced the idea that I’d never be able to hold a man’s attention.
We spent most of our relationship using emotionally immature tactics to control one another. I would storm out of a crowded party when I didn’t think he was paying attention to me and he would ignore me for days when I was upset. I wanted commitment and a guarantee that we’d be together forever; he wanted me to adore him and not ask for anything more. If I saw him flirting with a girl or getting text messages from someone at 3am, I’d raise hell. A normally happy and friendly girl, I’d turn into a rage monster with uncontrollable mood swings. He’d shout or clam up and not talk to me for days. And that’s when I’d back off and become apologetic; I was terrified that he’d leave me and there would never be anyone else.
We dated for four years, appearing to most people to be the couple on the way to the altar. We were great at dinner parties, with funny stories that ebbed and flowed as we performed our “perfect couple” act. Our humor was so perfectly matched that people told us they were jealous that we’d found one another. Behind closed doors, my closest friends were worried about me. I was wasting away and clinging fiercely to the source that was destroying me.
In our third year of dating, he told me that we needed to take a break from one another. I was sitting on his couch in his high school football T-shirt when he told me that our fights were unhealthy and we needed to hit pause. I asked him if this meant we’d be seeing other people and he said no, he just needed some quiet time to himself. I asked him if we’d get back together and he said he loved me but he wasn’t sure.
I walked home to my apartment where my roommate went into full girlfriend help mode. She sat with me on our couch as I explained everything that happened and sobbed that the love of my life was leaving me. She was stunned because she had only seen the perfect couple from the outside and asked if it was possible he had met someone else. Her question became my obsession.
I spent days walking around campus, expecting to bump into my boyfriend on the streets, caressing the face of a new girl. I knew that I needed answers. If I asked him directly he’d deny it, and my fears and anxiety were not going away. So after hours of trying to convince myself not to break into his e-mail, I caved in. His user name and password were saved on my computer, daring me to know what was going on. When I got into his inbox I felt like a bank robber, violating every rule of common decency.
I discovered an e-mail trail between my boyfriend and the girl from his class. He had invited her over mere hours after he told me that we were on a break. They had been flirtatious for a month and he apologized in one e-mail for calling her late at night and drunk.
“Can I make up for my drunken phone call with a dinner date?” he asked.
I didn’t confront him on it immediately. I kept the affair in my back pocket to be used at a later time. I relished my role as the victim in our relationship and needed him to be the bad guy.
That summer, I went to London while he stayed at home. We agreed to see where we were when I got back. I benefited from the international separation, where I was not tied down to being the girl I thought I was back in the States. Before I got back home I called my on-hold boyfriend to tell him I didn’t want to be with him anymore. I told him that there was nothing left for us to figure out. He picked me up when I landed at O’Hare at the end of the summer and begged me to take him back.
I’d like to say we ended things gracefully but we let our relationship continue to rot. Our union was a dance of two veteran boxers who kept fighting long after it was time to leave the ring. At the height of one of our epic battles I finally blurted out that I knew what he had done with his student. I admitted I had checked his e-mail so there was no denying it anymore. We broke up for the last time and he immediately jumped into a relationship with another girl from his class.
This time, however, his student had a boyfriend while he was her “Johnny on the Side.” Through friends I learned that she and my ex-boyfriend ended their affair after he caught her making out with a stranger at a bar.
I’d like to say that I felt immediately vindicated, that his suffering was my gain. But I felt numb and directionless without him. It took years for me to step back and truly assess the damage. I learned that I had held onto that relationship in order to define myself.
After I cut off communication with him and moved to another state, I began to see seeds of my former self begin to bloom. Friends commented that the witty and devilish Jenni from high school was now back in place. Their love for me taught me to look at myself differently, with kinder and gentler eyes. I began to accept that I was a woman who lost herself completely in the wrong boyfriend. And that sometimes the worst case scenario has to happen to give you the push you need in order to move on.
This article originally appeared on xoJane.