Day 120: On Cheating

I think it would be fair to say I dropped a bit of a bombshell yesterday, and then moved on to talk about issues that were, really, mostly unrelated.  I really didn’t plan it to be that way, but that’s how it came out, so that’s what it was.

I have mixed feelings about explaining what happened in greater detail.  On the one hand, it’s important for me to be open and honest, and I want to do that very much.  On the other, I want to be certain about why I am doing it.  I want to do it because it’s a natural, healthy thing, not because I am looking for a new opportunity to beat myself up, or to offer others the opportunity to do it for me.

To that end, I want to be clear about a couple of things.

First, I have apologized to those who were directly and indirectly wronged or harmed, (I will, one day, when it is appropriate, also apologize to my children), made a full confession to my priest, and did the penance assigned.  I have also paid for those mistakes in ways no person should ever have to, and still, I have stayed up nights and wasted waking hours beating myself up.  Those days are behind me.  There comes a point in a person’s life when it is simply time to move on – not to forget, not to pretend it never happened, but to let it be.  My point is, I am not writing an apology in these pages.  Apologies have been made, bridges have been built, ships have been burned, the whole nine yards.  This is about moving forward.

Second, and this point is related to the first, none of what I say in this post is meant to be an excuse.  I took responsibility for what I did fully and voluntarily, and I take full responsibility now.  Any explanation is offered simply as that, an explanation.  Maybe these words can even help someone else avoid the same mistakes.

The first time I was married it was to a man I barely knew.  I knew I didn’t know him, but I didn’t know how little I knew until much later.  I was in my second year of law school, pregnant, and completely without a safety net.  My options were limited, but I did have options.

Looking back to what led me to be in that position, I acknowledge that it was unwise to have margaritas at the tequila bar down the block from my apartment, and I would advise young people, my children included, not to make similar choices.  That choice, and the choices that followed, were unwise, stupid, irresponsible, whatever you want to call it.  Once that choice was made, it was made, and there was no point in looking back.  I will say, and again, this is not meant to be any kind of excuse, but it is different for women than for men.  Men under those circumstances are excused as too young if they walk away and heroes if they stay, women are damned whatever they do.

I really thought getting married was the right thing to do, and the other person involved agreed enthusiastically.  He was politically conservative with a lot of ambition, and suggested it was a great opportunity to show people that he was a man of honor, and was confident people would congratulate us (or at least him) for doing the right thing.  I didn’t have a better solution, and really, I thought, how hard could it be?  People enter into arranged marriages all the time, and they find a way to love each other and be happy, right?  Really, I felt I ought to be grateful that this man was willing to take responsibility.

Abortion and adoption were not options for me.  The former, because I believed then and believe now that life begins at conception, and I loved that child the moment I knew she existed, if not before.  Further, I was not in a position where I believed having that child would mean starvation for either or both of us, though I’m not sure it would have mattered if I had.  Abortion was simply out of the question.  The latter was out because I was confident that no matter my faults, no other person on the planet could possibly love her as much as I would, and I still believe that to be true today.  Again, I write that knowing that I was in a different position than many young women who make that choice.  I could have put my child up for adoption and walked away.  I chose to keep and raise my child, and take my chances in a marriage I truly believed couldn’t possibly be “that bad.”

Running home to my parents was not an option.  My father was not someone I could count on, and at the time he was still married to his third wife, who hated my guts.  My mother was in a long-term relationship with her now-husband, but was not yet married at the time, and they still had a lot they needed to work out.  I’m sure I could have found some way to finish law school, but I didn’t believe that at the time, and I was terrified I would end up financially strapped and unable to provide for my child without serious help.

I am a determined person.  My father likes to say I “bounce,” and other family members call me “persistent.”  I’m not sure those terms are meant as compliments, but I am who I am.  At that point in my life, I really believed marriages failed because of a lack of will power.  Remember, this was still back when I knew everything.  People didn’t try hard enough.  People weren’t smart enough.  In fact, people were stupid and selfish and lazy.  People weren’t willing to sacrifice enough.  That certainly wasn’t me.  I would do anything, learn anything, sacrifice anything to give my daughter the best possible life.  I would be different, and I would find some way to make that marriage work, whatever happened.  If he wasn’t the man I wanted him to be, I would change him.  If I wasn’t the woman he wanted me to be, I would change.  How hard could that possibly be?

Impossible.

I didn’t love him.  He didn’t love me.*  I tried.  Maybe he tried too.  I really couldn’t say for sure.

Before we had been married two years he had a job opportunity come up that would take him to another continent.  I was expecting my second baby, and was struggling to keep my head above water.  I was living in a state far away from family and friends, trying very hard to be whatever it was I was supposed to be, and I was exhausted and extremely lonely.  He told me this job opportunity was a once in a lifetime thing, and it would mean he would either miss the birth of my son, or leave soon after, but it would only be for a time, and this was the right thing for him to do.

I understood, and part of me, I think, was relieved to see him go.  I was scared.  I was afraid to be on my own, afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it all, afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep us safe.  I was afraid that maybe he would be killed and I would end up parenting alone forever.  I was afraid he would come back and my life would continue on the same unhappy path forever.  I was afraid of a lot of things.  I didn’t tell him I was afraid, because we didn’t talk about things.  We talked about the weather and had other overly-polite conversations, but we rarely ventured beyond dinner-party chatter, and were never open about anything as personal as feelings.  I did indicate, in a polite way, that the timing wasn’t ideal, but it was immediately clear that those comments were not welcome, and the conversation became a guilt-trip about his “sacrifices” to have a family, which I imagined were huge, but I couldn’t name a single sacrifice now if someone offered me ten million dollars.

I could have gone home, in theory, but that wasn’t a great option either, and I thought at least if I could work and maintain some kind of routine, that would be the best thing.  I knew I would be strong enough to do whatever needed to be done if it were me and the children, safely nestled in our little apartment, and although I had no idea how hard it would actually be, I was correct.

He left about six weeks after my son was born, just in time for the colic to be in full force.  With a new baby and a sleepless toddler, I had a rough couple of months.  I had started teaching part-time, and I loved my job, but it was really the only “break” I had from the screaming, and I often had to choose between sleeping or eating, and sleeping always won out, even if it was only for forty minutes at a time.  Once the nanny, who came three times per week for three hours at a time so that I could work, said she wasn’t sure she could stand to do it anymore because of all of the screaming.  It was that bad.

It really was a terribly difficult time and I was constantly afraid I would miss something or forget something in my exhaustion, and I was afraid for my son’s health, because as the weeks passed by, each doctor I saw had some new explanation for his screaming.  I didn’t share much of this with anyone, other than bits and pieces with a couple of close friends, but I always made sure to put a positive spin on things, and I always made sure everyone knew I was just fine, handling everything with a smile.

At the height of all of this I went to a Valentine’s Day dinner with several women who were also married to men working abroad.  One of the women made a point of asking if I knew one of the women working with the group of husbands, and asked whether I had heard much about her, because rumor had it she had been spending a lot of time in private quarters with the man to whom I was ostensibly married.  She didn’t come out and say he was cheating, but under the circumstances, her point was quite clear.

When she said it I was more shocked than anything else, but shocked because she said it at all, and especially because she brought it up in front of a group of people.  That’s right, I was shocked because I thought this woman was rude, not by the idea that the person to whom I was legally married was rumored to be screwing some twit in foreign climes.  The only thing I found surprising about the affair was that he was interested in sex, but honestly, I didn’t even think about that until much later.

By the time I got home and crawled into bed, the “shock” had worn off, and I realized I didn’t have many feelings beyond that.

I was annoyed that he was galavanting around with this girl while I was working my ass off and going without sleep and wasting away, but I was mostly annoyed that other people knew about it and were talking about it, and I also understood.  I knew how lonely I felt, how desperate I was to feel like someone else cared, like I mattered to someone, and I imagined that if he felt the same way, it would be easy to do what he did.

I never brought it up to him while he was away.  When he was back and we were already in the process of filing for divorce I mentioned it to him, and although he admitted he thought he had a pornography addiction the closest he ever came to admitting real wrongdoing was to say that if I pursued things and asked questions, there was a chance he could lose his job and his benefits, which would mean the children would be without health insurance and child support.  I never brought it up again.  Sometimes, when he does something particularly disgusting, I think about that and whether I should have pushed back, whether I should have done something, but I knew it wasn’t worth it at the time, and it’s not worth it now.  I took responsibility for what I did, and it’s up to him to do that, or not, for what he did.

I didn’t realize until he was away how much better life was without him.  It was hard to do it all on my own, to be sure, but it was also easier.  I didn’t have an extra pair of hands two hours per day, but I also didn’t have to worry about running all of his errands and paying all of his bills and living life on his schedule.  I didn’t have to worry about his repugnant smells or his laundry, or what he wanted for dinner, or his coffee grounds spilled all over the counter and floor.**  I think I had this idea that if he was around I would have “back up” if I got sick or if the kids got sick, but the truth is, that was never really the case.  I guess the idea that there was another adult person in the house provided some sense of physical safety, or at least I thought it did until he wasn’t there and I didn’t feel less safe.

More than any of that, I didn’t realize until he was gone that he made me feel terrible about myself.  Nothing I did was ever good enough.  There wasn’t, it seemed, a single thing he liked about me.  He made a show of saying nice things about me to other people, but in private he criticized everything from my choice in music to friends to clothes to computers to vacations to political opinions to social media posts to grammar.  He was one of those people who had this quiet way of making me feel small and unworthy, without saying much of anything at all, this subtle manipulation that I didn’t notice was there until I lived without it and could breathe deeply and freely.  The only thing I can compare it to is wearing a very tight corset and loosening it after a long night and wondering how it ever fit, realizing that it was impossible to take a fully deep breath while it was on, only the tightest, most uncomfortable corset you can imagine, that also tells you how disgusting you are while it pinches your sides.

I confided these feelings mainly with one person, one other person who was always receptive to anything I said, and who was open about having similar difficulties in his own, very new marriage.  Looking back I think one of his gifts was careful listening and another was a terrific memory, because really he simply listened to what I said, and parroted it back in a similar way, which of course made me think, “Wow, we feel the same things!  He gets it!  After feeling like I was alone and misunderstood and not good enough for all of this time, someone understands me and sees me and cares about me!”  Even now, after everything that came after, I remember that was a wonderful feeling, and one I had been afraid I would never feel again.  Really, I think I had given up hope, and this was an opportunity to find it again, and opportunity to remember I still had feelings, and that there was some possibility that someone out there could care about them.

There was nothing inappropriate at first, and really, for some time.  There was a lot of checking in on me, making sure I was ok, offering support and understanding, playful and ridiculous attempts to cheer me up.  The first time I realized it had turned into something that crossed a line was during a scrabble-like game we played on our phones, when he played some kind of a word and made a dirty joke that was, at least to someone as naive as me, a little too far.  I’m sure I furrowed my brow as I read it, trying to figure out if I was overreacting, deciding I probably was, and remembering all of the support and kindness he had shown, reminding myself that I too once had a sense of humor.  I didn’t hear from him for a little while, and then I think he apologized awkwardly, and I made a joke dismissing it as no big deal.

After that it kind of snowballed.  There were moments along the way, of course, when I could have, and should have, stopped it.  As I slowly realized, mainly with the help of one girlfriend, that I could not continue to be married and live the way I had lived, I started to feel scared, and felt I needed support, and this other man, I thought, was providing that.  He claimed, of course, to be going through the same process himself, and often it felt like we were these two people, on similar journeys, exchanging stories, helping each other figure out what to do next.  I knew it was wrong, and had moments of clarity and intense, almost crippling guilt.  I was afraid to move forward, afraid to stand still, and afraid to turn back.  I knew I could not go back to the way things were, and I was, truly, afraid I would die if I did.  That sounds ridiculous and overdramatic, I know, but at the time, that’s how I felt.

There was no way for me to know, in those early days, or at least I did not know, about his terrifyingly dark side, and that I was not the only person with whom he was doing this same routine, and that it was something he had done before, and probably something he did again.  I really believed, more than anything else, that whatever happened, we cared about each other, and the was the primary motivator for both of us.  I believed we could help each other, that we could both come out on the other side of all that had happened better people.

What happened after is a tale for another day, but as I said earlier, I paid a steep price for my treachery.

I admitted what had happened before the divorce was final, and I told my parents and other family members (thus far only my brother found an opportunity to throw it in my face).  I apologized to the man’s wife as well.  I was under the impression their marriage was already over, and of course I was told that she was insane, controlling, mean, terrible, and basically did all of the things to him that were done to me.  Eventually I learned that was not the case, but I would have apologized even if it had been.  What I did was wrong, I was sorry, and I apologized.  I still think about her, from time to time, and I still feel sorry, and I hope she is happy and doing well.  I hope she was able to put all of what happened behind her and start a new life.

When I was young I looked at my father’s behavior with contempt and I looked at other people cheating on their wives or husbands similarly.  It all seemed so clear, so black or white:  If you want to be married, be married, if you don’t, don’t.  It’s an easy problem to solve.  Don’t get married until you know you want to be with that one person forever – if you’re not sure, don’t get married.

I never occurred to me that it could be more complicated than that.  I didn’t realize people hide who they are, or change with time.  I didn’t realize that people outside of television shows and movies do terrible things and are terrible people.  I didn’t realize people get married for reasons that are more complicated than a deep and true love and a desire to be together forever.  I didn’t realize living with someone who despises you could be so damaging.  I didn’t realize what I didn’t realize, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I am not defending cheaters or cheating, and I am not defending my actions.  I was wrong to do it.  I wish I had been strong enough not to do it.  I wish I had believed I was strong enough to leave without doing that.  I wish everyone could be married to the person they love most and live happily ever after.

I’m just saying that sometimes, situations, and people, are complicated.  Sometimes, people do things because they are bad or sick, and sometimes, people do things because they are just trying to survive, or because they are trying to do the right thing and aren’t sure what that is, or because they are trying to do whatever they have to do to accomplish something they believe is good.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “cheater,” or if, as my aunt says, that any person, or at least any man, given the opportunity, will cheat.  My feeling is that neither explanation is perfect, but there might be some truth in each.

I’m also not sure what I will tell my children about any of this, other than the truth, much as I wrote here today.  I’m not sure I will have much advice or insight for them on the matter, other than to stress how important it is to take care of themselves, to be honest about how they are feeling with themselves and others, and to promise to be here for them no matter what, with love, understanding, and open arms.

*It actually took me a long time to realize that was the case.  For a long time I believed I was a cold-hearted monster, incapable of loving someone who loved me.  Later, when I realized he didn’t love me in any way I could understand, I still defended him and argued that he loved me as much as he was capable of loving some other person.  It was only when things calmed down, long after the divorce was finalized and life normalized that I realized that was absurd.  Realizing it though, was a blessing, because it was one more thing I could forgive myself for doing, or not doing, I suppose.

**None of those things really matter if love is involved, but when it’s not, it’s like having a manipulative roommate who expects you to be housekeeper, personal chef, and personal assistant, and it gets old quickly.

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2 thoughts on “Day 120: On Cheating

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