Three years ago, my husband of then seven years had an affair. I chose to stay with him afterward. Women who stay are often judged just as much as the women who cheat, and I would like to clear up some misconceptions about women like me who do make the choice to stay.
I’m not a doormat.
Contrary to the popular image of the woman who stays, I am a card-carrying and proud feminist. As a feminist, I’m a huge fan of the consent movement, but I didn’t consent to sleeping with you. I don’t know what your standards were in the past; maybe you always used protection. Maybe you slept with only unmarried “friends with benefits” type guys. Maybe you trusted that my husband wasn’t sleeping with me at the same time, but, you know, honor among thieves and all that…he was.
Just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean I wanted to leave him at the first whiff of infidelity, or that choosing to stay with him reveals that I have no self-esteem. On the contrary, staying with someone who cheats on you can mean that you don’t tie your self-worth to their personal choices. I know that his bad judgment was not my fault.
We could not afford a girlfriend.
I only work four to six times a month, and I spend the bulk of my free adult time parenting our three children and apparently sitting next to you at PTA meetings. I don’t have my own discretionary income, and neither does my partner. So when he spent money buying you expensive jewelry, that wasn’t his money to spend. It might have gone to our child’s birthday party or toward much-needed braces for one of our kids instead. Maybe you saw his gift-giving as similar to when Aladdin stole bread for the starving orphan (I trade in kids; Disney references are what I have). In many ways, I’m sure you were starving: for love, for respect and for adoration. But this is not that. When he gave you jewelry and time, he stole that directly from our marriage and family. You participated in that theft by accepting the stolen goods.
I had a healthy marriage when he cheated.
When my husband had his affair, we were having regular, fantastic sex. On the emotional side, we went on a lot of dates, we laughed. We held hands. We shared our fears and burdens. Cheating is a symptom of a problem, but the problem isn’t always a dysfunctional marriage. My partner did not seek attention elsewhere because I was neglecting our marriage. Now 11 years into my marriage, I enjoy sex with my husband more every year. Sometimes I wake him up in the middle of the night so we can have sex until neither of us can think, let alone stand (and he is more than happy to oblige).
I think everyone wants to imagine that adultery happens only when a marriage fails, because we need something real to blame. The anguish of an affair is lessened if we see all participants as equally culpable. Sometimes, that’s even true. But often, it’s not. Some people cheat because that’s their solution to their own dysfunction. Further, the wives who were cheated on, devastated as they are, don’t need the other women to find fault in their marriages. Please don’t tell me that my husband was lonely. Given your relationship, how could you possibly assume he was being honest with you, let alone himself? I’m not taking marital advice from an adulterer.
We may still get divorced.
Healing from an affair doesn’t happen in a set time frame. If only I could know that on a certain date in the future I will definitely have moved on emotionally; I would be thrilled. I could wait any length of time if I knew how long I would have to endure it. But I don’t. Instead, I find my mind wandering back to three years ago, when I stared at my phone as it updated a secret chat between my husband and his mistress. When this happens, it’s as though no time has passed and no healing has occurred at all: My cheeks are hot. My heart bumps against my chest in angry alarm. My arms go numb. Then the alert on my phone reminds me that I have to pick up my daughters early from school to take them to a dental appointment. In the midst of complete collapse, I had to scrape off the devastation, shine up my smile, and be a mother. I still haven’t completely forgiven either of you for making me the only adult who put the kids first.
Maybe it’s easier to imagine that I didn’t love my marriage enough to care. But that’s not true. Your carefree time with my husband laid actual waste to my marriage; so when you tell me it was casual, my only response is: not to me. It was not casual to me. The fact that you just screwed him for fun or that you only fucked in classy hotels is beyond pointless. You can put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn’t change the flavor of the bacon. If I left my husband today, I don’t know that I could ever remarry, because, like you, I’ve become jaded.
I’m grateful for your affair.
I know how absurd that sounds, given what I’ve just typed; I’m shaking my head as I write it. Don’t get me wrong, there’d be no welcome embrace if we met in person. But a lot of honest self-assessment occurred in the wake of your narcissistic choices. I’m closer to my husband than I ever thought possible. He’s had to learn to become even more vulnerable with me, and I’ve done that for him, too. I always prided myself on being emotionally available and connected, and this affair was a laser pointer to all my weaknesses as a person, let alone as a wife. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily to this grudge-holder, and my pride has had to take a seat too.
You gave me an opportunity to rise to the occasion for myself and for my marriage. I learned that I’m more forgiving and more gracious than I ever thought possible. I learned that all marriages are fragile, and even good marriages embrace their weaknesses. I learned that I’m more courageous than I ever imagined. Your affair strengthened my marriage.
What I know:
I know that you owe me nothing. When I chose to stay married to him, I chose to adopt your affair as my own: to go to therapy, to repeat the mantra “Today I choose marriage” every day, to put aside my ego and accept that I may never erase the moment I found out. It’s been three years since I found the Gchat, and let me tell you this: It still hurts. I can still see what he said to you and your response as though it’s right there between me and this screen. Your chat is now a part of what remains, indelible prints on our story, like our marriage vows. And I choose this. That’s the consequence of staying with someone who cheats.
I now know that sometimes staying is the harder choice.
I also know that we belong to each other, you and I. Your reaction to this may be: I wasn’t married to you, so you weren’t my problem. Should I think that when someone is jaywalking in front of my car as I hurry to work? Should I allow that to dictate my response when your love flirts with me? No. My need for attention doesn’t trump your need for security. Likewise, your actions became my consequences; like knots in a kite string, you and I are connected forever.
I know I forgive you for participating in an affair with my husband, even though you didn’t apologize. I know that even though it makes you feel better to believe so, not all people choose adultery as the salve for their broken hearts. Maybe you’ll be able to acknowledge that you do regret dating married men, and that acknowledgment won’t send you into a dangerous shame spiral. And, because I belong to you, I will hold out hope for that day.