Eleven years ago, I fell head over heels with my sweetheart (let’s call him S) in ways that I had only dreamed were possible. He made me laugh until my gut hurt. He made me think about things in new and interesting ways. When my arm 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.
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! THIS! People who feel like this should get married and grow old together. 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 can’t regret it.
I’m not saying I don’t have any guilt or regrets about our behavior: I am deeply sad about the devastation I caused my ex-husband and his ex-wife. I wish at our wedding my beloved 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 so many years now.
The Real How We Met
To my chagrin, our story is a total cliché involving lonely hotel rooms, midlife crises, and margaritas. S and I met at work, at a training. I thought he was possibly the most handsome man I had ever seen, and then he sat next to me and made me laugh all day. We went out to dinner at a Mexican joint to “talk shop” (and drink margaritas). It had been years since I had felt that glitter of flirtation and femininity coursing through my veins. I realized I had a big-time crush and needed to be very careful. The next day 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 day after that, I had less resolve. The following day even less. We went out with a group then ended up alone in my room, talking all night.
In the long hours of the early morning when truths come out to people who truly see you and listen, I admitted my marriage was really, really shit.
I admitted that I was desperately alone in my relationship. My ex-husband loved me in his way, but he never told me I was beautiful. He never kissed me. Literally, never; he didn’t like kissing. He hadn’t worked for years, had started both drinking and spending heavily, and had become verbally harsh. We were sexually incompatible, intellectually out of sync. Since he had seen me give birth to our second daughter, he said he could never see me as a sexual person again and had to close his eyes and hold his nose to get an erection.
I think it’s hard for people in healthy relationships to comprehend how incredibly dysfunctional things can get. It’s not that I stopped trying to communicate—I felt like I was screaming at the top of my lungs, and yet we simply could not understand one another—even when we desperately wanted to. There were lots of other factors that made our marriage journey harder than most, stuff I can’t get into on the internet, without revealing way too many details about everyone involved. But suffice to say, I toiled in that relationship for more than seven years. I was giving him/our family everything I had, and then things I didn’t have, until I was so empty I was beyond tears. Even if he wasn’t having sex with other people, my ex was breaking his marriage vows every day. Turns out there are deeper and more painful ways to break marriage vows than sexual infidelity.
I was afraid that my soul was dying, but I couldn’t leave. He was too unpredictable. I was too terrified of losing my two young daughters. I had known I was making a mistake as I walked down the aisle, and I did it anyway. I admitted that night to S and to myself that I needed to leave—I just had to muster the courage and energy it would take to extract us safely, and my confidence was shot. In my particular situation, the fact that my ex-husband didn’t know I had arrived at this point was just more evidence of how out of tune we were.
S listened without judgment. Saw me. Held my hand. He cried with me and told me his own story, which is his, and not mine to share here.
Are these excuses? Explanations? Is there a difference? Does it even matter?
By the end of the week, S and I were completely, totally, and accidentally in love. We had spent two nights holding hands and snuggling… but 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 we finally gave in to the tension, which had become excruciating. We finally kissed (!) and held each other and made love for hours before getting onto our respective airplanes and winging back to our real lives… cities 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 experience 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. Maybe we could even use the sexual energy from it to jump-start our marriages.
On the other side of that flight, there was an email from S 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 broke down. Our lives with our spouses went on, in that routine way of long term co-habiting people who tiptoe around dysfunction.
We sneaked around. We pretended. We picked fights and bought gifts for our spouses to assuage our guilt. We longed and silently exploded with joy as the next word came in on whatever channel, holding onto stolen moments as if our lives depended on it (they did). We despaired and worried together about our children. We mourned the ION, the Impossibility of Never: we couldn’t be together; we couldn’t not be together. My ex started watching me more closely, then losing his temper even more quickly, more violently.
We behaved dishonestly and dishonorably for months. We even escaped together and took a weekend vacation—hoping that we had imagined it all and that we could go back to normal. Sadly? Happily? It was even more wonderful than that first week. I was in a fever of happiness and misery, desire and dread. My heart shifted and like a lock, clicked solidly, permanently into place. My jawbone found its forever home in the curve of his shoulder.
The Breaking Point
S broke first, confessed, and got separated. Weeks later, I followed. I didn’t tell my ex-husband the whole truth about why I wanted out. He confirmed what he suspected when I accidentally left my phone at home. I cannot even relate the darkness of that time. All eight of us (us, our exes, our four children) walked through the long valley of death that is divorce. I was grateful to have a hand to hold through the slog. I don’t know how our exes survived, but they did.
S and I worried. A lot… Once a cheater always a cheater? Were we doomed to fail because of the way we began? Were we making this relationship more than it was to justify our behavior? Was I just looking for a bridge to freedom? Would our love survive real life? What was I dragging my children into? Was it an orgy of codependency? Am I impossibly selfish?
As soon as it was possible (and frankly, just on the inner edge of tasteful), S got a job and moved to my town and we moved in together. We tried to have him start in an apartment of his own, but we never made time to look for one, and then it was just dumb because he clearly belonged right next to me. I love him so much, I can’t be sorry.
The Other Side: Love, Lust, and Shadows
Many years later, here we are, fully on the other side. We’ve been married for many years now. We are still crazy in love and lust. Our marriage is the best thing in my life. Our parents know the truth. We were ashamed to tell them but we did it. His father, staunchly Catholic, was Deeply Disappointed, and proceeded to refer to me as “That Other Man’s Wife” for an embarrassingly long time. His parents didn’t come to the wedding, but ultimately, since I’m actually not a wanton Jezebel, they have come around.
The moms were more understanding. After my mom’s initial shock she said: “What were you going to do? You were in a stinking hole of a marriage, and when you met S, who is obviously your person, you saw how it could be. This was an act of self-preservation.” It helped that she never liked my ex. S’s mom and beloved older sister see it similarly, though the details of that story are different.
Somehow we have made it work with all of the kids, though of course, divorce leaves shadows and cold pockets of dread and fear that haunt. Those have nothing to do with the how or why—the what alone is shattering. They don’t need to know the full truth. If they ever ask directly we will not lie, but they have never asked. They seemed sincerely happy and earnest at our wedding. We had family vows. My step-sons were the best men, and when the older one toasted, 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. His ex-wife has been with another partner for going on a decade now. My ex always seems to have a girlfriend, but I can tell he is still sad. We all survived and moved on. And, no. I’m not sorry.
What I Learned
I didn’t believe that I was a person who was capable of infidelity. It was against the fibers of my grain and my identity. Full stop. It was black and white to me: I uphold promises. I have integrity. I am honest. I stick. I protect The Sisterhood. And then it happened, and suddenly I realized Shit. I am capable of this.
And now I don’t get to be smug or morally superior anymore about anything.
I’ve lost my innocence too: I know how messy life is. I was in a place where I no longer had any belief or hope of love. I found myself at a crossroads of vulnerability and opportunity that broke through moral barriers that would have been stronger if I were in a more solid place emotionally and physically. Life is messy. Also? Biology is not helping us out with this monogamy thing. We can’t count on monogamy feeling effortless.
Because S and I know we are capable of cheating (like all of us, I believe, if the conditions are conducive), we are extremely careful about actively caring for our relationship. We connect every single day—especially when we are travelling. We are extra deliberate about detecting and deflecting innocent flirtations, and we talk about them with each other. We are diligent about being exciting and adventurous sexual partners for each other. We practice radical honesty and transparency. We listen closely for the signs of neglect and loneliness, and share any hint of such feelings. We kiss a lot. I believe, in some sad way, that being a cheater has made me a better wife.
I am profoundly grateful to have found a Great Love, and I can’t be sorry about the best thing in my life—but I don’t know that the end justified the means. I should have gone out the front door of that marriage, and not skulked out the back. It would have been infinitely more graceful, if not easier (I think the infidelity made it somehow easier for my ex to let me go). The means sucked, but they happened. So I’m human and fallible and a cliché too often for my liking.
The best I can do is forgive all involved and try to learn and live the lessons about who I am, and who I want to be, as an individual, a woman, and a wife.