The Slow-Acting Venom of Infidelity

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the metaphor used by the second reader below. This first one points to a different kind of persistent pain when describing his most memorable breakup:

It wasn’t the phone call to my English-language teaching girlfriend “temporarily” living in Lyon, France, that started (and essentially ended) with “I’m staying.” And it wasn’t the disembodied rupture of my first relationship of true love that made the breakup so hard. It was the never-ending grief-bombs I found in my next three apartment moves over the next two years—tiny little notes from her falling out of my belongings … “an ocean is nothing!” I’d rather have found a dead roach.

Our second reader’s story:

I met him when I was 23. I was young, relatively successful in my career and had six months of living in NYC under my belt. He and I were brought together in a cozy bar in Chelsea thanks to a few OkCupid messages.

If I allow myself, I remember every detail of that night.

I learned that night I had a gift of memory in our relationship which would make almost impossible to ever forget. Our first night together I know what drink he ordered, what shirt I wore, the color of his watch strap, and even the address of the brownstone I pushed him in to walking back to my apartment to steal one of those deep, electric kisses we did not know we could ever have.

The next day, we met up again. He could do no wrong and I could not want him any more. We fell asleep, two men, in each other’s arms in the middle of Central Park, the grass enveloping our bodies as if to stitch us even closer.

Fast forward a few blissful months and I had him pinned down in bed in the playful way we were and he told me he loved me. My first love.

Fast forward another handful of months and, in the same bed, I found out he had cheated on me.

What I did not realize was that the moment I was exposed to that confession I was living with a poison inside me from the infidelity. Like a snakebite, infidelity infected me with doubt, anger, and confusion that I let seep into my head and heart. He begged me to stay. I did.

The relationship ended a year after that. It actually ended on our two-year anniversary. Our last day together wasn’t anything like the first. He told me I was a different version of myself and through my tears I begged him to be the one to stay. He did not.

We have not seen or spoken to each other in over a year. I am not sure I could handle it and I am not sure he even cares. It feels unfair to me that I continue to live with this poison. It feels unfair that now, in love, my trust comes with an anticipation of being bit again.