Sometimes Love Lasts
Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead
Almost everyone believes that cheating is wrong. But most of us who get caught cheating don’t see ourselves as the “cheating kind.”
It’s only the others guilty of infidelity who are the real cheaters.
Transgressors rationalize their offenses as unintentional, temporary, excusable, or justifiable. My husband, Doug, was no exception. Neither am I.
Inside my head, a voice screams, “Don’t say more. What will they think of you?”
We are told Don’t cheat. But then there’s this caveat, If you do cheat, don’t talk about it.
As uncomfortable as this is, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t own up to my own philandering. What we want to do, what we say we do, and what we do are often quite different.
Most people say they value monogamy, but the truth is we’re not very good at it.
On a hot August afternoon, made hotter by our disagreement, I aimed my flame thrower at Doug for how much he had hurt me.
Doug shot back, “How do you think I felt when I read your message to Roberto!”
“What message to Roberto?” I asked.
Doug answered, “I saw your messages on AOL.”
“Doug, I haven’t been on AOL for fifteen years! I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I remembered that Roberto, my first boyfriend, had surprised me from six thousand miles away shortly after I signed up for AOL. That was all I remembered.
Doug continued, “I read your messages while you were in the shower.” Doug and I shared a computer, so it was inevitable that we’d expose our private conversations if we failed to shut it down.
I was indignant. “And you’re still pissed off about it? How am I supposed to remember?”
Doug fought fire with fire. “Well, I fuckin’ remember it! You said you wondered what it would have been like if you were with Roberto instead of me.”
It’s true. I had had those thoughts, but only when Doug and I were fighting and only if I successfully edited out the bad parts of my relationship with Roberto.
I answered, “I don’t remember what I wrote. I’ve never wanted to be with him instead of you.”
“It sure didn’t sound that way to me,” he said as he stomped away.
I thought about how easy it is to amp up a conversation online. Doug’s accusations weren’t the first time I’d been accused of dalliance. It was the same allegation Roberto made before his fists flew at me and blackened my eyes when I ended our relationship.
I didn’t deserve to be assaulted, but I wasn’t as innocent as I claimed to be.
I couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Now you know how I felt when you wrote to someone, ‘I can call you on Sunday morning about 10:00. Loren will be at church.’”
Doug responded, “That was Pieter from Holland. I’ve told you about him.”
“If it was Pieter, why did you have to wait to talk with him until you knew I’d be gone?”
Then Doug dropped the final bomb. “Before you left for Vegas in April, I saw your text message from Alan. It said, ‘Can’t wait to see you.’’
Then he asked, “Who’s Alan?” I felt like I was on black ice and skidding out of control.
Justice is never served by retaliatory responses. I had to stop wanting to hurt Doug back every time he hurt me. What I had written to Roberto was wrong. Doug had a right to feel hurt by it.
What happened with Alan was more difficult to explain.
The innocence of chat rooms
The world is full of interesting people and things. Desire mobilizes our choices. Feelings come before thought. Passions we don’t understand overwhelm our powers of reason.
I make no excuses. Speculating about how life might have unfolded had we taken back roads instead of the freeway is common. But when I reminisced about Roberto, I censored out the bad parts.
I revisited those fantasies only when I wanted something that I wasn’t getting from the life I lived.
Doug and I both had online friendships. We talked with each other about a few of them. But only a few. Neither Doug nor I set out to break our commitment to each other or to wreck anyone’s home, including our own. But what harm could come from a chat with a distant fantasy?
Even the word “chat” suggests innocence.
Men armor themselves against intimacy, but on the Internet, we drop our breastplates. It feels liberating to shed the weight of that protection. The anonymity of the Internet makes it easy to establish premature, two-dimensional intimacy.
With our anonymous friends, we share our most intimate secrets. I learned about interesting people I chatted with, and they learned about me. I also unmasked some blunted secrets about myself. Some of them I didn’t like.
In chat rooms, our playmates are like artists’ jointed mannequins fleshed out by our imagination. You are who I want you to be, not who you are. Factual knowledge of the mythical lover isn’t necessary; it is not even desired. It didn’t matter to me that the man on the other end also reshaped me into something I wasn’t.
It was in a chat room where I first met Alan.
An invitation from the Prince of Darkness
A few years ago, I had a speaking engagement in Miami. Hardly anyone was interested in my topic. One participant challenged my findings, and the audience was more supportive of his remarks than mine. I felt like I was holding a discussion about the existence of God in a Sunday school class.
In the evening, the hosts held a cocktail mixer. Feeling defeated, I stood alone on the edge of the crowd. Near where I stood was a tall and slender, strikingly handsome young Black man. He looked sophisticated and elegant in his yellow cotton sweater, linen pants, and shiny brown loafers with no socks. He oozed self-confidence without arrogance, but he spoke to no one.
After a few minutes, he walked over to me and said, “I hate these events.”
I replied, “I do, too.” Silence hung between us like a toddler’s poop-filled diaper.
“Do you have plans for dinner?” he asked.
“No. No plans.”
Then he said, “Let’s get out of here.” I was relieved to have some excuse to leave.
Although it was early May, the temperature was in the high 80s. By the time we got to the restaurant, I had drenched my clothes with sweat. I thought I must smell like a locker room during August’s twice-a-day football practices. He, on the other hand, smelled like a just-bathed, freshly powdered baby.
I had never been unfaithful to Doug in our first twenty years together. But as I talked and laughed with this young man, I began to consider it. I’m out of town. I don’t know anyone. The best-looking man at this event asked me to have dinner with him.
His interest in me helped lift my sagging ego for the first time since arriving in Florida. Maybe even the first time in a long time. After a lingering dinner, the weather cooled off a little, and it was getting dark.
“I’ve enjoyed this so much. I guess it’s time to head back to the hotel,” I said.
He replied, “Yes. Let’s sit by the pool and have another cocktail.”
When we arrived back at the hotel, older gay men from the conference filled the pool. I inhaled the sexual tension. Attraction and opportunity provided a dopamine rush. My sexual desire climbed like the jet planes taking off from Miami International a few miles away.
He slid our chairs closer together and put his hand on my knee. I put my hand on top of his to send an RSVP to his tacit invitation.
After we drank our cocktails, he said, “Let’s go to my room.”
It didn’t end well. I left his room very late that night. He had wanted me to spend the night, but guilt had crept into my mind. Then the rationalizations began. It didn’t mean anything. Doug will never find out. If I have sinned with lust, what’s the difference if I have sinned with sex, too?
Later that morning, I went to the pool. As I spoke with a man who was about my age, we both saw my one-night-lover across the pool.
He leaned in and said, “Damn, he’s beautiful. They say he has a ten-inch dick.” He pigeonholed him, camouflaging it as a compliment.
I responded, “Oh? I didn’t find it all that impressive.” I heaped shit on the offensive remark.
I was reconstructing my boundaries.
It doesn’t mean that much to me
Trying to remember when I first met Alan is like trying to remember when I first started getting grey. I know it happened, but the exact moment doesn’t leap out at me.
Alan and I had flirted with each other online for several months before we met for the first time. As we prattled online, I found him to be warm, sensitive, and intelligent. His pictures confirmed he was the kind of man to whom I am attracted. As I acclimated to concerns about aging, I was flattered by the attention of a younger man. I was skeptical anything would come of it.
I never hid the fact that Doug was in my life. I also never brought him up. If anyone in a chat room ever asked, I responded, “I prefer not to talk about it.” I suppose a more accurate explanation was that I didn’t want to think about it.
I was resolute about partitioning off these two parts of my life.
As I pushed the button to call the elevator in the clothing-optional Blue Moon Hotel in Las Vegas, the door snapped open. I saw a tanned young man wrapped in only a small white towel. I entered the elevator, and almost at the same time I said “Alan?” he said, “Loren?”
We greeted each other warmly but with some apprehension, like two boxers circling the ring after the starting bell. We were eager to engage but assessing our first moves.
I saw the same muscular body that was in the pictures he’d sent me. He appeared to be in his early thirties as his online profile had stated. He was shorter than I expected. His head was shaved. He had been heading away from the room carrying an ice bucket and his room key. He reversed directions, grabbed my luggage, and pulled it to our room.
As we entered the room, he went directly to his suitcase. He pulled out a paper and handed it to me. He said, “I thought you might want to see this.”
I scanned the paper until I read, “HIV negative.” He’d been tested right before his trip to meet me.
He began to unbutton my shirt. I was soaked in sweat from a harrowing taxi ride from the airport with a methed up driver. As he did so, he pulled me toward him to give me a soft kiss on the lips.
I said, “I need to shower.”
He responded, “You can do that later.”
I dismissed any conscious thought about the wrong or rightness of what I was doing. I couldn’t say, “No,” when my body blared “Yes. Yes. Yes!” But I wouldn’t have been in that room if I didn’t want what he wanted.
At the end of our long weekend, Alan asked me if he could treat me to dinner at a white-table-cloth restaurant in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, one of the finest and most romantic restaurants in Las Vegas. He had already made reservations.
When the maître d’ led us to our small table, I sensed Alan was disappointed that it was near the kitchen. The dinner felt like a marriage proposal as he invited me into his soul.
Few torments are greater than when love is not shared in equal measure.
As we returned to our hotel, I thought, I can’t let you mean as much to me as I mean to you. But I had to use all my strength to keep it from meaning too much to me.
Alan and I grappled inside a too-small space but with no possibility of expanding it.
I’ll be home for dinner
Most of us want to find a place where we experience love, romance, sex, and emotional intimacy, all with the same person. I had found that with Doug when I met him over thirty years ago. I assume he had found that with me. Most of the time.
Every thought, feeling, and experience is a part of our brains’ calculations.
Monogamy implies that a perfect marriage exists and that all our emotional and sexual needs can be met with one person at home. The preachers promise, “If you find the right partner, you’ll never stray.”
As relationships mature, sex becomes routine and predictable. It doesn’t blow your socks off the way it once did.
An outside partner promises to restore dwindling sexual desire and fading sexual function. Anticipation feeds sexual drive and opportunity nourishes it. Novelty, risk, and unpredictability add the juice.
Months later, while on a speaking tour, I texted Doug from Oklahoma City and said, “Set a place for me at dinner. I’m coming home.”
He asked, “You’re leaving early?”
I responded, “Yes, I want to come home.”
Perhaps Doug thought I had run off to Oklahoma in search of a better man than he was; perhaps I really had. Guilt about my past indiscretions played over and over in my head, but that didn’t erase desire.
On the 500-mile trip home, we began to text each other. Texting buffered our discussion, so we continued even knowing it was unsafe. We chatted about the lies we tell and why we tell them. For the first time in a long time, he seemed eager to see me.
Something began to shift in my relationship with Doug, and I hoped it would be a permanent change in our lives. My decision to end my trip abruptly confirmed for both of us that what I wanted was to be with Doug.
After my return from OKC, Doug and I began to have more serious discussions about retirement and how we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We sold our livestock so the farm demanded less of Doug. I agree to cut back on my work and travel.
Being busy with work had always been an acceptable excuse not to do what we need to do.
Your spouse isn’t a distraction
We had both felt alone, helpless, and desperate for something to change. I thought, How did we get ourselves into this mess? But the important question we needed to answer was How do we get ourselves out of it?
Over a couple of years, I had become self-absorbed with my work. I had become distant, preoccupied, and irritable. Life can be very disquieting. When stress depletes us emotionally, our vulnerability to an affair skyrockets.
I hadn’t grasped that Doug was paying a price, too. I had treated him like a distraction. I wasn’t the husband I intended to be.
Monogamy is impossible but anything else is worse.
— Francois Truffaut, French film director
Relationship and sex columnist Dan Savage popularized the term, “monogamish,” to describe consensual non-monogamy in a committed relationship. He suggests that consensual non-monogamy may be more realistic than absolute monogamy.
Marriage and monogamy cannot regulate desire. Doug and I had never discussed how difficult monogamy might be.
We need rules, values, and ideals, but we must accept that our humanity makes us fall short in honoring them. Sometimes we do wrong to get out of difficult situations only to find that we’ve created an even more difficult situation.
Emotional intimacy diminishes only if we allow it. Doug and I weren’t looking for lovers. We sought emotional intimacy that we’d lost in our relationship.
I’ve come to believe that infidelity is not what one does with one’s penis.
The central issue in affairs is our partner’s needs do not receive the degree of attention they need. We exhaust our time and emotional energy with someone else.
Some people believe that loving another person is incompatible with hurting them. I would argue that loving someone means you inevitably will hurt them even when trying hard not to hurt them.
My relationship with Doug wasn’t dying. But it was on life support. We were both absent in our relationship. We needed to figure out what had worked before but wasn’t working now.
An affair was not going to make either of us whole again.
I deeply regretted having hurt Doug. He couldn’t resolve his injury by chatting with Pieter, and I couldn’t resolve mine by chatting with Roberto. An Internet lover has as many faults as the one across the room from us.
There was a time when I thought I could never trust Doug again. He must have felt the same about me. For a while, I didn’t want to try.
After discovering your spouse has had an affair, there is no time at which you feel entirely safe.
Words won’t make you trust again. Only changes in the ways we behave can do that. Doug and I needed to establish a new relationship based on the realities of who we really are.
Now, in our 34th year together, Doug and I have become again the men we were always meant to be.
[This is Part II of a two-part story. Click here to read Part I. ]
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