This week, we decided to go all in. To take all the posts we’ve been pondering for months, loving, but knowing they are really hard reads, and post them. This week, we’re talking about Deal Breakers & Hope Rising. What happens when your marriage hits something huge enough to destroy it? I wanted to start with this story, from a longtime member of the APW community, about how her current happy marriage started as an affair at the end of her previous, emotionally abusive marriage. We’ll be sharing lots of stories of couples hitting potential deal breakers and finding a way to make their marriage stronger, and it only seemed honest to start with a deal breaker that ended a marriage. I find this story so compelling, not because it’s about moral relativism: for all that she’s not sorry with how things turned out, she’s saddened by the pain her actions caused. I find this story so compelling because it’s in the rocky cracks where hope unexpectedly springs up, in the decisions that we never wanted to make, that we’re sometimes able to glimpse our own humanity.
I fell head over heels with my sweetheart (let’s call him S.) in ways that I had only dreamed possible. He made me laugh until my gut hurt. He made me think about things in new and interesting ways. When my shoulder brushed against him, lightning shot through my body. When we kissed for the first time, my knees literally went out from underneath me. When we first made love (and it was making love, from the first), everything just fit in ways that left me trembling, tearful, and understanding, for the first time, this was what the big deal was. He found my clumsiness endearing, he thought I was the most beautiful woman he had ever known and told me so. All fear of saying something that was the “WRONG ANSWER” disappeared in the incredible peace and rightness of being myself in our easy togetherness.
Suddenly we got it. Ohhhhhh, said we, THIS is what this whole soul mate thing is about: The utter inevitability of being together, the utter insufficiency of any words or poetry to capture this…. LOVE. LOVE! LOVE! Accidentally in love…. THIS! Together could never be close enough. Forever could never be long enough. People who feel like this should get married and grow old together (even though we already were a little bit old). People who feel like this would (of course!) have joyous and tearful weddings and shout their love from the rooftops!
The only thing was that we were already married.
To other people.
I am a cheater. There I said it. I cheated on my first/ex-husband. And I really don’t regret it.
I’m not saying I don’t have any guilt: I am deeply sad about the devastation I caused my ex-husband. I feel terrible about dragging our children through a divorce. I wish at our wedding my husband and I could have told cute stories about how we met, instead of repeating a vague set of disinfected talking points that have become our “how we got together” story. Our beginning seems sordid and unworthy of the incredibly wonderful and honest relationship we have had for many years now. I most regret that my husband might have to doubt my ability to uphold a vow to be faithful to him because I’ve already shown my capacity to ignore such a vow.
The real story is that we both work overseas in development, and we were back in the States for a conference. I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen, and then he sat next to me and made me laugh all day. We went to dinner to “talk shop.” I realized I had a big-time crush and needed to be very careful. I decided not to hang out at the bar where he might be, where I might have a drink, and where I might be vulnerable. The next day, I came down with some knarly germs I had dragged in from the field. He was in the lobby of the hotel when I staggered through the door with a fever of 103.
He took me upstairs, tucked me into my bed and stayed with me all night, taking care of me as I vomited and shat my guts out. He brought me soup and meds and gentle kindness. In those long hours of the early morning when I felt so bad I thought I might die, I admitted my marriage was shit, that I didn’t respect my do-nothing, high-spending, quasi-abusive husband.
I admitted, out loud, that I was desperately alone in my marriage. My ex-husband never told me I was beautiful. He never kissed me. Literally, never. We were sexually incompatible, intellectually out of sync. Since he had seen me give birth he said he could never see me as a sexual person again and had to hold his nose and close his eyes to get it up. I had shared, talked, reasoned, begged, screamed, cried, thrown down ultimatums. Nothing was changing. I was afraid that my soul was dying, but I was terrified of losing my two children. I confessed that I had known I was making a mistake as I walked down the aisle, and I did it anyway.
I admitted that night to him and to myself that I was fast heading for divorce.
He listened without judgment. Saw me. Held my hand. He cried with me and told me his own story, which was similar.
Excuses? Explanations? Is there a difference?
By the end of the week-long conference, the illness was gone, and this amazing man and I were completely, totally, and accidentally in love. We had spent the week holding hands and cuddling… not kissing. Sleeping next to each other, but not together, joking that we were having a “platonic affair,” clinging to those last boundaries that would keep us from being bona fide adulterers. The last night of the conference we finally gave in to the excruciating tension. We kissed and held each other and made love for hours before getting onto our respective airplanes and winging back to our real lives… countries apart. As we said goodbye we wept and held each other like the world was ending (it was) and I whispered: “See you on the other side.” We had no idea what that meant. We were determined to keep this love in a little box somewhere where we could take it out and know that love is real, and that we had gotten to have it, if only for a few days. At least we had gotten to have it at all. That was something.
Days later, on the other side, there was an email from him waiting for me. Then there was a Skype chat; then an SMS. Before we knew it, all of our plans to keep the affair an isolated event started breaking down. Our lives with our spouses went on. We sneaked around. We pretended. We picked fights and bought gifts for them to assuage our guilt. We longed and silently exploded with joy as the next word came in, holding onto stolen moments as if our lives depended on it (they did). We both have children we desperately love, and so we despaired and worried together. We mourned the ION, the Impossibility of Never: we couldn’t be together; we couldn’t not be together.
We behaved dishonestly and dishonorably for months. We even sneaked a vacation together, and it was as wonderful as that first week. Better. My heart shifted and like a lock, clicked solidly, permanently into place.
He broke first, confessed, and got separated. Weeks later, I followed. I didn’t tell my ex-husband the whole truth. He discovered when I accidentally left my phone at home. All eight of us (us, our exes, our four children) walked through the valley of death that is divorce. I was grateful to have a hand to hold and the knowledge that we would be able to be together to pull me through. I don’t know how our exes survived.
We worried about each other, about ourselves… Once a cheater always a cheater? Are we doomed to fail because of they way we began? Are we making this relationship more than it is to justify our behavior? Was I just looking for a bridge to freedom? Is he a rebound? Am I dragging my children into heartbreak? Am I impossibly selfish? Is this an orgy of codependency?
As soon as it was possible (and frankly, just on the inner edge of tasteful) we moved to the same country and moved in together. I’m not sorry.
Many years later, here we are on the other side. Married. Blissful. Crazy in love. I am more peaceful and stronger than I have ever been in my life. He is shining with joy. Our parents know. We were ashamed to tell them but we did confess. His father, staunchly Catholic, was Deeply Disappointed. Their relationship continues to be stilted and he didn’t come to the wedding.
My mom said: “What were you going to do? S. is so obviously your One. You were in a stinking hole of a marriage and you saw how it could be. This was an act of self-preservation.” His mother sees it the same way.
Somehow we have made it work with all of the kids, and they were psyched and earnest at our wedding. My 16-year-old stepson was the best man, and in his toast he said that I am the most fun ever and that when his dad and I are together we’re the happiest people in the world.
No. I’m not sorry.
I don’t believe in breaking promises. I believe that one of the gifts of the type of marriage that I want is the magic of having a separate and dedicated space with only the two of us in it. I believe that we can make that happen. I have no desire to ever be with anyone else.
But, I also know that life is long and biology isn’t helping us out with this monogamy thing. I know that both of us (and in fact, all of us) have it in us to cheat. Because S. and I already crossed that line once, we are even more careful about nurturing our relationship. We connect every single day—especially when we are travelling. We are extra deliberate about detecting and deflecting innocent flirtations. We are diligent about being exciting and adventurous sexual partners for each other. We listen closely for the signs of neglect and loneliness.
I believe, in some sad way, being a cheater is making me a better wife.
Photo by: Moodeous Photography (APW Sponsor)
** A Note On Comments: I know this post may be hard for many readers, as lots of us have been hurt by cheating at one point or another in our lives. I’m hoping that we can have a vibrant conversation about the topic while staying both civil and kind, and listening to each other. While we ask you not leave any comments attacking the writer of the post, who was brave enough to speak openly about the topic, please feel free to leave comments about your own experience, or about infidelity as a general topic. Thanks! —The APW Team **