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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 18, 2015.
The Sugars continue their exploration of infidelity by hearing from people who have betrayed their partners. They discuss a letter from a desperate wife, whose husband gave her a second chance after an emotional infidelity, only for her to do it again; and another from a young mother who has gotten herself tangled up with the neighbor after years in an unhappy marriage.
In Part 1, the Sugars heard from the Betrayed. And in Part 3, the Sugars speak to a leading expert on infidelity, who will make you rethink everything you thought you knew on the subject.
Please help. I'm desperate, frantic and terrified. A bomb just went off and it's killing my family, and I'm the one who lit the fuse.
The story is one you've read before. I'm a 39-year-old wife to a wonderful man. Our tenth wedding anniversary is later this year. We have two fantastic children, ages 7 and 10.
Six months ago, my husband accompanied me to my 20-year high school reunion. I didn't see my high school boyfriend there, as we went one night and he went the next. Despite dating for two years and being each other's "first," I hadn't even really thought about seeing him there. It was all another lifetime ago. But somebody texted me his picture a day or so after we went home, and I asked for his number so we could catch up. I texted him and he replied. We shared updates, pictures of our kids and of our current selves. He is divorced, but living with his girlfriend. I told my husband about the then-innocent exchanges.
But over the next month, the messages turned flirtatious, and then, intimate. I never saw him – it was all emotional and sexual texting. Soon, my husband discovered the truth, including inappropriate photos I had sent to my ex-boyfriend. It was awful, but my husband was amazing, and while hurt and angry, he agreed to work through it together. We both acknowledged that our marriage had lost intimacy over the years with the minutia of kids, jobs, bills, etc. The next month between us was like being newlyweds – loads of great sex and really being together.
So why the fuck did I do it again? After a break, the old boyfriend reached out to check if everything was well, and I should have hit “delete.” I didn't. In all honesty, even in the throes of renewed passion with my husband, I was still grieving the loss of that other, not real, relationship and craving that, not real, text attention. It was like a drug. I knew it was poison, and I did it again anyway.
You can guess what happened next. My husband discovered my lies, deceit and betrayal yet again.
He is done. I am flailing.
The other relationship seemed contained, unreal, like an addictive video game that I looked forward to every day. I was positive I would tire of it and quit. I had no interest in this ex beyond that, despite my husband seeing that I’d sent texts that said “I love you” to this person.
I am in love with my husband, I’m happy with him, and I want so desperately to keep our world of home, extended families, friends, all of it, intact. For our kids, yes, but not just them. This is the life I want and need. Like the air that I breathe, I need this. I need him. I love him.
My husband says whatever trust was rebuilt is permanently shattered and that he is moving on with his life. He says now that he knows who I am, it will be easy for him to leave me. I am trying to convince him with certainly empty-sounding words that THIS IS NOT WHO I AM. The woman that has been his partner and stayed home to raise our kids and shared these many long years of good things is who I am. The 11 years we've been together is who we are, not these past 6 months.
What can I do to save my marriage? Is all lost forever? Do people like me ever get third chances? Do I deserve what is coming? Please, help me with anything I can do just to get a shred of hope that I can fix this. I will spend every day of the rest of my life with regret. But can I also spend every day proving that this time it’s different? I'm shaken to the core and will do whatever it takes to save my family from myself. Please help me. Please.
Cheryl Strayed: I feel so sad for both the letter writer and her husband. I can see where the husband is coming from, frankly. He forgave his wife this first infidelity. I’m sure he was thinking, “Everybody makes a mistake, and you get one.” You made this mistake, and you and your husband recovered from it. But then, you did it again. So what that tells him is, this wasn’t a mistake — this is what you wanted. And of course, she’s telling us, it isn’t.
Steve Almond: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Heartbroken Heartbreaker, you understand that you violated your husband’s trust at a time when your job was to stop violating his trust and assure him that you wouldn’t violate his trust again. And what’s so aching about this letter is — and for what? She clearly so deeply loves her husband and this life they’ve built together and this sense of who she is in the marriage, and she recognizes that this texting infatuation and the attention she was getting is so small next to that. And yet, betrayers still can’t stop it. Why do they make that bad transaction? We can see, with the first instance of emotional infidelity, that part of what she got is what a lot of couples really desire when they stray – to be brought back together and have their love renewed. And so they do that – they come back together, they have hot sex, it’s reawakened. But then, she presses the button. That, to me, is what is truly mysterious, and it should be the central mystery that you, Heartbroken, are considering. Why, the second time, after you had renewed the relationship and started to rebuild the trust, caused you to stray? What wishes caused you to say, “I just need a little bit more of that. I know it’s poison, but I need a little more.”
Cheryl: It has glimmers of what we associate with addiction. We get this thrill out of this very easy, flirty exchange that one can have via text messages. I think that she went into it that second time because she remembered that thrill and that sort of ecstasy that one experiences when someone is telling you something exciting about you being special to them in a way that nobody else is. The fact of the matter is that most of us are able to have monogamies, and she was able to have a monogamy for 11 years, because we control that urge in our bodies. We say, “I know it would be fun to flirt with this person, but I have a commitment.” I really think this is a woman who loves her husband, and as rightful as the husband’s rage is, I hope that this couple finds a way to work it out. Her strength is in how self-aware she is of what happened. She’s not blaming her husband. She’s aware that this isn’t real. She’s aware that the piece of her that this is setting off is in the fantasy realm.
Steve: She puts in capital letters, “THIS IS NOT WHO I AM.” Heartbroken Heartbreaker, the one place I think you need to rethink this is that this actually is who you are. You’re both of those things at once — a loving, loyal wife who wants desperately to be with this man for the rest of your life, and a woman who so wanted to feel the novelty and thrill and unreal fantasy of new love, that you emotionally cheated and sexted with this guy – not once, but twice. I really counsel you not to say to your husband over and over again, “I’m not that person who did that thing, I’m this other person who wants to be with you.” Some part of you needed to touch the fire twice, and until you can explain to him and yourself why you did that, he has every reason to expect that, sooner or later, you’ll want to touch it again. All of us, frankly, want to do that. There’s nobody walking around in a long-term, monogamous relationship, who hasn’t – for a few seconds, a few hours, or a few texts, or even months or years – wanted to feel the thrill of an uncomplicated love that isn’t saddled with the baggage of everything that she describes between the lines of her letter.
Cheryl: Heartbroken Heartbreaker, the way to win somebody back – somebody who says, “It’s over, I’m done with you, I don’t want you anymore, I can’t be in this relationship anymore,” – is to keep loving that person and being the partner to them that they deserve. Maybe your husband, for his own dignity and clarity and heart, needs a break. Your letter begins, “I’m desperate, frantic, and terrified.” Your husband is, too, so give him some space and time. Because even if you do win him back tomorrow, the work isn’t done. The work is never done. Any sort of difficulty like this between couples comes back in different ways. It’s a process, and we do hope you can save your marriage, Heartbroken Heartbreaker.
I sit here paralyzed with fear. I am a few months shy of 28. I checked off all of the boxes on my way to get here. I graduated college, got married, bought an SUV, had two kids, quit my job to stay home with them, and settled into a typical two-story amidst a row of identical houses in a quiet, suburban neighborhood. All of these boxes were supposed to equal happily-ever-after.
Such a stark contrast from my own childhood. I’m a by-product of teenage parents – a father who was abusive and eventually bailed when I was 6, and a mother who never got a chance to grow up, so she spent our childhood trying to party through hers. As kids, we were often handed a trash bag and told to throw away as much as we could before sneaking out in the middle of the night to avoid a landlord. We didn’t have stability. Half the time, we didn’t even have electricity or food.
My circumstances at home pushed me to jump into a serious relationship and move in with a boy I had been dating for a few months. It was a very toxic relationship — he was deeply un-trusting of people, and this resulted in severe angry outbursts towards me. After two years, I finally got up the courage to end our relationship. He promised he would change and surprisingly, he really did. Things were so good that we got back together and got married. We had our kids.
I don’t know when it began to change. My husband got promoted and we moved again. He became very serious about work. I was supportive and understanding, but his life became nothing but work, and I became his verbal and emotional punching bag. I figured he was going through a rough patch. I tried to help, I tried to stick by him, I tried to get him to let me in. Meanwhile, he constantly put me down. I began to feel hopeless.
7 months ago, what started as a run-of-the-mill conversation with my neighbor friend’s husband turned into more. Like some pathetic scene out of a TV show, I found myself engaging in an affair with a man who lives across the street. It felt so good to be wanted and needed – to be asked questions beyond “How was your day?” I could be my truest self with him, and the sexual chemistry was boundless. We had always agreed that this – whatever “this” was – wasn’t going anywhere. It couldn’t go anywhere, as we are both married with families. He broke it off five months ago, saying that it was getting too deep. But we’ve continued to occasionally get together for sex. Caught up in the whirlwind of our secret little world, I hadn’t really stopped to consider all sides of the situation. But now that we’re mostly off, I’m wondering where the hell I went wrong.
So many emotions are running through me. They are, one, shock. I have never cheated and would NEVER have thought of myself as the type of person who could.
Two, immense guilt. Despite how my husband has treated me, despite all of the events leading up to my affair, I know it’s wrong. I can no longer label myself a “good wife.” And the neighbor friend whose husband I’m having an affair with – how can I call myself a friend when I’ve done this to her? I have two kids and she has four kids, and when I think about them, I feel even worse.
Three, heartbreak. I never meant for this to happen, but I fell in love with the other man. He’s been clear that our relationship does not have a future. I know this, and yet, I still keep going back to him. My heartbreak is made worse by the fact that he and his wife live across the street and I have to see them all the time. Our kids play together. I babysit their children when they go out on dates. I stand in their house after the kids have gone to bed. I just can’t believe I got myself into this mess.
Four, fear. I am never going to tell my husband about this affair. The affair was a symptom, not the problem. At the same time, how can I move forward in my marriage with that secret inside of me? The bigger issue is that our marriage was then, and still is, in very uncertain territory. We’ve had several heavy conversations over the last few weeks about how I can’t take his behavior towards me anymore, and he promises he can change again. But what if he can’t? What if he won’t? My mother and I took such different paths in our late teens and throughout our twenties, but what if, essentially, I have ended up at the same place as her – too afraid to be something more? What will this do to our kids?
Five, confusion. My husband and I already have so much baggage from our relationship in earlier times when things were bad. I love him, but I no longer feel connected to him. I can barely kiss him without involuntarily turning away. He’s put me through so much over the last decade and I was so good to him, until I had this affair. How do you know when it’s time to cut your losses and move on?
I did everything I was supposed to do – everything I thought I wanted to do. But the life everyone sees on the outside is like night and day compared to how I feel about my life on the inside.
How do I get out of the woods?
Steve: What a burden to carry around. I think a lot of people are trapped in relationships, especially in a marriage with kids, and a lot of the reason that they don’t change that is that it’s just going to send everything into chaos. But it’s very clear that, for a long time, she’s been really unhappy. That loneliness and the sense that she feels bullied and taken for granted by her husband – you can start to understand why she would want positive attention and why she might have an affair with somebody across the street, neighbor-friend and kids be damned. She’s self-reflective enough to see that she feels trapped in the same way that her mom was, and she’s smart enough to recognize that she might be playing out the same scenario.
Cheryl: She’s right that this affair was a symptom of a greater problem. Where Lost’s energies need to focus are on this question – is this marriage worth saving? She’s not leaving her husband for this other guy. She’s leaving her husband for herself. She needs to ask herself, “What do I want in her life?” These traumatic times in our lives bring us to a deeper consciousness of who we are and what we want. My sense is that Lost is realizing that she escaped her sad childhood by jumping into a sad marriage. She’s never been alone. Maybe the painful awakening is, it’s time for a new era in her life. Once you realize that, then you can go about figuring out how that happens with some compassion and kindness and love. And I think that you do that from a place of strength, not of weakness. The first bit of advice to Lost is, stop sleeping with the neighbor. It’s fun, it’s sexy, but it’s a total distraction, and it clouds your ability to stand on your own two feet during this process.
Steve: Lost, what’s most important is that you have had an awakening that you want a greater share of love and respect and happiness and esteem. It’s not that you are just destructive and evil. You are in need and in pain, and you are maybe seeking the wrong means to try to get some greater share of happiness. But your desires and needs aren’t evil.
Cheryl: And Lost – the lovely, clarifying thing about being lost is, your only mission is to find your way.
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