Researching the topic of infidelity, it’s hard to miss the fact that society reserves its most vitriolic scorn for the third party in a marriage … especially when she’s a woman.
Hell hath no fury like that reserved for The Girlfriend or The Mistress (which is why it took Charles and Camilla eight years to finally walk down the aisle.)
This TED talk has come to my attention, in which Kevin Skinner, a therapist whose childhood home was broken by infidelity, makes it abundantly clear the pain the betrayed spouse goes through.
Clearly, you should be aware of this. It’s the only responsible thing to do. For my part, I work in a field that’s female-dominated, so I’ve been there when women found out they were being cheated on and came to work crying so hard they literally couldn’t do their jobs.
I didn’t need the video. I knew the misery and PTSD I could possibly inflict on someone.
One other thing you need to be aware of: When anyone finds out you’re seeing a married man, they assume you either don’t know any of this, or you don’t care, and that assumption is probably why anyone who finds out will wish you at the very bottom of Hell. Should you ever speak or write the truth, be ready for that. Global condemnation and social ostracism can be pretty bad, even if it’s only online.
I’m truly sorry to say that, on occasion, these people actually aren’t far off. I’m pleased to report that when I approached my married man, I didn’t do it with the brazen selfishness of this person.
What I’m saying is that our actions have the power to hurt other people worse than they have ever, or will ever, be hurt in their entire lives.
What you have to decide is: Are you really willing to do this to a spouse and a family?
Is there ever a good enough reason?
In looking deeply at the situation I was about to enter into, I never considered, Well, I want what I want and I just don’t care about those other people, the wife and kids, a good enough reason. Ever. For me to wade into such a situation, I personally needed a better reason than that. And I did have one.
What most people forget, when they discover the existence of an affair situation, is that, even though it looked like a happy marriage to them, something had to be pretty badly wrong or the betrayer would never have felt the urge to stray in the first place.
What that wrong thing is can run the gamut of all kinds of issues, on both sides of the marriage and all way back to the couples’ grandparents. Rather than try to cover every type of situation I am aware of (and I’m aware of quite a few), I’m going to stick with my own situation as a way to illustrate my own decision-making process.
I have to say I do recommend thinking about all affairs this way, for reasons which should become apparent shortly.
Why was I so tempted to reveal my feelings to my own married man? I had two reasons: The selfish, and the non-selfish.
By age forty-six, I’d had a pretty tough life. I was raised by a borderline parent and mercilessly bullied all through school. I grew up really having no clue who I was at all, or what would make me happy in life. All I knew about was what would make Mom happy. I’d chosen the wrong career, and I’d struggled and struggled and struggled. I spent my young adult years terrified of being unhireable and ending up homeless—since there way no way I’d ever go home to live again, not even if I had nothing.
I’d felt unlovable most of my life. Finally, I met someone I got along great with—who thought, well, I was okay to lean on as he went through his divorce. He’d found his wife in bed with someone else, whom she was planning to marry for his money even though she freely admitted she didn’t love him.
I would never have treated this man this way … but I still wasn’t good enough to marry, because I was overweight and I didn’t want kids and a house. (He already had three kids.) So, I’d lost what I thought was the only person who would ever want me, and cried my eyes out.
Then, all of two weeks later—the guy I’d marry asked me out. I’d liked this guy forever, but a.) he was married, and b.) he was wayyy out of my league. Two months before I got dumped, his wife died suddenly of a massive heart attack, and … apparently he wasn’t out of my league, after all.
I spent two years going, No way is this going to last. The guy just got widowed! And two years after that, we were married.
Unfortunately, we struggled financially almost the entire time. After I’d struggled financially my entire adult life before that. Two elderly distant relatives, feeble, handicapped, and mentally ill, fell into my lap to take care of—the kind who aren’t mentally competent to make decisions for themselves although they believe they are. Trying to get them into assisted living was like trying to herd cats, involving endless screaming and arguments and tons and tons of time.
Then … my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two years later, I lost the love of my life.
I’d spent pretty much my entire life struggling by now, with not enough, really, of anything. Not enough self-worth, not enough love from parents at home, few friends, no mentoring in my career, not enough money. I'd about had it. I’d spent most of my life looking from the outside in at how good it looked as if some other people had it.
In the club I’d met my husband in, other people were easily successful in their careers. They didn’t have to struggle in endless self-doubt the way I had. Other people made enough money. Other people had friends and loving family. What I wouldn’t do for just a little bit of the comfort, the security, the help, and the ease in life some other people had!
And my married man was one of them. His wife didn’t even have to work. Oh, to have even one month of that kind of freedom and support in my life!
I’d admired this guy from afar for ages. He was so tall, he was so handsome. He was so funny, so intelligent, so talented, so kind: another guy out of my league. Except, when he’d come to the club complaining about his marriage, I’d think: If only I could get even one quarter of the support and the help that that woman gets, I’d never treat this guy like that. I swear, I do not understand these people who have such men, and they just don’t know how to act.
I’d had the funniest feeling, talking to him one night: We’re going to be married someday. Which was awfully strange once I was married to my husband. My husband even told me one night, when we were talking about people in the club, that my married man had revealed he liked me when my husband told him he was going to ask me out. At first, I felt thrilled—still. And then I looked at my dear husband, whom I would never, ever leave, and thought, Well, that’s weird. Guess not.
After my husband died, my married man sought me out. He was going through his own caregiving situation, struggling with the guilt of putting an aging father in a nursing home whose needs were clearly getting too difficult to meet at home. (God knows, I’d had all the experience in the world with that.) Late night advice sessions on Facebook morphed into: Where is your wife? Would she be upset to know we were up typing like this?
I’d heard him complain about his marriage over the years, yes, but as I asked questions and heard the full story, I was shocked and saddened. Here I’d thought this man, a handsome, successful guy with a beautiful family, interesting and ingenious hobbies and volunteer work, and literally flocks of friends, was so far out of my league I’d never compete.
Turns out that under all that, he was an unrecovered adult child of an alcoholic, with hideously low self-esteem that had suffered a horrible battering under his wife’s behavior for decades.
He’d describe things she’d said or done and go, “Why would she do this?” And I’d be gobsmacked and at a total loss. One thing I knew: I would never treat anyone that way unless I didn’t love the guy and was just using him. (And I’d encountered that one before.)
But, one thing I knew from all the reading I’d done trying to understand my childhood with a borderline mother, trying to learn what I needed to know about relationships to make the two I’d been in work better: We seek our own level in a partner. If you have a deeply disturbed partner with a bad home life in childhood, that’s because you yourself are the same—whether you think so or not.
I had this in the back of my mind as I mulled over what I was hearing. The wife had to have some kind of similar problem someplace … I just couldn’t find it. Without that, it looked as if she was simply being mean and neglectful. Worse, this poor low self-worth ACOA hadn’t ever been in any other significant relationship, and he literally thought her behavior was about him.
“If she’s the only person who’ll ever love me … and she doesn’t love me … I must be unlovable.”
The guy was adorable … and he didn’t even know it!
Wow. Now there’s a powerful inducement for someone their borderline mother raised to be a “fixer.”
I didn’t think he’d leave her no matter what I said or did. I figured—correctly, as it turned out—that if I spoke, with the authority of someone who’d achieved a good marriage … I’d simply be told I was being inappropriate and asked to buzz off.
At least he could know that his wife’s behavior was not normal at all, that it wasn’t his fault, and that someone else cared enough to treat him differently.
So, I did it. I spoke.
What I didn’t expect: That he would decide he loved me too, consult a divorce lawyer, and make plans to move out. Oh, my gosh!
Through this four-month period where it looked as if we would ride off into the sunset, I kept having these little niggling feelings that something was wrong.
For one thing, it was too good to be true. For another thing, it was happening too fast.
For a third thing, I started to observe this about him: He had no will or convictions of his own. Or rather, he did, but …
As long as I was the closest person and the only one on stage talking, everything he thought agreed with what I was saying. (At least I’d listened to him enough over the years to be saying some things that took his likes and dislikes into account.) But as soon as he moved out, and his adult daughter stepped onstage with her feelings … immediately, his own thoughts would swing to match hers.
Then the wife wanted to go to marriage counseling. Swing again! “Maybe we should be in marriage counseling.” Then his therapist (the one I insisted he find forthwith) spoke up: “If it wasn’t for your daughter, would you want to be in marriage counseling with your wife?” His answer was no. The therapist spoke about divorce counseling, and said it could certainly be that. Swing again! Then the marriage counselor walked onstage and started work. Swing again: Somehow divorce counseling never got mentioned.
Then the wife spoke up: Emotionally frozen for ages, she finally got angry and blamed all the problems in the marriage on him. Another big swing: “I feel guilty; this is all my fault.”
And that was when I, like 99.999% of Other Women … got dumped.
Here was what bothered me during all this: Something about this wasn’t normal. At age 56, a guy should be able to think for himself.
And the first thing that bothered me never left: What was the wife’s story? Was she really just using him, or—as Bowen Family Systems Theory insists—was she also ill? And if she was, what was my responsibility then?
Because, make no mistake, I have no qualms about taking a guy out of a marriage who isn’t loved and who’s only being used and abused there. Treat a good man like that, and I have no sympathy for you. And I don’t believe I should have any. This guy had suffered in this marriage a good twenty years.
But if you’re as wounded from childhood as he is … well, there’s a different story. I was wounded plenty in childhood myself. It was nice that I had the wits about me to hit the books and do the research and not treat the guys I was with the way I saw my mother treat her own husbands and kids, but some people can’t. Some people are too wounded, too defended, too limited. As I saw with my own mother. It doesn’t mean they’re in any less pain.
Which one was this wife? Because it made a great deal of difference to my decision, and I believe it should make a great deal of difference to yours.
As I said, I want what I want, and I don’t give a rat’s ass about you doesn’t constitute a good enough reason to get involved, emotionally or sexually, with a married man. If you think it does … you’ve got something in common with sociopaths.
So, even after I was dumped, it became important to me to figure out which wife I was dealing with. I had clues I’d see the guy again … and I just found myself intensely curious. She sounded like an emotionally checked out, workaholic husband. She didn’t sound like any woman I’d ever heard of. What the--?
She herself gave me an important clue, before the husband moved out. They had started talking about his unhappiness and the fact that he had started therapy, and one thing he did was inform her that he didn’t want to go with her to a social club they had been part of for many years, and he hadn’t for some time.
Here was the clue: She said, “Well, (and she named an old family friend of theirs in the club, the person who originally introduced them) will be very sad about that.”
Oh, for goodness’ sake. How transparent could that be? I felt it right in my bones: What she wanted was to say, “I am very sad about that.” But she couldn’t. That was part and parcel right there of the same inability to access emotions that made him feel alone in the marriage, that he’d been complaining about for years. There was the problem right there.
Or, it was evidence that there was a problem, and she wasn’t just a gold digger who married him to heartlessly use the guy. I knew it right then.
So, there was my dilemma. By rights, I should inform this hopelessly confused guy that I knew the problems went deeper than that, that I knew she did really love him, and that if he wanted to go to marriage counseling instead of running away with me, there was a chance he could save his marriage.
To my credit, that was in fact what I did. I did it with my heart in my throat, knowing if I did what I knew was the right thing, I would probably lose him.
At the time I told him, he said he had to leave, that going back to that house would feel like death, and he simply had to move out. Which he did.
Until she got mad at him and told him all the problems in the marriage were his fault.
That, everyone, is how a really sick codependent makes decisions: through the lens of low self-worth. Nothing makes up the mind like a simple five-letter word: GUILT. Convince a codependent that he’s done something wrong—just make him feel guilty—and you can get anything you want out of him.And, because drunk and codependent parents blamed the ACOA for everything all while he was growing up, he lacks that quality of discernment that clues a healthier person in to the fact that, no, they are not responsible for everything just because someone else is evincing strong feelings that they are. Or just because he mind melds like a Vulcan into everyone else and feels other people’s feelings more strongly then he does his own.I will never stoop to those tactics.
So, there I was. Dumped, devastated, and all alone. What now?
As I said, I had clues I’d see the guy again, and a strong hunch. I also had the evidence presented by the guy before he got guilted into moving back home. When a person who’s acted like “an emotional cipher” for twenty years, cut off all the sex, won’t even snuggle on the couch, and is snappish and shrewish on the daily reacts to your moving out by lobbying everyone who knows you, telling them you’re depressed and you’re “crazy,” the chances of them looking honestly at their own part in the breakup aren’t good.
I tried to tell my married guy this. He said he had to try anyway. And, really. You’ve got to respect a guy for that.
I, however, handle terrible disappointments by obsessing. And by obsessing, I mean getting my hands on every single little thing I can find that might help me understand what went wrong.
Turns out, if you’ve been dumped and you don’t know why, there’s enough about relationships and emotional problems stemming from early childhood out there that, with diligent effort, you can find out a whole lot more than you ever thought possible, without asking your ex for “closure.” In fact, given the low level of self-awareness some people have, the experts may be able to tell you a lot more than your ex himself.
In my case, the experts who were the most help were Pia Mellody (Facing Love Addiction) and Diane Poole Heller (The Power of Attachment), which finally helped me understand attachment theory for the first time.
The reason it was important: Mellody, in her book, lists many criteria for the anxiously and avoidantly attached person in a marriage, both in bullet points and sprinkled throughout the text. The husband and I each met about half the criteria for anxious attachment, but the wife, to the best of my knowledge, was meeting every single criterion for avoidant attachment Mellody mentioned.
And now the Heller book was explaining to me how her mind works and how she got that way. And every word I was reading tallied with everything Husband had told me about her background. (It even tallied with her horoscope. That one, I can prove. If you don't believe me, scroll up and check the Yods tab.)
This was important for me to know, because, having been through my own painful childhood, and hearing all about my ex’s, I knew the kind of misery that results in a person turning out the way we had. And now I saw the same in the wife’s background.
Basically, for people to reach midlife with the kinds of problems we have, the root cause is a painful, painful, painful, painful childhood.
Now, having the compassion I had for my childhood and the ex’s … how could I not have the same for the wife’s? How could I know someone had suffered that much, and then just swoop right in and take that person’s man?
Because I turned out to be right: I did get the chance.
Two and a half years later, the guy made contact again. I got to hear the story of the last thirty months, and they’d gone about as I suspected they would when I heard about her tone-deaf behavior after he moved out.
She hadn’t really applied herself in counseling. She’d acted like she didn’t want to be there and, in his words, “basically slept through it.” They’d stopped going a year before, and that was the last time they’d had sex. She tried to be more responsive to him, but it was as if she couldn’t really understand what he was saying or what he wanted. She’d made some changes to their home that he’d wanted … and now she was angry that she’d done so. He was in the process of moving back into their empty in-law suite.
This marriage wasn’t his north star and he knew it, he said, but everyone had tried to cut him out of the family when he moved out. He would miss his children and grandchildren too much, he said. He wanted to stay married. But, could he come back to the club and see me again?
I knew how impressionable this guy was and how little he was able to think for himself. If I’d wanted, I could have taken this chance to sink my teeth into him again and work on him. That was exactly what I’d taken the opportunity to do the first time!
But, not only did I have a multitude of warnings that this would result in a very bad outcome if I did that, I now knew how much I’d be hurting a wife who’d been hurt as badly as the two of us had. And, if I was angry at her for her domineering behavior … why would I grab this poor wishy-washy husband by the neck and treat him exactly the same way she did?
The whole point for a codependent is to achieve a healthy level of self-esteem and learn to believe it’s okay to think for oneself. Nobody can achieve healthy self-esteem for you but you, and if I wanted him to think for himself … well, then I’d have to let him alone and let him think for himself. Even if we could have had a good relationship. Even if I’d never see him again. Even if I still had this niggling feeling: We were supposed to get married someday.
This doesn’t mean any of this was easy for me. In the interim years, I’ve been pretty much all alone in my life. I not only had to grieve my husband, but the loss of this other guy, too. I’ve tried to go out and find close familylike friendships again, I’ve tried to establish other interests. I’ve tried to start a writing career and failed. Pretty much everything I’ve wanted to do has turned to dust. The only thing I do have is my career, which, even though it’s draining, is finally paying what it should have all along, and, with covid-19 going on, that is a blessing.
But, other than that, my life’s been such a barren wasteland, I’ve had days I was so depressed I literally could not get up off of the couch.
But I’m guided by the wisdom of the wonderful therapist Mark Smith, who tells us that all marital problems that show up in midlife begin in childhood. They show up because we grew up without the emotional health to have a fifty-year connected marriage, and we run out of gas somewhere around Years 14-20. And, in their case, it certainly is the truth.
When this guy first dumped me, I (and my therapist) expected he’d be back a lot sooner, and I once wrote up a relationship contract in anticipation of this happening. It’s funny to look at it now, because some of the understandings I have there look pretty juvenile compared to this, one, deeper understanding of affairs that I have now:
It’s really best, says Mark Smith, and he’s right, for the husband and wife to heal from childhood emotional injury together and within their marriage and family.
So, if that can happen, it’s on me to just get the fuck on out. Which, tough as it was on me, I did.
If they can heal together inside the family unit, that’s the best thing that can happen, and, well … I’m just going to have to lump it.
On occasion, though, you get a spouse who cannot or will not commit to the work required. Like this wife, their focus is mostly on getting this other person who’s “depressed” and “crazy” “fixed up” and “straightened out” so they show back up in the marriage exactly as they always did. Putting a fractured marriage back together again is about working on yourself, not the other person.
Only if she can’t do that, do I have any place here.
And that’s how you make an ethical decision as the other woman.