In 2019, I went to therapy. It wasn’t the first time I’d done so, but it was the first time in my life that I’d sought counseling without a major trigger — grief, for example, or the flashpoint when my affair was discovered and my marriage fell apart. This was a calm choice.
I called a highly recommended therapist and made an appointment and I went to see her for no clear reason, other than that I simply couldn’t stop the merry-go-round of thoughts in my head. All I could think about, still, was the affair that I had had. The way I’d so willingly thrown my life and everything I had thought my life stood for, everything I thought I stood for, into freefall. I was obsessed. I fretted over tiny details. I felt deep inside that I didn’t know myself. So I booked the appointment.
It felt self-indulgent and wrong, sitting in her dark cozy office with its miasma of vanilla-candle scent, the pristine whiteboard, the glass of water, and tissues within easy reach of my armchair. I felt a fraud with no real story to tell. But she poked gently at my embarrassment, peeling with expert fingers at the layer of self-deprecating humor I’d wrapped myself in. I started talking.
“I can’t stop thinking about why I became involved with someone I absolutely knew was bad for me,” I told her, finally. “I never felt safe when I was with him, but I still wanted him more than I wanted any part of my life. I chose him, repeatedly, over my own children. I don’t know why I did it, because my husband is perfect for me. I thought we had a happy marriage.”
I told her of how, during my affair with a married man, I had felt completely powerless every day. I did not know from one minute to the next whether he would even text me again, or what tone he would take when he did. His mood could turn darkly on an invisible sixpence; I was always to blame.
I told her of how I would wake in the morning, every morning that I was involved with my lover, and be entirely at the mercy of his mood to set the tone of my day. If his morning greeting was late and sour, I would fill with an acid panic, unsure what I could have done overnight to make him turn against me. If it was early and cheerful, by contrast, I was buoyant, the day suddenly sunny whatever the sky said. At no point did I consider my own mood, or how I deserved to be treated, or why I would so passively take his treatment of me as my absolute due.
“The thing is that I would never, ever have let my husband treat me like that,” I explained. “And he just…wouldn’t. From the moment we met, I knew my worth and he knew it, and he has always treated me with respect. Even when the affair came out, he was never cruel. He was firm and angry and he was honest about wanting to end our marriage, but spite or malice never came into it. Retribution never featured. He’s just a good person, a better person than me.”
I couldn’t understand why I had turned my back on that, I said to her. I couldn’t understand why, when I was so loved, so understood, I had still turned to an affair, to another man. I had assumed at the time that I loved the other man because nothing else could possibly make sense of the compulsion to gain his approval, to be near him. I couldn’t find an answer in logic. It was a bad choice, but it felt at the time like the only choice there was to me.
My therapist listened carefully. Over several weeks she asked me many questions about my lover, about the affair, about how it started; about how and why I had ended it, and how I had felt since.
Then, unexpectedly, she took me back to my childhood and for some time, she asked me about my parents. I told her, honestly, about how my mother had openly loved God and her religion more than she loved her husband or her children, although I remembered she had still been a present and loving mother to me. “But you were always competing, weren’t you?” my therapist asked me, gently. “You always knew you’d lose to God. You were fighting for first place, all the time, and you always knew she disapproved of your behavior because it was sinful. That’s how love feels, for you. You feel at home with not quite measuring up.”
I could almost hear the click of the penny hitting the bottom of its slot. “That’s what you see as the right sort of love,” she said to me, and everything went click-click-click into place in my head. That’s why I’d been so compelled by my lover; his endless lofty disapproval, his gaslighting, his daily will-he-won’t-he-want-me, it reminded me on some deep unseen level of my experience of being a child and wondering every day, every hour if what I said, what I did, would glean a smile from my mother or whether she would frown and shout and tell me I was a sinner.
By contrast, being loved steadily and unconditionally, in the way my husband had always gently offered — it felt wrong. I pulled away from it subconsciously, and looked instead for the magnetism of darker things that resembled love, but weren’t. In the midst of the self-doubt and casual, dismissive put-downs that my lover had shrouded me in, I’d found solace of sorts, because it felt like home.
I wasn’t “healed” the moment all this was pointed out to me. There was no overnight fix. But the simple truth, just that fact of a “why” to throw at all the questions that bubbled in my head, it was a huge comfort to me. It wasn’t a blame shift; I still took full responsibility for everything I had done. What it was, though, was the start of a journey that I knew could have a happy ending.