"You knew I had a boyfriend, right?"
I burst into astonished, semi-amused laughter. "No, I did not know that."
This friend has been married for nearly thirty years to the same man. They were married very young. I have never asked, but knowing their background, I would say that they probably got married because everyone expected it, and were too young to really have a clue about anything beyond puppy love. Four kids and several grandkids later, things have soured. Her husband has health issues and a problem with erectile dysfunction. Despite her pleading with him to seek medication and/or marriage counseling, he has refused to show any interest in fixing the problem. The problem being not so much that he can't get it up, but that he doesn't want to, and she is a good-looking, red-blooded and often horny woman. This isn't a novel. This is a real adult life.
My writing buddy recently asked how my new book was coming along, and as I heard myself enthusiastically relay some possible plot twists I had considered, it occurred to me that I am again writing about - and maybe obsessing about? - infidelity. It's a subject that is so interesting to me that I can't stop working it into my plot lines.
As a writer, I have learned a lot about the subject of infidelity; I have learned more as a writer, perhaps, than I did years ago as a cheated-on wife. Now, there is something I never would have thought possible. I thought you all - writers and others - might like to hear about some of that.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that fidelity as a concept should be morally acceptable! I'm saying that for me, there was a point in life where I realized that cheating is common (more than it should be), that all who cheat are not pigs, that people can be good spouses and still cheat, that people can be good people in much of their lives, and still cheat. It's more complicated than we want it to be. I am speaking about tolerance of the notion in the sense of a writer - that when one has the maturity to tolerate the thought of infidelity enough to try to understand it and allow one's mind to explore it, a given book might be more enjoyable and more of an enlightening experience than simply an emotionally difficult one.
Infidelity in the publishing world is interesting. In literary, mainstream fiction, it's acceptable. In the romance genre, it most often isn't; publishers' guidelines will state outright that infidelity is not to be presented. Most interesting to me, many publishers of erotic romance - the most X-rated - also don't like to publish infidelity, unless it's a group sex thing where the spouse/significant other is involved. This is amazing to me: so often the conflict of relationships, in real adult life, involves some sort of infidelity, whether strictly emotional, or sexual. And yet it makes readers of romance so uncomfortable that publishers are shy about it.
If you've read this far, I'm going to reward you with a juicy personal story. I want to tell you the story so that you understand how my feelings about cheating evolved as a writer to a point where I can write a sympathetic character that happens to be cheating. And there will be a point to all of this, I promise. Here goes.
I was about thirty-five or so. I'd been married for about a dozen years by then. I was fairly attractive, I had a lot of friends. As a wife I was fun, kind, if a little bullheaded. My husband was not so kind, not much fun, and I had married him too young to know that someone who is egocentric doesn't get better through the years, but worse. But I was raised with some old-fashioned values, which is probably why I hadn't walked out years before, and as long as he was faithful, I was committed.
He had a colleague and best friend, whom I'll call Mark. He often hung out with us. I didn't care much for him.... he was fairly young, maybe late twenties, and he had a high-school level locker room style humor that often offended me. And I had nothing in common with him. Plus, my forty-year-old husband acted like an immature ass when they were together. But Mark never knew my feelings. His maturity level wasn't his fault. And they had known each other and worked together for several years by then.
The day came when Mark suddenly got married, to a girl from his hometown he'd known for a few
years and dated off and on. He said his parents didn't like her - I wondered why - and didn't explain further why the relationship hadn't been more on than off. But at any rate, now they were married, and he brought her to our area to live and work. My husband met Angela, came home and mentioned how gorgeous she was. She was from another country and culture originally - not unusual in our circle, since my husband was also foreign and many of our friends were immigrants.
They married on Valentine's Day. Within a month, the four of us were spending a lot of time together. Angela was also much younger than I was, and I had little in common with her either. She was nice enough, but a little full of herself. I chalked it up to the age and maturity level, and did my best to help her feel at home in a new place. She adored me. She used to bring me little gifts, tell my husband how wonderful I was. I liked being looked up to.
Meanwhile, my husband insisted we spend a lot of time with them. Maybe two evenings a week, plus time on weekends. I gradually started to resent it. Before, we had always had Friday as a "date night". Now the date was always a double date. Always. When we weren't with them, he was talking about them. I started to go a little nuts with it. But the months went on, and I didn't say a lot. After all, Angela was getting used to being married, in a new place, and she often sought my advice.
Once, she confided in me that she appreciated my friendship, because she had never had a lot of female friends. "Women don't like me. They always think I will steal their boyfriends." She laughed. I thought it was a rather arrogant thought on her part. But I couldn't argue, she was a very pretty and very, very sexy girl. She was from South America, and displayed an easy physical sensuality that so many Latina women have. In addition she was funny and charming, and had just finished a law degree. I imagined she might invite a lot of jealousy from women.
I spent early evening of Halloween at their apartment. Angela had summoned me there, saying she was in some crisis and needed to talk. I remembering listening to her and wondering what the issue actually was. She rambled on about the usual, her frustration with Mark, their fighting. But I didn't get a feeling of crisis and wondered why I had had to drop everything and drive over there. It was weird, and I felt rather manipulated. Mark and my husband arrived at some point, and things were even weirder. Mark seemed oblivious. My husband seemed annoyed. Have you ever had that feeling that something is definitely going on in a room, but you haven't been made privy to it and can't put your finger on it?
Next morning, my husband nervously told me he had to tell me something. I remember him shaking as he told me - sitting there on the side of the bed, this man who usually didn't care what I thought about anything - that he and Angela had been having an affair since May. Since two months after her marriage. He was having an affair with his best friend's wife.
Now... this is where it gets really interesting. Because this is where I started learning what infidelity really is, and what it really means. It isn't about someone having sex with someone. That is just a tiny detail in the end. It hardly matters. (Believe me, it doesn't.) What matters is that your judgement failed you. You failed to see the signs. Your mind failed to protect you from your worst nightmare. You were deceived by the person closest to you. Everything you believe about yourself, and the reliability of your intelligence, explodes around you. He would not have told me because of an attack of conscience, mind you. He told me because they had quarreled and she had threatened to tell me. He had merely beat her to it.
And then as I watched him sitting there wringing his hands, I said something that surprised me as much as it did him. And I am proud of it to this day, because I learned how terribly strong I was, and I knew in that moment that of the four of us, I was the strongest. And I knew he knew it too.
I said, "I don't know what will happen. But I will tell you this: you have 24 hours to tell Mark. If you don't, I will."
He said quietly, "You would do that, wouldn't you?"
I said, "Try me. He deserves to know the truth about his life and what he is married to. He deserves better than her. And better than YOU."
In the end, he told Mark, after begging me to be present. He told him like a man, apologized like a man. A few hours before, Angela, forewarned, had gone crazy. She begged, threatened, cried to me, "You don't understand! Mark isn't like you! He isn't going to understand and he'll divorce me."
Tough cookies, little girl. You made this bed.
Not like me? Who said I wasn't going to leave? What did she imagine I was? A saint? I was no saint, but I was no fool either.
Mark surprised me, moved me, and humbled me by his reaction. He was calm, he didn't try to kill my
husband. Within weeks, he'd forgiven him and they were working out together. He did file for divorce the very next day. I didn't feel sorry for her one bit. I did feel sorry for Mark. He did deserve better. Anyone would.
I stayed in my marriage for several years, but I should not have. It took time to get my mind to stop obsessing over the deception. Because that's what you obsess over. It isn't flashes of possible sexual rendezvous. It's memories of the moments your partner looked you in the face and lied. And questions about how you were so easily fooled.
Here was another surprise. A revelation. It took a while to come to me. But finally one day I said to my husband, "You know... I have a feeling that Angela's sleeping with you had something to do with..."
"... fucking you? Of course it did. It wasn't about me at all." He finished the thought for me.
Fidelity is ultimately a terribly selfish act. It's the deliberate deception of the person who relies on you to keep them emotionally safe in this emotionally brutal existence we all share. It's the ultimate betrayal from the ultimate friend. It's ugly.
It's also selfish on the part of the co-cheater. Angela wanted to stick it to me: someone she couldn't be. She called me, in fact, a few months after the divorce. "Mark and D-- are still friends. Why can't we be friends?" she whined.
"Are you crazy? You fucked my husband. That is why we are not going to be friends. I have no respect for you. Now get the hell off my phone." I knew that she knew I was a bigger person than she was. That was enough for me. I hope she grew from it, but I really don't care. She was a big girl, she destroyed a marriage and nearly two. She knew what she was doing. Now for the rest of her life she gets to know what she did and regret it.
When I was younger and more innocent, I thought infidelity was always unacceptable. I don't believe that now, despite the ugliness of what Angela and my ex did. I think of relationships, particularly marriage, as a literal contract. You screw me, prepare to be screwed. I used to tell my husband in those latter years, "I guess you owe me a freebie." Meaning that I could, without guilt, sleep with a man of my choice for a few months. At any time. I enjoyed watching him squirm, wondering if I'd do it. I never did. Because in the same way he chose to live deceptively, I chose to live honestly. Like I said before, I should have left him immediately after. But I was young and dumb. Marriages may survive infidelity but they are never the same again. This is the bottom line: A person who is capable of that level of deception will always be capable of it. Each individual has to chose whether living with such a person and the fear of the havoc they can wreak in your life, is really worth it. When I did leave him finally, he knew that I would always deserve better than he had been. Because I never would have done to him what he did to me.
Characters are never interesting if they are saints. Sometimes good people do bad things. Selfish things. Maybe even unforgivable things. The wounded party, after an affair, understands this as no one else can. All of this makes for multi-layered relationships, real multi-layered characters, and interesting stories. Affairs are common. We all know the stories. We all can predict every scene and the ending. But can we all understand the emotions? The nuances of the experience? I think that is where one can weave a unique tale. And we are all individuals, certainly experiencing infidelity differently, both as the offender and the offended party.
My friend, after bowling me over with her announcement that she had a boyfriend on the side, quickly explained that her husband knows and doesn't seem to care. I listened for half an hour, and at the end of our conversation, I said, "Good for you, Girl!" And I meant it. Her boyfriend is also married, his wife knows, and this works for all of them. Divorce for either couple would affect children and many lives, and isn't the best option. For them it is not a moral one.
Life is messy. People are messy. A writer that is afraid of looking at messy never gets their hands dirty, and misses a lot of fun playing in the mud. Okay, my writing buddy Becky is the Queen of Metaphors and I'm not, but you get my point. Wallow in the mud, Writers! Figure out the real whys of why people do what they do. Putting all behavior in a "this is good" and "this is bad" box is cowardly for a writer, and will stifle your voice and imagination. Don't be afraid of exploring the darkest places.
You are not your characters. I would never do what Jack Miles did. I would never live as Ethan's piece on the side. I am infallibly honest to my friends and lovers. But I'm much less interesting than my characters are. ;)