About 10 years ago, I made the painful and difficult decision to leave my marriage. I'd been married to a pastor and lived in the small town where he grew up. Everyone loved him — he was warm, funny, and well-connected in the community. But at home, when no one else was watching, he was abusive. Over the years, I'd diminished from a warm, outgoing, neon-bright person to a dull, obedient, empty shell, isolated from the all the people and activities I used to love. My soul had withered and dried to the point where I had no enthusiasm for life, no confidence, no joy.
I needed to find a way to save myself.
When you're starving, and feeling lightheaded and weak from hunger, you find yourself willing to eat darn near anything just to keep yourself alive. At that point, even the unhealthiest food will sustain you, at least temporarily.
Once I came to the realization that my marriage was abusive and began plotting my escape, I started spending more time at social functions and networking with other professionals, both in-person and online. Over time, some of these virtual connections became my strongest support system and my closest friends. This was healthy. I needed these friends badly. These new connections were nourishing for my starving, lonely soul, feeding me encouragement and lending sympathetic shoulders when I needed them. But, just like the obligatory dessert section of any buffet, there were some things online that simply weren't good for me.
When you've been starving, you don't always make the wisest choices. You stuff your face with what's in front of you. So I selected the equivalent of Death by Chocolate Devil's Food Cake: a married man.
I met him through a professional networking chat room. Our conversations were perfectly innocent at first. We'd share jokes and play one-liners off each other, matching sarcastic barb with cutting wit. Occasionally, he'd message me privately with a humorous aside. How could I not respond? He was witty, he was smart, and we were just being friendly, after all.
Looking back, I'm not entirely sure where things changed. It was much like that overused analogy about how to boil a frog: I had been a very sheltered amphibian who had never seen a pot or a stove before. I was naive, inexperienced, and vulnerable, and desperate for approval and affection.
Slowly, gradually, our private messages became more personal and evolved into lengthier, more frequent emails and text messages. Casual conversation transformed into lighthearted flirtation, which morphed into loaded innuendo.
After a few months of this, we found ourselves planning to attend the same professional convention in a few weeks. And somewhere along the way, we were no longer just joking around. This was real. Eagerly, we made plans to meet, and it became very clear that I was about to abandon the salad bar and dive headfirst into the hot-fudge-and-whipped-cream section of the social buffet.
I started to plan my trip, my first time away from my then-husband in longer than I could remember. Years of criticism about my appearance had resulted in a wardrobe full of clothes that only a pilgrim could love, so I decided to treat myself to some new, flattering clothes and strappy shoes. For the first time in over 15 years, I added sleeveless dresses and above-the-knee skirts to my closet. In my new outfits, I felt more confident, stronger. More than that, I began to catch glimpses of the woman I used to be.
Soon, it was time for the conference. Meeting him for the first time was exhilarating. In one night, I shattered the pastor's wife mold completely. When we met, I hammered the final nail into the coffin of my dead marriage. When I flew home several days later, I moved into the spare bedroom and filed for divorce.
This was supposed to be the end of the story. We'd had our casual, fun fling; now he'd go back to his life while I'd create a new one after my divorce was final. But once you've had a slice of that decadent, heavily frosted cake, you don't embrace the idea of returning to a diet of celery and grapefruit. Your blood sugar plummets, and you crave more.
And I hadn't had cake in years.
At first, I tried to resist the pull, but it was only two short days before he broke down and called me. Now, we were in a full-blown affair. We texted constantly and talked on the phone daily. Even though he lived halfway across the country, we found ways to see each other. I arranged to attend a conference in his city; he scheduled some "business trips" in a town near mine.
He called me beautiful. He told me I was incredibly smart. He was handsome and worldly. He lauded my talent, my wit, my zest for life. He was — in my head, at least — everything my soon-to-be-ex was not. He watered the parts of my soul that had been dead for many years, and made the emotions grow.
Over time, of course, a steady diet of cake does a number on a body. I became dependent on his affection and attention, and craved the validation. While I was with him, it was all too easy to ignore the fact that he had a wife. Generally, I could pretend she didn't exist, but there were times where I received a sharp reminder of her existence: Christmas. Birthdays. His wedding anniversary. And the first time he told me he loved me.
He had prepared for that moment as carefully as one would a Valentine's Day celebration — he had wine and flowers, and he held my hands as he gazed into my eyes, declaring his passion. Moments after those three words left his lips, his phone rang. His wife, of course, asking about his trip.
"Everything's fine... Yeah... I love you too, babe."
Ouch. I deflated like a balloon that had been stabbed with a steak knife. Yet we continued.
We tried several times to break contact — but after a few days, maybe a week, he'd call me, and we'd pick up right where we left off. It was almost as if we were addicted to each other; we knew we were destroying each other, but our forks kept going back to the cake pan. We mistook drama for passion and love, and kept coming back for more.
Eventually, things came to a head. He got caught. His wife found the cell phone bill with thousands of texts and calls to the same out-of-state number. She confronted him; when he denied everything, she called the number from his phone. When I answered, "Hi, sweetie," the jig was up. He swore to her that he'd quit contacting me. But when he called me two weeks later, claiming he couldn't eat or sleep without me in his life, I let him back in yet again. And, of course, he got caught again. This time, she threw him out.
After his divorce, interestingly, things changed between us. As a newly single man, he couldn't resist the pull to sow his wild oats a bit. When he was married, he couldn't live without me. Once he was divorced, I was demoted from favorite dessert to garnish; there were many other dishes on the buffet he wanted to try.
But at this point, I was no longer willing to be a side dish. I had learned a lot about relationships and myself throughout this experience, and I was ready for a healthy, balanced diet. It was time to throw the cake away and let him go. When he called me one last time, begging for one more chance, I had found my self-esteem, and with a new confidence, told him "no" and calmly hung up the phone.
As I sit here telling my story, it surprises me how difficult it is to recount. I can't stop shaking my head over how broken I was. If I'd heard this story from a friend, or from my daughter, it would have been painfully obvious to me that she was dancing on the edge of something dangerous, and I'd do what I could to get her to stop.
Yet I can't help but wonder if I'd have been able to break away from my abusive marriage without this person in my life to hold on to. Would I have found the strength to leave? Did I have the strength to file for divorce and strike out on my own without that external validation? Sadly, I suspect the answer is no.
To this day, my biggest regret is the impact our affair must have had on his wife. She certainly didn't ask for this, nor did she in any way deserve it. I can make the usual excuses — my naïveté, my emotional fragility, his claim that he was in an empty marriage — but I recognize that these are excuses, nothing more.
I apologize, profusely and sincerely, to women everywhere.
Postscript: I'm no longer in an abusive marriage. I moved on from my affair to marry the man of my dreams a year later. But for those of you who believe in karma, rest assured she paid me a visit. Remember the story that broke last August regarding the public posting of Ashley Madison users? My Prince Charming is on that list. Well played, karma, well played.