Dear Therapist: I Was the Other Woman

I know I sound naive, but this wasn’t like a “normal” affair.

Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

This is the age-old story of a younger woman meeting an older, married man at work.

I was aware that he was married with kids. He was always very active on social media, and often I thought, What a cute family! I never had any intention of getting involved with him, especially because I had been cheated on before. At the same time, I can remember the exact moment I met him, before anything had happened. It was like I had met him before, but I knew I hadn’t.

One night, at a work event, he and I really connected. A few days and a few hundred text messages later, I was hooked. He expressed to me his grievances about his wife. He praised her for being a good person and mother, but not a good partner. He was unhappy, but he couldn’t stand the thought of leaving his children and not tucking them into bed every night. He claimed to have never been fully happy in his marriage, saying that on his wedding day, he almost didn’t follow through.

I know I sound naive, but this wasn’t like a “normal” affair. It wasn’t secret text messages once in a while, or only seeing him once a week. This was texting all day and night. Phone calls on the way to and from work. Seeing each other four or more times a week. Endless Snapchats, private messages, inside jokes, and so on. He told me he loved me, and I loved him back. He looked at me in a way no one else ever had before. There were serious talks of him wanting to leave but not being able to because of issues with his kids. The guilt consumed me—I felt anxious, lost weight, couldn’t look in the mirror some days—but still, this continued for almost a year. Then his wife found out.

That weekend he expressed how much he loved me and said that although he was confused about what to do, he still wanted me. But a couple days later, he called and said that his wife was willing to keep him and work on things for their children’s sake. And that was that.

A few months have passed, and I’m still devastated. I’m not sure how to get beyond this heartbreak and feeling of being “less than.” I caught a glimpse of his social media from a fellow co-worker, and all I saw were happy photos of him, his wife, and the kids, as if nothing had ever happened. I replay the things he said to me and the endless conversations we had, and think, How can he move on from me so easily?

I’ve started therapy, but I need to know how to stop my sadness and feelings of anger and resentment toward him. I’ve lost myself completely, and I don’t know how to pick myself back up. Any advice?

Orlando, Florida

Dear Anonymous,

Heartbreak is such an intense form of emotional injury—the painful longing, the crushing sadness—but recovery can be especially hard when the relationship was secretive, ended abruptly, and left you feeling as if you lost a contest for someone’s love. That’s what happens with infidelity: Because so much is left unsaid, a person can make all kinds of faulty assumptions. Let’s start by examining some of yours.

Your ex’s decision to stay with his wife doesn’t mean that you’re “less than” or that he has easily moved on. He was clear that he wanted to be with you—as long as he could also stay with his family. After all, he had you for sex and connection, and his wife for stability, security, the comfort of a shared history, and a mutual commitment to their children. When the affair came to light and he could no longer have both, what he faced wasn’t a choice between two people, but between two lives.

You seem to believe that if he loved you more, or if you were more X or Y, he would have chosen you after his wife found out. But commonly in affairs, no matter what the married person says about his marital dissatisfaction, he has many compelling reasons to stay. Divorce is expensive, painful, and time-consuming—not just hiring lawyers and going through that difficult process, but coordinating two households financially and logistically for the long haul. Friends, as well as family on his wife’s side who are meaningful to him, would probably cut their ties. His kids’ lives would be upended and his reputation damaged. Another man could even take on a paternal role in his kids’ lives if his wife remarries, which might just break his heart. His wife, whom he cares about (he says she’s a good person and a good mother), would endure great pain. The material quality for all members of his current household would decline. To put it plainly, he would be giving up his entire life as he knows it, all for a younger, single woman he’s known only in the context of an exciting affair, one in which he had no real commitment or responsibility.

I mention that nature of affairs because, having been married, he’s likely considered that if you two married, you’d become less shiny versions of yourselves. The intensity would eventually dissipate—all the talking and texting, all the sexual heat and witty banter and flirtation, all the looking your best for each other and being extra considerate, all the gazing into each other’s eyes. This is the stuff of courtship, and with an affair, it’s courtship on steroids. Even if you seem more compatible with him now, until he figures out why he cheated on his wife instead of communicating with her about his dissatisfaction, he won’t really know if that’s true. Nor could he really know unless the two of you get deep in the trenches of children and bad moods and health issues and dirty dishes and shared money and annoying habits and existential loneliness and fear of aging and utter exhaustion and years of the same fundamental disagreements and recycled jokes—all of which are revealed only in the experience of a long-term relationship.

Given this degree of uncertainty, would he really blow up his life for you? He may have fantasized about it with you—which only added to the already-delicious fantasy of the affair. But back in reality, not only did he tell you that he wouldn’t go through with it, but you say that when his wife found out, she took a couple of days before she decided she “was willing to keep him.” It was he who lobbied to stay.

This perspective might help you understand why he’s made the decision he has, and help you focus instead on understanding why you co-authored this fairy tale with him. That might have something to do with your description of meeting him for the first time: “It was like I had met him before, but I knew I hadn’t.”

I have a feeling that he felt familiar because although you hadn’t met him before, you had met a version of him, and you were drawn to him so strongly because of a phenomenon called “repetition compulsion.” Repetition compulsion explains why many people who had angry parents end up choosing angry partners, or those who had unavailable or critical parents find themselves married to spouses who are unavailable or critical. Without being aware of it, they have an uncanny attraction to people who share the characteristics of a person who hurt them growing up. In the beginning of a relationship, these characteristics will be barely perceptible, but the unconscious has a finely tuned radar system. It’s not that people want to get hurt again. It’s that they want to master a situation in which they felt helpless as children. Maybe this time, the unconscious imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar—but new. The only problem is, by choosing familiar partners, people guarantee a familiar result: They reopen the wounds and feel even more inadequate and unlovable. This might be what has happened for you.

Think about it this way: Just as you were a projection of something he is trying to work out, he was a projection of something you are trying to work out. You say you were “hooked,” and that’s an apt description; he feels like an addiction because addictions are distractions from something we don’t want to feel. But now the drug is gone and the feelings are front and center—leaving you in withdrawal, which is harrowing, but which also creates an opportunity to understand these feelings through the clarity of sobriety.

So how do you pick yourself up again? You’re already doing it, by going to therapy. You let yourself feel sad. You grieve the loss not so much of him but of the fantasy you co-created. You sit with the dissonance of wanting to spend your life with him and acknowledging that you didn’t really know him because he compartmentalized half of his life when he was with you. You ask yourself if the appeal of him was that you would never really feel safe with him. (This might also apply to the person you dated who cheated on you.) You look inside and reckon with whether you dated a married man because you were afraid of meeting someone available to you; because you felt like nobody would truly love you; because abandonment is your native language; or because the drama of an affair was a great distraction from a sense of boredom or loneliness or a great big hole in your life—and you didn’t want to take responsibility for filling it. All of this work will help you figure out what you were avoiding by hiding away with a married man, and once you do, you will be so much closer to finding the love you deserve.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.