While reading this weekend's New York Times Magazine's cover story about infidelity, I thought about the cases of my two girlfriends, Sarah and Kim, who were having affairs while my marriage was on the rocks. Ironically, I was the betrayed wife, while they were "other women."
Sarah had been in a clandestine relationship with a married man for twelve years. She was a bohemian writer in her 50s who led a very independent life and actually was happy with the arrangement. She didn't want a live-in lover to cramp her style, but she did want sex and love, which he provided. He was in love with Sarah, but was a very conventional man who couldn't bear to leave his family, even after the kids were grown. For all those years he got to carry on the fiction that he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather and she got sex and love without the annoyance of having to share her bathroom.
Kim on the other hand was a pretty, perfectly nice 45-year-old housewife, married to a perfectly nice Jewish podiatrist, with whom she'd raised two perfectly nice daughters, one in her last year of high school and one in college. Bored to tears with her husband she started searching on the Internet for an old flame, Frank. They rekindled the fire. There were some minor obstacles, however. Frank was married and lived in the Midwest. He had a wife and three kids--all under eighteen.
There was no deterring true love however. Despite two spouses and five kids they started an Internet affair which became progressively more torrid, eventually turning into an actual affair. They declared eternal love, felt that they had always loved each other, still loved each other, should have and would have married when they were young if her parents hadn't broken up their romance. It was beshert, fated. They were sure they were meant to be together.
Frank moved to New York and they left their mates to be together. The mates both went into severe shock, retaliating in the way betrayed spouses usually do, by cleaning out bank accounts and hiring killer attorneys. Kim's daughters seemed to adjust but her mother and sister stopped speaking to her. Frank's son stopped speaking to him. His wife became obsessed with revenge, tried to turn his kids against him, and took him to the cleaners big time.
I was caught in the middle since I was friends with both of them and, despite my situation as the betrayed wife who was left for a younger woman, I understood their dilemma. Kim would ask me plaintively, "What am I supposed to do? I'm only 45. My husband is a nice man and has never treated me badly, but do I have to spend the rest of my life with someone I don't love?"
Frank, on the other hand, was married to a woman who had total contempt for him. When they'd gone to marriage counseling and the counselor asked her to talk about his positive qualities, all she could come up with was, "He doesn't drink." I know what she meant. He wasn't exactly Mr. Adorable. A gruff, control freak criminal lawyer given to explosive rages, he intimidated just about everyone except Kim, who turned him into a puppy dog. He felt totally alone, that no one would ever love him until she came back into his life. He could not pass up what seemed his only chance for happiness. They were soulmates, etc, etc. Even though I was in the reverse situation, I sympathized with them because I knew their dilemmas, and I didn't know their betrayed spouses.
In the end Sarah's lover's wife died. He stuck by her till the end, taking her to all her chemo appointments and staying by her bedside when she died. "I admire him for that," Sarah told me. "I wouldn't respect him if he'd deserted her when she really needed him." They now live together and she's part of his family, which Sarah actually found that she likes. However, they both are very careful to maintain the fiction that they met after his wife died, not before.
Frank and Kim got married, and after seven years are still happily married. According to her the downside is that he took a big financial hit which means they won't be able to retire as early as they'd hoped. Their families have adjusted more or less but the wounds still run deep.
Was it worth it, I asked her? Kim answers, "Of course. He's my sweetie. It's been hard but life is complicated anyway. We've had a great time together." I bring up that he's still estranged from his son and she hasn't spoken to her sister in years. "What I've learned is that other people taking sides is never good for children," she said.
I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have cared a whit if my husband had just had sex with someone else. I would have actually given my blessing to an occasional fling if it meant we could have preserved our marriage and our child's happiness. I wouldn't have minded if he wanted to sext women on the internet a la Anthony Weiner, or even have meaningless affairs a la Bill Clinton. I would have drawn the line at another family a la Schwartzenneger, however, but I'm no puritan.
During our many heated discussions where I'd plead with him not to leave, my husband would bring up Sarah's situation, declaring fiercely that he refused to live a lie like Sarah's longtime lover. He compared himself to the character Meryl Streep played in "The Bridges of Madison County." He neglected to mention that Meryl stuck with her marriage for the sake of her kids. As for me, I stubbornly believe that Sarah's lover did the right thing and my husband and Frank and Kim did the wrong thing. Their happy endings came at an enormous price.
No matter how much I want love, and I've been a love junkie myself big time, I'd happily live a lie if it spared my kid one moment of grief. I believe deep down that both my ex and Kim and Frank are missing something in the empathy department--and in the ethical department. But then I've never been tested by finding my "soulmate" while married to someone else. I'd like to think I'd do the right thing, but I'll never know for sure.
In the end I have to agree with the premise of the recent book: "Sex at Dawn" by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, that when it comes to marriage and divorce and fidelity--there are no black and whites--only shades of gray. We humans are not naturally monogamous and expecting lifelong fidelity is a recipe for divorce.