Two and a half years ago I was in a committed monogamous relationship with an incredibly sweet guy named Jim, with whom I had much in common. And I mean real stuff, not the surface commonalities we imagine in our younger years. He was applying to grad school, we were going to move in together, I was really really happy.
And then I discovered he was having an affair.
I had always railed against infidelity — no way would I ever put up with that kind of crap. My girlfriends and I would talk about friends who had gone through it with boyfriends and husbands, and we always agreed that we’d burn the perp’s clothes and use his credit cards to take an expensive mental holiday.
But there I was, staring at undeniably salacious Facebook messages between Jim and a mutual acquaintance we’ll call Lisa, and instead of wanting to burn his clothes, all I wanted to do was curl up and hit life’s “pause” button while I tried to make sense of things.
I’d gone over to his house at the request of his mother who’d stopped by to deliver some groceries. Jim had gotten a DUI a week earlier and wasn’t supposed to be driving, but he wasn’t home and neither was his car. He also wasn’t answering his phone. His mother called me in the hopes I knew what was going on, so — frightened that something had happened — I joined her at the house and we tried to figure out where he could have gone.
Which is when I noticed his computer was still signed in to his Facebook account. His mother and I opened up his message folder looking for clues. I’ll never forget the sound of my heartbeat thudding through my ears as I realized what I was reading. There were messages between him and Lisa, who he’d apparently wanted to see badly enough that evening that he’d driven to meet her on a suspended license.
Jim had been leading a secret online life for a couple of months. I was in shock. His mother was irate. She grabbed me, put me in her car and took me on the most terrifying car ride of my life stalking every hotel parking lot in town.
We didn’t find him anywhere, but this was because by now he knew from the myriad of voicemails we’d both left him over the course of the evening, that the jig was up. He was parked on the side of the road somewhere, melting down at having been discovered.
Jim’s mother and I went back to the house and loaded all of my personal things into my car. I locked him out of his Facebook page so that he couldn’t delete the evidence. Then I sat and waited until finally he came home.
His mother took his keys as she left us to talk.
I don’t remember what I said to Jim that night. I know I delivered what felt like a very dramatic speech and that I was practically vibrating with pain and disappointment as I spoke.
I didn’t cry. I kept thinking “I should be crying,” but no tears came.
Jim didn’t respond. He mumbled an apology and stared at the floor, eyes red, but didn’t have anything to say for himself. He just stood there, absorbing my anger.
So I left.
I was spinning. How could I have been so wrong about the kind of person he was?
After a few days of drinking and crying and listening to my girlfriends tell me what a piece of s*** he was, I began to realize that the indignant dismissiveness I had felt in theory was impractical in reality. I needed to talk to Jim. I needed to understand what had happened so that I could begin to process it and figure out what my next step was going to be.
So the next time he called, I answered.
I told him I had questions. I wanted to listen to him, but he had to speak the truth. He agreed to answer my questions anytime I needed. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night completely obsessed with some moment that had struck me as odd months prior and I’d call him and ask “Did you not want to go to the Fourth of July party because Lisa was going to be there? Or were you really sick?”
He’d answer, “I wasn’t sick. I didn’t want to see Lisa. I was trying to stay away from her. I’m sorry.”
Then I’d hang up, go back to sleep, and wake up in the morning with more questions. I felt like a blind person trying to put together a puzzle. All I could do was feel my way around the edges and hope that the answers I was getting would somehow fit together.
I took breaks from all the talking when it got to be too much, and instead went to yoga, read a lot, went hiking.
Meanwhile, Jim started therapy and shared his discoveries with me along the way. At first the drinking and online flirting had been an escape — he was depressed, overworked and anxious about applying for graduate school. He didn’t know how to process any of what he was feeling and Lisa was a distraction from reality.
?But whenever he came back to reality, he felt worse. Which meant more drinking, more hiding, lower self-esteem and a greater and greater need for escape.
And strangely, as he talked through this unhealthy process with me, I began to realize that his behavior really had very little to do with me. He had built a tornado of self-destruction around himself — an ugly spiral that could only end in some kind of explosion. Even the DUI wasn’t enough to snap him out of it — he had to “blow up” his life.
That revelation, coupled with the fact that Jim was making a lot of sacrifices to win me back, was a huge part of my decision to start seeing him again.
Things started very slowly. We met for coffee here, got an ice cream there… Jim quit drinking and turned down an invitation to a top school in order to stay in town and focus on us. He started going to yoga with me, which was a really healthy way for us to share space without getting bogged down in feelings.
I still listened when my girlfriends patted my hand and told me how lucky I was to have found out what kind of guy Jim was before it was too late, but I was no longer sure Jim’s infidelity was who he was.
Jim had hurt me in the worst possible way, but he hadn’t cheated on me in some wormy attempt at breaking up with me, or because he was some kind of narcissist. He’d been hurting, depressed and unable to cope, so he’d sought escape through drinking, and when that stopped working, by sleeping with another unhappy person.
But now he was learning new coping skills and I was learning more about the man I had first fallen in love with. This peek behind the curtain at the ugly side of him totally scared me, but the more light that was shed on his behavior through therapy sessions, the less frightening he became.
And somehow, amidst the many, many positive steps Jim took to repair what he had broken, I forgave him.
It’s now been a little over two years since everything fell apart, was re-examined and rebuilt. I still have days where I look at him and feel a pang at just how much impact another person can have on your heart, but most of the time I look at him and love him like crazy for all the work he’s put into becoming a man deserving of my forgiveness.
Which is why I said “yes” when he asked me to marry him last year, and why I’m so excited to be tying the knot with him next month.
I still have a handwritten list of promises Jim wrote to me when I agreed to let him back in… it’s in a frame above our bed.