It was a cool January evening. A literary journal I’d previously worked for had asked me to do a reading of some of the work in their new issue for their release party.
I’d worn tight blank pants, vintage high heels, and a burgundy shirt. I’d straightened my hair and swiped dark shadow along my lids and gloss on my lips.
“Do you want to come?” I asked my husband again as I was getting ready.
“No,” he said and settled into the couch with his Playstation remote in his hand.
I’d been going everywhere by myself for a while now, not realizing in doing that that I was making the decision to leave my marriage well before I first met with a divorce attorney.
I drove alone to the party. I chatted with the people I knew, and then was introduced to do the reading.
In front of the microphone, I felt sexy and desirable. I couldn’t remember the last time my husband had accepted my advances or initiated sex on his own, but I felt confident about this, at reading my or someone else’s literary work in front of a crowd.
I smiled, thanked the audience for their attention, and stepped off the stage. An acquaintance stole next to me. He’d been drinking, but I was sober.
“I really love how you read,” he told me. “You have such a strong voice…sexy too.”
“Thank you!” I smiled and walked closer to him, cupping my bubbly punch between us. We chatted for another twenty or so minutes about writing, the graduate program we’d both gone through, our mutual friends and their successes and failures.
I could smell alcohol on his breath. His eyes flitted down to my exposed collarbone.
“Hey, we should get coffee sometime.”
He put his hand on my arm.
I looked down at his hand on my arm. “Sure,” I said. He dropped his hand, and I stepped back, suddenly feeling off-balance.
When the opportunity to leave the conversation arose, I took it, and then I left the party without saying goodbye to him, before phone numbers were exchanged, times and places were picked.
I drove home alone. I thought about going through with meeting him, how I could have explained or rationalized the incident in any manner of ways: we’re both writers, he just wants a friend. But I knew the real reason, the real reason behind his hand on mine.
I still got it, I thought to myself. It’s okay to flirt and still feel sexy every once in a while.
“How was it?” my husband asked when I got home.
“Fine,” I said and got ready and slipped beneath the sheets of our bed alone. I fell asleep alone.
I don’t know if the acquaintance knew I was married, but in our entire conversation, I’d never once mentioned my husband.
I can recall several conversations with men where I outrightly never mentioned my marriage or my husband.
It wasn’t forgetfulness. It was more often than not a conscious act of omission.
When my husband or marriage was casually brought up later, they were surprised. “Oh, you’re married?”
“Yes,” I’d say. But what I’d sometimes think, facing yet another handsome attentive man, was, “I wish I wasn’t.”
The first time I’d known my husband liked me was when he, a self-proclaimed non-intelluctual, showed up to one of my poetry readings.
He stopped going to them altogether later.
I asked him, “Why do you never go to them with me anymore?”
“I never thought you’d keep doing them.”
I blinked at him. I’d been doing them for years before I’d even met him, yet he thought I’d eventually stop doing them, something I was good at and loved doing.
The first time I’d taken my husband to a party like this one, he’d been surly, politely saying “hello” and shaking people’s hands when I introduced him, but then calling everyone mean nicknames like “gums,” “lil tits,” or “praying mantis” to me for the rest of the party.
He’d complained, whined, “How much longer do we have to be here?” I’d told him how this bothered me, so at the next party I asked him to, he hid in a corner on his phone the entire time, choosing not to speak at all, not even really to me.
“Your husband’s not enjoying himself?” I was asked.
I shook my head. “Just not his thing.”
The next time I had an event, I asked him if he wanted to go.
“Not really,” he said.
“Do you want to just stay home?”
That was his answer for all future events. Sometimes I’d push him to go anyway, but more often than not, I wouldn’t.
I cheated. I don’t like to think about it. I don’t like to think I was capable of doing that.
It lasted just eight days, I want to tell you. It was just emotional. I’d filed for divorce three months before, I also want to blurt out.
But does it really matter when you’re taking your husband to bed with you and he’s thinking you’re reconciling, but you’re thinking about another man? Another man you’re talking to every chance you get to while at work?
I can give all of the excuses: I would have never cheated if I hadn’t found he’d been abusing drugs, if I hadn’t immediately gotten pregnant and then miscarried two months later, if he hadn’t racked up $20k in credit card debt, if he hadn’t embezzled, if I hadn’t gotten pregnant again and then miscarried another two months later. I would have never.
But is that true?
Maybe in the fact that my husband’s name was rarely in my mouth meant it was just a matter of time before I put my mouth on someone else’s.
James Clear in his book Atomic Habits argues for the power of trying to be just 1% better everyday.
“If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff — the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet — but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart…”
What he’s saying is that making a tiny change — be it good or bad — can guide your life to a very different destination.
Looking back, the changes were minute, seemingly inconsequential.
I went to events and did things without my husband. More and more events where I was dressed-up, sober, and not only alone, but lonely.
Without his presence, it was easy then for men to come to me: attractive men, attentive men, men presenting themselves as their best selves, men who flirted with me and touched my bare or clothed arms, men who breathed their warm breath onto my face, men who perceived the truth that I was available.
Loneliness in an intimate relationship whittles down whatever carefully wrought walls you have. Maybe too my loneliness had its own siren song that drew these men to me.
I rarely turned them away, choosing instead to bathe in the light of their ephemeral affections. I thought I wasn’t doing anything wrong because I never gave them my number, rarely even saw them again. Just a harmless flirtation, I would tell myself every time.
Clearly, I never addressed the issues in my marriage the way I should have. We’d done plenty of therapy, read books and completed workbooks. Eventually, we both agreed without ever saying so to keep the status quo. I did things alone.We fought. We made up. He was violent. I pretended it hadn’t happened. We made up. I tried to be okay with the way things were.
I had my brief flirtations with strange men. I held onto their attentions and desires as if, each time, it was a piece I had been missing.
It was a brief interlude into the intimacy I wished I had in my own marriage. My desire to flirt, to be seen, to be found attractive wasn’t a sign that something was wrong with my marriage; it was a sign that something wasn’t right.
The only clear solution for years was to leave.
I was too much of a coward to do it until it was far too late.
I was the one who made a commitment I didn’t uphold. I am the one to blame for that betrayal and all the tiny ones before it.
I was careless and insensitive, my intentions to preserve my marriage eroded over years. It took a flirtation that blossomed inside of my own woundedness to finally have the courage to leave. It could have happened at any time, I know now.
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