Love in the Time of COVID-19: My Cheating Ex Lives Downstairs

Peter Cooper
Photo credit: Alamy; Design by Ingrid Frahm

From Harper's BAZAAR

Photo credit: ALAMY; DESIGN BY INGRID FRAHM - Alamy

From tales of couples more in love than ever in lockdown to others torn apart, from the highs and lows of virtual dating to all the exes sliding into your DMs: Love in the Time of COVID-19, a new series from BAZAAR.com, will explore coupling (and uncoupling) in the age of the global pandemic. Expect real stories, relationship advice, and much-needed tropes and takeaways—all from the editors who’ve brought you invaluable stories on sex, emotional labor, attachment theory, and lots of love via BAZAAR Bride.

Michael and I met three years ago at a restaurant located right around the corner from my then-apartment in Birmingham, Michigan. I was designing and planning a wedding for the chef and owner's daughter, and he worked at the restaurant as a waiter. I had been smitten with him for at least a year—the restaurant has been my favorite spot in the city for over a decade, and I was a regular. I couldn't help but notice him, but I'd never jumped to say hello. My carousing tomcat bachelor (read: fuckboy) lifestyle and reputation proceeded me; I'd spent many nights at the bar and at dinners with various men I'd taken not-so-seriously, and I knew I would have a lot to prove to if he ever agreed to a date.

But then I reached a point in my life where I felt ready for love, and my casual dating patterns started to feel as meaningless as well, they were. I sent those words to the heavens and, as if they'd heard, a romance quickly unfolded.

In the final weeks of wedding planning, Michael and I spent more and more time around one another. There were glances and subtle flirtations, but nothing that hinted at whether he'd noticed me as I had him. Once the wedding was over, we stayed in touch. Finally, I gathered the courage to ask him on a proper date. He accepted, and I was determined to impress. I planned a lavish picnic on a beautiful Friday afternoon; I am an event planner, after all. I packed mini mimosas with a selection of juices, a cheese board with gluten-free crackers to accommodate the allergy I'd overheard him discussing in passing, and some pomegranate seeds, which I'd seen him snacking on now and then. I persuaded one of my favorite restaurants to open early just so I could pick up their famous shrimp and avocado salad. I even carried along a Polaroid camera to capture our first adventure together.

Photo credit: Alamy, Design by Ingrid Frahm - Alamy

We dated for eight blissful months before moving to Detroit together in the fall of 2017. We spent the first year there creating a beautiful home together and trying to settle into a new group of friends. As a boutique business owner, I worked from home, while Michael, a talented craftsman and artist, diligently worked on our home.

We traveled the world together and shared many wonderful experiences, but as time wore on, we discovered many things about our respective lifestyles that didn't necessarily gel. His overall relaxed approach didn’t bode well against mine—I’m a triple-A perfectionist who precisely plans every moment. I didn’t appreciate his tremendous efforts to make our life run smoothly and he didn’t appreciate the emotional labor and financial burden I carried to give us said life. We were in love, blindly charging through life together. When an issue would arise, we didn't take the time to properly address it and find a healthy solution. Instead, we'd hope and assume we would grow as we went along; we were naive.

At the very end of 2018, we made a new friend, John, who quickly became very close to both of us; his support and friendship helped alleviate much of the stress Michael and I were facing. A close friendship turned into friends with benefits—soon, we unconsciously throupled, with John as the guest star.

Then, my life took a turn. As grueling as 2020 has been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2019 remains the hardest year of my life. My grandmother, who adopted me at the age of 3 and whom I took care of for the last decade of her life, started having serious health issues in January. She passed away soon after, on February 6, and from there forward the entire year was a blur. Three months later, my stepfather passed away.

During this time, the darkest period of my adult life, Michael and I drifted further apart. I was buried under a mountain of depression and family responsibility and I would occasionally lash out and push him away. He felt that since he couldn’t pull me out of the darkness, he wasn't making me happy. But he was, in fact, the only happy thing I had to hold on to. There was some relief in knowing that when I couldn’t be there for Michael, John could. Early that summer, John moved into an apartment in our building and Michael found an escape in leading his home improvement efforts, just one floor below ours.

Photo credit: Everett, Design by Ingrid Frahm - Everett

Michael and I seemed to be at the end of our rope; our lackluster methods of communication didn't prime us for polyamory. We didn't set clear-cut boundaries for our relationship, or our relationship with John. We only knew a line had been crossed once it had been trampled and was far in our rearview. Michael and John having their own relationship outside of ours was a line I never knew I needed to draw. I was always expected to be the alpha, the planner, the organizer—but the hazy headspace I was in made retroactively mapping complex relationship boundaries impossible for me to handle, and so I didn't.

That's when my unconsciously-throupled partners crossed the boundaries I never set and communicated. Michael revealed to me that he and John were “in love.” Betrayal can take place in any type of relationship, and they were having an affair. I made huge efforts to heal my relationship with Michael, which involved intensive therapy and lots of honesty and vulnerability. To skip ahead (and spare you the sordid details), Michael and I officially called it quits in November, and he promptly moved in with John downstairs.

I suppose I’ve been in self-quarantine since then, months before any government mandate or shelter-in-place order was issued. I spent the holidays away from friends and family, holed up in my suddenly all too quiet apartment. I was gutted, stabbed in the heart by one and in the back by another. It was my first real heartbreak, and I had no desire to be around anyone. I transitioned from seeing my therapist in-person to participating in virtual sessions. I read a tall stack of relationship books and listened to an endless list of podcasts. In a time where people typically need social interactions with loved ones for strength and support, I chose to grieve alone.

I’d given myself until spring to reflect, heal, and then reenter the world. But then the pandemic hit, and my isolation was suddenly prolonged by mandate. Yes, I have Zoom, FaceTime, HouseParty, and so on, but I immediately missed having my partner physically beside me tenfold. Being contained to the home that we built together, operating in a living memory of what once was, can be debilitating at times. I found myself wondering what John and Michael were doing one floor below; a simple walk down the hallway is riddled with the fear of bumping into them. If I did happen to see one of them, I'd experience a pang of anxiety that takes days to dissolve. I’m left to my own devices in a home full of broken dreams and painful memories (cue the dramatic Celine Dion ballads)—get me out of here!

Unfortunately, due to my work, financial commitments, and the pandemic, I’m not in a place where I can pick up and move. Fortunately, being left alone with nowhere to run has forced me to take a long, hard look at myself—and it's done wonders.

Photo credit: Everett

This pandemic demanded a pause I never knew I needed. I’ve continued Zoom therapy sessions and have focused on tackling the emotional work I desperately needed to do on and for myself. I unearthed what felt like mountains of hurt and trauma from my past; I recognized unhealthy habits that I allowed myself to adopt. Through all of this hard work in isolation, and with much help from Esther Perel (look her up, you’re welcome), I’ve finally found forgiveness—for Michael, for John, and most importantly, for myself. I'm not proud of who I was when my partner chose to cheat on me, but I no longer take responsibility for his choices.

I’ve forgiven both a partner and a best friend, and I’m working on forgiving myself for not being my best version. I've learned that the love and happiness we feel within ourselves can’t be connected to another person. As mamma RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?! Can I get an A-MEN up in here!”

I’ve also realized through one of the hardest times in our communal human experience that my trauma isn’t unique, and my hurt isn’t new. While I can’t imagine myself dating for many months to come given the state of the world, the mandates on distancing, and my mission to be a better version of myself before I open up to another, I do feel like my heart and soul are ready for a man (yes, just one) to call home. Home is not where you live; I know this well, given that where I live feels like a shell I'm eager to shed.

I have uncovered deeper levels of myself through heartbreak and quarantine, and I will not stop the work that got me here. I’m ready to be away from this apartment, as meaningful and beautiful as it is, and to stop grieving. I've stopped creating masochistic tales about what's taking place beneath my floorboards in the apartment my former best friends now share. I’ve realized that home is the self-love I'm maintaining, and the relationships I cherish with my family and friends.

I've stopped yearning and am learning to stay present. All things in time. I know love—in its many forms—is on the way.

*All names have been changed to protect privacy.

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