I told my husband there’s another man.
We stood in the shower, him under his shower head, me under mine. Naked, the hot water beating our backs, steam fogging the glass. The wet matted his salt and pepper hair.
“I’m not sure my wife’s in love with me anymore.”
I exhaled, shoulders slumping. “Do you even know what that means? … I don’t.”
Neither did he.
How could a stranger crack open my life?
I’m not cuddly, except with my children. As my physical therapist, it was the other man’s job to touch me. I didn’t seek out conversations with him. We worked one-on-one together for weeks, spending more uninterrupted time together than my husband and I. He was nice. We laughed. He made me smile, and think. I enjoyed him. Covid restrictions required masks, which forced eye contact. I looked away, confused, surprised, comfortable, uncomfortable.
He only did his job – to be kind to his patient, to ask how I felt, to challenge me, to teach me. He spent the time with me that his work required. Nothing more. When he was gone, I missed him.
Was I lonely?
That one sweeping thought changed everything.
I’m not a crier. I cried, hiding tears behind sunglasses while driving kids to school. They had to feel the tension in the house, hear my husband’s heavy, bare heels dig into the wood floor as he walked down the hall. But they didn’t ask; I didn’t know how to explain.
What was happening?
Guilt. Shame. Fear. Panic because I didn’t know what it meant or what to do.
I had to find a “safe” justification. Was it because he had been an athlete too? Because he was young and had a health condition, like I had experienced? Because he worried about his older sibling, like me?
Why did I need a justification? Married people aren’t dead. We’re still allowed to interact with other people, enjoy other people. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And nothing happened; but something happened.
I shouldn’t think of another man; but thoughts are harmless.
In 20 years, I had never been attracted to another man. Was that even what this was? Had I just forgotten what it felt like?
Why? What did he give me that I didn’t already have?
I’d been a vessel for too long – conduit for others’ needs, container filled by their contentment. A “good” wife, a “good” mother, a strong woman, a selfless woman.
Selfless. Self less. Without self.
I want myself back.
The vessel is empty and worn form overuse. I’ve felt alone, unloved. Even though I know I am loved.
I read once about orphans who, having nothing, collect random objects – a rock, a paperclip, a rubber band – and save them, in a hidden box, a drawer, or a pocket, just to have ownership, power over something.
I am an orphan too, reclaiming pieces of myself that I have given away to everyone around me. I want there to be parts of me that only I know, that I keep, just for myself, in a pocket or drawer.
How, in marriage and parenthood, in life, can you at once belong both to others and yourself?
I was lonely, alone in a crowded life. Disconnected from myself, who I had given away in dedication to those I love. Disconnected from my husband, pulled in opposite directions by life’s unrelenting tides.
The other man reminded me that I’m still me, deep inside, buried by life and time. That is who he knew, who he talked to, who he took care of. Not the mother, wife, or middle-aged woman. Me.
Maybe he only saw me that way because he didn’t know any better. In youth, he didn’t know what questions to ask or what assumptions to make. He didn’t know anything about the other parts of my life, so they were all stripped away. Sometimes strangers see us most clearly because their sight isn’t clouded by context. It doesn’t matter why or if he really saw me. It felt like he did.
In contrast, my husband knows every crevice of my mind and fold of my body. Can he see me separate from my roles as wife and mother? Like he did when I was just me, and “just me” was enough? When he didn’t need anything from me; he just wanted me?
I’ve “hustled” through life from one task to another, without time to breath, because the work of creating and managing everyone else’s lives is never-ending. There isn’t time to think of yourself.
Until there is, and you do.
You look over your shoulder and see the years that have passed while you were swaddling babies, fixing meals, cutting grass, working, working, working. Like highway hypnosis, keep looking forward and you can’t tell how fast you’re moving. It’s only when you take an exit or look down, to the side of the road, to the patches of grass or the guardrail that you realize how quickly it’s all passing by. You’re present, but not present. Here, but absent. Not just in the moment, but in your life.
And your life is half over.
This isn’t a crisis; it’s an awakening.
In a crisis you are powerless; I’m stepping into the power that was always there.
My needs weren’t ignored; I didn’t even know how to name them. I thought being strong meant being needless. But this false “strength” and “independence” leaves you just as alone and burdened as if you’d been his doormat. Maybe you were his doormat after all.
Before the other man, I would have said the greatest strength of my marriage was our respect for each other as independent, individual people, with our own interests, goals, and aspirations. But the space that distinguished us became too wide.
My independence accidentally convinced him that he wasn’t needed. Maybe not even wanted. He was rarely there, and I wasn’t going to wait around for him. I’m not a dog, watching out the window, ears piqued at the sound of tires on gravel. I do not wait for a master.
Saving pickle jars for him to open wasn’t enough.
Since I didn’t need him, he stayed where he was needed, and where society tells the man to be – at work, providing, earning success, accolades, admiration, salary, praise.
I didn’t know how much I missed my husband, or myself, until the other man.
Sometimes heartbreak doesn’t happen in one disastrous monumental moment, but in a million tiny ones - choices that you don’t even know you’re making, rough edges growing soft against time’s current. Incremental. Imperceptible.
The other man was a memory of my husband, the version who loved me when I was just me, who was unburdened by life, who was wrapped in a pretty, young, new package. The version who was there when I needed him, who took care of me, before life forced me to learn how to live without him, to take care of myself, to not need anything from anyone. He took care of me – even if it was just his job – without expecting anything in return.
When was the last time anyone had done that?
The “other” arrives in mid-life because it’s intoxicating to be seen again - to be reminded of who you once were, still are, or can again be - by someone young, beautiful, full of open-ended promises. But this is not love, or at least not the heavy kind that we like to squirm beneath, that we build our lives upon.
It’s dopamine from laughter, oxytocin from touch, chemicals in our brains. Under this influence people lose their inhibitions, become unsteady on their feet.
It made me catch my breath because I had never lost my footing before. I had never felt the terrifying, off-balance, disorienting sway of walking the tightrope between what is and what could be. This is where people slip, fall. Good people. They take their eyes off the horizon.
To love a person is one thing. To love how someone makes you feel is another. You cannot love someone you do not know, someone who doesn’t even exist because they are made up of your imagination, filling in all the unknowns with perfection.
I loved how he made me feel. Like me.
Wedding vows aren’t a promise to forever love the person standing in front of you at the altar. They are the promise that every version of you will love every version of your partner until death do you part. Even when neither of you has any idea how many versions will come to pass or what they will be like.
It’s a miracle any of us survive.
Real love – more than butterflies and sweaty hands, dopamine and oxytocin – is not a promise, or infatuation, or imagination. It’s time, and choices, and hanging onto each other, even when you don’t recognize each other, because you know their core.
It ain’t always pretty, but that’s how you know it’s real.
Now, I grieve, for a lifetime of not listening to, recognizing, or speaking my needs, thinking that strength and independence mean not needing anything from anyone.
I’m grieving the unnecessary loneliness and emptiness because a “good wife” is always supportive. I never wanted to be the reason my husband didn’t meet his goals or follow his heart. I never wanted to be a burden. But what no one wants to say aloud is that love is a burden.
I’m grieving the time we lost to the choices of those other people – our younger selves. We didn’t know any better.
But I’m also celebrating the time we have left; We can move forward, together.
I never loved another man, not the way I love my husband. But there are a million different kinds of love. The other man accidentally showed me how to better love myself; I love him for that.
Sometimes the other man destroys a marriage. Sometimes he saves it.
Hilary Moore is a pro bono attorney and Adjunct Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA. In her free time she enjoys writing, beekeeping, and playing roller derby. She lives just outside of town on a small farm with her spouse, three children, and cacophony of critters. She finds solace and wisdom through writing about her human experiences.