It’s so easy to fool ourselves when we fall for a toxic love.
I’m currently about seven years out of the extramarital affair that changed the course of my whole life. I wasn’t the one who was married, but that didn’t matter. I was the other woman — the one who felt like trash for even being there. And I was the one who took “way too long” to move on when it was finally done.
You fool yourself when you fall in love with somebody who’s already married, or at least, in a supposedly monogamous relationship. Maybe you fool yourself by thinking you don’t care about things like commitment or going public. Perhaps you believe everything he tells you about his wife — enough to rationalize your choices, anyway.
In my case, I fooled myself into thinking the ends justified the means. That it wasn’t just he and I who would be happier but his wife and his kids would be happier too. It’s the sort of rationalization that seems unthinkable when you’re an outsider. But as you become the other person in an affair, you find out it’s shockingly easy to do.
There’s a part of me that knew we were over as soon as he told me he’d left his wife. This was a man who spent his entire marriage cheating, and who got married right out of high school just because he felt guilty for stepping out on his girlfriend.
After weeks of discussion about how he didn’t want to keep leading a double life, but he also didn’t want to leave until I could be in Tennessee, we finally settled on a plan. I would find a job and move down there in July. That’s when he would leave.
He talked about it and called it his Independence Day.
Yet, just a week after I flew down to meet him in May, he abruptly left his wife. Suddenly, my married boyfriend was getting separated and he kept asking me where I was.
He spoke as if I’d let him down by not being there as soon as he was available. A little voice inside told me, “this man doesn’t really care about you.” But I chose to believe the lie. The one where he told me he just couldn’t wait another day to be together.
When he finally left, it wasn’t for his self improvement. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t even about being honest to his wife or his kids. It only happened when his best guy friend said he wouldn’t respect him until he came clean. That’s the ultimatum that made the difference.
Of course, he didn’t really come clean either. He told his wife he wanted a divorce — which was a long time coming, but for her, it was completely out of the blue — and then he insisted there was nobody else in the picture. You can imagine how well that went when the affair was later discovered.
So, while yes, I was the other woman, he didn’t leave his wife for me. He didn’t leave because I told him it was better for everyone if he’d quit cheating. He didn’t leave when I told him how much I hated being the other woman. He didn’t leave when I told him I didn’t think I could stay.
He left when it was most convenient for him, when he had a girlfriend whom he knew would help support him financially, and then only when he thought his reputation might be on the line.
I knew we were over just hours after I left my home to build a life with him in Tennessee. A small part of me knew but couldn’t bear to admit it.
A few days after he left his wife, she took the kids out of state. He took the opportunity to drive up to see me over the long Memorial Day weekend. His whole trip was last minute, as was my choice to head back down to Tennessee with him.
I had no good reason to think things would work out, but I felt as if I had to take the risk and just see what happened. So, I did. I locked up my loft apartment one last time with most of my belongings still inside. This could turn out terribly, I thought to myself. I could be making a huge mistake. I might be ruining my life.
Of course, I didn’t want to be right about any of that. But just a few hours into our road trip down to Tennessee, he began calling his ex-mistresses. “I finally left,” he told three or four other women right in front of me as if it wasn’t strange.
And no, my name never came up.
He liked to stay friends with his exes, he said. They never ended on bad terms. He talked about it like it was a source of pride, but deep down I knew it meant he had issues letting go and maintaining healthy boundaries.
As our relationship progressed, I learned that he liked to keep his exes nearby so they were always available over Facebook Messenger or text. This left him with a constant supply of adoration and attention whenever his ego needed a boost. After all, most of the women he cheated with were all entwined in committed relationships themselves. For most of them, he was a welcome distraction from the problems in their lives.
As soon as I heard him argue with his — soon-to-be ex — wife, I knew it was only a matter of time until the end of our affair. But just like every other time I “knew” we were over, I worked hard to tell myself otherwise.
For our first several weeks together, we lived in a weekly rate motel in his hometown. I often sat upon the bed just waiting and listening in horror to the fights they had over the phone. His fights with his wife were epic, lasting two to three hours at a time. After hearing him complain about his wife for months earlier, I was a bit surprised to hear how much he seemed to want her approval.
It was hard for me to put my precise feelings into words. I still felt like dirt for being the other woman. I also felt pretty confident that he would never put in that sort of effort into arguing with me. The way he tried to appease her — he would never behave that way with me.
Maybe it was their history as high school sweethearts. Or the fact that they’d been married for nearly a decade and shared three kids. It could have been guilt over knowing he was a terrible husband, I supposed.
Despite his frequent complaints that she tried to control him, I realized he was a willing participant in that entire dynamic. She took control because he was less than reliable, and he seemed to be attracted to the sort of woman who took charge like that— as if he found it attractive at first but useful later.
Women with these supposedly domineering personalities were his “out,” so he couldn’t be held responsible for any of his choices. He claimed he’d been pushed or coerced, only going along with a life he never wanted just to keep the peace. Getting married having children — he spoke of these things as if they had all been forced upon him.
Even if I couldn’t say it in so many words, I had this foreboding — an inkling — that I could never really give him what he wanted. I’m not a take-charge sort of person. I like to sit, think, and talk stuff out. I like egalitarian relationships or at least, complementary ones.
After leaving me, he went back to pursuing women who were more like his ex-wife. Women who’d take charge when he wouldn’t. And while I’d finally learn how to put my foot down since we would eventually share a child, we certainly never argued for hours at a time over the phone. Our fights were in text and likely even meaner. There was no attempt to “appease” me — he’d just threaten to cut off entirely if I didn’t do what he wanted me to do. And frankly, I don’t think he ever expected me to fight back at all.
I knew we were over every time I found out he’d been hiding the truth from me. But as long as we were together, I got very good at lying to myself. Looking back on the affair, I can see how much I conditioned myself to be happy. After all, I’d made a big, bold, and risky move by running away with a married man who I only “met” some months before online. The few in-person days we had together weren’t nearly enough to build a healthy life.
I didn’t want to face the truth.
In face of reality, I spent a lot of time repeating certain mantras to convince myself that I was divinely happy and all I needed was this one guy. There were fractures though. Little cracks where the truth shone through.
Like one night when we sat in a little booth at Steak ‘n Shake and he told me he didn’t understand why I dated him if I thought it was so wrong.
“What are you talking about? I thought we both saw the affair as a necessary evil to be together.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think cheating’s wrong. I think we feel bad when we hurt people. And maybe bad about getting caught. But everyone’s going to do what they’re going to do. I don’t see how doing what you want to do is wrong.”
It’s not like I was so naive. During the online portion of our affair, he confessed that he was a chronic cheater who had more than a dozen affairs during his ten-year marriage. To a certain extent, I knew that expecting faithfulness from him without a speed bump or detour was unreasonable.
But at the same time, back when he confessed that past as a heavy cheater, he cried. His whole schtick with me was that he wanted to live an inner life that was congruent with his outer life.
So, the idea that he didn’t believe cheating was wrong was news to me. When he spoke about it so flippantly like it was no big deal, I didn’t know what to think.
I should have admitted we were done.
When I became pregnant, I battled severe prenatal depression and anxiety. It was awful and I felt inconsolable. Getting pregnant meant I knew we were over. Well, I suspected we wouldn’t survive the pregnancy based on everything he’d said about already having children and wanting to lead a more child-free life.
Part of my depression stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t going to give me the assurance I hoped for. I wanted to know we were in this together. But honestly, we weren’t.
In response to my depression, he asked friends on Facebook if they knew anyone who might be able to talk things out with me. One friend, a pastoral counselor, volunteered to meet us in Nashville. We drove the few hours to Music City and met the friend at a Greek Diner.
But when we sat down to talk, I could hardly get a word in edgewise. All he wanted to talk about was himself. His terrible marriage. His struggle to build a life he wants. Me and the pregnancy? Just little fragments of his story.
The pastoral counselor would later tell me how disgusted she was that he couldn’t shut up about himself. He was the star of the show, and I was just there to prop him up. Anyone else could see we were done.
Also during the pregnancy, we went out to lunch with another friend — a guy who’d recently returned from his silent retreat at a monastery. There we were, looking ahead to getting married and having a baby. My partner was hoping to finally have a daughter.
And yet? When he heard our friend talk about his retreat, he couldn’t help but start discussing his desire to go away on a solo journey for weeks or even months on end.
There were a few big red flags in his language. For one thing, it was all about him and what he wanted. He spoke about the future as if me, our baby, and even his other kids weren’t a factor in his decisions.
And then there was the whole business of his going away to a monastery. Our friend didn’t know this, but just a few weeks earlier, I found out my fiance was cheating on me… with multiple women.
We were supposed to be working on our relationship and he was supposed to be working on his honesty. “Uh, is there something you want to tell me?” It didn’t seem to register with him why his comments about running away felt calloused to his pregnant fiancée who agreed to stay with him even after she found out he was cheating.
Our relationship was over. I knew it. At least, I should have known it. But I didn’t want to heed the obvious signs.
If an affair is good for anything, it’s good for shaking up our lives and telling us who we are. Through the affair, I found out that all I wanted was a certain type of happiness — and that I’d sacrifice everything to find it.
Even worse, though, was the way I twisted myself into a pretzel just to “deserve” our broken love.
I didn’t like those things about myself. I didn’t like that I was so hung up on my need to be loved. I didn’t like how it made me so… naive.
See, I always “knew” that we were over. But the part of me that knew we couldn’t last was the same part of me that couldn’t bear to believe it. It’s not as if the fantasy was easy. It wasn’t. Easy would have been walking away before I could get in too deep.
I could have saved a whole lot of heartache had I done the smart thing — aka the right thing — back when it was easy. Instead, I walked through each door as it opened and only made things harder on myself. People like to stop me here and say that I also (and most importantly) made things harder on others when I didn’t walk away.
But then again, I think that’s debatable. If it wasn’t me, it would have been somebody else. And if he didn’t leave his marriage, he’d most likely have been cheating on his wife for about 17 years now.
I’m happy for anyone who breaks free from their illusions about a chronic cheater. And I’m happy I finally quit lying to myself in an effort mistakenly labeled “happiness.” But I don’t actually “regret” the affair. Instead, I’m grateful for the painful lessons, and for the gift of our daughter.
I was naive to stay on and go through so much heartbreak, but it wasn’t the end of me.
Ironically, the affair put into motion a whole string of events that led me to this place where I am happily single, working in a field I love, and enjoying solo parenthood.
I wouldn’t want to repeat my mistakes, but I can’t deny that beautiful things sometimes come from our biggest errors.