The morning after our divorce negotiations began one of the horses on our farm became trapped in wire. The mare was starting to panic and the more she moved, the harder the wire cut into her flesh.
Fence fixing, indeed most tasks mechanical, had been my husband’s job. But he was gone. Broken boards swung from rusty nails and wobbly fence posts surrendered to buffeting winds.
The small section of high tensile wire in the back pasture had collapsed under the weight of a fallen tree where our herd of horses grazed. The mare had stumbled onto it and her hind legs were ensnared. I called my husband’s cell once, twice, three times.
I asked my teenaged daughter, Isabelle, to get wire cutters. More than 20 agonizing minutes later she brought back three wrenches. We’re on our own, I thought. Then I stopped thinking and let my hands move. I lifted each trapped hoof, talking quietly to the horse in what I hoped were soothing tones. When the last loop of wire came off and she was freed the mare ran back to the barn.
Living on my own on a farm in rural Maryland wasn’t in the cards. But that is what happened after my husband fell in love with another woman and moved away with her. My daughter and I remain in the marital home as tenants with an absent landlord, fixing what we can, living with what we can’t.
When our courtship began 25 years ago, my husband drove me to the farm for the first time. I surveyed the herd of horses grazing in paddocks of billowing orchard grass, the green scape of wooded foothills cresting the Appalachian Trail. My decision was not how I would live there, but when. With him.
I ignored the red flags that should have stopped me at the wedding altar; bounced checks, a quick temper, alcoholism. He eventually chose sobriety, which fixed many problems, but not all.
Our marital history was writ large with financial lapses – unpaid bills, debts, and secrecy. We always managed to soldier on after each expensive hiccup. Then I found out about the tax bill. We had amassed $40,000 in debt because he didn’t file our tax returns for several years and never told anyone.
When the notification from the Internal Revenue Service arrived via certified mail my response was to unleash a fury of rage and hateful words. After a few days of silence I attempted to repair the damage. I said what I hoped were the right words – that I was sorry for what I said; we’d dig ourselves out, come up with a plan somehow.
He said, “This marriage is no longer a priority for me.”
He spoke as if he had practiced each word in front of a mirror to achieve a certain tonal quality of indifference. My initial response was confusion: why he was addressing me as if I was a house guest who overstayed her welcome?
This was the same husband with the sunlit hair who reached for me and spoke in a singsong voice when he was happy; who painted clouds on our ceiling and built a giant bug out of plaster for our daughter to take to school for “Show and Tell.”
I reasoned that with work and patience we would find our cadence as a couple again. I was wrong.
His affair partner was an acquaintance I had invited to Thanksgiving dinner in a charitable impulse. I first noted her as a middle-aged jovial divorcee who stood in the sunlight at an equestrian event talking to my husband.
I thought to myself how unfortunate it was that the sun’s glare revealed pocks in her pale skin. I remember walking over and interrupting their conversation to tell my husband it was time to go home.
She inspired nothing in me beyond a sense of sympathy as a matronly woman trying to look young, someone who seemed alone and in need of friends. The ensuing months she sat at our family dinner table numerous times, stayed in our home during a snowstorm and rode our ponies across our hill in the spring.
I sensed her envy, that grinding emotion of being on the sidelines of something joyful. I enjoyed her company because my husband was happy when she was there. When he was happy, our family was happy.
In looking back I feel a tug of empathy for the person I was – a wife so comfortable in the bonds of marriage that betrayal was unthinkable.
I laughed it off when neighbors and friends suggested there seemed to be more to her friendship with our family. I even jokingly called her “the other wife.” Then I found the emails, the texts and gift receipts.
Chronology became important.
When was the exact moment they became a secret?
When did she decide to become both my friend and lover to my husband?
Friends later observed they saw it all along – the stolen glances exchanged, the smoldering conversations on the sidelines of social events.
Where had I been while my marriage unraveled?
My sleuthing, a typical response to infidelity trauma, turned up a trove of besotted emails, photos and dinner dates. A cell phone bill revealed the repeated calls to the same number – hers.
There were on average 20 calls a day to each other, sometimes even after the other woman and I had lunch or tea together. Even on Christmas Day, at 8:05 in the morning before we got up to open our presents, he sneaked away to call her.
After the divorce papers were filed, anger became my drug of choice.
I specialized in rage texting at 2 am, morphing into a high octane Dorothy Parker, hurling insults and unflattering remarks about the other woman, picking apart her choice of haircut, her unfortunate hips, and tight-fitting dresses.
My response to the abandonment of love was to become unlovable.
My husband, on the other hand, was audaciously remade as if he had been through an episode of “Queer Eye.”
The man who never shaved and wore only muck boots suddenly shifted into metrosexual country squire — skinny jeans, a vast collection of Fedora hats, Italian leather shoes, and enough tweed jackets to attire an entire tea party at Downton Abbey.
“His soul is hijacked,” I observed to my friend, Melissa. “Maybe what you had in those early years was the best of him, and now it’s all spent,” she said. That was some consolation; that I was loved by a man who tried to be good until his resources ran out.
Or perhaps he saw an opportunity to rewrite himself, sanitize the mistakes of the past. The other woman was not me, the one who bore witness to his flaws, mistakes, the private vanities, habits, and quirks that reveal themselves over time.
The unwitting matchmaker, I laid before him the opportunity to turn away from the wife who held all his broken pieces and tried to love him anyway.
How does a wife cope with infidelity and divorce?
I searched for a manual, then devised my own plan.
First, find your people. Some friends and family may not possess the emotional skillset to provide ample emotional support during a divorce. No one knocked on my door with a casserole or offered to mow my lawn as one might a widow who lost their spouse to a heart attack or car accident.
My divorce was an awkward circumstance for friends and colleagues to navigate. Most condemned my ex privately and one friend, whom I will never forget, banned my ex’s affair partner from attending an event he hosted.
This was the hardest habit for me to kick post-infidelity; that is, the craving to foster outrage by reciting my increasingly tiresome narrative of loss and betrayal until a therapist suggested my anger was becoming toxic.
My arc of healing also ascended from unlikely sources: online forums with strangers; the seduction of an old boyfriend; a trip to Seattle where I found a quiet Airbnb to read and think; from my sister who was recovering from the betrayal of her partner.
Second, keep moving and eventually, the weird stuff feels manageable. I developed a playlist. Music, in my case hard rock from the 1990s, helped rewire my anxiety during divorce negotiations. Raucous electric guitars, percussive anthems all helped focus my brain beyond the spiral of emotions that were overwhelming at times. I also joined a gym and lost 30 pounds.
Third, get out of your comfort zone. I tried a new hairstyle and started online dating. Initially, it was an awkward phase, dwelling between marital death and single life. I treated it as an adventure, commuting from my rural valley to the evening cacophony of the city where I met a date for drinks or dinner, sometimes more.
I watched the dawn fold over the rooftops of the urban landscape, thinking that just 45 miles away my horses were waiting for breakfast, the dogs needed to be let out for a pee, the barn cats waited for their kibble. Yet here I lay next to a man with nothing in his refrigerator but Red Bull and mayonnaise.
Look for context. It helps to know infidelity is not about you. The data and information about who cheats and why bear this out. My ex’s decision to have an affair and abandon the marriage was about him, not me.
Yet most articles about infidelity typically dwell on the question of repair and reconciliation within the marriage.
Sometimes there is no fix.
One can wake up and find themselves married to a stranger who starts dating and there’s no reasonable explanation for it. My ex never admitted to any affair, not in divorce court papers, or even as people tagged him and the affair partner in Facebook photos.
Perhaps his silence came from a place of shame. My ex hated cheaters until he became one.
Eventually, the affair partner doesn’t matter. Trust me on this. I came to realize my anger throughout divorce fueled their love triangle. A therapist observed that my ex and the other woman loved the noise of my fury.
The vengeful ex-wife specter offered a convenient “victim status” to claim and provided a distraction as they transitioned from an illicit affair to a committed relationship in which realities such as finances, family, friends come into play.
In the initial phase of my grief, it was hard to follow the often expressed advice that the best revenge is living a good life.
And then I came to realize I was enjoying life without my spouse around; that I could travel unencumbered, parent my daughter the way I wanted and own my financial future.
Use free legal resources that may be available at your local courthouse.
I saved myself thousands of dollars filing for my own divorce after getting a marital settlement agreement which took the better part of a year to negotiate. Use the money you save to spend on self-care, which is also essential to healing.
Time and patience are your warriors.
Healing from betrayal also forces one to acknowledge that grief is a process and one never reaches the end of it.
It also requires a mindful commitment to dismantle the broken self and make room for the new one that emerges, cracked open and yet not quite whole. I am no longer that woman who sat down in the grass and decided to marry a man for all the wrong reasons. I am someone else, someone still becoming.
I worry about choosing a wrong partner again, someone who will bring about another circumstance of abandonment. Yet being vulnerable to the possibility of love is our reckoning as humans. Rarely are we wired to accept any other choice but to love and be loved again at our own peril.
I write as if divorce and infidelity are in the rearview mirror. It is not.
My ex-husband and I pass each other in the paddocks or the barn during the course of any day on the farm, courteous as old enemies after the peace treaty is signed.
We meet for co-parenting counseling. We exchange texts about farm chores and our daughter’s schedule. The anger ebbed, I am at the place where I thought I’d never arrive – acceptance.
Sometimes the entrenched intimacies of our old marriage seem as if they could be summoned forth if only the right words or opportunity presented itself.
I often pass my hand over a scar on my thigh where several years before a mare kicked me backwards into the dirt, tearing open the muscle. The skin is now puckered and drawn, shaped like the mouth of an old warrior. I am proud flesh closing over a healed wound.
I am looking for a new place to live. My task is to turn from all that has been familiar — the fiery red maples that light up in autumn now jeweled with leaf buds.
My soul is scattered on the farm where I spent my married life. It is caught in the sudden flight of sparrows, swooping from the ground in a motion like silvery fish snared in the net; among wild ducks that argue among themselves as they float in aimless patterns on the pond.
The ancient bank barn braced against mountain. Another broken board strays from the paddock fence line and horses within it forage for grass.
Everything constantly changes and yet remains fixed in place as the seasons pass. My former father in law died over the summer and we spread his ashes on the farm. We said goodbye to the past and each other.
I do not consider the future beyond what is in front of me — our child, a dead love, a divorce.
I cannot outrun this fate, nor abandon it. I can only retreat to the barn at dusk, where I find my favorite pony and throw a saddle on his back.
We hack toward a band of distant horizon, a cloud cluster the color of fire. So long as we are moving the destination no longer matters.
When the sky gets dark, I turn my gelding back to the farm, that hollow place where something was and no longer is.