“Girl, look at you!”
“Phillip! Oh my god, can you believe we’re here at a national sales meeting with a completely different company the same weekend as our old company’s? It feels surreal.”
Phillip and I had left our previous employer through a reduction in force and landed at a west-coast based firm in the same industry, but it had been a couple of years since our last face-to-face encounter.
“You look great,” he said. He was kind. The truth was, I was up about fifteen pounds and not feeling my best. I had packed a dress for the banquet without trying it on at home first. If only I’d packed my Spanx!
“Have you heard from Flynn?” He asked. “He’s moved to Utah.”
“I don’t know to be honest, but I think he moved there by himself.” Phillip alluded I should reach out to our mutual friend. Was he divorced now, or going through the steps of filing?
I’d been divorced five years by this point. Flynn wasn’t why my marriage failed, and I wasn’t going to be that woman who ended his, but I had yearned for a happy-ever-after with him thinking he too would leave a situation he painted as “miserable.”
Unfortunately, the comfort of his staying outweighed my hope.
Regular communication from him reignited my optimism over the years until the previous January when I finally asked him to leave me alone. In our last text thread, he had posed a hypothetical about getting together if he were single. His what-if scenarios hooked me into thinking I had a chance in the early years. A slow learner, I had finally grown to see them for what they were: a game, a ploy to boost his ego.
Do you think I’d want to jump into a relationship if you showed up here fresh out of your marriage? No way. I texted back then.
Why? He asked.
Five years of post-divorce dating and one deceased boyfriend had taught me how messed up people were. If they weren’t damaged before their marriage fell apart, they were lost in its wake, searching less for connection than soulless sexual encounters afterward.
I’ll never date a man fresh out of his marriage again, I texted. You’d have to be legally single for at least two years before I considered seeing you because I’m uninterested in being a piece-of-ass. But let’s be honest, you’re NOT single, and you NEVER will be. You want to complain about how unhappy you are and flirt with me as if I mean something to you, but I don’t. It only serves to lead me on while you dangle some pathetic carrot of attention. Everyone else’s opinions in your family matter more than your happiness, assuming you even are unhappy. I think that’s a lie too. Please leave me alone and go away.
Fair enough, he texted back, and that was it. I had not heard from him in more than twelve months when I ran into Phillip. Had Flynn taken my words to heart, though, and moved to Utah to start over like a freshly divorced man? Was he doing the work of healing himself so we might build a future together?
Oh, how I clung to this renewed hope for all of three days. I found an excuse to reach out to him only to learn he’d moved to Utah with his spouse. I shook my head at my stupidity, not only because I had trusted Phillip, but because it reopened communication lines with Flynn.
For the next three years, ordinary people checked the passage of time with a calendar. I noted the quarterly change of seasons by Flynn’s cyberstalking on LinkedIn. Over this past summer, the communication resumed with periodic weekend texts. Why was he reaching out on a Friday night out of the blue, I wondered?
In the last exchange, he shared how he watched a show in one part of the house while his wife did her thing in another.
I texted I think I talk more to my ex-husband than you do to your wife.
I think you’re right, he wrote. LOL.
What’s up with the “separate lives” stuff?
You think something’s wrong in our marriage because we watch different shows?
No, I think something’s wrong because you keep texting me. If everything’s hunky-dory, then why do you keep reaching out?
I don’t know, he texted.
And that was it. Had holding up the mirror on Flynn’s behavior finally given him the feedback he needed to stop emotionally cheating on his wife? Was it enough for him to leave me alone at long last?
On my end, I deleted our text thread and closed the door for the last time.
I’ve been unpacking the reasons behind my emotional involvement with a married man more than ten years ago.
I’ve spoken with friends on both sides of the debate, perhaps in simultaneous pursuit of absolution and affirmation that I’m not all bad. One friend would never consider adultery while another currently waits for her lover to extract himself from his unhappy nuptials.
In the latter situation, the man reminds me of Flynn when he says he can’t leave his wife until their child graduates high school. Will he find the courage to file when his daughter departs for college? Or will another excuse supplant the one he’s relied on for a decade or more?
People begin and end relationships all the time. Like my friend, I don’t know how to ask and get what I want or need out of a relationship without triggering a partner’s defensive response. Combine that with being intensely pursued by another, and it’s no wonder marriages end.
A woman I’ve connected with from a writing group on this infidelity topic expressed the guilt she faced developing feelings for a person she met online as her marriage ended.
Her internet gaming friend refused to start anything up with her unless she was free and clear. They waited to date until the divorce was final and married two years later. Would the outcome have been different had the gamer intensely pursued her while she was married?
I know of two women in my distant family who met their current husbands while married to another. The status of their sexual relationships is unknown, but I’m curious. Did they canoodle before the ink dried on their decrees, or did they abstain like my writing friend?
I have a hard time believing they waited, but does it matter at the end of the day? And why is emotionally attaching ourselves to someone outside of marriage somehow more acceptable than screwing them in the first place? More importantly, why do we care?
Hollywood inaccurately portrays love while glorifying extramarital dalliances. Does our culture’s obsessive focus on romance and cheating activate our unhealthy participation in both? Furthermore, does all this talk around the morality of sex and unfaithfulness lead us further down a road of shame and blame?
In Hannah Smothers’ 2017 Cosmopolitan article, “8 Reasons Why You Should Rethink Your Stance on Cheating,” she interviewed relationship expert and psychotherapist, Esther Perel, on why we should loosen up on the topic of cheating.
Judging people who stray is fundamentally harmful to those who’ve experienced it precisely because so many people have been affected by it (she uses Beyoncé and Jay-Z as an example).
As Perel says, cheating “can’t be summarized in black and white…it can’t just be a good person and a bad person.” The emotions and experiences tying into the infidelity have to be better understood and approached with compassion.
I question whether I have perpetuated these notions of shame and blame in “Falling in Love with a Married Man,” by arguing how wrong it is to cheat and let go of an affair before it starts.
Is it as simple as that? As much as I’d like it to, I don’t think an essay on loving a married man will preclude an entire generation of younger people from doing the same — not when the reasons for it are about so much more than sex.
Are you engaging in an affair?
I’m not here to judge you if you are, but can you peel back the reasons for why it happened (or continues to happen)? Can you stand in the emotional discomfort of self-evaluation long enough to honestly look at the motivations behind your decision to cheat, and can you change?
I mentioned above how I could never figure out how to ask and get what I want out of a relationship without triggering my partner’s defensiveness. Filing for divorce may or may not have been the solution to my troubled marriage, but getting involved with someone else near the end muddied the water. It kept me from doing the hard work of figuring out why I don’t stand up for myself in a relationship and extended the road to healing after divorce.
Peering through the microscope to understand the psychology behind our choices is grueling work, but infidelity demands this of its participants. At first glance, it’s to stop harming the people we love. Ultimately, though, we have to get to the heart of the matter, so we stop hurting ourselves.
Jessika Lakin is a transplanted Midwesterner living big in Texas. A former healthcare marketer, she fictionalizes her old life in Not Your Average Jessika. You can find her at www.notyouraveragejessika.com when she’s not editing or writing the sequel to Unearthing Day.