This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of Jo, her marriage, and her affair. I imagine that many readers have strong feelings about marriage and fidelity. I really appreciate Jo’s candor and her willingness to do this non-anonynmous interview. We’re going to keep the comments respectful, right?
Could you tell us a bit about your romantic/relationship history? Were your parents happily married?
The short answer here is : no. My parents divorced when I was 3 and have both been married 3 times to very different people with very different family dynamics resulting each time. From a young age I wanted to fully experience another person, build something, expand one another’s lives.
And I did – with some boyfriends it was sexual growth or emotional growth, or it was intellectual, but I was never able to connect on multiple levels with one person.
Tell us about the man you married.
A complicating and important part of this story is my health. I went undiagnosed with Celiac disease from ages 12 – 28 and it was extremely debilitating most of the time. I was having a particularly difficult time in college, and it was about a year in that I met and began my relationship with my husband.
He was older than I and extremely intelligent, responsible, and self-assured. He wanted to be a support to me and I found his presence very comforting.
How long had you been married when you began to have the affair? Were you actively unhappy in your marriage?
About a year into our relationship I started really focusing on getting well. I didn’t want to curtail my life anymore. I wanted to be healthy and able to be myself, and I thought my husband would embrace this.
But he seemed threatened by it and became very judgmental. I think he liked our reserved life (which felt very restricted to me) and didn’t want it to change. I continued trying to include him. So I wouldn’t say I was wildly happy but I wasn’t unhappy – I figured we were just working through some things and I hoped he would come around.
Could you tell us about the man you had the affair with? How did you meet him? How was he different from your husband? Did he know you were married?
I met him while still in college, we were in a photography class together. I remember so clearly the day I met him, he walked into the room and I felt this wave of energy. I had never seen him before, but somehow I recognized him…I just knew he was supposed to be in my life. He was talented, funny, and engaging. He encouraged my photography and I think I did some of my best work during that time.
We became inseparable, but nothing physical happened at first. He knew I was married, but we didn’t talk about it. I hoped this intense love I felt for him would dissipate, but it never did. I felt guilty about my feelings but overwhelmed by them at the same time.
We were working together in the darkroom one night and he was playing one of his CDs while we worked. A blues song was playing and the man sang “ if you can find love don’t trade it for silver, don’t trade it for gold” and at that moment we looked at each other. We just stood there staring at each other, and I knew in my gut that I couldn’t walk away from him. He walked over to me and I kissed him. The wave of chemistry was incredible, I didn’t feel sick or tired anymore, I felt alive.
How did you rationalize the affair in your mind?
I knew that having an affair was wrong. I felt sneaky and dishonest and I wanted to end my marriage immediately. But I would doubt myself and hesitate. I didn’t want my husband to be hurt, I at least didn’t want it to be any more painful than it had to be. Every moment I spent with my husband in my “regular life” felt like a farce, like I was cheating on the person I really loved.
What did the affair give you that your marriage didn’t?
Everything. My marriage was based on me being sick and my husband being in control of our life together. It sounds simplistic, but that is the point it got to – I would try to reason with him and he would shut me out or be derisive. I was hurt but also confused – I was trying to improve my life and I wanted him to be apart of it.
For instance, his dismissal of my dreams of going to Africa or focusing on my photography hurt me deeply. I felt ashamed and then resentful. It was almost the polar opposite of what I experienced in my affair.
How did you keep it from your husband?
My husband was always very involved in his work and that hadn’t changed. He had said he would deal with me again when I was done trying to be someone I wasn’t. At this point, we were just going through the motions. I was still very careful and discrete. I didn’t like the sneaking around, it made me so uncomfortable.
How did this end?
Three months into my affair I left my husband. I got my own place and was finally able to be open about my new relationship. I never missed my ex-husband or my old life. My health was certainly not perfect, but it was improving. And I was finally free to be myself without a constant judge and jury, that alone was an amazing change.
However, I wanted to be incorporated into my boyfriend’s life in ways that I hadn’t been before; and that was difficult for him. He said he had trouble trusting that he was anything other than a fling to me, and he held me at arm’s length to avoid the possibility of getting hurt.
Now that I’ve known him for years I can see that this is an issue for him. No matter how hard I tried to show him how much he meant to me he just couldn’t let this guard down. I had never felt so misunderstood, and I wondered if he was even capable of loving me the way I loved him.
Over the next year, we had some amazing times but we were also always testing each other. Looking back, we agree that if we had met in a different way things could have worked out. That doesn’t change the fact that we were pivotal in each other’s lives – we stayed dear friends – and so we know the connection is real.
Great love comes in many forms, ours didn’t end the way I thought it would, but that doesn’t take away from its import. The unavoidable truth is that I am a better person for having loved him and I’m honored to say he feels the same way about me.
What advice would you give to someone who is unhappy in their marriage and considering an affair?
It can be such a difficult and complex situation but here are some truths I took away from my experience….
1) Have an affair with yourself first. This doesn’t mean you should be self-obsessed, it means you deserve your own love and respect as much as anyone else in your life. That way you will find out who you are and what you want. If I had committed to being well enough to be myself in the first place, maybe I never would have gotten married at all.
2) I believe this with ever fiber of my being: you can control your actions, but you cannot control who you love.
3) Be brave – sometimes you just need to jump. If you are in a relationship and “the one” walks into your life be willing to cut ties and pursue it outright. My affair was my hesitation to set my old life on fire and begin anew. I knew what I wanted that night in the darkroom – I should have acted then.
True love doesn’t happen every day. This isn’t to say that we all only have one great love – because I don’t think that’s true- but if you know in your gut you are meant to be with someone be willing to soul search honestly, and end one story before you begin another.
Have you ever cheated on a partner? Any (respectful!) questions for Jo?