Dear Mary: We split up after I saw what he did with a photo of his ex

I am a college student who has just broken up with her boyfriend. I am heartbroken and completely at a loss as to what to do. I started seeing him a year ago and apart from one issue we had no problems. His ex-girlfriend was in his group of friends, so at the beginning of our relationship, he was still frequently in contact with her, as he had always been since their break-up. I didn't know this until a few months in, when I discovered it.

He agreed to stop contacting her and though it took a few months to fully take effect, he eventually did. He assured me that the contact they had maintained was platonic and not sexual in nature. I believed him, as he showed me some conversations. In addition, his ending contact was not welcomed by her, but he stood by me, so I took this as proof of his commitment.

After three months of him not speaking to her, last week I found him masturbating to a photograph of her. I had to leave him immediately as I was disgusted. I left him.

Since then, we have spoken and he told me that it was not a frequent thing, that he is not yearning for this girl. He has assured me that he is not going to make a move on her, nor is he even restarting contact with her now that we are separated.

He says he will give me the space I need, but that he loves me and wants to get back together in the future if I can forgive him. I love him, but fear that I will never get over this. Please help.

Mary's reply:

WHEN I read your letter and got to the bit about the photograph I find myself saying 'Oh no!' out loud. I can just imagine what a shock it was for both of you. Masturbation is such a private thing that people rarely speak about it, there have only been a handful of movies where it is depicted, and some people find it hard to admit even to their partner that they do it.

So discovering a partner masturbating could cause difficulty for some people, let alone seeing that the visual material being used was of an ex. There already had been a secret regarding contact with the ex-girlfriend which had been successfully resolved, so you no doubt felt doubly betrayed when you saw her photograph.

But despite all of this I am inclined to believe your (ex) boyfriend when he says that he is not longing to be with her again. Very often, people have a favourite scene – either visual or in their imagination – that they use in masturbation, one that works for them in order to produce the desired result, which is orgasm.

So perhaps he had an old reliable fantasy that included her and this is what he was using when you unfortunately found him. This doesn't necessarily mean that he wanted to actually have sex with her – it was a fantasy that he knew worked for him in masturbation.

It also doesn't follow that when he was having sex with you, he was fantasising about having sex with her, because I'm sure you have thought about this also. You don't mention what your sex life was like with him, so I am assuming that you were both happy with it.

What reason have you given family and friends for your break-up? It must have been very difficult trying to explain it when you had been very happy together in every other way, and it's not the sort of subject matter that can be broached with everybody. I hope you have a close confidante that you trust, because up until now your boyfriend was probably the one that you turned to when you had a problem.

You were together for a fairly long time for somebody your age. By now you will have had some time to think things over, and you will have experienced what your life is like without him.

It is up to you whether you get back together again, but if you are miserable without him then why should you continue to suffer?

Neither of you will ever forget this, but it should be possible for you to forgive. Difficult as it may be to believe right now but you may be even able to smile about it at some time in the future.

Submit your letters to Mary anonymously at dearmary.ie.

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