Sanctuary for the Abused
Monday, May 01, 2006
No regrets - I was an unashamed mistress.
I knew him from work. He was charming and flirtatious, a gifted raconteur, an entertaining distraction for the women in the office. And as one of three men among 25 women, he always had a willing audience. But more often than not, I was the audience. Storytelling was not my forte, but listening was, and I listened well and deeply. What I heard was the sound of a soul unraveling, and it touched off a chord that reverberated endlessly in my own emptiness.
I became his confidante -- and, eventually, his lover.
Like thousands of others who take vows to be true and one day break them, we crossed over the border into forbidden territory: adultery. We entered into a relationship that excluded from our consciousness my husband, his wife, our five children, our in-laws and our neighbors and friends. We entered a closed, intimate space, a bubble big enough for two, and in that tiny place created a whole universe of longing.
Depending on which study you believe, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of American marriages are marred by an adulterous relationship. Most often it's the husband who strays, usually with an unmarried woman. But more and more married women are seeking solace, or just sex, outside their marital havens.
The same factors that have made it easier for women to leave bad marriages -- increased employment outside the home, greater personal income, fewer children -- are enabling them to wander temporarily from not-so-bad but not-so-good marriages for emotional enrichment.
After my affair ended, I spent some time searching the Internet for insight into extramarital affairs. Most of what I found was for married couples trying to rebuild after one of the partners had strayed. Needless to say, the assumptions inherent in these discussions -- that extramarital sex is always, unequivocally wrong; that the violated spouse is the innocent victim of the other's selfish, destructive behavior; that the adulterer must show abject remorse to gain back trust -- just didn't speak to me.
Finally, I found a couple of sites for unabashed, unashamed adulterers, people who were thrilled to be in an affair and were looking for a like-minded community with which to share, as it were, tips and tricks. I found a whole culture of adultery: They discussed all the technological tools for cheaters -- cell phones, e-mail, beepers -- along with advice about how to permanently delete your e-mails and how to disguise your phone number on caller ID boxes. There were endless discussions on foiling *69 calls.
The alphabet soup of illicit relationships -- EMAs (extramarital affairs) with MMs, MWs, SM, SW, OW (Other Woman); my H, my W, and that most popular of villains, the MM's W (or simply, MMW) -- flowed through the discussions about whether to use a condom (the consensus is yes, always), how to deal with "their anniversary" (meaning, most often, the MM and his W) and which hotel chains offer day rates (surprisingly, many).
But it was the emotional content of these relationships that I found most surprising, and most familiar. The depth of the connection and commitment, as ironic as that may seem given the context of deceit, was uncommonly strong. Many people expressed the same feeling of having found a "soul mate" too late, or at least at a bad time in their lives; but they were determined to make the best of it under the circumstances. A large number of these relationships had withstood years of sneaking around. One MW had been with her MM for 25 years.
After a short while I had to stop reading the posts. It started to feel tawdry rather than affirming. I knew I couldn't share my story with these Holiday Inn Jacuzzi lovers, sisters in sin though we were. It just felt too much like titillating cyber-gossip, all this anonymous confessional rambling, and it finally made me weary and sad -- and it made me suspect that my extraordinary story was, perhaps, just a bit more common than I wanted to believe.
Twenty-five years! My affair lasted almost two, and felt like a lifetime. We both had a gift for mendacity, it seems, a distinct advantage for these kinds of arrangements. Oddly, though I casually tossed out lies to my husband, children, boss and friends, I never lied to my lover. I needed to maintain some zone of integrity, and this was where I drew the line. I never felt guilt. I marveled at that: I'd been exceptionally gifted at feeling guilty about transgressions that I hadn't even committed, until then. Though my life was slowly unraveling around me because of it, my relationship with him felt like the one true thing, besides my children, that mattered.