I’m a wife, a mother and a doctoral candidate. I’m not the kind of person this happens to. What the hell am I doing?
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 6, 2008
I’m a 28-year-old doctoral student, wife and mother; it’s a life I would’ve described once as busy, happy and thankfully boring. All has changed. This last summer, I went to my 10-year high school reunion and ended up having an affair. Up until that point, my husband was the only person I had ever had sex with. My husband and I met when I was a senior in high school. I hadn’t been saving myself for my future husband (no great moral or religious convictions involved). I was just waiting for a nice respectful guy. I did not know we would remain in love and marry five years later, but that is exactly what happened. He has insisted many times in our 11-year relationship that I would want to have sex with somebody else someday. I thought the notion was preposterous; I assured him I was too level-headed to want something so silly. Well, it turns out, he was right and I was naïve. Despite my intoxication, I was quite calculated in my decision making. The boy was 21 (so he said) and had crashed the after party; we didn’t know each other beforehand. It appeared to be the quintessential one-night stand, and I have now learned the hard way that infidelity is a crime of opportunity.
Since that night, I’ve discovered some interesting things about the boy. First, he’s not even 21 (which was a scandalous-enough age for me), he’s only 18. I about had a heart attack when I Googled him and saw he was in eighth grade in 2004. Second, he graduated high school last May and is an incoming freshman where I go to school and TEACH. After confronting him about lying, you’d think I’d wash my hands of the whole thing and try to pretend it never happened. That is what I had planned on doing, after all. Instead, I have been talking to him, texting him and IM-ing him almost every day, in secret of course, but often. We’ve hung out a few times. We have not had sex again, but that’s not for a lack of desire on my part, as I fantasize about him daily and we flirt constantly.
I gave him the opportunity to “escape” from this soap opera right after I discovered his lie. I wrote him a long e-mail, explained how complex my life is, how he’s just a young kid who shouldn’t be weighed down by my drama, and how it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if we cut our losses and stopped our “friendship,” as I am uncertain as to whether I will be able to keep it only friendly. Surprisingly, he seems uninterested in actually having sex again (though he only insists on abstaining for my good, he rationalizes). He is still texting me and IM-ing me on a daily basis about seemingly inconsequential things, much to my confusion and delight.
I’m baffled at our behavior — his and mine. I can’t figure out what he could possibly be getting from our relationship. I assumed he was using me for sex (as I was him) and that we would easily just stop talking. Instead, I have this sinking suspicion that we are using each other, I just can’t for the life of me understand for what. Talking to him is exciting, he makes me laugh, and I give him advice about his love life and he even wants to give me advice on my marriage (what does an 18-year-old know about marriage?!). I also give him advice about navigating school, and tomorrow I’m meeting him to help him figure out how to catch up in one of his classes he was thinking about dropping.
Even more baffling to me is how I could have anything in common with an 18-year-old. He’s shattered every misconception I’ve ever had about undergraduates, let alone freshmen! He’s handsome and surprisingly smart; he has novel and interesting opinions. I admire his free spirit and rebelliousness and he always keeps me guessing. I have a feeling that both of us are flattered by the other’s attention.
Cary, I was once faithful, logical and level-headed. Suddenly I feel like a stupid teenager again with a giant crush. My whole world has flipped upside down. I thought I knew myself, that I knew and understood the world, and suddenly I don’t think I understand anything anymore. I do feel guilty and ashamed about my infidelity, but that’s overshadowed for now by my obsession with meeting and communicating with this boy. What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him? What in the world are we doing?!
Completely Out of Character
Dear Out of Character,
I guess what I am struck by — well, let’s back up. First, since you refer to this young man as a boy, I strongly suggest that in your conduct with this person you scrupulously comply with all laws and professional regulations that apply. You were wrong about his age to start with; I’d suggest you verify his age — for real. If you don’t know what laws and professional regulations apply, find out. And then make sure you comply with them. Also you’re going to have to work out this thorny problem of deceiving your husband. But you also need to work out what is going on emotionally. If I can be of any help at all, it is probably in that area.
Here’s how I would put it: You have been visited by a stranger. That stranger is yourself. She demands that you get to know her.
While you’ve been pursuing your degree, you’ve been pretending she doesn’t exist. But here she is. She has desires and tastes that may shock you. They don’t make sense to you. But here she is. Think how she feels.
In pursuit of intellectual accomplishment we sometimes shunt aside elements of our personality; years later they arrive like strangers at our door. We ask, Who is this? Who is this person? Do I know this person? You don’t know me?! she asks. I’m you!
Sure I am.
Thus begins the hard but rewarding work of integration. Each personality is like a family, or a town. So get to know the relatives. It’s not a stranger at all. It’s you. Get to know her.
I want to make this observation, too: Your emotional life is at least as complex, and requires as much subtle intellectual attention, as the subject of your doctoral studies. Like any body of knowledge, it requires that the questions we pose be informed and pointed.
You ask, “What could he possibly want from me, and what am I getting from him?” That can easily be answered, but only begins to get at the heart of the matter.
For starters, you’re getting love, for heaven’s sake. Who doesn’t want love? You’re getting admiration and the wonderful feeling of being sexually attractive to someone. These are not trivial things. But they are elementary. As you accept what has happened, I think you are going to ask bigger, more profound and thoughtful questions.
For now, I suggest that you confess. Confess that you are human. You are not that different from anyone else.
You are just as capable of acting in a way that is scandalous, dishonest, secretive, alluring, sensuous and dangerous as anyone else. You are also reasonable, intelligent, diligent, honest and reliable. You are both.
Surprise: This is you!
Let’s celebrate what this means: You are not only a doctoral student but a woman of mystery, trapped in intrigue.
Did you think that this mad, crazy love the poets write about was something they made up? It has come to visit you. So I implore you to open yourself to this and learn. Again, speaking in very elementary terms, here are some of the guiding principles, or salient features, of this new terrain.
You don’t have control of your attraction.
You don’t understand it.
It feels wonderful.
It defies social norms.
It exposes you to danger.
You feel you are betraying someone.
You are breaking rules.
It is forbidden.
It came unexpectedly.
You and your love object are outwardly very different — your social class, age and education are markedly different.
You can’t make sense of it.
You are conducting it in secret.
It fulfills needs you did not know you had.
You are frightened by the fact that you cannot turn it off and on; it is out of your control.
You are, of course, faced with tricky practical and ethical problems because of it. So work out the practical problems. Deal with them upfront. But honor what this means. You are more complicated and passionate than you thought.