Advice To A Young Wife From Her Husband's Longterm Mistress

Here's what I know about your marriage that you should try to understand.

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I am more like you than you might suppose. A mistress shares a secret with a newly wedded wife: that love is a kind of glorious grief, equidistant from happiness and tears. 

I am apt to be more like you than your mother, who long ago determined the shape all love must take, and has forgotten that each day's choices, even now, have anything to do with it. Nor is she wholly wrong. Love lived from day to day takes on a momentum of its own, but that is not all of it.


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If a mistress knows more of romance and a wife more of practicalities, is there not some wholeness implied here worthwhile to explore? 

It is not my intention to set wives against mistresses any more than is inherent in their situation or to try to prove one better than the other. Rather, I would show that they have much in common as women.

I write from a long road of years — years of living and dying a little, of humbling and exaltation, of slowly coming to know myself and thus other people more completely. That is one advantage a mistress has, simply as a human being, over a wife: She is in the nature of things more exposed to the contrary currents of living.


She must master them, or perish; grow all the way up to whatever powers she was born with and ride them as a man rides a surfboard standing up, or drown. She is made to be a realist; that is to say, to realize herself. It is one of the richest blessings life can bestow.

I too was once a wife, and in love, and in earnest — and suddenly was faced with the fact of the other woman in my husband’s life. I had been married for quite a while and was the mother of one son. What followed was divorce, against my wishes it seemed at first, although the marriage was a shell and I soon realized its termination was the more honorable outcome and was at peace. 

In two years' time, I met a man who was at once a walking image taken from my mind and almost aloof in his self-possession. The strongest thing I felt was recognition as if I had known this man very long ago. I knew he was married and for reasons, not mine to disclose, would never of his own accord undo it. You may say that what I did was selfish and that, I think, is true, but not in the way that word is commonly construed.

Very little of any moment happens until self-interest is aroused — no wealth or power or art or faith or government; what men and nations desire rules the world. Right and wrong are absolutes, and human beings seldom have the luxury of absolute choice between them.


Given the forces that were released simply by our encounter — and that much was not our doing — was it more or less brave to yield to them, along with their concomitants of taste, restraint, the abrasion of disapproval from ourselves and others?

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One thing I learned was that human beings make decisions as wisely as they can, and then make them right or wrong by the terms on which they live with those decisions.

Being in love does not demand mental censorship, but it requires a certain pruning of one’s thoughts. Second-guessing, agonizing, and leaping to unwarranted conclusions are killers of the dream.


A mistress who would let her mind run riot on such fripperies would be dispossessed next week. She does not torture the relationship with constant scrutiny. There are a dozen valid reasons why any love affair should not exist, so that reasoning about it, pro or con, is at least contradictory. But all love is a lingua franca not reducible to grammar, married love included.

Care for the loose talk inside your head. It reflects in a hundred subtle ways: a tone of voice, a glance, a gesture, the things you choose to laugh at, and the quickness or slowness of response.

All this, in turn, governs the quality and amount of love you will allow, and thus the kind you get. I do not say a mistress is above these same mistakes, only that she does not keep making them over and over; she doesn't get the chance.

It is critical to understand that intelligence and love do not blockade one another. I have known men and women, both married and not, who all their life have borne the grief of not knowing real love, and yet they keep the word abstract. They expect love to be mystical magical something unrelated to whatever other powers they may have.


They carry in their heads a line from bad novels: "If you have to think about it, it isn't love." Nonsense. That is like saying if you have to study, it is not talent.

Intelligence is necessary for oneself first, and after that, for love to come alive. Any man who is drawn solely to surfaces and youthful charm is eventually not going to be enough of a man for the woman you shall have become if you grow at all. With this advice, if your husband is cheating, things are just that simple.

Love is vastly more than sex and family life, a social unit, an economic cog, no matter how superbly marriage fills these niches. We love most those who make us fulfill whatever greatness lies in us, not those who induce us to resign it. Remember how it was at first, how you went around pouring out; and refilling your reservoir from the same springs as before you met, for that is what brought love to your door.

A mistress perceives that love is not calibrated in the length of days but in height and depth. A love affair is constantly subject to two threats: a foreseeable end and a fragmentary present, which ought to destroy it but they don't. A love affair does not ask for security against the world's fate; it shares that fate and knows it only too poignantly, which gives it great vitality for its season.


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Marriage is often an attempt to bring life as nearly to a standstill as possible, guaranteeing what no one can: to go on feeling a certain way.

Swearing to love forever is like promising to feel perpetually any other emotion, fear or sorrow, admiration or joy. What one can swear is to go on being worth loving, a vow that is more flexible, more attainable, and truer.

It is time to say aloud that marriage is not so much the outcome of love, sex, or maturity as one road to them, even now the most available road for many people. Marriage is the next logical stage in human development, after childhood and youth, and the paradox is that developed powers clamor to be used.


To marry is to invite growth, which induces more growth and demands a wider field. Love begets love, as the psychologists recognize, and they advocate ideally a loving home for all children as a means of nurturing and continuing the pattern.

But they fail to follow their own insight through to the end: Marriage and the family are a natural extension of the initial human condition; in this context, whether marriage is happy or unhappy is not very important.

The point is, it teaches; it completes one’s growth, positively or negatively. And then what? Does one jump off a cliff, or else mark time for the rest of one's years? 

Perhaps the deepest obligation of life is to put off what is outgrown, even when it was true in its day and has served us well, and to achieve as much reality as we are individually capable of.


St. Paul said, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." The trouble is that we refuse the adult assignment of becoming selves. When we say, "I was wrong," "I make my own joy," "I find the world good," and not, "He mistreated me," "No one understands my needs," "They let me down," then we shall be adults, professionals with the capacity to love and be loved.

When a marriage has fulfilled its promise of rounding out personality, people frequently decide they have fallen out of love or were never in it in the first place; that marriage has proved a cheat or that one partner has betrayed the other.

These charges may be valid or not. What really needs to be considered is that here one is, stuck with a self, and what shall be done with it from this point on, not how one arrived at it.


In this advice, if your husband is cheating, I can only conclude that many people do not want love, and they use marriage as a bulwark against it, however unlikely that may sound.

Oh yes, they make all the appropriate noises, but they don't really want to be disturbed. In some half-buried memory, they know that strong emotion extracts a price it frightens them to think of paying out of their meager resources—a price of effort, courage, and attention.

They would rather read about great loves or watch them on screen than participate in them.

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Excerpted from Advice To A Young Wife From An Old Mistress, by Michael Drury. Published by arrangement with Random House.

Michael Drury is an author who has written seven books and over 300 feature articles, stories, profiles, and essays.