“Should I post it?” I ask him almost every time. One, because if I reveal anything about him I figure he has a right to say whether it goes on the internet. Two, because writing deeply personal material skews my normally very private filter. I lose perspective, by necessity.
So, why write at all? Why would a private, introverted individual put their personal life on blast for everyone from closest family to loose acquaintances or maybe even strangers?
Because, the night he told me, I had two thoughts, one immediately after the other:
We agreed, it would be a secret. No one else’s business. And so we kept it that way. And every day I dreaded someone finding out.
The irony is, all the pain had started because of secrets. Jake’s went back to when he was seven years old, at least, with a young man I still struggle to forgive, who ordered him to keep everything a secret. And then the infidelity, of course, all secret.
We learned, in the most painful way possible, that for as long as you keep your pain a secret, it can control you. It can blind you. It can keep hurting you.
In the aftermath, I looked for support, and I discovered most of it was provided anonymously. Women changed their names when they told their stories. The covers of the self-help books were dark and shadowy. One day, I started to post an introduction on a support group site, but I was worried the IP address would give me away. Someone would figure it out. I closed the site and never looked at it again.
And so, for the most part, we kept quiet. A few close friends were on a “need to know” basis. There was a crisis, or there was an awkward social connection, and we agreed, “Shit we need to tell them.” And so we did, cringing, hoping they wouldn’t judge too harshly.
No one ever did.
And then one sunny summer afternoon, the secret a few years old, I received a tearful and entirely surprising phone call. The news shocked me. And yet I was able to inhale deeply and say, “Me too. I get it.” The relief in the voice on the other end of the phone was profound. We had solidarity now, we two survivors of deeply imperfect marriages.
Six months later, over coffee with a friend, I said it again. “Me too. I get it.”
I was met with the same shock, the same surprise, the same solidarity.
And with this: “But you guys? Not you guys. You’re like the perfect couple.”
And that, right there, is when I began to consider this ridiculous idea of writing it all down.
Because there are no perfect couples, and zero perfect marriages in the history of the world. There are only flawed marriages composed of flawed people. The best you can hope for is that deep down, you and that other deeply flawed person really like each other. And in the moments when you don’t really like them, you need to love them until you start liking them again.
The morning after he told me, I sent Jake a short text: I refuse to let this define us.
(But maybe in five years I’ll create a blog devoted to talking about it? Oh, yes, I see the irony.)
It still doesn’t define us. But it shaped us.
A funny thing happened, after my first post on the subject. My expectations and goals in writing about it were two-fold. First, I wanted to take control of the story – to share on my terms and shed the burden of “what if someone finds out.” Second, I wanted to create safe space where others who had shared my experience – that is, those who had been cheated on – could find solidarity, understanding, and healing.
In the week after I first posted, I received several deeply personal, heartfelt messages.
Most of them weren’t from people who had been cheated on.
Most were from people who had cheated.
Some had told, some hadn’t. Some had stayed married, others had split up. Many had childhood trauma, though not all. Many were in what outsiders looking in considered a perfect relationship.
What I learned was that we were not so different. Over and over, I found myself saying, yet again, “Me too.”
Once or twice a week, I remember: Everybody knows now, and I have a moment of panic. Who does that? And why? What was I thinking?
It’s Jake (of course) who brings me back. “Because,” he says, “if you hadn’t, then it would still be a secret.”
And we would be another polished, sanitized version of ourselves, a fairytale couple who never struggled to stay together, never wonders if the choice was the right one, never wrestles with the idea of choosing each other daily.
That couple doesn’t even exist, unless they just got married this past weekend.
You guys: We have to start saying marriage is hard. We have to start admitting it isn’t fun all the time, but that it can still be so, so good. We have to own that a strong marriage between two dedicated people can withstand a whole lot of pain. Because that is inspiring and encouraging. That is aspirational.
That is a story that deserves to be told.