The Crushing Burden Of Other People’s Secrets

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woman looking depressed

Having recently unearthed two massive, life-changing secrets that directly impacted me, I spend a great deal of time contemplating the life I lived before I knew versus the life I live now, after.

For every step forward, I take a half-step back. We can never go back to exactly where we once were, so it’s not a full step; I cannot return to my starting point. But neither am I as far forward as I fervently wish to be — I am not, sadly, over it, simply taking baby steps in a long and painful process.

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Nearly five years ago, I found out that my husband was having an affair.

The fact that we had been together since we were 20 and were now 47, that we shared three children aged seven to 18, that we had been a part of each other’s lives longer than we had lived our lives without each other — these long-term factors, indicating our deep entanglement, added to my disorientation.

I have heard stories in which the extent of the betrayal is far worse than my own, spouses who led double lives for decades — lives that included lovers, drugs, and heaps of lost finances.

I compared my own situation. My husband’s affair was not a one-night stand. It had gone on for months, not years. There had been, according to him, only one other woman.

On the one hand, his infraction was monumental enough to topple our 27-year relationship.

Once I knew, I could not salvage that which had not actually been there. The relationship I thought we had did not exist, so what was there to save? I had been happy in our marriage; he had felt constrained. From whose version of reality were we supposed to rebuild? The marriage was over.

On the other hand, his infraction was not so monumental that it forced me to reach deep into the reserves to question years’ worth of memories — a handful of years, yes, but not decades. His betrayal had existed within a set period of time that was barely manageable to accept, but it hadn’t happened over a lifetime.

Having to face what betrayal feels like when a secret is kept over the course of a lifetime would come for me two years later, from the most unexpected source, the person I trusted more than anyone else in the world: my mother.

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Hers was not a secret she had intended to share, ever. A DNA test taken by my nephew forced her hand. She had held this secret for half a century and it was buried so deep that she decided it didn’t exist anymore. In her mind, it was part of her own story, but not mine, so sharing it was not something she owed me.

My father was not really my father.

I knew this already because he had adopted me when I was seven. But the father who came before him, the one who had died weeks before my fifth birthday, the one who I had a handful of photos of that I studied throughout my life to identify the resemblance? He was not my father.

My father was an anonymous sperm donor who had, allegedly, been chosen to father me because he was healthy, intelligent, and Jewish. How did my mother know this? Because that was the “truth” her doctor promised her. Without other options to get the baby she so desperately wanted, she chose to take a leap of faith.

That’s where the story ended for her. She got not one but two daughters from two different donors and life went on. Our father was our father for all intents and purposes and who would benefit from our knowing anything different?

But that’s the heart of betrayal and deception.

When a person holds information to themselves, they are the only ones who have the luxury of assigning meaning to it. My husband learned something critical in the course of his dalliance, which was that he really did want to be with me after all. My mother had pondered the question of nurture versus nature on my behalf and hers and decided that nurture was what mattered.

My husband and mother hadn’t let themselves believe that I might have an opinion that differed from their own. When you keep secrets, you are the only one who has an opinion about it. Your clueless spouse, your uninformed daughter — what they don’t know not only can’t hurt them but also can’t persuade them of anything different than what they see in front of them.

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I move on in my life, shuffling forward and then back again.

I forgive and then I don’t. I come to peace with the truth and then I feel a terrifying surge of rage. It doesn’t feel fair that I didn’t get a shot at the truth in a timely manner, that I am forever trying to catch up to what someone else had known when it should have been my own knowing.

When I see my now ex-husband, I often see the after of him and I resent him; when I see glimpses of the before, I love him. I cannot consistently separate him from his deception, those four months in the sum total of decades together. Did he reveal his true self in those four months, or have a lapse as a human being during that time? I didn’t stick around to find out and now I will never know.

My feelings for my mother are purer. I only love her; she did what she believed was best, as misguided as I feel it to have been. But she did it based on what was best for our mother-daughter relationship, as well as to spare my sterile father’s dignity.

If she had thought about it honestly, about who I was and what mattered to me — to me and not to her — she would have told me the truth when I was a child and still had the chance to integrate it into my story. Though it is undeniably a part of my story today as I find my footing in midlife, my identity is not as malleable as it was in childhood; I don’t have a comfortable place to house this knowledge now.

I can still trust people wholly and genuinely despite having been betrayed by the two people I trusted above all others.

That’s a part of my identity that, tested and retested, has turned out to be unshakable.

It’s myself I don’t fully trust anymore; my reactions and feelings are unpredictable and mutable.

I always had a solid sense of myself, but it was based on what I believed I knew about myself and the facts of my life. I understand now that I only know what I know or maybe what I want to see; all that I don’t know lurks beneath or on top of or in between.

I never felt ghosts of secrets surrounding me before, but that’s the burden I carry now.

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Laura Friedman Williams writes about family, identity, marriage, and divorce She is the author of AVAILABLE: A Very Honest Account of Life After Divorce. 

This article was originally published at Meidum. Reprinted with permission from the author.