My hus­band’s af­fair

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Al­ice James is a pseu­do­nym By Al­ice James. Il­lus­tra­tion by Sébastien Thibault

Why one woman didn’t want to know

Ihave a dilemma. A friend is hav­ing an af­fair. Her (won­der­ful) hus­band is bliss­fully un­aware.

I asked her once, my friend with the rov­ing eye, in the way we ask girl­friends these ques­tions af­ter too much wine, “If your hus­band were hav­ing an af­fair, would you want to know?” Yes, she said. An em­phatic yes. She would want to know.

She isn’t alone: I ask other girl­friends, “Would you want to know?” Al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, they say yes. I won­der why. To mete out some kind of pun­ish­ment? To save them­selves from the hu­mil­i­a­tion of ev­ery­body talk­ing about them be­hind their backs? Be­cause, any­way, why should he get away with it?

You see, I would once have agreed. Yes, I’d have said, con­fi­dently, “I’d want to know, ab­so­lutely.” Ex­cept, when it hap­pened to me – when I was told, “Your hus­band’s had a thing” – I found I didn’t want to know. Not at all.

I re­mem­ber so clearly the de­liv­ery of that gut­punch­ing news. A friend told me on a walk. I felt winded. I stopped dead. I couldn’t catch my breath, I couldn’t speak. A thing? She couldn’t stop telling me all the de­tails: “It started at a party, some­body no­ticed they’d slipped away, I’m not sure where you were… ” as if my ab­sence had been the cat­a­lyst, as if I ought to have been stand­ing guard, as if it were my fault.

I con­fronted my hus­band, of course I did – tear­fully. He de­nied hav­ing been un­faith­ful. He told me I was silly – “You’re be­ing ridicu­lous” – and stalked off. But if I hadn’t seen the fire, I could taste the smoke; its sour­ness lin­gered for ages, taint­ing ev­ery­thing. His dis­mis­sive re­but­tal smacked much more of an in­dig­nant “How could I have been found out?” than an out­raged “How could any­body say such a thing?”

He never con­fronted the woman who ac­cused him, and I al­ways won­dered why not: I would have done ex­actly that – and im­me­di­ately. “How dare you make such sug­ges­tions?” I’d have de­manded. He kept firmly quiet. His si­lence was deaf­en­ing and in­crim­i­nat­ing all at the same time.

Once you’ve been evicted from your com­fort­able, mar­ried-with-chil­dren shell of com­pla­cency, it’s dif­fi­cult to get com­fort­able again. Once a seed of doubt has been sown, it quickly be­comes a jun­gle of qualms, fed by ev­ery cold shoul­der, ev­ery turn of the head. I be­gan to dis­sect and minutely an­a­lyse ev­ery­thing he did, ev­ery­thing he’d ever done. I ex­ca­vated events from years ago: I thought I re­mem­bered how he’d flirted on var­i­ous oc­ca­sions, aban­doned me for more in­ter­est­ing com­pany. I re­mem­bered over­hear­ing him tell an at­trac­tive woman whom he met at a party that he wasn’t mar­ried. “Pffft, me, mar­ried?” he snorted and laughed at the very no­tion. I was stand­ing be­hind him, seven months preg­nant.

For years af­ter the ac­cu­sa­tion, I viewed ev­ery woman with a brit­tle, green-eyed gaze, “Why are you look­ing at her?” I’d de­mand as he looked into the mid­dle dis­tance, prob­a­bly per­fectly in­no­cently. I was bit­ter, I made caus­tic com­ments about other women – such an unattrac­tive trait in a woman. I stopped be­ing spon­ta­neous, I was a lot less fun. It un­spooled my con­fi­dence. I un­rav­elled from ro­bust to needy: what was he miss­ing in me that had drawn him to her?

Hear­ing that he had been un­faith­ful once in­fected all our pre­ced­ing years to­gether and left me sore, raw and smart­ing un­til a long time later.

So no. It turned out I didn’t want to know, didn’t have to know. Know­ing didn’t add enough to make up for all the things it took away. In fact, know­ing added pre­cisely noth­ing.

In­fi­delity isn’t ram­pant. But nor is it un­com­mon: a gazil­lion sur­veys sug­gest it hap­pens in a third of com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ships. But it takes so many shapes now – and many of those shapes are of the flaky, you’d-be-bet­ter-off-ig­nor­ing sort.

And is it worth throw­ing five, 10, 15 years away when in­fi­delity may amount to a mo­men­tary lapse in con­cen­tra­tion? Delu­sion? Dis­trac­tion? All balls, no brains? Is it worth aban­don­ing some­thing of sub­stance for some­thing that may mean noth­ing, that is a friv­o­lous, tran­sient mas­sag­ing of ego?

Later, much later, when I was able to ra­tio­nalise all of this, when I re­alised that a brief lapse did not amount to him fall­ing out of love with me, did not mean there was any­thing wrong with me, I was able to com­pute it all: to con­sider the num­bers. A night, or two, of fool­ish­ness ver­sus the sig­nif­i­cance of shared years, the part­ner­ship of par­ent­hood, the joys, the grief through which we had sup­ported each other, good times and sad that were pri­vately ours. The bal­last.

But back to my friend with the un­faith­ful wife. “Ought I to tell him?” I ask the same girl­friends who in­sist they’d want to know in the same po­si­tion. The re­sponse to a spe­cific in­stance is very dif­fer­ent. Oooh, they don’t know. Best not get in­volved, says one. Are you ab­so­lutely cer­tain, asks an­other. How well do you know them both, says a third. The wis­est one ac­knowl­edges it’s a tricky ques­tion: “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

So, my ques­tion still unan­swered, I put my quandary to more friends. Men and women bat the dilemma back and forth. They all agree that it’s a tricky predica­ment. But no­body knows for sure. Ex­cept my hus­band. He shakes his head: “Don’t,” he says qui­etly. “Don’t tell. Telling can wreck good mar­riages.”

It turns out that what they say is true: a lit­tle knowl­edge can be a dan­ger­ous thing. My hus­band’s in­sight con­firms what I think I know is the right an­swer from my own mis­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence.

The friend who told me about my hus­band is still a friend. But she is not nearly as good a friend as she was once. And I don’t want to dam­age a pre­cious re­la­tion­ship of many years with my cuck­olded friend in the same way she spoiled ours; I’ll keep my mouth shut.

The woman with whom my hus­band was meant to have had a dal­liance pinched some­one else’s hus­band in the end; he was eas­ier quarry than mine. They have a baby daugh­ter. She nags him a lit­tle too of­ten, isn’t as pretty as she was once, seems a bit mis­er­able.

As re­venge goes, that’s not bad

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.