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The Sugars will be spending the next couple of months working on new episodes. During the month of May, by popular demand, we're listening back to our 4-part series on Infidelity.
This episode was originally released on September 11, 2015.
The Dear Sugar inbox receives more letters about infidelity than any other topic, and they come from all sides of the dilemma — the betrayed, the betrayers and the other men/women. Every story is painful and complicated in its own way.
And so, we are dedicating multiple episodes to infidelity. In Part 1, the Sugars discuss letters from people who have been betrayed by their partners. They're joined by writer and performer Lauren Weedman, who experienced one of the more nightmarish clichés of infidelity.
Next week in Part 2, the Sugars hear from the betrayers.
I am highly introverted and spent most of my adolescence and early adulthood single, thinking I was unlikely to marry and have a family, about which I felt mostly content. Sure, I had my warm-blooded moments, but mostly I felt that, as a woman, any status and fulfillment I gave up by not being someone's wife and mother was worth the freedom and solitude. But 13 years ago, when I was in my late 20s, I met a man who became my husband. Our bond, and the joy and comfort I drew from it, made it effortless for me to dramatically change my life and be someone's other, and, within a few years, someone's mother. I had never been so happy. It took me by surprise. Normally a reserved cynic, I actually believed, Sugars, that I had a nearly perfect, and most unexpected, life; that I had stumbled into big lottery luck.
However, after our second child, I felt what I thought was pedestrian marital strain, and I found us a therapist. Just as we began, I discovered, in a very traumatic way (meaning police at my door late one night), that my husband and my close friend had been keeping secret company for a year – an escalating emotional infidelity, at least. It was devastating, of course. Five years later, we are still limping along. We've done work, we've had some sweet moments, we are committed to raising our kids together. But it's never been the same. I've never been the same, Sugars, and I know that's the deal. But I'm still often sad, despite any hard-fought forgiveness and understanding I've managed to eke out. We have a nice life, but my heart never fully returned to it. Could it still? I think about future lives for myself. But I'm here for another decade and would like to make the most of it.
Cheryl Strayed: I’m really struck by the fact that it’s been five years and Half-hearted still feels this pain. So many couples who experience infidelity, if they decide to stay together and do that work, actually look back on the affair with a certain amount of awareness that it did, in some ways, make them stronger or closer. It sounds like Half-hearted thinks this destroyed her.
Steve Almond: Yeah, it’s as if the joy and comfort is gone and it’s just survival mode. Therapy hasn’t yielded that deeper connection and kind of regeneration that has to happen when there’s been a betrayal of this magnitude.
Cheryl: It’s one thing to have a partner who has said, “I was in this situation, I felt this desire, I don’t know what I was thinking.” But two people betrayed Half-Hearted — the husband and the close friend. There’s a layer of cruelty here. The husband didn’t have an affair with just anyone. He had an affair with somebody who Half-hearted considered a friend. That’s just mean.
Steve: When you’re talking about the Betrayed, the question is, “Why? Why did you cheat on me in this way? What needs and desires that were unmet in the context of our marriage, was this expressing? Were you angry at me, in a way that would cause you to betray me in a way that’s engineered to bring me such a sense of anger and unhappiness? How, in your own conscious or unconscious mind, have I betrayed you, or has this marriage betrayed you?” An apology is never good enough in the case of infidelity. I don’t know if Half-hearted has gotten an honest accounting of these things.
Cheryl: I don’t think infidelity is an automatic deal-killer. But for some people, it might be true that when their partner is unfaithful, it’s perfectly legitimate to say, “I can forgive you, I can accept you and co-parent our kids together, but I can’t maintain this relationship anymore. I don’t want to be involved with anyone who has a history of having betrayed me and slept with my friend.” I think this response is as legitimate as working it out with your partner. But what does she do with her half-heartedness? You can make a reasonable case for her continuing on. They have kids. Maybe they can talk about an exit plan, or she can go to her husband and say, “I’m just not feeling it. Maybe we did damage something irreparably.” Healing might not look like them coming back together. It might look like them gracefully and lovingly coming apart.
Steve: Half-hearted, you’re suggesting, “I’ve got another decade to go, it’s a fait accompli, there’s nothing I can do, I’ve got to stay in this marriage.” But do you? You write, “I'm still often sad, despite forgiveness and understanding. We have a nice life. But my heart never fully returned to it. Could it still?” We have no idea. But if you have asked all of the right questions, and if you have told him, “My heart has not fully returned to this marriage,” I think we can say, it’s no kind of way to live to say, “I have 10 more years in this relationship that is making me feel diminished.” So something has to change.
My husband and I have been married three years and have a beautiful 5-month-old baby. While I was pregnant, we relocated to a new country to pursue a job opportunity for him. I was loving our new city and the little apartment I made into our cozy home. My husband enjoys his work and recently got a promotion. I felt like we were both genuinely happy, loving being new parents and all the new adventures we shared in the last year.
When I discovered 'the text.’ I did so innocently — I wasn't snooping or suspicious at all. After lots of questions and lies, he finally admitted that he hired a prostitute while the baby and I were out of town. The deed happened in our home. This has come as a total shock to me. It has rocked me to my core. I learned of the infidelity while we were away from home, and I haven't been able to return to the house since — or probably ever. I feel so violated.
My main issue is the deceit. I'm a very open person who would have welcomed an honest conversation about his needs and desires without judgement. He never told me about any unhappiness or sexual frustration. The optimist in me hopes this could be an opportunity to make our relationship stronger, but I don't know if I will ever be able to trust him again. Where do I go from here?
Married to a stranger
Cheryl: This feels premeditated in a way that is devastating. You're making an appointment and a date, essentially, to have sex with someone.
Steve: The fact that this happened in their home is so important — because pregnancy and after pregnancy is a time intensely focused on making a home, protection, nurturing and making sure that that man is in, 100%. But what’s going on for the man is completely different. We’re jealous. We want to be number one, and a baby comes along and lets us know that we’re not number one anymore. And we shouldn’t be, but it’s tough for men to take. Is that a justification? Absolutely not. This is rotten behavior. But it is an explanation, and it’s why we see so many letters where infidelity is triggered by the recent birth of a child or a second child or pregnancy.
Cheryl: Married to a stranger, I hope you can know in your heart that your husband’s decision to do this isn’t about you or your attractiveness or even his desire for you. I don’t excuse it either. I think he might have been making the decision to go hire a prostitute just to get a sexual need met. He doesn’t want to go fall in love with somebody else. I hope that it’s helpful for you to try to detach your sexual intimacy with your husband from this act he committed. When you and your husband have sex, it is love. It is intimacy. It isn’t just sex. And he brought this other person into your home, and he had a very different kind of sexual experience. And really, if you’re cheating on your partner, don’t do it in the home. We don’t need the extra layer.
Steve: And she’s also just moved to a foreign country because of his job opportunity, so all of this is happening on terra incognita without her supports around – her family and friends.
Cheryl: When I was cheated on, what blew me away was how personally I took it, even though when I myself had been the cheater, I had said to the person I loved and cheated on, “It’s not about you at all. It was only a sex act, and it meant nothing.” “It meant nothing,” in some ways, is even more devastating to hear, because you think, “You’re willing to hurt me this much for something that meant nothing?” But sex isn't’ about reason, and it’s not about justice. Your husband was very unjust and unkind to you through this. But it can also be true that he had a moment of weakness when you were gone. It doesn’t mean that everything you’ve shared together is to be negated by this moment. If he’s still worthy of your love and forgiveness, he’ll prove himself to be. You ask, “Can this be something that makes our relationship stronger?” And I say, “Absolutely, yes.” Time will tell. You say, “Where do we go from here?” You go one step at a time, one day at a time, trying to make good decisions for yourself and your baby and your life. It depends so much on how willing your husband is to be vulnerable to you and make amends and earn your trust back. I think it’s worth holding on a bit longer to see what happens between you.
Steve: If you’re worried about your husband doing this again, have the talk with him right now about what his needs are, what his frustrations are, and maybe that means you’ll realize he wasn’t as strong and together as you thought. And then you will be able to figure out if you can figure this out within the context of the marriage, or if you don’t feel safe being in this marriage. But you have to have a brutally honest, tender, ruthless discussion, maybe with a counselor, that makes sure everyone is being held to account. And you need to do it now.
Lauren Weedman: My husband had an affair with our babysitter — just the most embarrassing, weird, nightmarish cliché. And I found out about it because I found a sex video that she had made for him. Cheating was one of my worst fears, always. I went completely numb. I didn’t have as much anger as I did grief. But it has helped me to feel both emotions. It surprises me, because I’ll think I’m okay, but then I start crying about what happened. How did I let this man, who was so duplicitous, into my life? But I try to let that happen, because I have to remember, this did happen. This is what is.
Steve: That’s the paradox of being the betrayed. You have to carry around the story about how you’ve been cheated on with the babysitter — even though, almost inevitably, your partner who betrayed you is the weak one.
Lauren: After it happened, I had to say, “This will not kill me. I’m not going to end up being someone who gets worse and worse in my life. It has to make me stronger. It has to be okay.” At first, it looked like he had just had one night with her — one fling. And I remember thinking, “We could get over that. It would be hard, but we could get over it.” But then it just kept getting worse and worse until I realized, there’s absolutely no choice at all. We’re done.
Cheryl: When you do forgive? When do you give someone a second, or third, or fifth, or tenth chance? And when do you say, “No, you crossed a line, and I’m going to move on.” I don’t think there’s one answer to that. But I think the most important piece of it is, is the person willing to be intimate and vulnerable with you, and can you continue to love in the face of that vulnerability?
Steve: The real question is, what meaning does the infidelity have for you? There’s the weakness inside the betrayer. And then, what does it mean for the betrayed? What rock-bottom, foundational fears does it awaken? Until you get to the answers to those questions, you can’t get past it.
New episodes of Dear Sugar Radio are released weekly. Do you have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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