Broken: Hearts, Minds, Vows, and Man

One of the things that’s simultaneously good and bad about this gig is that people tell me things from time to time they wouldn’t even tell their shrink.

Just the other day one such letter arrived in my in-box. As is sometimes my habit, I entered into a knee-jerk response and was about to tear the woman apart. Something made me stop and think, and instead of writing something savage, I sent her an email back. Her last question in her initial email was, “Am I a white trash whore?”

My response then was, in so many words, no, but you’re a liar and a cheat. I do stand by that, but with a massive, monumental, intergalactic caveat.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Due to the fact that there’s so incredibly much riding on her admission to me, I’m taking great liberties to change a good deal of the particulars that could identify who this poor goddamned woman is, because her life is filled with enough shit right now and I’ve no business adding to the pile by doing anything that could in any way come back to haunt her.

Here’s the gist of what you need to know.

  • She’s a mother.
  • She’s been married a decade-plus.
  • She’s in her mid-30s.
  • She’s been madly in love with her husband for all the years of their marriage, and still loves him, but things have changed.
  • He suffered a life-changing stroke of great severity that has rendered him child-like and frail. His mental capacity is nothing of its former self and his personality has been completely reformatted. Physically, he needs constant help. Sexually, he functions, but there’s no attraction left for her.
  • She’s been having an affair with a close friend of the family, in which the sex is incredible. Unfortunately, both she and he are married, and neither have the intention of abandoning said spouses.

That’s it, in a nutshell, that’s what a volley of eight emails has yielded to me.

Like most women under great strain, she’s perceived by others to be an incredible trouper. Strong, coping, able, yada, fucking yada.

The truth is, she’s coming apart at the seams. She hates herself for her betrayal of the husband she loved with all her heart, the husband she stayed with even though she learned he had cheated on her. She despises herself for loving sex with this other man. She’s angry about the loss of her love and best friend and the passion that came with. She doesn’t feel she’s able to speak to anyone about it. My guess is, she’s drowning in this life of woe she’s found herself enveloped by.

And my heart goes out to her.

Yes, she’s lying to her husband. Yes, she’s a cheating ho. But ask yourself: What would you do?

I know a lot of people would judge her for cheating on a guy who’s been sent into this horrible new reality by this unfortunate eruption of blood in his brain, but what about her? She’s still among the living. All of a sudden, she’s expected to give up everything that defines her life to provide 24/7 care for a man who can’t care for himself. She’s young, in her sexual peak, and what’s more, she needs an outlet for all the things gone wrong.

When my mother died seven years ago this week, I turned to books on grieving. I went through all the topics on mourning, everything from poetry to prose to essays, and I distilled from it a great deal of information on what to do to get through it all. The thing was, they said “mourning” and “grieving” are misunderstood. They’re not just necessary in times of death; they’re necessary in times of great change and loss of any kind.

For all intents and purposes, this woman’s husband died. When those blood vessels ruptured and filled his head with pools of blood, the soul of him just faded away. He’s but a shell these days, though he lives and breathes and walks and fills the space of their home with a friendly face and eyes that once mirrored the love she showed him.

With every moment in every day, she’s confronted by the struggle of caring for him, of helping him, of getting him through to the next day. Then there are the kids. And the doctors and medical procedures. Then there are the quiet moments. The moments in which she should be able to have the time to think of herself and her needs and the things she ought to do with her life… but that she can’t. Because every waking moment is spent caring for others and forgetting herself in the process, and when she’s not caring for them or coping, she’s formulating plans for keeping that circle rolling. In a life like that, there is no “down time.”

I believe one of the most important things for women (in particular) to do is to remember the them they’re forgetting, and to consciously make themselves more important in their scheme of things. But how does she do this? How is it possible?

I lived with my mother when she was dying of cancer. Any time I thought there was something important for me to do for myself, I consciously remembered that she came first. I couldn’t do that for myself; what about Mom? But then I was let off the hook. She died. My heart shattered to a million pieces, and one day I began to Krazy Glue myself back together. It took time, it took work, it took a conscious remembering that it was her that died, and not me.

This reader has none of that time, none of those options, and as far as I can tell, no Krazy Glue.

What’s the point of all this, of her letter, of this posting? I’m not really sure there is one. There’s no easy answer, no pat solution. It’s broken heart upon broken heart, and no matter what she decides, she’s in for a constant world of hurt because that’s her new reality. She can continue being sexually satiated by her lover, and lie to the man she loved but whose lights are no longer shining, or she can do the moral thing and give up the sexual release in order to do “the right” thing and continue caring for that shell of a man.

Either way, she’s in for a hard life.

So I say, whatever gets you by, sister.

The thing she needs to watch out for, sadly, is the fucking obtuse people out there who think morality trumps reality; those who just don’t get that some kinds of adversity just aren’t the kinds you can put your chin down to and barrel on through. Some kinds stop you up inside and make you hurt six ways to Sunday with no relief in sight, and this is that kind.

She could walk on him. Leave him hanging, and therefore no longer be unfaithful, but then what happens to him? Broken brain, broken body, plus broken heart?

Or she stays with him and gets her pipes cleaned by her new plumber man from time to time, and enjoys the illusion of affection and love, such as she once had with her husband?

I really don’t know. It’s quite possibly the original lesser-of-evils dilemma, and I’ve had some sad moments thinking of what her existence must be like.

I feel badly that she feels so alone, as I know I refuse to be the voice in the night that listens at all hours and says everything’s gonna be all right, baby, ‘cos I don’t even have a voice like that for me right now, so how do I provide it for others?

She’s not alone, though. She sees a therapist, but she’s too afraid of feeling like a failure and a liar in confessing her recent moral choices to him. I say she must. If there’s any one thing I do know, it’s that. She absolutely must confess to him, because he’s not a fucking idiot. He’ll understand, and he might even provide her with the closest form of absolution she’ll ever receive.

This is hard, baby. Harder than hard. It’s diamond-hard. Confess. Take a load off. Print off these emails we’ve exchanged, and this posting, and drop them off at your shrink’s a few days ahead of the appointment with a note saying, “These are a conversation I’ve had with a complete stranger. We need to talk. We really need to talk.” At least it’ll let you know the issue’s finally getting confronted, but it’ll let you sit back while he plays the ball that’s now in his court.

I wish I had a magical Band-aid for you, but all I’ve got is empathy. You do what you got to in order to get through. You may feel like shit and you may feel like a liar and a cheat and trash, but you’ve got my admiration. You’re doing what’s got to get done, and if it so happens that you’re a little human along the way, well… that’s just the way it goes.

But what do you think, readers?

16 thoughts on “Broken: Hearts, Minds, Vows, and Man

  1. themarina

    I think you hit the nail on the head. This really is the lesser of two evils and personally, if it were me, I think I’d keep my secret to myself. It’s not like her husband would benefit from her leaving and as long as they’re both happy, I don’t see anything wrong it it. Life isn’t always black or white. This is one of those grey situations.

  2. Anonymous

    I actually think you are way to harsh and prescriptive as it stands. Therapy ain’t everything, and not every therapist is as understanding as she should be.

    Me, I like to think, what would Dan Savage say? He’d say go bonk the buffins outa your paramour, and keep your crippled husband in kibbles and beans, and who the hell is anyone to judge.

    Her choices sound very sane and healthy and correct to me, and pretty much what I would expect of my own dear wife were that to happen to me. I can see no reason for guilt, other than perhaps knocking boots with a married man, but then I always figured that was his problem, not hers.

    I think that all she really needs, and what she was reaching out for, was someone to give an unqualified, thats ok dear.

    Well, I’ll give her one. No caveats, no interpretations, no ifs ands or buts: honey, you are doing what you gotta, and you ain’t no white trash whore, you sound like a sensible and compassionate Lady, in every sense of the word, and good for you, frankly. From everything Steff has said, you sound pretty damn good to me.


  3. SemperSexualis

    I would talk to the therapist about it. Because that’s what they’re there for. If you’re not getting your money’s worth by seeing them… well… why’re you paying for it, I say. Oh, I don’t dig the semi-confrontational way you worded the “we need to talk”… this is a paid employee not a family member. (sometimes I read things more confrontationally than they’re meant) Lastly, I think a common misconception about therapy is that somehow the therapist is there to fix things for you. Therapists are more of a guide in fixing yourself. Anything you hold back, anything you choose not to admit to wholly and honestly is like sending your guide into the woods with the wrong map. It’s not so much short changing the therapist as it’s short changing yourself. Anyway, I can offer no absolution or condemnation to the person in question at all. However, I do agree with you about bringing the emails to the next therapy session and using them to start the conversation.

    Did I use enough words to say “yeah, you’re right”?

  4. Beth

    Wow. What a hard situation. Personally, my reaction mirrors all of yours: Do what you have to do to get through it. But if she’s so conflicted about it, if she’s so worried about being a white trash whore, how is it the right thing for her? She doesn’t want to tell her therapist about it, and like odalisquek wrote above, she’s just short-changing herself. He can’t help her if he doesn’t know the root of her angst. Looking at it objectively, I’m guessing that she’s so torn up because when she got married, she probably took that “in sickness and in health” vow, but now that she finds herself in the “sickness” place with her husband, she’s breaking her promise. Yeah, she’s still there to care for him, but she’s not being faithful. It’s yet another case of commiting to something when you can’t really fathom the implications of what you’re saying. But unlike getting confirmed in a religion at a young age or picking a college major, this one isn’t so easily undone. Her conscience won’t let her divorce a man who’s ill. Yikes. I guess it comes down to what she has to do in order to face herself in the mirror each morning. Her life is hard enough as it is. The guilt over the affair is just compounding matters. Maybe she tells her husband and gets “permission”? Not the most likely scenario, but a possibility that hasn’t come up yet. He he truly loves her, and if he’s evolved, he’ll see that it’s the best of an unideal situation for everyone: He gets cared for, she gets her needs met, and her psyche isn’t constantly contorted with guilt.

  5. Anonymous

    I think it boils down to “survival” and “sanity” on her part based on what you wrote, Steff.

    And based on that, she has to do what she has to do. And my guess is she probably doesn’t a big support network to help out.

    Best intentions aside (vis a vis “wedding” vows), there’s no way people can even begin to anticipate what the future holds, except hope for the best when they start out.

    Wedding vows, another unrealistic “tradition” passed down generation-to-generation.

    It seems to me in the 21st century our society is more disconnected from each other, a great step backwards.

  6. Anonymous

    You hit the nail on the head with “take care of the living.” I’m currently with a widower, and we get our fair share of shit from people who think he should be honouring his late wife and taking care of her parents, instead of taking care of his own life and being with the woman he loves.

    I don’t think she should be boffing a married man in secret (simply because the added stress of keeping said secret can’t be helping things), but I do think she should be free to pursue a relationship with a supportive partner, who can help her fill her physical and emotional needs, while she takes care of her husband. and the rest of the world be damned.

  7. T

    In cases like this – morality is bullshit. She is doing more than can be expected of her for her husband – and she should remember, it’s a marriage, not a suicide pact. She has not only the right, but the obligation to carve out some happiness for herself – as should she try to devote the rest of her life to caring for her husband, she will end up bitter, angry and alone. Which won’t help anyone.

    However, I don’t have a problem with her seeing the married man. She’s in a situation where she feels the need for discretion – she understandibly doesn’t want friends or family to discover that she is ‘cheating’ on her husband. And based upon the expected reaction of these people, if she publicly started dating, they could be incredibly nasty (or not – they could be understanding as well, but she’s the best judge of that).

    If she chose to date someone single, she would have to deal inevitably with his desire for recognition among her friends and family. Not many people want a relationship where they are kept a secret. Except married people. And she knows this guy, is comfortable with him, and he makes her happy.

    She’s taking a risk of course. Just like anyone else, he could become batshit crazy, but she’s minimized it by knowing him ahead of time. And they could get caught, which could make a bad situation much much worse. But we all have a right to seek happiness, so long as we minimize the unhappiness that our search creates in others.

  8. scribe called steff

    I only have a comment to make about Orval’s comment–

    Too harsh and prescriptive? I raspberry you. Unlike you, I’ve been in correspondence with the woman. She’s beating herself up and was prepared for me to deliver some pretty crushing commentary — none of which materialized.

    If you want to read Dan Savage, read Dan Savage. I’m not gonna say what he says, ‘cos I ain’t him. She asked ME for my thoughts, and these are them.


  9. roscoe

    I for one, see nothing wrong with what she is doing…the man she married is gone, the man she fell in love with is dead and she is now living with a stranger in certain ways…

    How can she beat herself up for takign care of what she needs to do?

    If she doesn’t do what she needs to do to get through the days, what she needs to do to get through the nights how can she be of any use to not only her children, but also to the childlike man who used to be her husband ( I see it as he is only her husband in name now…situation being reversed, I’m sure she would see it that way to…she would be a wife in name only )how can she be the person those around her need her to be so they can through their days?

    She is in no way a white trash whore…gimme a break, and as far as the married man…simply, not here issue to worry about, that’s his…

  10. monicker

    I love what you said about morality trumping reality, and I agree completely.

    People do things for a reason; this woman sought a sexual relationship with a married man. That very act is both an indication of her distressful situation and a means to an end, such that by engaging in an extramarital relationship she brings her emotions into immediate view, where she can have the necessary experience of dealing with them.

  11. me

    To the woman in question:

    Have you ever considered respite care? Here is a sample link:
    You’ve already borne more suffering than many others will experience in their lifetime. It’s all right to wish for help.

    My heart breaks for you, and all I can say is – it’s all right. It’s all right to be human, to be angry, to feel guilt, to have needs, to have desires. It’s all right to not be strong all the time.

    This happens to the families (or rather, caregivers) of patients with debilitating chronic illness, over and over again.

    There are therapists who understand what it is to be human – they may not have that magic pill, but they will listen. Please please take a chance that your therapist is one of those people.

    – me.

  12. Haaaaaaa

    I haven’t read the other comments, but I think it is impossible to understand what she is going through until you walk a mile in her shoes. Whatever she is, she certainly isn’t a white trash hoe. She is a person with a deep burden who is trying to handle it in some way. I couldn’t imagine having to go through what she is going through now.

  13. Anonymous

    my two cents: i think if she’s going to care for her husband and children she must do what’s best for herself. it is her responsibility to herself and to those in her care to give herself the things she needs.

    at least this is how i feel as a single mom.

    us people need lovin. and if she’s getting some from her friend, and it feels good, then by all means. and if she should meet someone else (someone who might not elsewise be married — because that can be a can of worms in of itself) along the way, then please!

    and maybe it’s time to start not caring about what other people think. it’s time to be yourself. this is your life.

    consider getting some outside help, too. i can imagine a grown child would be alot of work.

    ugh, it is so hard to not be hard on yourself, especially when the situation is so difficult to begin with.

    the thing is you have the strength and you will get through everything.

  14. George

    The path is acceptable but does the guy have to be left in the dark? Honesty is always clarifys. She is fearing being honest and feeling guilt. Maybe the husband wants to watch?

  15. Anonymous

    In all honesty… I’m in a similar situation. My guy’s in jail, not crippled, but I’m still technically in a relationship while no possiblity of continuing to conduct the relationship exists.. and I’m also sleeping with a friend, who has a partner. I thought the back of my head had become transparent when I was reading this.. I know it’s not exactly the same, but still.

    All I can say to this lady is that in hard time you do what you’ve got to for it to get you through. If it makes you feel good, then damn the collective opinions about “morality” of a bunch of people who’re never going to have to be where you are, and take what happiness you can get without guilt.

  16. Mike's Girl

    The only person being left out of these comments and calculations is the OTHER wife. No question, this woman/writer is in a terrible place, and I don’t see too much wrong with her finding some happiness outside her ‘marriage’ to her injured husband. (And respect to her for her continuing care of him, fer shure, the worse of ‘for better or worse.’)

    But what of the marriage of her paramour, the relationship HE is betraying and destroying, and the life (or lives, if he is the father of kids) that HE is damaging in his involvement outside *his* marriage? I can speak (with such pain and grief as I never knew I could live with) of the damage to MY marriage, to my self-respect, and my self-esteem, and my view of myself and, of the total destruction of my trust in my husband. My husband never even actually slept with the woman he fell in love with (just over a year ago), and the “relationship” only lasted a couple of months (and he was, no question, wholly and deeply in love with the “other woman”) and I still don’t know if *I* will ever recover from the damage to ME, much less if our marriage will survive.

    This unhappy woman must surely find solace where she can… but I think this man, with his family to consider, is NOT the way!

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