Maybe what goes around really does came around. I have not only been the betrayed wife but the other woman. I know how it feels to be in both positions. No matter what they say, being the other woman was a hell of a lot easier. Or maybe I was just younger then.
In college my boyfriend was married and an alcoholic. Why would I pick such a loser? He was incredibly brilliant and dazzled me with his mind. He liked the way I looked, extra padding and all. His wife, a boring housewife who didn't "understand" him or appreciate his intelligence, lived in the boring Bronx with their daughter. I lived in glittering Manhattan with a roommate. His wife wasn't real to me--she was just an obstacle. Every once in a while he'd move in with me for a few days and I'd be thrilled. The prospect of having him to myself was exhilarating. Eventually his drinking grew old and I stopped seeing him. I found that I wasn't attracted to alcoholics and never went out with another one, but married men retained their appeal. They were older, more sophisticated, and definitely more appreciative.
When I was 22, right out of college, I worked at the New York City Welfare Department, in a cavernous room filled with rows of wooden desks with linoleum tops. Michael, a charismatic poet, sat at the next desk. He was a tall, blond, intense, but rather aloof fellow, a couple of years older than me, who lived on the bohemian Lower East Side. He'd published a few small poetry collections and was well-known in the small circle of Lower East Side artists and writers he hung out with. I was adrift in New York City with no idea what to do with my life but I worshiped the arts and artistic men in particular. To me he cut a powerfully romantic figure. It was the late sixties and the Welfare Department was the temporary refuge for artistic types who needed to support themselves.
I hated the job and spent my days flirting with Michael. The only hindrance to our budding romance was his pregnant wife and their young child. His marital status made him a challenge to seduce and I couldn't resist. Michael and I fell madly in love and had a steamy affair. I reveled in his adoration of me. I tried desperately to talk him into leaving his wife, invoking the power of our love. I was a romantic to the core and never questioned that love should always triumph. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with breaking up his marriage. The women's movement was in the future and in the meantime I was a child of the sixties who assumed marriage was a bourgeois invention that should be trashed along with the establishment.
To his credit, Michael resisted, deeply ambivalent about leaving his wife who he said he also loved, though not the way he loved me. No mad passion there. He felt she needed him and was reluctant to just dump her. His solution was to take a trip across the country--alone--to think about it.
For me it was out of sight, out of mind. I fell in love with Larry, yet another romantic writer, and moved in with him. After he dumped me a year later--he was tired of me hassling him to get married--I called Michael to see if he wanted to take up where we'd left off. Although he said he still loved me, the answer was a resounding no. It seemed his wife, who was pregnant when we'd met, had found out about us and then committed suicide after the baby was born. She was devastated by his infidelity, and was also undoubtedly stricken by post-partum depression as well, an unknown malady at the time. He now had two small children and felt too massively guilty to have anything to do with me ever again. I was shocked, horrified, but it never really occurred to me to feel guilty about his poor wife--or poor kids-- my ethical development was sorely lacking I'm afraid. To my eternal shame I only felt sorry for myself. No man, no place to live, no job.
The wheel of karma turns. Thirty-five years later, after my husband and I adopted a child, he left me for his "soul mate." I'm not superstitious enough to think the two were related, but the universe works in strange ways. I may have contemplated suicide, but I'm just not the type. In the end I realized I was better off without him. My suffering was garden variety. The one who really suffered was my adopted daughter, who, at age seven wound up in a psychiatric hospital diagnosed with a mood disorder. She felt abandoned both by me, since I was too depressed to be there for her emotionally, and also by her father who left me for another woman. He had been her primary caretaker as well, so that compounded the injury. She cried every night for a year, and then became progressively more angry, destructive, violent and even suicidal. The poor kid--whose birth mom had been an addict--really didn't have the inner emotional resources to deal with divorce. She desperately needed to be held together not torn apart.
One day while I was visiting her in the hospital she said, "Mommy, I wouldn't be here if you and daddy hadn't got divorced." My heart about stopped. Her therapist at the hospital concurred, saying that there wasn't a kid there who wasn't a child of divorce, and since our divorce was particularly high-conflict, she had suffered terribly. The hospital shrink virtually ordered us to get along for our daughter's sake. I wish I could report that we've managed to do that, but we haven't. We've managed to reach an uneasy truce, which sometimes blows up into all out war. My daughter, in middle school now, is lot better, but is still very troubled. She has forever lost that exuberance and love for life she had as a toddler, before divorce tore her life to shreds. She will never be the same--and neither will I.