When I mustered the courage to ask my husband of 16 years if he was having an affair (he was displaying these 10 signs), he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “It was just an escape. It will be over with one phone call. You and I are still going to grow old together.” I accepted this explanation. He was crying, for God’s sake. And then there was that line about love in our retirement years. The performance was totally believable.
In reality, our whole life was a performance. We appeared to be a wholesome, book-loving, middle-class pair. We had three beautiful daughters, ages 9, 6 and 2. One friend thought we seemed so compatible that she always asked after Jeff with the line, “How’s your soul mate?” I guess you could say we were the perfect couple. But it seems my overly trusting nature enabled his excessive lying.
You see, my husband led a double life.
I don’t know when he went off the rails. I do know that he got so good at lying that no one—not his family, not our friends, not our marriage counselor and most certainly not I—suspected that he had two separate lives.
On the surface, he was always smiling, well-dressed and charming to strangers and friends alike. Underneath, however, his life revolved around sex—affairs with real, live women, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and paid services that ran the gamut. Extensive business travel allowed him to pursue undetected what I later came to recognize was an unquenchable sex addiction.
There were warning signs, but I ignored them. The most significant were the interminable lulls in our love life. But I was able to rationalize them when he said things like, “I’m worried that I might not get that promotion” or, “I’m angry that you spent so much money on that dress.”
I never suspected infidelity. Jeff had intimacy issues stemming from abuse by a female teacher that began when he was only 9. He had my empathy, my kindness, my patience, my love. I believed he couldn’t be with anyone but me.
I was jolted out of my ignorance when I stumbled across an awkward e-mail exchange between Jeff and a work associate named Molly. The conversation seemed innocent enough until I read, “After you brief me on the meeting, you can ‘debrief’ me again in my hotel room.” How juvenile, I thought. Then I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
Leaning over the sink, I realized I was chanting out loud, “How could he, how could he, how could he?”
I jumped when I heard the tiny voice of my 2-year-old outside the door: “Who are you talking to, Mommy?”
“Just myself. I’m okay honey,” I heard myself answer. No I’m not, I thought.
Suddenly moments of unease I had suppressed over the years threatened to rise to the surface: Finding the phone book open to “Massage” even though he professed not to like strangers touching him. Sensing how angry a friend was after the bachelor party Jeff threw her husband. Discovering him furtively peering into a neighbor’s apartment window. Feeling hostility from certain women in his office.
Reality was seeping into my veins, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. So I quickly returned to the sweet oblivion of denial. This was easy enough given my husband’s ability to live out a lie. He did acknowledge what he called an “inappropriate friendship” with Molly, but then set about making things right in a textbook-perfect manner—couples counseling, elaborate dates and a brand new passion in bed.
He could tell the most outrageous lie without flinching, fidgeting or looking away.
And so, after convincing me of his renewed commitment to our marriage, we moved on. After a few months, Jeff’s company offered him a two-year expatriate assignment in Stockholm, Sweden.
I understood why he wanted to go; the move represented a quantum leap forward in his career. But I had serious reservations—the winters were cold and dark, I’d have to put my own career on hold and, deep down, I suspected that our marriage couldn’t survive the stress of living in a foreign country. Eventually, I was seduced into agreement when he told me that “Sweden would be the perfect place to reinvent our marriage.”
Jeff’s “commitment” to our healing disappeared almost as soon as we touched down in Scandinavia. Bucking Sweden’s family-friendly trend toward shorter working hours, he went into the office each morning at 6 a.m. and didn’t come home until 9 p.m. During family meals together, he would barely speak or look me in the eye. He grew a messy beard and lost about 20 pounds. He was the one who cheated; why did he seem depressed?
Once again, I had a vague sense of dread, but no proof of infidelity. Then one day he left his laptop open while he took a shower. I found another e-mail to Molly, this time implying that he would be free of our marriage as soon as we returned to the States.
“Have you been planning to leave me this whole time?” I gasped, the truth starting to catch up to me.
“Why did you have to look at my e-mail?” he accused.
“What difference would it have made if I hadn’t?” I asked.
He told me it would have made a “huge difference.” I suppose that meant he would have carried on with his two separate lives a while longer. I guess I forced his hand.
The next day, I told him I decided I could get past his affair.
“I don’t want forgiveness,” he said.
“Why not?” I said.
“Because you’d be better off without me. I’ve never been faithful to you. Not ever.” And then, for the first time, Jeff told the truth.
He said he had been living two entirely separate lives for years. He called it his “sad, sad story.” There was an array of infidelities: When he did a favor for Daisy, the older woman whose driveway we’d rented when we owned a co-op, she’d perform fellatio on him as a “thank you.” He’d had an affair with Kristen, a secretary from work who was known for her drunken office party flirtations with married men. Another secretary named Marin “stood between his legs” at a bar while I was away on a business trip and, since “no one had ever done that before,” he had sex with her… on four separate occasions.
He described how his addiction had evolved. He had been an athlete, an avid reader, an involved father. But eventually, he spent all his free time in Internet chat rooms, at massage parlors with “happy endings,” on call girls, prostitutes and, one time, a dominatrix.
He would masturbate in his car where a woman might briefly catch a glimpse of him. He had fantasies of violent and demeaning sex with former girlfriends. He tried to watch neighbors getting dressed through their windows. When he came home late from a business meeting, he was really having sex. When he went for an early morning run, he was having sex. When he went out for coffee during my C-section recovery in the hospital, he was having sex.
Jeff said that his behavior accelerated and got more risky over time. This was part of the thrill. And, just like an alcoholic or a gambling addict, he’d have almost immediate regret afterward. He had the insight to admit that much of his behavior was not physically gratifying, but a means to release anger at the female abuser of his childhood. When you think of it that way, I guess his leaving me celibate for weeks at a time was a blessing in disguise.
When he finished his confession, I was in shock. Slowly, I started to feel anger, and then incredible sorrow. But there was another part of me whose heart broke for the little boy who had been hurt so long ago and had spent his entire life trying to exorcise those demons.
I read about sex addiction and discovered that there was a chance for a “cure,” and even hope for the marriage if he would commit himself to serious therapy, three times a week. I prayed that he would try to get well for both our sakes, and for our children.
When my oldest daughter started to notice that something was wrong, he finally agreed to go to a psychologist. He went once a week…and I waited to see if the man I thought I knew would come back to me.
In the meantime, however, it took a different kind of betrayal to shake me out of my denial for good. Our youngest daughter went to the hospital in Sweden, and doctors diagnosed her with a serious illness. I thought for sure that Jeff and I would put our other issues aside and pull together for her sake. But he couldn’t acknowledge that her life was in jeopardy, and was prepared to go back to work the next day. A sick child was simply more than he could handle.
As he turned and walked out the door of the intensive care unit, his face told me everything I needed to know. Although he hadn’t left me yet, I was already alone.
In that moment, I could see Jeff clearly for the first time: He is a man who would have continued to conduct two parallel lives if I hadn’t caught him. In his reality, a difficult childhood is a good enough reason to run roughshod over someone else’s heart. That reality is where he lives to this day. I am relieved to say I no longer live there with him.