I discovered it by accident. He had left his email open. I opened a folder marked “jokes” thinking I could use a laugh. Instead, I found an email to another woman. I recognized her name as a friend from back home that he mentioned on rare occasion, usually in conjunction with her blog. The email was sexually explicit. “Hmm,” I thought, embarrassed by what I’d seen. “I never knew he was interested in her that way.” Then I saw the date on the message. At the time that he wrote the email, we had been dating exclusively for almost two years. A pinched, panicked feeling began to spread through my body. I took a deep breath, walked into the kitchen, and confronted him.
The Slow Unravel
My world began to unravel. I was devastated to learn that my kind, thoughtful, loving boyfriend—the man who had stood by me through prolonged unemployment and serious illness, who helped me to learn to cope with my chronic anxiety and depression—had been involved in a sporadic online and texting relationship with another woman for over a year. That first night I insisted that he end it immediately, and he did. He blocked and deleted her phone number, blocked her email, and gave me full access to his email account. I threatened to throw him out of our apartment but agreed to let him sleep on the couch while I thought things over. The thoughts turned over and over in my head; a million questions without answers.
The next excruciating twist of the knife came a few days later. A visit to her blog revealed that she had written about him by name on several occasions. When he cut off all contact with her, she retaliated by posting screen shots of their sexual emails and texts. It’s hard to think clearly about the state of your damaged relationship when so much intensely private information has been made public. I had no idea what to do in the face of this dual violation. I screamed, cajoled, wept, begged, threatened, and berated. I sobbed on the bathroom floor. I fell asleep crying every night while he listened from the couch. My anxiety symptoms worsened. Ashamed to talk to my friends, I slipped into a deep depression.
I thought I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to triumphantly kick him out of the apartment that we had shared for two years. I was supposed to toss his prized possessions out the window. I was supposed to tell all of my friends what a horrible person he was, so they could tell me that they never liked him anyway. After all, I am a strong and independent woman. I had invested three years of love and trust, and I had been betrayed. So why wasn’t I staging an impromptu stoop sale with all of his belongings?
It’s Not Like the Movies
Part of it was unbridled fury. I was in agony, and I wanted him to witness every minute of it. Part of it was love. Despite everything that had happened, I could not forget the love that I still felt for him. Part of it was embarrassment. Was his terrible judgment a reflection of my own faults? Did my illness cause this? Was I so woefully inadequate that I had driven him to someone else?
The answer to each question, of course, is a resounding no. It has taken me a lot of time and therapy to realize that. It has taken him a lot of time and therapy to come to terms with what he did and why he did it. We both recognized the circumstances that brought our relationship to the precipice that is infidelity. I laid out my ground rules. He was to sleep on the couch. I reserved the right to send him away at any time. I insisted on time, but not a timeline—I couldn’t promise that a week, a month, or a year would give me the answers that I was looking for. The questions were painful. The answers were painful. We identified the things that we valued most in our relationship, and agreed to try to repair the considerable damage.
Healing Isn’t the Same as Perfect
It has been a long, difficult road with a few setbacks. I wish I could say that I woke up one day knowing that things would be okay between us, but that’s not true. However, with time, my heart began to heal. To say that we have stayed together feels like an oversimplification. It is more accurate to say that we started over. Our relationship is defined by a new level of honesty. He is more vocal about his feelings, needs, and wants. He no longer avoids telling me things that he thinks will upset me. I am more honest about my health issues. We jump into difficult conversations with both feet instead of skirting issues while they fester. We are more communicative about every aspect of our relationship.
I have learned that trust, while fragile, is startlingly resilient. We became engaged last fall. We feel far more prepared for marriage now than we did before his infidelity. There are days when wedding planning stirs up unwanted emotions—when I ask myself if I can really trust him, or if he trusts me enough to be truly honest with me. When I have those fears, I do something that the old me would not have done: I talk to him about them.
Deciding To Save Your Relationship
Can every relationship heal after infidelity? I can only speak to our own experience. Not every relationship can be saved. Not every relationship is worth saving. Infidelity is devastating in a private, insidious way that is different for every couple. Whatever your role, it will probably make you feel dirty and ashamed. Infidelity drives you and your partner apart in every possible way. The shock of separation from the person that you love and trust more than anyone might be the most isolating feeling in the world. The loved ones in whom you confide may offer judgment and pressure when all you want is a listening ear. But remember, a person can only experience a relationship from the inside. The decisions are yours to make.
For me—for us—the hardest part was making the decision to save our relationship. The next-hardest part was sifting through all of the pain, shame, and confusion and actually doing it. But each day we spend together shows me that it can be done.
THIS POST ORIGINALLY RAN ON APW In march 2013.