How An Email Changed Everything I Thought I Knew About My Relationship

It’s Wednesday, 6:21 a.m. Day 40-something of quarantine. With a sigh, I roll over and grab my phone from my bedside table. I flip indifferently through the first few items on my Instagram feed, check a Twitter notification, scroll through my Gmail inbox. I’ve slipped into the bad habit of checking my work email in bed during these last several weeks of working from home. The unnecessary routine blurs the boundaries between home and work during this period when they’re the same place.

But this morning, while I’m still horizontal, there’s cause for a double-take: an email whose subject line bears the name of my ex-boyfriend, “Q.” Q, who I dated long-distance since he left in February of last year for a military assignment in Kuwait. We’d met five months before that and quickly built something I truly believed the distance could withstand. Q lit me up physically from our first date; our emotional connection flourished more gradually but smoldered to a similar intensity as we mutually opened up—he about his failed marriage, his struggle with depression, and I about my parents’ divorce, my fear that nothing lasts. We forged the most undeniable physical and mental attraction I’ve experienced. It made me feel as though the “wait”—in line with whatever personal or societal timeline I subscribe to—had all been worth it. Q broke up with me abruptly in a gut-punch of an email this February, on the first day of my new job, as he relocated to South Korea.


I blink hard a few times, trying to shake the residual sleepiness. I, too, have experienced the vivid, sometimes-indistinguishable-from-reality brand of dreams since we began sheltering in place. Maybe this was merely a strange extension of the last few restless early morning hours. I open the email. It’s a message from a woman I don’t know. She apologizes for the unsolicited contact and indicates she has something important I should know. She’s available to talk to me if I’m willing.

My mind races, as it’s apt to do. It doesn’t take much to conclude this is someone with whom Q has been involved. We broke up, but I was struggling to move on. We broke up in the sense that a relationship requires the two people in it to be on the same page, and we weren’t: This wasn’t what I wanted. He’d said he needed time. Felt like he’d lost himself somewhere, didn’t have much to give to a relationship right now. For the two and a half months since he ended things, we’ve been in touch just intermittently enough for me to remain stuck. I initiated and persisted, asking to talk, pleading to know what we had meant as much to him as it did me. He told me it did, it was real. He told me to trust him, that his life was just as dull as mine, that he was done with the military, hopefully coming back to Colorado. Maybe if we remained in each others’ lives, things would be different when he was back early next year. Maybe if I stayed close but tried to give him the space he said he needed, he’d realize I was what was missing from his life. Maybe if I kept asking, I’d get some sort of response more satisfying than a vague promise that he’d call soon. Coronavirus restrictions undercut my strategy of staying busy and distracted with birthday celebrations, ski weekends, SoFar shows, and college basketball through March and left me alone with nothing but unstructured time destined for overanalysis.

Maybe this email is about something different, though. Yet none of the other hypothetical scenarios—is he okay? Is he in trouble? Am I in trouble?—seem more reassuring. After a jog, a shower, and an attempt at starting my work day, it’s clear I’m going to drive myself crazy until I respond. A response is the only route toward more information. But the equally crazy part of me tries to rationalize that if I don’t respond or hold off as long as I can, I can suspend myself in this space where I remain unaware of information I don’t want to know.


I complete my afternoon calls, forward the message to my personal email account, and click reply. I tell her the email caught me off guard, and ask what this is regarding. Close the window—because if I can’t see it, then none of this is real—pour a glass of wine, and try to distract myself with the next episode of my current Hulu binge. I just about make it through the 53-minute episode, but I get a text I want to respond to, and as long as the show’s paused, I figure I might as well check to see if she’s replied.

She has. I try to absorb the email en masse. Words I’m afraid of—“relationship”, “almost three years”, “cheating”—leap out at me from the phone screen; I stop skimming and slow down. My face flushes; my heart hammers.

It turns out this is all much worse than the possibilities I’d conjured up over the preceding 13 hours. My mental gymnastics haven’t taken me to a place where I learn Q has been dishonest with me for the entirety of our 18 months together, involved in relationships with at least two other women. That this woman contacting me has been with him for three years, that she’s the reason he’s now in Korea instead of in Colorado with me, and that there’s also another woman in Kuwait. That I’m now implicated in whatever shock and confusion and heartbreak they’re similarly experiencing. She tells me it’s only fair I know, and that’s the only part of this missive that makes any sense.


My mind drifts to sunny morning strolls we took to the coffee shop near my place, the Starbucks runs when we stayed at his. These outings were unnecessary because we could make coffee at home, but he converted me to indulgence in this simple luxury because it was something we did together. The nights we toasted with tequila, once with cinnamon-sprinkled orange slices because the bar was out of limes, then a few more times because it was good. The way he rested his hand on my thigh while he drove. As vividly as I recall us in these ordinary memories of mine, I now also see him sharing moments that created similar happy memories for, and with, someone else. My lingering faith in the prospect of reconnecting in the future erodes along with the pedestal holding up the good times that sustained us.

The woman and I agree to talk the following evening. Her voice is soft and sweet; I’m not sure what I expect. Do we start from the beginning? Do I want to ask questions? What’s the script for stitching together the ways we were both misled over all this time? Taking the “start from the beginning” approach, it’s quickly apparent the lies are too numerous to track. Quick trips he told me he was taking to visit friends or days I didn’t even know he’d been away were times he’d spent with her. Absences that included two of the last three weekends before he drove up one Monday afternoon to stun me with the news he’d accepted the job in Kuwait—an opportunity he’d mentioned once barely a week prior, and which we hadn’t yet discussed enough for me to consider a real possibility. That day, we said “I love you” for the first time. Specifically, I said it and he reciprocated. We decided to try to make it work. Only a year, right? By that Thursday morning, I was standing outside his parked car hugging him fiercely, feebly fighting back tears, clutching the Kitchenaid coffee grinder he said I could hold on to. It wasn’t even three days since his surprise announcement and he was gone.


High highs and low lows characterized the months following his departure. Only a month into our time apart, I booked a trip to Bahrain, where he was spending two weeks for work, and wouldn’t I join him? By the third day, he returned to our hotel room to tell me he had to fly out the following morning, slashing our week together to scarcely 48 hours and leaving me alone, cloistered in a hotel room in a country not known for its hospitality toward women. I was devastated, but I understood—he didn’t have a choice, I reasoned. The blow of being left behind was offset by the anticipation and happiness of reuniting stateside for my sister’s wedding weekend just a little more than a month later.

Later that summer, the non-refundable flight to Baltimore I’d purchased only a week in advance to coincide with his training course turned into something I’d salvage for an expensive, unexpected weekend in Chicago with friends, knowing I’d see him a few weeks later anyway, and that this time together on the East Coast would have been merely a “bonus.” But now I question whether a career I struggled to understand was but an increasingly reliable scapegoat for an exit strategy to meet and spend time with other women—and it amplifies the loneliness and disappointment I felt then.

Each day apart felt like a victory in that it was one closer to being together again. I lived for seeing his name light up my phone, each phone call or text tiding me over, reassuring me we were getting through. When I’d share pictures, people gushed about how attractive he was, and it reminded me how lucky I felt because I thought the same. I started to visit and get to know his mother, also in Colorado. He left me the keys to his car; I drove it around the neighborhood every few weeks so it didn’t sit idle for too long. I did these things because I wanted to. They were acts that seemed like ways to show up when I couldn’t physically be with him. He always thanked me, and it felt sincere. Just like it did when he told me I was part of his daily gratitude prayer. He called me beautiful, admired my “big brown eyes,” wearing down my Midwestern modesty; he encouraged me professionally and seemed invested in my career and what he termed my “limitless potential.”


Despite all of this, and in the absence of a single triggering event, I found myself anxious in a way I didn’t recognize when I wouldn’t hear from him consistently or predictably, when I thought he should be waking up or finishing work, and even edgier when calls and texts went unreturned. Eventually he’d come through, though, and we’d catch up about the day that was, the day ahead, whatever book we were reading together yet apart, and exchange I-love-yous. It’d seem perfectly reasonable that he’d fallen asleep early, had to rush into work, had to stay late. I told myself I needed to relax, to trust what we had, to get past these insecurities. Thoughts about infidelity or other emotional commitments didn’t keep me awake at night. My worries stemmed from the challenges of distance, concern that being apart for too long would cause him to forget what we had. Even more now than then, it’s apparent our lives were like paths that had to be forcefully manipulated and redirected to intersect.

His short visit in September was the last time I saw him. I dropped him off at the airport, where he caught a flight to Seoul for another trip he told me was work-mandated. He disappeared for a few weeks and I crumbled. I texted, I emailed, I called. I deleted WhatsApp because it was too torturous to see he’d been active and not only failed to respond to my painful pleas—he hadn’t even read them. It didn’t make sense; maybe he really couldn’t use his phone, maybe he was doing something on this trip that posed enough risk to make communication dangerous. The brevity of one of the only messages I received during this period, that he loved me and we’d talk soon, made this suggestion seem plausible. And there was the part of me that maintained you couldn’t end a relationship absent an actual conversation.


I look back now and know that should have been the end, but I wasn’t ready. I say that recognizing had the breakup happened then, the circumstances wouldn’t have been severe enough to propel me forward with the certainty and resolve I have now knowing the truth. I should’ve pushed harder for answers to my questions about what happened during that period of almost complete silence, but the relief of feeling we were back on track by mid-October triumphed. I rationalized it was better not to force someone who admitted to experiencing dark times to open up; we’d get there, deal with that eventually. It was the same concern that kept me from ever knowing the origin of a distinct tattoo and how he felt, beyond dismissals that it wasn’t something he wanted to get into, about certain events in his past. Back in Kuwait, he elaborated somewhat on the email he sent a few weeks before, during our near-blackout period: while in Seoul he learned he wouldn’t be returning to Colorado after a year, as planned, and wasn’t sure we could make the distance work. I’d been all but prepared for a phone call confirming something had shifted for him. When he said he still wanted to be with me, despite the introduction of ever-more uncertainty, we decided to continue to try.

As fall slipped into the holiday season and quickly the new year, the list we’d made of potential timeframes for seeing each other grew ever shorter for no reason I really understood or clarified. Now that I knew he’d be spending the next year in Korea, I tried to stay optimistic as we fantasized about trips we’d take, how incredible it would be to ski together in Japan. I found a new apartment. Made a career leap. Moved into that new apartment. Started to focus on the few days we’d spend together when he stopped in Colorado en route to Korea. This was the longest we’d gone without seeing each other, and we needed the time.


But even only a few days before Q planned to leave Kuwait, there was no confirmed itinerary. I wondered why I wasn’t feeling more excited about seeing him and chalked it up to steeling myself for potential disappointment given how his lack of control over job obligations had jerked us around in the past. A day or two later, he called to tell me he had to be in Seoul sooner than expected. It’s clear to me now he never intended to come. He ended things less than a week later.

April arrived, and the woman in Korea inadvertently discovered emails revealing a relationship with the woman in Kuwait and a message exchange exposing my involvement. She confronted Q and told him it isn’t right for everyone affected by his actions and choices not to know the truth.

Invoking the adage “Sometimes we learn something about the past that changes everything we think about the present” feels like the narrative equivalent of admitting I own a framed “Live, Laugh, Love” print. But there’s something compelling about how time cements events that have transpired juxtaposed with the fluidity of interpretation.

As I continue and eventually conclude my conversation with her, stoic disbelief replaces my earlier emotionality as her story confirms a pattern of deception I can’t comprehend. I don’t need to reach out to the woman in Kuwait; the truth is evident enough at this point to allow me to spare myself corroboration of a few more lies. I’m less sure about whether to say anything to him. There’s a part of me that yearns to fire off a curt message indicating I know everything, that he’s hurt me more than I could possibly imagine. But I wonder if something so succinct captures and conveys what it feels like to breathlessly, dizzily climb a narrow staircase of chronological weeks and months, only to reach a cliff of betrayal from which I’ve already plunged, not knowing whether anything said and shared was real.

I have profound gratitude that the woman who contacted me felt the truth was necessary to lay bare. It would have been easy and understandable not to involve anyone else, especially in light of her uncertainty about who I am. But it spares me from prolonged rumination and fixation on an individual and a relationship that will always be part of my story but will never define me. It’s shattering to learn that someone I gave trust, vulnerability, and love to isn’t who I thought, but with this realization comes the clarity to see almost immediately what I’d failed to prioritize throughout most of our relationship: my needs and intuition. It’s not my fault this happened, nor is it something I should have detected. But I regret chalking up all the times communication felt strained, all the times I worried when I couldn’t reach him, all the times I felt I overreacted, to a shortcoming of mine. Hindsight is always 20/20, but never again will I discredit my instincts or apologize for feeling deeply, giving freely, or communicating honestly.

My experience, which I hold up as a guidepost for my future self and for anyone who may take something helpful from it, is not to advocate that everything that happens in life is a sign. It’d be exhausting and unrealistic to live as though we lack agency or that every feeling, every incident, is a piece of a puzzle you can construct only after gaining some distance from the period they collectively illustrate. Perspective is rich, but it can’t be rushed. Despite it feeling like life has ground to a halt, as it has for many weeks as we grapple with a global pandemic, it continues to beat on, and us with it.

It’s tempting to think it would be better if I never knew any of this—or, of course, had it never happened. Or to consider how different things might be today if we could go back and fix or undo something, change someone’s mind. The psyche is powerful in that retrospective way, yet it’s arguably more so when we orient it toward what lies ahead and channel how we hurt and what we learned into the people we’ll become. On good days, that’s how I choose to heal. And each good day brings a little more peace, a little more strength that grows more steadfast with time, and a little more hope for a future that’s ours to make.


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