My mother never sat me down as a teenager to have some awkward talk about what I should do when I discovered that the man I’d been dating for three years was married. So without a rule of thumb, when it happened, well into my 40s, I texted my best friend. The message included screenshots of Facebook posts as evidence and this message: Don’t do anything rash. We need a game plan.
That night, we sat around her kitchen table rehashing what happened. There was a lot of “How did he?” and “How could he?” and “Why would he?” She and I could have sat there till sunup asking questions we had no answers to. Instead, we hatched up ways I could respond.
There was always blackmail. It’s a little clichéd, but it would be torture for him and lucrative for me. Plus, I could get creative with my demands, treat it like a healthy outlet for anger and sadness.
I could fly to the city where he lives, knock on his door, and deliver a hard slap to his handsome jaw—but the logistics were too precarious and expensive to add up.
Or I could try the opposite of face-to-face, the very popular yet cowardly online shaming.
None of these options were right because this mess wasn’t about just him and me. He had a wife. I’d never met this woman, but I didn’t want to hurt her any more than I knew he was about to hurt her. I pictured her sitting on a wheat-colored couch in their living room, her feet propped on the coffee table, oblivious and still whole. I worried she wouldn’t believe me if I contacted her, that she would hate me, that I would ruin her life—but I also knew it was the only right thing to do.
The next morning, I hit “Compose” on an email (I had found her address online) and typed a subject line: “I’m sorry to have to send this”
Since December 2018, I have been in a serious, long-distance relationship.… He told me that you and he divorced.…
I have not communicated with him.… If you are indeed married to him, you are the person who has the right to confront him.…
Please know that I never ever once thought my relationship with him could hurt you or anyone.
She replied quickly, and we scheduled a call. I had 50 minutes to prepare for the impending, awful conversation I’d set in motion. I tried to put myself in this woman’s shoes, to think about what I should and shouldn’t say on this call with my ex-boyfriend’s wife of 15-plus years. What would be useful for her? How could I prevent further harm? And how the hell did I get here? What kind of woman allows herself to get into a situation where she’s preparing to call her ex-boyfriend’s wife to tell her about the three-year affair he’s been having?
I dialed the number she gave me.
“Hi. This is Casey.”
“Thank you for calling me. I’m not sure what to say.” Her voice was deeper, softer than I had expected.
“Of course. I’m so sorry.”
She asked when and where her husband and I saw each other. I told her we met up every few weeks, most often in Indiana at my home. It was easier for him to travel since I have school-aged children. Yes, he knew my children. He’d met my parents. We were making plans for him to move here. He’d picked out a fourth-floor apartment with great natural light. But there was no signed lease or giant metal storage container full of my boyfriend’s belongings sitting in his front yard—her front yard—ready to be picked up and trucked across four states.
He had told his wife that the company he worked for had investors in Indiana, which was why he traveled there all the time. No, there are no investors here, I told her.
We agreed we felt like the idiotic female characters in some vulgar, low-budget movie, the kind that as you watch it you’re throwing your hands up and yelling at the TV, begging the women to notice the damned red flags. And we didn’t want to be in a movie like that. What we both wanted were love and trust, and we both thought we were getting it from the same man.
After almost an hour on the phone, we still didn’t know how and why he did what he did, but we were worn out. We agreed we’d talk again soon. In the meantime, she was going home to confront her husband, pack a bag, and get the next flight back home to Texas, for good.
We emailed a few times over the next couple of days. Her parents warned her to be careful. She wasn’t sure she should trust me. And I was desperate for the connection. The writing, reading, and sharing were therapeutic. We compared notes about his supposed work trips and family health emergencies to see how we fit into the stories he told us. Uncovering these bits of truth felt a little like retribution.
Our strange, intimately shared experience of being loved and deceived by the same man has spawned a friendship of sorts—one with zero judgment. While other people might hear our stories and think we’re crazy for not noticing any obvious signs over the course of three years, we know firsthand how it can happen to perfectly sane women. Now we’re getting through it together.
My own vivid dreams of a future with this man were torched as soon as I learned he was married. The person I loved never existed. He made it all up, so there was no one to miss or mourn. But because I believed his whole act, I don’t trust myself anymore.
I also feel for her. Through the years, her identity and self-worth were wrapped up in who they were as a couple. While he was the charismatic charmer, from what I can tell, she was the compassionate one. She emailed me once that she felt a little sad for him that we were talking, and now he’s got neither of us. “It seems sort of tragic, and my heart goes out to him about that.” She is discovering who she is on her own.
When I wrote to her that I was afraid my teenage sons would see me as the “other woman” and a villain when I eventually told them the truth about why we broke up, she gave me the words to use. She said to tell them, “You made it my choice to confront him.… You tell them that you made my life better.” It was the most generous email I could receive.
Seven months after our first contact, we’re making plans to meet in person.
A writer in Indianapolis, Casey Patrick is working on her first memoir.
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