All the same, there may be no lonelier social landscape than the one inhabited by two people having an affair. While the illicitness might initially be exciting, it doesn’t take long to crash into the inevitable recognition that what you’re doing is bad. Sharing details with close friends is asking them to bear the burden of a guilt that isn’t theirs. And how could I explain to them—let alone myself—that, even as I was pursuing this affair, I was still in love with my husband?
I found myself living an isolated life of lies, born out of a love for one too many. The situation made no sense, shame and shamelessness coming hand in hand. A year into my affair, and now chronically exhausted myself, I realized I could no longer stay in a marriage that caused me to dishonor it so blatantly. When things first began with Alex, I had been panicked that James would find out, or that a mutual friend would see us walking down the street and somehow know we were lovers, though we were never affectionate in public. But as the months went on and James remained clueless, I began to get angry.
For years, I had begged, then battled, for his attention. Now, though I was still in love with him, I quietly ceded a fight I knew I couldn’t win. When my husband came home from a weekend shift at the hospital, I told him we needed to separate. He asked if there was someone else. I told him yes, but that he wasn’t the reason for our break. We fell asleep clinging tightly to each other, as though in our dreams we could make it all better. At 5 A.M., I was awakened by a call from James, already back at the hospital. He wanted to tell me about his terrible nightmare from the night before, in which I had told him our marriage was over and that I was having an affair. I didn’t know what to say.
Several days later, James moved out, and I entered the state of acceptance and mourning that I had been circling for years. But as I adjusted to the shock of living by myself for the first time in my life, I did nothing to fast-forward my relationship with Alex. We would still spend the occasional night together—but without the thrill of illicitness, there simply wasn’t a thrill. I was also determined, however tentatively, to touch a toe into the waters of what it was to be alone. To be lonely. And as I did, I began to learn that I was … just fine.
Six months after James and I separated, I remember walking down the street thinking about him. Suddenly, my legs went weak, and within seconds, I found myself weeping on the sidewalk. It had taken this time apart to realize that my husband was a man I could indeed live without. But I sure as hell didn’t want to. And so, with the confidence that Alex had taught me by showing me how valuable I was, I slowly entered back into a relationship with James.
We began by having a drink, and then dinners, and then a weekend away. I took what I had learned from Alex and his view of the world into my interactions with James. No expectations. Allow the other person to be who they are. Hear it, really hear it, and then accept it or not. No more punishing James for who he was, or thinking my demands could change him. If I chose to try and live with him again, I vowed to be a responsible party, rather than a victim. And for the first time in my life, I felt the gravitas of being an adult capable of doing just that.
Finally, my husband said the words I’d waited so many years to hear. As we lay in bed one evening before he returned to his own apartment, he wrapped his arms around me and whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” While I moved cautiously back towards my husband, I moved quickly away from my lover. In the park where we had first said we loved each other 18 months before, I told Alex that I was considering reconciling with James. We cried and embraced, and I promised him that I would remain his friend if he would allow me to. I knew the chances were slim at best. But love is anything but predictable.
Recently, Alex and I were back in each other’s arms—but this time, we stood in broad daylight, and our embrace was one of gratitude. In the eight years since our affair ended, we’ve become what ex-lovers dream of but seldom achieve: extremely close, unconditionally devoted companions. We share all of our news, and we call each other on our bad behavior. We are friends with every benefit that matters, no condoms required. And though I keep my relationship with Alex a secret from my husband, it is not out of guilt or shame. It is because I do not wish to remind James of a time when I chose another.
I used to think that if I could combine Alex and James, I would have the perfect man. I wasn’t wrong. They do indeed fill in each other’s blanks, serving my different needs. Many people in my life can’t fathom how I have fulfilling relationships with them both. But I know the truth. These two very different men have taught me what it is to truly be loved. And in turn, how to love.