My husband isn't typical. He's French. And he had a happy childhood, which is unusual in my neurotic, New York crowd. So when, in my mid-forties, I pushed up my eyelids in front of the mirror, then pulled up my left cheek and mumbled that maybe I needed a facelift, he said something I expected—and something I didn't.
"Ma chérie," he said, smiling his big white smile, "you're so beautiful!" Although I didn't believe what he said, I knew he believed what he said, which, for many women, would have been plenty.
I stood up to plead my case further, pinching the part of my stomach that showed—no, protruded—between my tank and my sweats. This was the part that had protected my four children for a total of 36 months, yet I was far from proud.
"Look at this!" I demanded.
Then, shooting from the hip, in an attempt to rescue me from time and ego, he said it:
"You're still young and you need to feel better. Take a lover, but don't tell me about it, mon amour. In France, it's like this."
My mind reeled, not because of how this invitation freed me, but because of what it implied about him.
"So when you need to feel good, you 'take a lover'?" I asked, imitating his accent.
"Sweetie, I feel good about myself. I always have. And I did enough of that in my twenties to last me lifetimes."
This was a partial comfort, I guess. That he still felt happy was great; that he'd slept with half the Cote d'Azur in his younger days, less so, but still fine. But the implied subtext that I was depressed and hadn't gotten "enough"—maybe not only sexually, but generally—was something to consider. For a moment, I felt a small sting of rejection under his oh-so-generous, culturally based offer. Was I being pawned off because he was too busy to deal with me? Or did he love me so much that he'd allow me something I needed, even if it could hurt him? Or both?
My small crisis over aging wasn't really about aging. A year before this conversation, my husband, our four daughters—the eldest of whom was 11—and I moved from Paris to Brooklyn. My husband's crise de la quarantaine, or midlife crisis, translated into an international move, the requisite sports car, and a career change. He now ran the edgiest art gallery in Soho. I ran errands and carpools for the girls, and temporarily stopped working as a psychotherapist. I lost myself.
As he fell in love with the newness of New York, I reconnected with old childhood friends. Then, just a few weeks after the take-a-lover comment, I attended my 25th high school reunion, which resulted in making my husband's benevolent wish come true, sort of, thanks to technology. That is to say, I had an e-mail affair with a childhood sweetheart—what my friends tell me has become the rite of passage for fortysomethings in long-term marriages. I think it had to have been with someone who'd known me at a time when I felt a particular way about myself that I'd forgotten: young, beautiful, and carefree, as one can only feel when there still seems to be unlimited time to make choices, before some doors of future possibilities have closed for good. Reconnecting with someone from that era of innocence filled me with guilt.
For those of you who think if you don't actually do it, you're not really having an affair, listen up: a chemical cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, and testosterone, what I call "fantasy fertilizer," pickled my brain and drowned my body. The drudgery of life magically disappeared. Missing my stop on the Q train while daydreaming, waiting for hours to see the pediatrician, being called in to speak to my daughter's school principal—all became curiously amusing. I'd smile or chuckle idiotically as I mentally turned these events into narratives my "lover" would later adore. This guy was writing me things like, "Tell me the stories of your life," at a time when my husband was too busy to take my phone calls. In no time, the "You've got mail" voice created a Pavlovian response of sheer excitement. No wonder psychotherapists dislike working with those who are "in love." I was almost literally "out of my mind."
It's difficult to describe the aliveness and creativity I felt—and the obsession. I'd wake up in the middle of the night remembering that I'd forgotten to ask him whether he liked the movie The Sheltering Sky, or that Japanese one about intense sexual passion and the hardboiled egg. Or tell him about the complicated relationship between two of my daughters, or about the time my baby had a staring contest with an ape at an animal sanctuary. I was compelled to write it all down at 3:00 a.m., planning to transcribe it onto the computer once my children were at school. I knew I'd lost control when, one day at noon, I was still in my bathrobe, hair like a wild-woman, and my husband teased, "Sweetie, the one thing I never thought I'd have to worry about when I married you was your personal hygiene."
It started with short, friendly e-mails and progressed to more dangerous, longer messages at such a slow pace that I hardly realized the deception I was engaged in. Initially, I avoided any talk of my husband; then I spoke of him only in glowing terms—charming, kind, intelligent, generous, sexy, gorgeous, paternal, strong—as if by so doing, I could avoid the reality of my betrayal. One night, lost in a series of I-love-you messages that were bombarding me on e-mail, I kept my Antonio Banderas of a husband waiting for 45 minutes at a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert that I'd pushed to attend. It became unmistakably clear that my loyalties had shifted.
Other parts of me were also shifting, changing, being discovered or imagined. My role in this second relationship left me feeling powerful, entitled, creative, and equal. I was falling in love with an updated, devil-may-care, sex-charged version of myself.
During the years I'd spent with my husband, these parts had either wilted under the heat of adult responsibility or been flattened by my inaccurate view that my husband—not I—was the one with these qualities. I was the object of his desire. Others saw him as the creative one, the glamorous one, the one with power and prestige. I was the understated wife, the serious psychology devotee, the harried-conscientious mom, the reliable friend. Sexy young clients at his gallery openings usually greeted me with, "So, how are the kids?" looking past me at the artwork, the bar, or my husband. My mojo vanished under the weight of cultural and psychological "shoulds."
My "lover," by contrast, seemed fragile and sensitive—a bit like me. I responded to him viscerally, with great strength and tenderness, venturing into risky new territory. A talented writer, he seduced with words, knowingly providing postmodern legitimacy for our affair with the phrase, "Many seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time." He sent me poems by Rumi: "Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there." He wrote about the chakras, Sufi mysticism, and prayer. In the seemingly unlimited writing time he had at work, he'd ask me questions filled with concern, curiosity, and interest, forcing me to probe places I hadn't gone before. What a perfect blank screen he became for projecting the new movie playing inside my head, in which the irresistible heroine, me, is seen, known, and worshipped. When he told me I represented the lover archetype, a la Carl Jung, I began to shed a few pounds, shop for lingerie, and burn CDs. Still with no plans to see this other man, I felt really good in my own spray-tanned skin.
Then everything changed. Like a junkie, I began to need more to get the high, and sometimes, like a real human being, he just couldn't deliver what I needed. And vice versa. Not getting these needs met caused the fantasy to shatter like a broken mirror, leaving us both disappointed, frustrated, and angry.
I started to notice things about him I didn't like. In reality, my cyber-boyfriend was quite different, and much more flawed, than my projected dream guy. He disclosed shockingly personal details about his wife, which somehow seemed more disloyal than his online affair with me. He had a habit of beginning relationships and then abruptly ending them over imagined slights, which left me diagnosing him with a personality disorder. He drank cheap wine like a fish, which caused me to suggest he "speak to someone" and attend AA. His verbose e-mails turned boring. His sensitive side somehow morphed into impotent self-indulgence. The man I'd envisioned as truly enlightened seemed consumed with unending, dark despair. This portrayal of him is certainly unfair and exaggerated, but when the infatuation that held his image together evaporated, leaving me disillusioned and "alone," this was what I saw. It ended through e-mails as easily as it had started, but not without pain.
Returning to confront the realities of my marriage, I began to understand that, as a couple, my husband and I weren't unassailable. If this other man had all these negative feelings that he was too afraid to express to his wife, or that she was too deaf to hear, might not my husband have his own storehouse of disappointments with me? Was I deaf? If I could be seduced and seducing, couldn't he? Couldn't his heart, almost against his will, alight on another? For the first time in decades, I felt separate from my husband in the way you feel separate from someone you don't take for granted: separate but equal—not enmeshed, not half of something. For the first time in many years, I saw him as unfamiliar; as someone I didn't fully know.
I didn't mean to take what mon chéri said seriously, and for any number of reasons I wouldn't recommend having an affair as a way of enlivening a long-standing marriage. I have some friends and psychotherapy clients who are resigned to staying in marriages for myriad reasons while feeling that their hearts are elsewhere, and others for whom an affair, even one that transpired years ago, defines their current relationship—one partner perpetually blaming, one perpetually doing penance. Clearly, having affairs is like playing with fire, and good people get burned.
But in the best of all possible outcomes for an affair, the parts of me that were reawakened or newly constructed remained with me after it ended. The affair gave me what good, extended therapy does: a broader definition of myself—the ability to inhabit my life as an active player, while surrendering the fantasy that someone else or something else would make me happy. I was indelibly changed, and so was my marriage.
As my view of myself expanded, so did my view of my husband. It was as if walking backward away from him, I finally got enough distance to see him whole. What I saw I deeply loved, wanted, and, maybe for the first time, consciously chose. New doors of possibilities opened. Of course, I had to disobey his don't-tell-me-about-it request in writing this, but given the fact that mon mari is French and emotionally secure or, as the French say, "good in his own skin," I know what he'll say: C'est la vie.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
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