All through the winter and into the spring of my 37th year I fell deeply into the yawning chasm of an extramarital affair.
I felt constantly feverish, like I was going mad. On one level, life continued as it ever had; my eldest daughter made applications to university, I took her for open days and helped her with forms. I telephoned accommodation offices. I made careful, loving plans for my husband’s 40th birthday. At work I was newly busy with the responsibilities of a recent, significant promotion.
All of these things, the work and the party planning and the university applications, they were my real life; but simmering underneath it was a cauldron of that persistent other, an entire life that only my lover and I knew about.
My lover was the first thing I thought of when I opened my eyes in the morning and he received the last text I sent each night before I went to sleep. His recommendations informed the books and websites and articles that I read, the music that I listened to, the clothes that I chose. So confident was his unshakeable belief in his own opinions, I began to doubt my own in a way that I never had before.
I had been so decisive throughout my life to this point, but now I felt that I called none of the shots. And there was something addictive in that, too — in the increasingly total surrender of my previous tight control, in the gradual blurring of the outline of my hitherto clearly defined future. I had no idea what was going to happen any more, and I told myself that this was exciting rather than terrifying. He, it, utterly overwhelmed me. I was lost.
From time to time I would reach into my mind and take out the abstract concept of guilt, a guilt I knew I should feel more strongly and I would examine the fact of it, like carefully holding a jewel up to the light. Then I put it away again.
I knew on an academic level that I was behaving so very, very badly. I was betraying a trust that my husband had earned in me over our many years of mutual and unwavering fidelity. Our bond in this respect was so strong that he instantly believed any casual lie I told, and I knew too that I was taking advantage of that. My selfishness was breathtaking.
I was enabling, also, my lover’s own deep betrayal of his wife — a blameless, loyal, cheerful woman who certainly did not deserve the half-life that she and their daughters were unwittingly being forced into. If I tried to talk about this with my lover, though, he took it as a personal betrayal. He would round on me strongly. He would be angry.
How could I doubt his love for me, he would demand, to the point I didn’t see that it was so strong it transcended the restrictive, outdated concept of fidelity? And besides. BESIDES! I needed to remember that we couldn’t control this. It was bigger than us. We were, he told me, soul mates. We should, and we would, be openly together, in time. It wasn’t a matter, any longer, of if. It was a matter of when. Surely I could see that?
This new idea — the idea of a future with him, of swapping the comfortable life I had so carefully chosen and built over many years with my husband, of exchanging it for an entirely different future — started as a ludicrous and laughable idea when he first talked of it, but it gradually took shape in my mind. The idea started more and more to appeal to me. It gave context to how badly I was behaving, to how much I hated myself.
Maybe, I thought, I was not in fact behaving as badly as I knew myself to be. Maybe, I thought, I had not simply and greedily sought out an illicit enhancement to an already good and full life. Maybe, forces greater than any of us were at play here, and had brought me to someone I was intended to love and to be with always. Maybe my marriage was not as good as I had always believed it to be. Maybe my aimless, restless discontent over recent years and months, through all of my 30s, was not symptomatic of a transitional phase of my life but was, in fact, indicative of a deeper malaise, something truly fundamental. Maybe I was falling out of love with my husband. Maybe my marriage had run its course and I needed this affair to help me see that. These things are sad, they are very sad, but they happen, don’t they? People fall in and out of love, of marriages, all the time. You think it won’t happen to you, and then it happens to you.
Yes, I slowly decided. Yes. On all fronts, that explanation satisfied me. It explained my yearning, encompassing need to be with my lover at all times, to be in constant touch with him, to please him, to have him approve of and admire me and want me. It must be because I loved him passionately — what other explanation could there be? And yes, I was behaving badly towards my husband, towards my children, but not without cause. What greater cause is there than an overwhelming love?
People would understand, I thought. They would get it. Certainly, they’d understand if it ever happened to them. In time, all of this madness would have meant something, would be worth it, would have had a purpose. All we needed to do, now, was come out into the light, and everything would be OK. I would be able to breathe again and sleep soundly once more.
The lying, though, in the meantime. The lies, they killed me. Lying was a new thing for me, a dubious skill I had not previously possessed, a worrying skill that I had not wanted and did not know I would ever need to perfect. Who knew that it was such an art? My lover, it turned out, was a master of the form. I should tweak the wording of this particular lie, he would explain patiently, because otherwise it might result in this outcome, or that one, because people tend to react like this, or like that… He was always right.
I thought he was so clever and insightful and psychologically observant, and I was grateful for his insight. I was impressed. I was appalled. I was so out of my depth. I was also so grateful to be automatically exempt, due to his love, from the skilful lies that he told so regularly and so easily. I felt special and privileged to be on his side of the glass. I believed him when he told me that this was true, that he would never insult my intelligence with the sort of lies his wife deserved, that I was different, that I was special. (I read those words now, as I write them, and I cannot believe they are words I ever let myself hear).
It amuses me now, the starkly apparent fact of my naïveté then, but I realise with hindsight that this unquestioning belief of mine must have been an unexpected gift to him. In the beginning, certainly, I questioned so embarrassingly little that he told me, because I had no lived experience at all of liars or of lying. My husband had never lied to me, and before I embarked on this particular, awful path, I had never lied to him either. So it simply did not occur to me that anything my lover ever told me would not be true, because — why? Why would he lie to me?
For my part I had no reason to lie to him, so I just…didn’t. Foolishly, I believed that this was a two way street — that whatever net of falsehoods we each had to construct in the here and now, out of the temporary necessity to sustain our outside lives, the words that we spoke to each other within our fragile new bubble were true and honest.
This firm and unquestioning belief sustained me through the darker parts of the anxious facsimile of a life that I was now living. I just reminded myself, again and again, that we each knew the other’s truth and that in time, that would be all we needed. He had said so.
He had all the answers. I stopped asking what would happen next. I tried to learn to lie better. I was so unhappy.
A few weeks before my 37th birthday, my lover made me a picnic in a cheap hotel room that I had paid for. Herrings, herby salads, crackers, rye bread, and dark shiny cherries, because I love cherries. He was quiet and shy and unusually attentive and I felt equally shy, nervous, excited. He told me that he had something important to talk to me about.
I thought: this must be it, now. He has a plan. We are going to end all the lies and the secrecy and that chaotic feeling of falling that I live with every day and we’re going to come out into the open. It will be horrible, truly horrible, but it’s the right thing to do. No marriage can sustain what you’ve done to yours, and the correct course of action is to slice it off cleanly here and hope everyone’s wounds heal fast. That’s what he’s going to talk to you about. You’re going to do the right thing. The lies. They are ending.
I laid back on the bed, then, with my cherries on my lap and I closed my eyes because he said he was so shy about this that he couldn’t look at me while he told me what he had to say. I waited.
He began to speak and he explained, quite calmly, that he had forgotten to tell me something and that it was about time I knew, because otherwise someone else might mention it to me.
The thing was, he said, that when he told me we’d defined a coup de foudre and he had never done anything like this before and we were soulmates who simply couldn’t help the fact that we were already married when we met and that this was as much of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him as it was for me, he hadn’t been entirely upfront. Hadn’t given me quite all of the facts. Something needed to be revised, added, amended. And now was the time to do that.
So. Yes, he said, the thing was. I was not the first. He had had a whole other affair before me.
I couldn’t make my brain work in the way that I usually enjoy it working, fast and clean and methodical and entirely on my side. I felt dulled and stupid, like I’d been drinking when I hadn’t. Everything about that night is still in my head if I look for it now, that terrible feeling, that sense of urgency and darkness and being so far away from safe.
In the morning, I drove away from the grotty hotel feeling lost and desperate. What I wanted at that moment — more than anything in the world — was to talk to my husband about everything. He always had answers for me, his brain works fast and logically, and I was so used to his arms being the place I felt safest. It killed me that I was not in a place where this would be possible.
I knew, that night in the hotel, that I had been an utter fool. The bubble burst. I was a selfish, careless idiot. I knew that the affair had to end. I didn’t yet have the strength, but that confirmation of my lover’s huge, ongoing, life-changing lying to me was the moment that the spell began to lift.
I realised, almost immediately, how much of everything else he had told me was also a lie. I realised, embarrassingly, that I had been duped in a way that I would not have believed possible; and that my arrogant believe that I couldn’t be duped is precisely how he had managed it. I’d crafted my own downfall.
It’s a lesson, now, that I’d urge anyone to consider before embarking on even an innocent-seeming flirtation with someone who is not free. I’m sure that in rare circumstances, happiness can come from the devastation of infidelity. But I don’t think it happens often. And I wish I had reminded myself, earlier, of the simple truth: if someone is lying about you, they’re probably lying to you. And that can never have a happy ending.
Previously published on medium
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