He was married. I was single. We had an affair—and we never even kissed. It was a yearlong emotional affair, a nightmare where everybody cries and nobody comes. To understand why I got into a friendship that metastasized—and stayed in it for months—I’ve had to look frankly at my background and choices. And some of it ain’t pretty.
When I started talking to Josh (not his real name), I was getting over a five-month bout of bronchitis that often kept me wheezing and crying. I lived alone and worked from my small studio apartment. Conference calls for work left me breathless and embarrassed about my periodic hacking fits. Too tired to cook, I relied on childhood comfort food: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and anything I could get delivered.
As my physical health suffered and I worked in relative isolation, my mental health took a nosedive. This was no surprise, as I have a history of depression, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. When I go to therapy, take my medication, exercise, eat reasonably good stuff, and sleep enough, I do very well. But being sick made it easy to neglect that recipe for health. When I felt well enough to emerge from my apartment, it was usually to drink with friends. I knew it was dangerous to drink alcohol while on an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), but I didn’t care. I just wanted to feel less conscious. Less present. I wanted to escape.
I was lucky to make a good middle-class income in a city, Los Angeles, where that’s increasingly rare. I was grateful for my copywriting assignments, a screenplay revision and an outline for my next novel. But I was lonely as hell, and depression can turn up the volume on pessimism and choke optimism into silence. Sometimes I ordered things online I didn’t really need just because it made me feel better, for a moment. But I soon found other ways to get a quick hit of good feelings, too.
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A few months prior to first chatting Josh up, I had an uncharacteristically healthy realization: I often lost myself in my relationships. I chose men or women who I decided needed “fixing.” Sometimes they told me I was the only one who could save them. That made me feel important. I was woefully codependent. Sometimes I stayed with people I didn’t even respect, doing my best to be indispensable to them so that they’d never leave me. I paid their bills, went beyond healthy support into the realm of endless emotional labor, covered for them when they screwed up, and pretended everything was going to be fine. I told them what I thought they should do. I helped them sketch out action plans. And I didn’t look at my own glaring flaws. They would complain that I was condescending while availing themselves freely of what I called generosity. My fear of abandonment was so great that I allowed myself to be used, because I was a user, too. I was addicted, and my fix was fixing others.
Early on, he briefly mentioned his wife and kids. I felt a little disappointed, but immediately recalibrated into friend mode—heck, why wouldn’t he be married? He was so great!
So I’d decided to take a break, which in my case meant no boyfriends or girlfriends. No monogamous relationships. I would have occasional hookups with friends and nothing more. I figured I could get what I wanted sexually and spend the rest of my time becoming a happier, healthier person - as if we can compartmentalize our lives like that. As if I wasn’t using the hookups to numb my fear of being alone. Somehow, I thought this revised method would lead me to a healthy relationship. Not long after I went solo, bronchitis hit me hard, which made even casual liaisons impossible. So despite my intentions, I was forced to face being alone. And being alone was scarier than being sick. Naturally, I found a way around it.
A few months into my illness, I watched a funny video on Josh’s Instagram. He was an artist I knew through mutual friends and we followed each other, but we’d never met. I didn’t know much about him, but he was cute and seemed smart. For the hell of it, I sent him a private message: “That video cracked me up in the middle of a long workday.” Working from home means I do a lot of chatting via social media, and I’m not shy about messaging someone to say I enjoy their art. I don’t expect anything in response, but it happens that I’ve met some lovely real-life friends that way.
Josh responded nearly instantly: “Hey, thanks! You live out here now, right?” We chatted for a while about our respective work projects and our mutual friends. We both thought it was odd that we’d never met. We chatted a little the next day, and the day after. Early on, he briefly mentioned his wife and kids. I felt a little disappointed, but immediately recalibrated into friend mode—heck, why wouldn’t he be married? He was so great! He told me a little about her and how they met, and she sounded really impressive, like a talented boss and entrepreneur. She worked outside the home and he did the bulk of the childcare. He didn’t bring his family up again—at least not for a while.
Within a couple weeks, he told me it was hard to type while he was working on his art, and I suggested we use FaceTime. We started doing that every day while I worked in my bed, propped up on pillows.
Within a couple weeks, he told me it was hard to type while he was working on his art, and I suggested we use FaceTime. We started doing that every day while I worked in my bed, pale and disheveled and propped up on pillows. It was easy for him to set up his phone on a little tripod and show me his work. It was easy for me to prop my phone up on a stack of books I was supposed to read for potential endorsement and blurbing, and comment on his art instead. He was such a talented painter. I thought it was awesome that he was letting me have a window into his works in progress. And I felt a kind of pathetic gratitude that he seemed to still like talking to me even though—gasp!—I wasn’t wearing makeup or nice clothes. I thought I looked like shit. Meanwhile, he was tan and healthy and looked a lot like a guy I’d had a crush on in high school who had never showed any interest in me.
Chats about art and sports quickly expanded to include more complex topics. One day, he nervously told me he was in treatment for a mental health issue for the very first time, and felt ashamed about it. He hadn’t told anybody else, he said, but he knew he could trust me. I told him I was honored, and to keep going to therapy. I said I’d missed going for a little while, but I blamed it on my illness. I didn’t add, “But I still seem to find the ability to go out to the bar when I have a good day!”
He went on a family vacation and told me when he returned that he’d listened to the entirety of my memoir on audiobook. He said he’d loved it. It did not occur to me that it was odd for a man I’d never met to listen to my voice for eight hours on an airplane while sitting with his wife and kids. “What a nice guy,” I thought. “What a good friend.”
“Don’t you have a passcode on your phone?” I texted back. I was acting like we were having an affair—because we were having an affair.
Over the next couple of months, our communication increased: text, FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, phone calls, emails. Once, he was late picking his kids up from daycare because we’d been chatting for so long. He said it was okay; he’d just blame traffic (in Los Angeles, you can always blame traffic.) Another time, his daughter walked into his studio while we were on FaceTime. The look on his face before he abruptly hung up was one of sheer terror. Panicked, I texted him to ask if everything was okay. He texted back immediately: “Yes, but I think it’s better if we just message in other ways. Texting isn’t secure.”
“Don’t you have a passcode on your phone?” I texted back. I was acting like we were having an affair—because we were having an affair.
“Yes, but she knows my passcode,” he texted back. Red flag! Red flag! Red flag...that I ignored.
“Got it,” I said. And then we stopped communicating over text.
Sometimes he’d talk to me late at night while he was supposed to be working. Now it had the flavor of something secretive. Even in my commitment to denial, I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t odd.
“I think Josh has a crush on me,” I told my friend Carol. She’s one of my best friends and she’s a real straight shooter.
“Yeah, and you’ve got a crush on him,” Carol said. “He’s an idiot and he wants you to seduce him so he can fuck you and then blame it all on you. Stop talking to him.” (See what I mean about the straight shooter thing?)
“He’s just a friend,” I said.
“I’m just your friend,” Carol said. “He’s using you for emotional support because his wife is busy actually earning money and being a real adult. And you’re using him for the same reason. You don’t know how to be single, so you have a sexless substitute boyfriend.”
My gut knew she was right, but my head said, “We can fix this!”
It was a familiar refrain for me. I frequently chose men or women I thought needed “fixing.” I stayed with people I didn’t even respect, doing my best to be indispensable to them so they’d never leave me. My fear of abandonment was so great that I allowed myself to be used because I was a user too. I was addicted; my fix was fixing others.
Josh called. He sounded nervous. “I have to talk to you about something,” he said. “I’ve realized that my feelings for you have…”
I blurted out “Turned into a crush?” at the same time he said “Begun to eclipse my feelings for my wife.”
Now that scared me a little. That was more serious than what I’d expected to hear. What I should’ve said was, “Josh, this is wrong. I wish you the best but we shouldn’t talk anymore.” But what I said was, “We can fix this!”
We arranged to meet in person for coffee in a public place to talk things out. I advanced the ridiculous notion that meeting me would take all the sparkle and mystery out of our feelings for one another. We’d see that we were real people with flaws, not just magical beings who were always there for each other long-distance. He agreed.
As soon as I saw him, my heart leapt. He was better-looking in person, and we laughed nervously as we hugged awkwardly. We spent a nice time talking about how much better and more appropriate it was in person and how relieved we both were. I made sure to ask about his family. He made sure to ask about my work.
When we parted, I texted him. “Do you actually feel differently now?”
“No,” he responded. “I lied.”
“Me too,” I said. “We should probably not talk for awhile.”
Soon after that, he went on a trip and drunkenly texted me that he missed me. I said that was inappropriate and then we spent a half hour texting about how inappropriate it was. I reminded him to delete the texts. Very normal stuff.
After about three months of pseudo-friendship, Josh told me he loved me. I said I loved him, too.
“What do we do?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
It went on and on. A couple of times, when we were both drinking, our conversations turned into phone sex. After each time, we’d both declare we couldn’t speak to each other again, and then we wouldn’t, for about a month. I’d lean on my friends for emotional support and they’d tell me I was doing the right thing. Then I’d crack, or Josh would, and it would start up again.
“I missed my chance,” he told me. “If only I’d met you before her. You are perfect. I want to be in love with her, but I don’t think I am. She’s so great. Why can’t I be in love with her anymore?”
Any rational adult could see it was better for children to experience a healthy divorce than a terrible marriage. But was his marriage actually terrible?
“You could leave her,” I said hopefully. “I doubt she wants to be with someone who isn’t in love with her.” I thought: And then you could get a real job, and a place by yourself, and after maybe six months or a year we could start dating for real, and it would be healthy and aboveboard, and then we could get married and live together, mostly happily ever after.
“No,” he said. “I’ll never leave her. I don’t want to mess up my kid the way my parents messed me up when they got divorced.”
But was that really the reason? Any rational adult could see it was better for children to experience a healthy divorce than a terrible marriage. But was his marriage actually terrible? I thought about it. The wife sounded great, and he seemed to actually think she was wonderful. He never complained about her to me. He had a pretty sweet set-up. She made all the money. He did most of the child care. His kids would be in school full-time soon, and he could do his art all day and hang out with his friends. He didn’t have to work hard, and people thought he was so sweet and so talented. He didn’t have to be a real adult. I took care of his emotional needs, she took care of his financial and sexual needs. He was set. And this was the person I loved?
I should just kill myself, I thought.
That's when I knew I'd hit my limit. I hadn’t had that dark thought in many years. I was sad it had taken me getting to the point of suicidal ideation to get out of yet another shitty relationship, but I knew things had to change. Whatever I had with Josh, it wasn’t worth feeling like this.
I went back into therapy. Talking about this bizarre, mutually obsessive thing made it more real. I could deal with what was real. And it hurt like hell, but I spoke to Josh less and less. I knew that my life required more than just getting rid of some dude—more even than therapy. I resumed the meditation practice I’d abandoned a decade prior. Instead of looking for someone else to take care of me, I started taking care of myself. After all, I worked 60 hours a week for a reason: to earn money. It was time to start using it wisely instead of wasting it. I ditched the fast food, caffeine and sugar habits that kept me on an all-day roller coaster. I went to the nutritionist to learn how to eat better. I went to the chiropractor to help with my tricky back. I looked at my debt and refinanced. I created an actual budget.
I went two months without talking to Josh, and then I ran into him at a party. My heart leapt in the old way when I saw him. We drank a lot, ate a ton of terrible bar food, and walked around the block several times, talking. He told me he was in couples therapy and it was going okay. He hadn’t told his wife about our relationship, and didn’t plan to. He told me he was still in love with me and missed me. I said, “Me too.”
At one point, we held hands. We’d never done that before.
“Are you going to kiss me?” I asked. “This is probably your last chance.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“I know,” I said. And I immediately tripped and fell down on the sidewalk. My drunk coordination was certainly sub-par, but maybe I needed a physical wound on my knee to remind me of what I did to myself emotionally every time I talked to this guy.
I said goodbye to him.
In the Lyft on the way home, I knew it had gone as far as it was going to. There was no joy left in it, no excitement. There was just shame and guilt. Safe in my own bed, I cried, but there were tears of relief mixed in with the grief. He emailed me later to say that he loved me truly, and he hadn’t been using me, and he was very sorry for everything. I wished him well and said I was sure I’d see him around some day. And that was it. It’s been nearly a year, and we haven’t spoken or seen one another.
With the distraction of the emotional affair finally gone entirely, I took an honest look at all the things I’d been using to escape being alone with myself. And that’s when I made the biggest move of all: I stopped drinking.
With the distraction of the emotional affair finally gone entirely, I took an honest look at all the things I’d been using to escape being alone with myself. And that’s when I made the biggest move of all: I stopped drinking. I look at what Josh and I co-created, and I think we both took advantage of one another. I used him the way I used alcohol or sex, or online shopping—to distract myself from the fear and emptiness within. To call our relationship “love” would be a perversion of the term. Love doesn’t always last, but overall it yields healthful benefits for both parties. What we had was a mutual addiction and one that could’ve hurt other people terribly.
I wouldn’t do it all over again, but I’m using the experience as best I can to fuel writing that will hopefully make others who were in my position feel less lonely. I wrote a pilot about an emotional affair and called it “Codependent AF.” And my next novel centers on an alcoholic ensnared in a decade-long affair. I’m so sorry I did some real-life research for these projects, but maybe some good can come out of it. Hell, if it prevents one person from making some of my shitty mistakes, that’ll be a good thing.
I’m still single. I read a lot, and meditate, and do my work, and enjoy cooking and baking. I go to restaurants alone. I see friends who put in as much effort as I do. I’ve cut loose those who don’t. I’ve retired from trying to “fix” anybody, and I’ve let go of the hubris that I could or should have such powers. I take a long walk whenever I can, because it helps me practice staying present, looking at the beautiful flowers and trees and strange and wonderful sights my city has to offer. I don’t know when I’ll have a real, loving romantic relationship, but I trust it will happen when the time is right. I’m doing life one breath, one step, one moment at a time. And I’m done being anyone else’s dirty little secret.
Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian and author of Real Artists Have Day Jobs.
Illustration by Javier Jaen