It happened to me. I’ll never forget the day that it happened. October 4, 2017 I was putting my inebriated husband, let’s call him DH for short, to bed. I went to turn off his music and saw a message from an old girlfriend that read “I love you.” Honestly, my first feeling was one of confusion. I knew that my husband would never cheat on me. I knew that we had been struggling adjusting to our new life as parents following a very difficult birth (c-section after 36 hours of labor) and a baby that would not sleep. But despite the difficulties, I knew that we were in it together. Ours was a shared struggle and we were finally starting to come out the other side.
Hardly knowing what I was doing, I opened the message and found a conversation that made the floor drop out from under me: messages of love, of flirtation, naked pictures, comments about how my DH could not wait to get away from me for a night so they could spend it together, comments about how he wished she were with him (made on days when I was right there with him camping or traveling in Europe). And she wasn’t the only one. There was another woman who had been around for longer, so long that they had developed pet names for each other. I am not sure that I will be able to look at a hummingbird, one of my favorite animals, without being reminded of this other woman, this unwelcome but now permanent figure in my life. That night was the night that a huge chasm opened in my life and I was left staring into its abysmal depths.
As a rational and generally calm person, I don’t make such statements lightly. Over the past months, I have come to understand that feeling as grief. Greif is the result of profound loss and my marriage, as I knew it, died that day, as did much of what I thought about myself, my family, my husband, and my life. And it did not die a calm, natural death, it was defiled into oblivion. Much of what I held as sacred was marred that day. I know the pieces can be put back together, but in my mind, it will never regain its former glory.
I think of a cathedral I once visited, I think it was Canterbury, where a beautiful and beloved stained glass window had been shattered during a war. The people of the parish lovingly collected the glass shards and took them to their various homes to keep the broken glass safe until it could be put back together. Beautifully, it was put back together, but it was never the same. Beautiful it is, but it is the fire of the diamond rather than the cut of the jewel that remains. The splinters of glass were broken into too fine of pieces to be puzzled back into its original form, so several artisans crafted the pieces into light and color, lovely but abstract, together but profane. This is how I feel about the potential of my marriage, forever marred.
My partner’s infidelity cut me deeper than I like to admit, even to myself; the wound spread wider than I ever imagined it would, and left me feeling helpless and without in direction. I still feel ashamed to talk about it with people, as if revealing it would reveal some inadequacy in me. The logical side of me says “Poppycock! You know it was not your fault and that you had no choice in the matter.” The emotional side of me still can’t quite grasp that concept. It still lives in last year somewhere, walking in circles around the wind-scorched plains of my personal abyss.
It has been nearly a year since the day my life changed. I am still not sure whether I like my life now. There have been some ups but a lot of downs. I can not go a day without my husband’s infidelity being called to my mind in some way. It is something that I have come to expect as a constant companion for the rest of our relationship, possibly the rest of my life. It invades my dreams turning them to nightmares and my memories turning those into falsehoods. My husband seems to be doing better. Our marriage seems to be doing better. I, personally, still struggle. Some days I feel almost normal. Some days I feel strangely euphoric. Other days I feel back at ground zero, barely able rouse myself enough to get through the day.
About six months in, I began to wonder why the subject of infidelity, a common occurrence, is something that so few people were talking about in a real, non-judgmental way. Why were there no guiding principles for how to cope with this ordeal and for where to go with the field of devastation that my marriage had become for me? I read a good number of people’s stories, read through the research (I’m a researcher by profession), and worked with a variety of therapists. What I found always fell short. In reading people’s experiences, I could hear the bitterness and sadness of the stories (and rightly so). In reading the research, I gleaned statistics about the potential survivability of my relationship and the steps more likely to lead back to marital success. In my own therapy sessions, I was able to vent, although the feedback never seemed to quite fit me or my situation. I scoured self-help books, going through the collected works of Brene Brown, for instance, in mere weeks. But healing my self, I began to realize, was only part of the problem, part of the injury. Around this time, I fortuitously stumbled across Esther Perel’s work on infidelity and was drawn in by her idea that “the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” This statement opened me to the idea that, in distinctive ways, a relationship has its own life; it’s an umbilicus connecting people through which each person can be nourished or starved. To heal my self, we would have to heal our relationship. We would have to tease through the Gordian knot that we tied when we decided to marry our lives together. We would have to find the rotten cords and repair them. We would have to see everything laid out to better understand what I had lost, what we had lost and to start rebuilding our life.