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You’ve probably wondered before, “If my husband cheated on me, what would I do?” Throw him out? Bankrupt him? Never let him see our kids again? Sure, that’s what we think we’d do. But that’s all just hypothetical.
Rare is the woman who says, “If my husband cheated on me, I’d take him back.” Of course not. Who stays with a cheater? Well, statistically, a lot of women do—most, in fact, including me. Yes, I’m one of the 81 percent of women who stayed with their husbands after they were unfaithful (at least, according to a 2018 study from Trustify).
But let me tell you something: I’m just as surprised by that as anyone.
I’d been married for 10 years when my husband confessed he’d been having an affair with his assistant. I was a 42-year-old mom to three young kids. I was finishing up my 12th book. Life was busy. Life was good—until it wasn’t.
I’d had my doubts about the amount of time my husband was spending with his female assistant. But with a big project at their office, it made sense—or so I told myself. My friends agreed. “With her?” they scoffed when I shared my niggling concern. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Then, one night, when my husband was away on a business trip with his assistant, I tried to reach him and I couldn’t. Suddenly, I just knew. There’s no other way to describe it. I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid.
But the next day, when he finally answered his phone, I demanded the truth. And he gave it to me—partly. They kissed once. Well, more than once, he reneged.
I insisted he come home immediately if he had even the tiniest bit of hope of salvaging our marriage. He did. While he drove the few hours back, I walked around our house wringing my shaking hands like Lady Macbeth. I was in shock. “What was I going to do?” I moaned out loud.
Over the next few days, the full story eventually trickled out. My husband confessed that he had been having an on-again, off-again affair for four years. Four. Years.
Like so many who discover a partner’s betrayal, my emotions were all over the place. I would shake my husband awake at 3 a.m., demanding to know “Why? Why did you do it? Weren’t we happy?”
My fury shook the house. “How dare he?” I would fume. “What was wrong with him?”
I’d vacillate between rage and exhaustion. Every day, I was trying to be the best mom I could, while also trying to finish the last chapter of my book, which my editor was getting increasingly impatient over. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. “Later,” I figured. “Later, I’d decide whether to stay or go.”
Because here’s what no one tells you about infidelity: It’s so bring-you-to-your-knees devastating that kicking him out is the last thing you have the energy to do. It takes everything you’ve got to just breathe, to stem the bleeding, to tuck your kids into bed at night without curling up beside them weeping.
But I couldn’t let them see me like that. Because we didn’t tell our children. They were too young. I figured they would find out eventually when our marriage fell apart, though I couldn’t imagine telling them the whole story.
Kick him out? Maybe later. But right now? Right now, you just need to figure out how to get dressed for work, and make lunch for your preschoolers, and cancel the dentist appointment that you can’t imagine going to with an affair-sized boulder in your gut.
That was me. That’s a whole lot of us.
I hardly told anyone about my husband’s affair, except my mother, who asked me one question: “Do you love him?” “Yes,” I told her. “I think so.”
“Then you’ll fight for your marriage,” she said. But I didn’t have the energy to fight for my marriage. I felt like I was fighting for my life.
I lost weight, enough that people who’d previously said I looked “great” began to ask if I was OK. I didn’t tell them what was going on. I couldn’t bear the pity or the scorn.
That’s another part of cheating that we don’t talk about enough. Often times, people assume that if a man cheats, that means his wife was a shrew, a nag. She let herself go. The other woman was sexy and interesting. He was trading up. Which is why it’s so shocking to so many of us that our husbands cheated with someone who looked… well, ordinary.
Because here’s yet another thing nobody tells you about infidelity: He didn’t cheat because there was something wrong with you, or even your marriage. He cheated because there was something wrong with him. And he thought he could find the answer in the fantasy of an affair.
I went to a therapist who urged me to give myself as long as I needed to sort this out, and to learn to trust myself. Trust myself? It took me four years to realize that my husband was having an affair. How could I ever trust myself?
Six months after he admitted to the affair, my husband made an off-hand remark about visiting a strip club with a colleague several years prior. Huh? I wondered. My husband didn’t visit strip clubs. Or did he?
I took off my wedding ring. “You,” I insisted, “are going to tell me everything.”
And he did.
It turned out, it wasn’t just his assistant. There were others. Dozens. He’d had this problem long before he’d even met me. He was in therapy for sex addiction, he told me, curled up in the fetal position. His hands were covering his face as if to both contain his shame, and to protect himself from my anger, my shock, my disgust.
Suddenly, I looked at this man–my children’s father–and felt… pity. He was in pieces. My children needed a whole father. I told him that I could only promise him that I would be his friend as he sought help for this. I figured that—once he was fully recovered—I would leave. Or he would. Either way, our marriage couldn’t survive this. I was sure of it.
Life continued to be a roller coaster of crazy highs and numbing lows. We had a few months of what is euphemistically called “hysterical bonding,” which is frequent, intense, and wild lovemaking. It’s surprisingly common in couples dealing with infidelity, though it can generate some shame. After all, this guy just broke your heart and now you can’t get enough of him?
Eventually, our sex life stopped altogether. The intimacy felt like too much. I swung wildly between knowing it was over and hoping it wasn’t. And I tried to become comfortable with that uncertainty.
As I tried to heal, I watched my husband do the painful work of excavating decades of grief, facing down long-repressed abuse, and repeatedly showing up to support me in my own pain. I began to feel things for him I hadn’t imagined I ever could again: respect, compassion, love.
It took a long time, which is another thing nobody tells you about infidelity: It can take years to get through. Two to five, the experts say, though two is overly optimistic, in my opinion.
So here I am. More than a decade later, in a “second marriage with my first husband,” as psychotherapist Esther Perel quaintly puts it. We’re happy. Our marriage feels rich and deep and fun, for the most part. Like any longtime married couple, we have our problems. My husband, for instance, still tends to compartmentalize difficult feelings, while I prefer to put them under a microscope. We’re a work in progress.
But what I’ve learned is, there are many more responses to infidelity than we’re led to believe. Women who leave aren’t necessarily any stronger than women who stay. Simply remaining upright when dealing with such betrayal is a hero’s work. End of story.
There’s a saying on Betrayed Wives Club, the website I created to help me heal from my husband’s infidelity: “My heartbreak, my rules.” I rebuilt my marriage based on my rules, which are honesty, transparency, and mutual respect. You get to make your own choices based on yours.
And for the other side of an affair, here is I Cheated on My Spouse. Here’s What I Wish I Had Known Beforehand.
This essay has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elle Grant is the pseudonym of a journalist and author of Encyclopedia for the Betrayed, and creator of Betrayed Wives Club.