I recently discovered that the man I loved and trusted for 20 years had a secret girlfriend on the side for the past 10, when he slipped up and left this text to her on my computer.
"I love you and I will always love you."
Besides all of the different varieties of wrong involved in Mike’s betrayal, in this particular case, there’s an additional layer of stupid: I’m a writer. So, for a decade you carry out a secret love affair behind the back of a woman who writes revealing personal essays for a living. What could possibly go wrong?
When I confronted Mike, he lied, downplayed it, and told me it was nothing. But even as adept and practiced a liar as Mike apparently was, he couldn’t explain away “I love you and I will always love you.” Eventually he came clean. Yet, even as he was explaining to me that he and Maggie have actually been madly in love since they first met 30 years ago, when he was married and she was single, and how, even though she’s now married herself, they’ve been phoning and texting and meeting to make furtive whoopie in hotel rooms for the past decade, I was thinking, “This is awful. This is devastating. And unbelievable. And hateful. And…this is amazing material.”
I was reeling and gob-smacked and horrified and devastated. But I knew I was going to write about it.
For better or for worse
Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. For years, I’ve been writing about how wonderful Mike is. He’s turned up over and over again in my essays. I told the world how funny and clever and loving he was. How I loved him. How much fun the two of us had together. I’ve even appeared on the Today show, where Savannah Guthrie interviewed me about an essay I’d written for the New York Times in which Mike was featured, being fabulous, loving, and supportive. When Mr. Wonderful turned out to have been Mr. Infidelity all along, why wouldn’t I write about that too?
But isn’t that too personal? Too private? Shouldn’t I keep something like that under my hat? To which I reply: Heartburn.
Heartburn, by Nora Ephron, is one of my favorite books. Ephron’s husband cheated on her while she was pregnant. When he left her, she was devastated. But she turned the experience into a hilarious comic novel. It became a bestseller. There was even a movie, in which she was played by Meryl Streep. To readers like me, Carl Bernstein isn‘t the heroic Washington Post reporter who helped uncover the story of the Watergate break-in. He’s the lying schmuck who betrayed Nora Ephron. Nora got the last laugh.
He did not have sexual relations with that woman
When Mike assured me that he and Maggie had never had sex, it turned out that what he really meant was that they did everything together except actually have intercourse. I thought “That’s so dumb it’s funny.” So I wrote a humor piece about it. It got terrific reader response, especially from women (and men) who had been betrayed. I’ve continued to publish essays about my relationship with Mike and how it ended, and readers have continued to thank me.
Mike is furious with me for not keeping quiet. So, oddly, is his ex-wife, who blasted me on Facebook for “spreading the whole sordid tale all over the internet.” One of my friends replied with this Anne Lamott quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Another friend pointed out that Mike knew all along I was an autobiographical writer. “If he wanted to hear only polite silence about your relationship after he betrayed you, he definitely picked the wrong gal.” Nobody is making Mike or anybody else read what I write about him. (And, of course, I’ve changed the names.) I see stories online every day that I choose not to read. If Mike wanted to write an essay about me, I’d support his right to do that, but I certainly wouldn’t read the thing.
Controlling the narrative
This has been an awful month. Learning that the man I loved has been in love with another woman for years really hurts. But writing helps. It helps me cope with what has happened, put it in perspective, and helps me work through it. And, as Gina Barreca recently observed in Psychology Today, “Once you make an event into a story, it’s no longer something that just happened to you. It becomes yours. You control it.”
The affirmation and support I’ve gotten from readers has been comforting and consoling. But it doesn‘t change what happened to me. I wish with all my heart that Mike had been the loving, trustworthy man I thought he was, and that I didn’t have this terrible betrayal to write about. But I do. So I am. And if you happen to be a publisher? I’m working on a novel. It’s a lot like Heartburn, but it takes place in the Facebook era. It’s got everything: Love, betrayal, idiotic behavior, plenty of humor, and lots of juicy details that I haven’t put into the essays.