The first question in Savage Love this week is from HAD, aka "Heartbroken And Devastated," a man who discovered 17 years into his relationship—and 14 years into his marriage—that his seemingly loving & wonderful wife was cheating on an absolutely epic scale throughout the course of their marriage. No one would blame HAD for leaving his wife but he wasn't sure he wanted to leave and he wanted my thoughts on making it work. It was a tall order—his wife introduced their kids to one of her lovers—but I gave it my best shot:
A long-term relationship is a myth two people create together. It's not chemistry, it's not math, it's not engineering. It's a story, HAD, a story we tell each other, a story we tell others, and a story we tell ourselves. And sometimes it's a story we have to revise.
Right now, it feels like the story you've been telling yourself and others about your marriage is a lie: not partly, but wholly. You thought your marriage was a loving, committed, and "completely loyal" one, but it's not—it can't be, and it never was, because she was cheating on you from the beginning.
But loyalty isn't something we demonstrate with our genitals alone.
While working on my response for HAD—you can read my entire response here—I ran into Esther Perel in a tent in Colorado. Perel is a psychotherapist, a couples counselor, and the author of a wonderful and important book on sex in longterm relationships: Mating In Captivity. (I ran into Perel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, la de da, where we spoke on a couple of panels together.) I shared HAD's letter with Perel and asked if she thought HAD's marriage was doomed. Her response: "No, I don't."
Perel's response honestly surprised me. We spoke for 10 minutes, and I recorded our conversation. There wasn't room in my column for Perel's thoughts so I'm posting them here as the Savage Love Letter of the Day.
After the jump: HAD's original letter and a transcript of my conversation with Perel.
My wife and I have been married for 14 years and in a committed (I assumed) relationship for 17 years. Sex between us (often kinky) has always been great. We have a wonderful life together and two perfect children. I thought we were good; turns out things were too good to be true.
I learned recently that my wife has been unfaithful to me throughout our marriage. She began an affair with an older man soon before we were married, and they were physically intimate for five years, including bondage and a Master/sub relationship. The physical sex stopped, but phone sex and online flirting continued up until I discovered this two weeks ago. This is a man I know. She has introduced our children to him.
There's more: She slept with another man (just once, more bondage) but also flirted with him online and met up with him while I was away. She slept with yet another man she works with (just once, vanilla this time). She had phone sex with at least two other men and flirted with still more on Facebook. This came out because I was jealous about something that now seems minor and checked her e-mail. (Not proud of that.) She is repentant and relieved that I finally know, and she promises that she will be faithful from now on. I'll always love her, and I know she loves me. We had one session with a counselor and another is scheduled. Results were mixed. One thing that came out was that she has never been faithful to a romantic/sexual partner.
I could forgive a one-time drunken fling, but this is a consistent pattern of infidelity that runs from the beginning of our marriage, and I had no idea. I cannot process it. I thought she had always been as loyal as I've been, which is to say completely. I can't put my wedding ring on—it feels like a lie. I have no one to talk to. For the sake of our future, the love we still share, and our children, we are committed to fixing things, but we're not sure how.
Heartbroken And Devastated
DAN SAVAGE: You've worked with a lot of couples who are confronting and trying to work past infidelity. Do you think HAD and his wife are doomed to divorce?
ESTHER PEREL: No, I don’t. I never offhand think of it as a yay or nay. I think that what you’re writing to me, dear man, is that you have just learned about facts. Those facts have been very surprising to you because they were utterly not part of the way you had envisioned your relationship and what you thought reality was.
Now, in order to know where this will land, the next thing is to actually understand the meaning of what happened. Ask your partner, your wife, what does this represent for her? What draws her there? What does she find there? Does it have anything to do with the two of you? Or is it utterly not related to you or to the two of you but is much more something about her? And if so, what is it about her? Is there a quest for a certain recklessness, a certain unknown? And how has she been thinking about you while she was doing this? Did she feel like she was betraying you? Did she feel like she was transgressing? Does she feel like she was responding to a call for an authentic search of her?
At this point what really will help you know where you go is to understand the layers of this experience. It is kind of switching from the detective questions to the investigative questions. From the ‘what’ to the ‘why’ to the ‘what it means.’ And then, if you find out that this is about the two of you, you may have to do certain changes. And then the question is, can you make these changes? What do they involve?
You have a good relationship, from everything you tell me, and the question is always, does one discovery topple an entire relationship, an entire history?
DS: After discovering an affair people often say, ‘Everything was a lie, everything I thought was true about my marriage was a lie—because of this infidelity.’ And I don’t think that’s always true. But this wasn’t a one-off. This went on throughout the course of their marriage. A constant drumbeat—a constant dickbeat—of other men. And what I find myself getting hung up on is introducing her lover to their children. It’s just so humiliating.
EP: You have a lot to be angry at. You felt special and you are demoted, one of many. That alone is crushing. There is what she did, and then the fact that she hid it. Both hurt and not always in the same way. She has to be accountable. And accountability and betrayal repair always goes through a step one, which is acknowledging her wrongdoing first. Acknowledging how what she did was a betrayal and hurtful. The second step is acknowledging what it did to you. So step one is ‘what I did,’ the second step is ‘what it did to you.' Even if she doesn’t feel guilty about it for herself, she definitely needs to demonstrate remorse for what it did to you. And the third step is 'what is she prepared to do to reengage with you, to regain your trust, to reaffirm the value of your relationship, your importance, her love.'
DS: Should he expect her to be faithful in the future? From here on out?
EP: No, I think you have to be realistic. And maybe that will involve —
DS: — an accommodation?
EP: —it’s both. Some people who have been unfaithful their whole relationship one day stop. And some people may continue their extra-marital involvements but now they do so without it being in secrecy.
The interesting part is that you are telling me a story that is gender-reversed. We are used to hearing those stories in the other direction. And so, in this case, we are hearing it from point of a view of a woman who has a certain kind of fetish and pursues reckless or not reckless situations—and, yes, also introduced you [to her lover]. I’ve heard this so many times, the introduction. Before I can tell you anything about that, I would ask her, 'What were you thinking?' What was on her mind when she was doing this? Was it a way to deceive you? Was it a way to make you think that nothing is going on between them? To pull a one over your head? Or was it that she actually had a fantasy that one day you would all be in the dungeon together? What was she thinking? You can’t really make a decision until you understand where people were at.
You have so much riding on this. Separate the feelings about what you’ve just discovered from the feelings about the marriage. They’re not one in the same. The marriage has accomplished a tremendous amount. You have children, you have dealt with you parents’ illnesses and perhaps even deaths, you have weathered economic turnarounds together. With so many marital tasks in your hands, this does not necessarily redefine an entire relationship. This doesn’t say, ‘Everything else was a lie and this is the truth.’ This says, ‘There was a lot of truth and then there was a whole other closet in which stuff took place that I had no idea about and now I need to find a way to understand it, cry over it, experience acute pain, but also make meaning of it, and potentially integrate it — and in the end, I may choose that it is too big for me to integrate and then let go.'
But this is not a decision that you make on the spot.
Follow Esther Perel on Twitter, check out her website, order a copy of Mating In Captivity, and watch her TED Talk: Rethinking Infidelity: A Talk For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved.
Listen to my podcast, the Savage Lovecast, at www.savagelovecast.com.