“I want to thank you,” I said to my husband’s personal assistant on that ordinary afternoon when I called him at work, as I had done countless times before.
“Oh?” she innocently questioned. “What for?”
“For making all of those dinner reservations, for booking all of those plane tickets, and for reserving all of those hotel rooms for my husband . . . and his mistress.”
The phone went silent, followed by a nervous laugh on the other end.
“I’m sorry.” Then, quietly, “I’m very sorry.”
How many times had I called my husband, now my ex, at his office? His assistant knew he had a wife and three children. A home. A life. And yet she always remained so composed, so poised, as she politely transferred my calls, passed along my messages, all while conveniently looking the other way. One could argue that she was a subordinate, expected to follow her boss’s instructions. But how about an anonymous note? Something, anything, to alert me to the fact my husband was being unfaithful to me, disrespecting me, and, most importantly, potentially putting my health, and my life, at risk.
Was she obligated to tell me? We are, after all, both women. Don’t we belong to some unspoken sisterhood, some secret society of sorts? Did her knowledge somehow make her culpable for the despair my children and I would eventually suffer? Or, even worse, the potential health risks to which I was being exposed, as I believed my husband was committed only to me? I, fortunately, was unscathed in that regard. I am, truly, one of the lucky ones.
Years earlier, my husband and I had dinner with one of his business associates and wife. I had never met them before, but they seemed like such a loving couple. I envied the way he adoringly looked at her, the way he held her hand at the table, the way he attentively asked her throughout the evening if she was okay, if she was enjoying herself. They had a few children together and were clearly still in love.
His concern for her well-being, as it turned out, was justified. She had recently undergone major surgery, a full hysterectomy, while still in her late 30s. It was a terrible thing, she explained to me in the ladies room, how she had contracted an infection while swimming. Nothing would cure the disease that ravaged her reproductive system. Surgery, she explained, was her only option.
Later, my husband would tell me that, no, swimming was not the culprit at all but rather her husband. As a result of his philandering, he had given her an STI, sadly necessitating the untimely loss of her fertility.
It’s amazing how looks can be so deceiving. What I initially perceived as a loving relationship was, I imagine, a case of intense guilt, presumably as he tried to salvage what was left of his broken marriage. From what I understand, they are still together. Her reasons, altogether unknown to me, are also none of my business.
Now, what if someone had known of this man’s extracurricular activities, perhaps his personal assistant, a friend, or their nanny? Would any of these people have been affirmatively charged with the responsibility for telling his unknowing spouse of her husband’s indiscretions? It’s easy to point a finger and emphatically say, yes. But actually coming forward and taking the risk of telling the betrayed one is a weighty responsibility, especially if you’ve never met the aggrieved spouse before and likewise are unaware if the husband and wife are complicit in some sort of “other arrangement,” although in the above-mentioned case that seemed highly unlikely. But, as we know, open marriages do exist and are not uncommon.
Four months ago, I unknowingly dated a married man. As soon as I discovered his “secret,” I immediately bowed out of the relationship, which was in an embryonic stage. But it raised the question for me: What was my obligation? Must I now become the Norma Rae for infidelity because I was unlucky enough to meet a man who presumably lied to both his wife and me?
Telling a spouse her husband is cheating may, arguably, be the “right” thing to do. I, personally, would have wanted to be told my husband was being unfaithful. To this day, I still don’t know exactly when his affair began and, likely, I will never know. I recently discovered that he knew his mistress a lot longer than I was originally aware. Now, I question whether there were others before her, how many, and for how long.
In the situation of my husband’s business associate and wife, the wife chose to remain married. But perhaps had someone told her that her husband was cheating, her health may not have been compromised as it was.
Still, injecting oneself into someone else’s marriage is a delicate endeavor and a precarious place to be. Maybe I’m a coward for not telling my date’s wife of our association. But things have a way of snowballing, and although I wouldn’t directly be the one responsible for a possible dissolution of their marriage, I could, alternatively, be a catalyst. Contributing to the breakup of a family, even if only as the messenger, is a lot to live with.
When I initially discovered my husband was cheating, I contacted his mistress directly, confronting her. She neither confessed nor denied their involvement, merely telling me that she knew him, that they were friends. Good friends. When I did eventually elicit a confession from my husband (never an apology, not to this day), I called her, requesting that she take a step back and let us attempt to repair our 24-year relationship. She summarily refused. I sent her a letter, as well, which she ignored. Perhaps had she left the place where she did not belong, my husband’s bed, our marriage might possibly have been saved. But she saw to it that we would never find out.
When I learned the man I was seeing was married, I immediately extricated myself. If they truly were unhappy, if their marriage was truly riddled with problems as he purported, then one of them would eventually leave. That, I believe, is a decision to be made between husband and wife.
Having been both the jilted wife and the other woman, albeit unwittingly, I can say with certainty neither is an admirable title to hold. Both positions left me damaged. But as the other woman, I often question whether I did enough to absolve myself of responsibility, even though I was an unsuspecting actor. Was I proactive enough once I knew the depth of my involvement? Did I need to be proactive at all?
Martin Niemöller, the Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler, is best known for his poem in which he condemns various groups’ silence as the Nazis went on to murder millions of people.
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out−
Because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out−
Because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out−
Because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out−
Because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
And there was no one left to speak out for me.
It was recently posed to me that husbands who cheat put their wives in peril, potentially exposing them to fatal diseases, such as HIV and HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer. This is a legitimate argument for informing, no doubt. We are not merely talking about emotions anymore, even though these, too, can be psychologically devastating. In this regard, we as women have a communal responsibility to look out for those of us who may be unknowingly victimized.
I have received a fair amount of criticism regarding my decision not to tell my date’s wife of my brief relationship with her husband. But I still maintain that the degree to which we interfere in someone else’s marriage is a very personal choice, and one that weighs on me daily.
As of today, I haven’t come forward. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. No choice is right or wrong; it’s merely what we, as women, can bear. And, I am here to say, the cross is a heavy one.
Would you tell a husband or wife his or her spouse is cheating?