“Maybe I only have six years of relationship material, then I have to start over.”
This was what I saw on my husband’s phone at five in the morning, weeks before our sixth anniversary.
He was asleep holding his phone, and the screen cast an irritating green glow on the ceiling. I reached over, plucked his phone from his sleeping arms, and idly flicked through the open notepad entry without shame. He would use his phone to write me letters, draft blog posts and wry observations about his day. Andrew and I kept nothing from each other.
We were a perfect couple. Friends and relatives would casually poke fun at how we hated being apart. I would gush at the office about the elaborate birthday surprise he’d prepared for me. I’d proposed to him on a rollercoaster two years earlier. Six years of being adored and supported had made me feel we were invincible, and that was enough to buoy me up when I felt insecure about myself -– my weight, my career, my ability to be a functional adult.
In the back of my mind, I knew it was vaguely unwise to pin all my self-esteem on one person, but he wasn’t going anywhere, so what was the problem?
As I stared at the words
The world tipped sideways. I needed a safe explanation and an hour or two more of peaceful sleep in Andrew’s arms. Now standing next to our bed, I apologetically woke him and asked what this journal entry meant.
“Just sit down for a sec, take a breath, just sit down,” he intoned, maddeningly calm. This, unsurprisingly, made me much less calm. Is there anything more infuriating than being told to calm down when you haven’t expressed anger? All I could think was that he wasn’t instantly apologizing and disavowing his words, that maybe this was A Real Thing.
“I have to tell you something. I’ve been seeing someone.”
The words seemed to hang in the air as I struggled to process. “Are you serious?”
Andrew’s tone was measured, impassive and extremely fucking obnoxious.
“It’s really important that you listen to what I’m saying and know that I am not kidding.”
Reeling, I said the only thing on my mind. Not, “You bastard!” not, “Get out!” not, “You’re doing to me what my father did to my mother, congratulations on failing me in the most important way.”
I asked, “Do you still want to be married to me?”
“I don’t know.”
The next two days were a blur of sobbed phone calls to family, blearily watching him pack a suitcase, and irrational attempts to return to work (I was nothing if not terrified to inconvenience people). I cried when I remembered our plans to holiday on a quiet beach this year. I cried when I remembered our plans to buy a house next year.
Never before had I been so aware of my dependence on Andrew –- I’d moved out of my family home to be with him and had unconsciously accepted him as my guide into all things adult, like setting up bills, changing light bulbs and connecting our Wi-Fi. It felt as though everything that had kept me afloat had disappeared and I would simply drown.
Then Andrew came back. Showed up outside my office and asked how I would feel if he didn’t leave after all. He said that a day without me had made him realize what he was giving up. In a haze of relief, I took him back and hugged him tight as we bawled together. We drove to his mistress’s house that night. I watched "Parks and Recreation" on my phone in the car as he dumped her, trying to block out the yells I imagined coming from her apartment. I wondered what Leslie Knope would think of someone who treated women this way, then tried to stop wondering.
What followed that one night of heartfelt promises and tearful apologies was one of the more humiliating weeks of my life. After admitting a four-month affair, I had expected Andrew to be putting me at Priority 1. The repentant husband who had seen his error and was determined to make it up to his forgiving wife. That lasted a day or so, then reality set in. I had a husband who told me, laying in bed, “You know, we still might not work out,” and baulked at the idea of deleting the secret Gmail account he used to correspond with his co-worker mistress.
We awkwardly tried to slide back into our usual routine, minus Andrew’s frequent "business trips" and the late late nights at work. When Andrew came home, I had my life back, but it was a poisoned, distorted version of the happy life I’d thought we had. I suppose I was just seeing things clearly for the first time.
Every day, I’d realize another incident he had lied about. His car hadn’t broken down when visiting a friend, delaying him for hours; he hadn’t been helping a colleague move instead of attending my family reunion. I’d bring these lies up, then worry that I was talking too much about my pain -– I didn’t want to drive him away again, did I?
An expedition to the movies was a welcome distraction from the uneasy silences pervading our home. At the end of "21 Jump St," when Jonah Hill tells Brie Larson that she deserves a guy who won’t lie to her, I shift uncomfortably. I’m too terrified that he will leave again to begin considering what I deserve.
Feeling like I was auditioning to remain in Andrew’s life took a toll, and I found myself constantly weepy and anxious. I read emails he’d written her, happily anticipating their life together where they no longer had to hide. Cue nausea and a crying jag in the shower. Andrew silently stood beside me at the drugstore as I told the pharmacist that my job had been really stressful lately and I was having trouble sleeping. I burst into tears when I heard a song from our wedding played over the mall’s speakers.
In an emotional, hours-long phone call, a social worker friend forcefully told me that my husband and I needed to spend time away from each other if there was any hope for our future. I timidly informed Andrew of this, and he agreed too readily for my liking. It was only four days apart before he contacted me to say he wouldn’t be coming home. No flip-flops this time.
That was six months ago now. He moved his stuff out, and moved right in with his mistress and her kids for reasons I don’t fully understand today. I had a meltdown period of about a month where I didn’t go to work and my mother cooked most of my meals. I oscillated wildly between not being willing to shower, to overly dramatic streaks of independence (“Thanks, but I’ll go grocery shopping alone because that’s how it’s going to be for the rest of my life now!”).
After that meltdown month, I was functional, but deeply depressed. I knew the things I "should" be doing in order to get on with my life, but was also acutely aware that everything sucked anyway, so why bother.
It’s the most irritating, useless thing to hear in the midst of a crisis, but it proved annoyingly true for me. Time does heal wounds. Comedy equals tragedy plus time. This too will pass, and so on and so forth. Actually, the only phrase that gave any sort of comfort was "Just keep swimming," from Finding Nemo. My new mantra reminded me to put one foot in front of the other and have hope that one day I’d be able to do more than that.
Some concrete ways to "just keep swimming" were was surprisingly helpful in the early days. One was using the website chains.cc (although, the same overall effect could be achieved in a journal, poster board with gold stickers, whatever you want). On Chains, you give yourself a few goals to achieve each day, which are visually represented by gold circles. It motivated more than I expected to keep pushing through with the basic things I needed to accomplish, like maintaining a livable house and starting to de-clutter in preparation for moving. I’ve stopped using it now, but when I have a big goal, I’ll start checking in with my chains again.
I also bought myself a pretty, colorful journal that I jot down bullet points of the things that have made me happy lately: a compliment at work, excited anticipation of a party later that week, or the satisfaction of making a great meal for myself. When I feel like crap, I don’t force myself to write -– I flick through the past entries and hopefully recapture any happiness lingering in my words like old perfume. It’s helped me restore a sense of self-esteem, which had crumbled once the person propping it up was gone.
One final technique that was unexpectedly therapeutic was making sure I was the one to divide up our massive DVD collection. This really was the closest I came to any kind of revenge, as I held onto any DVD that I liked even if he owned it prior to us moving in together. I shouldn’t have to re-buy "Kill Bill" just because you started messing around with your receptionist was my internal reasoning. Empowering and economical.
I have to acknowledge my incredibly privileged position in dealing with the collapse of my marriage. Even though Andrew’s departure left me feeling unqualified to handle my own affairs, I was able to muddle through. My job gave me a measure of financial security, and my mother gave me a crash course in Living Alone 101. Family members called, visited and offered a place to stay if I needed. I was able to afford counseling and medication that took the edge off the darkest nights. What I was up against could have been so much worse, and I’m incredibly grateful for the things that have made it better.
Because I just kept swimming, I’m rebuilding my life, and myself. I’m changing light bulbs and paying bills. I go to parties where I only know one person. I’ve moved to a city that he hated and I loved. I’m realizing just how much of my self-worth came from another person, and how unsustainable that was.
But I’ve made it through, upgraded myself, aglow with the knowledge that when faced with sink or swim: I swam.