We started this week discussing cheating. In that story, an emotionally abusive marriage was falling apart, an affair happened, a marriage ended, and a new life started. Easy and ethical? No. True? Yes. Today, we have a post from Emily Threlkeld (who you’ll remember from her New Orleans elopement, her story about managing through immigration hurdles, and her Confessions of a Bridal Registry Consultant) about the affair she almost had. It turns out, most affairs and almost-affairs have a reason. A miserable life you don’t know how to escape, maybe. Or in Emily’s case, the singlehood she never mourned, and the new marriage she hadn’t had a chance to process. I hope, more than anything, today’s post will snap on a light bulb for someone about to make a not-right-for-them decision. That it will help them figure out WHY they wanted to make the choice in the first place.
I toyed with submitting this post anonymously, but decided against it. My husband knows all the details I’m about to lay out for you, and while I agree that my behavior was self-destructive and wrong, I’m attaching my name to this post because I think that APW is a safe place where we can discuss our lives as thoughtful adults and leave the shame (and shaming) at the door. That said: Mom, if you found this through Google, please go read something else.
I married the first man I had sex with. He’s definitely not the last person I slept with, but he was the first. Like most people, I had other lovers, ranging from the sensible to the ill advised, all who came after my husband and I broke up in college. But it wasn’t old lovers that got me into trouble; sometimes it’s the ones you don’t sleep with.
Many years ago, before I even met my husband, there was this guy. He had great taste in music and was probably the first person you’d pick to go on a bender with, if that paints a picture. Now I’m hardly the type of girl to go on a bender, but at the same time, at eighteen, I hadn’t ruled out the possibility.
At some point when we were still dating—we met a year later, when I was nineteen and a freshman in college—Ian asked me if I thought that we would have met if we hadn’t picked the same place to get our degrees, and I answered truthfully: “I don’t think so. I think we would have met other people that suited us.” My logical engineer surprised me by disagreeing. “I think we would have found each other anyway,” he said.
I love his certainty, and I find it sweet, but I it’s not a belief I subscribe to. I don’t think there’s just one person for everyone, because I don’t think we are just one person ourselves. Life is too messy for that. Yes, I’m the girl that married the first person she slept with, but I’m other girls, too. If it hadn’t worked out with Ian, or if it doesn’t in the future, I know that there are still people in the world that I could connect, fall in love, and start a life with.
So when Ian started working the night shift and we were hardly eating meals together, much less having sex, our relationship started to feel like it wasn’t working out and I started thinking about the guy who I hadn’t slept with all those years ago. I started calling him my great white whale. I started texting him. I started thinking about plane tickets and hotel rooms.
I started thinking about having an affair despite the fact that Ian and I had just recently celebrated our first anniversary. Despite the fact that after many years of a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship, we had finally learned how to be nice to each other, and had, beyond all reason and expectation, started a healthy marriage. (As one of the idiots I used to sleep with said, upon hearing that we’d gotten married: “That must be such a victory for you.”)
One of the things that may have saved me is the fact that I can’t lie to Ian. I don’t know how or why this came about, because heaven knows I was great at it when we were dating. We both were. Maybe there’s some kind of truth serum that seeps into my bloodstream through my wedding band, but as soon as I say something like, “Here’s your cake, I gave you the bigger half,” seconds later, the truth will come flying out of my mouth. “…Okay, actually, that’s the slightly smaller half. I already ate the big piece.” What’s the opposite of compulsive lying? Because that’s what I have.
So at some point, between the narrow window when he came home from work and when he went to bed, I blurted out, “I’ve been texting this guy and I think I want to sleep with him.” He thought about this for a moment, then asked, “So you want to sleep with him and then what, leave me?” My reaction to this was immediate. “Gross!” The thought of being with the white whale forever was unappealing. He was like a Frito pie, a common treat at high school football games in Texas. You’re at the game, you’re hungry. There’s a bag of Fritos cut open and stuffed with canned chili and processed cheese sauce. Is it a good idea? No. Are you going to order it anyway? Probably. But to have that every day for the rest of your life? No thank you. “No. I just want to sleep with him.” My husband shrugged, said okay, and went to bed.
I wish I could say it ended there, but it didn’t. I was still barely seeing my husband, and it felt nice to get attention from someone, no matter the source. We kept texting and talking on the phone late at night. I thought about this guy at red lights, staring into space with two hands on the steering wheel. I thought about him as I poured glasses of wine for myself in what was increasingly an empty apartment. I even thought of him when I went on a weekend yoga retreat at the beach, where during a meditation, I heard that still small voice inside me say, “Please don’t cheat on your husband.”
I wish I could say all of this ended with some big epiphany or decision, some line I drew in the sand, some vow I made to be a better person, but the truth is that the great white whale lost interest and swam off, just like he had six years before. And Ian got transferred to the day shift, and soon I forgot about the whole thing.
But with this whole experience about a year in my rearview mirror, here’s what I figured out: In the end—surprise!—it wasn’t about the guy. What I was really pining over was what I gave up when I get married, something I’d never even considered. When we eloped, it felt like such a grand adventure that I never really thought about the life I was leaving behind. I never grieved for my singlehood. Not only that, but instead of looking at my marriage, which was in a difficult spot, I tried to escape. I wasted time and energy thinking about something that was never going to happen instead of finding a way to make our relationship stronger. I think deep down some part of me knew that it wasn’t really about the guy, or I would have been flirting with someone much closer to home. I would have found someone else’s arms to escape to, and I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.
Editor’s note: Emily’s post got the staff talking about the idea of “almost mistakes” and whether or not they happen more often than we’d like to admit. So we thought we’d throw it to Team Practical and see what you have to say. So, tell us, what was your biggest relationship almost-mistake? Did you learn anything about yourself or your relationship by almost making it?
Photo by: Emily’s personal collection