“The worst part…is imagining how alone he was. This is the most poisonous thing that secrets do to us – they isolate us from everyone around us and make us feel even lonelier than we are already are.” –Tim Kreider, from his collection of essays We Learn Nothing
"We're only as liberated as our secrets." —Oprah
Affairs thrive in the shadows of secrecy. The secrecy fuels the feelings of urgency, of excitement, of longing. But while that secrecy withers in the cold light of recrimination and obligation, that's not the secrecy I'm talking about.
What I'm referring to is the secrecy that we feed after we find out. The secrecy that forces us to smile at our kids' teacher when our hearts are broken. That prompts us to offer a halting, "I'm just not feeling too well," when a curious friend asks what's wrong. The secrecy we wrap ourselves in that leaves us feeling alone. That isolates us from those two words of comfort: "Me too."
Not all of us opts for secrecy, of course. Some of us scream their pain from the rooftops. They unleash cries of rage. They broadcast their husband's transgressions to anyone who will listen...and even some who'd prefer not to.
I envy those women. I envy them their weightlessness by refusing that heavy load of silence. I envy them the commiseration from others. I envy them the authenticity with which they can move forward, no masks, no pretence.
That, however, is not me.
I opted for secrecy for a number of reasons.
•Shame. I was, frankly, embarrassed to find myself married to someone who would do this. But deeper than that, I didn't completely believe that his behaviour wasn't a reflection on me. As the child of alcoholics, I had a long history of carrying others' actions as my own shame. So, at least at first, I defaulted to "don't let others know what's really happening."
•Co-dependence: I also had a long history of protecting others from the consequences of their actions. While my husband had to face a boss and a lawyer in order to remove the OW from his employ, I didn't put him in a position where he had to face his clients, his own family or our friends. To a degree, I protected him. But I was also protecting...
•Financial stability: My husband's job depends on the trust of his clients. And though he'd been deceitful with me, there was no indication (indeed he insisted) that he'd ever been deceitful with his clients. Without any evidence that he'd actually done anything wrong where his clients were concerned, doing anything that might negatively impact his income seemed like cutting off MY nose to spite HIS face. It would serve nothing, except a desire for revenge.
•My children: More than any other reason, I opted for silence out of protection for my children. They love their father, which is as it should be. Yes, I could argue persuasively that he hadn't acted very loving toward them by jeopardizing their mother's emotional and physical health. But, honestly, did they need to know this? What would be served by informing young children of their father's idiocy? The pain it would cause them, the confusion it would engender...and for what? So I kept my mouth shut, though I did explain my tears and general sadness by saying that Mommy and Daddy were having "problems" but that we were working on them.
Most of the time, I'm glad for the path I chose. I'm glad that the world doesn't know exactly what my marriage looks like on the inside. I'm glad I don't have to reassure people that I'm fine. That we're better.
Still, there are times when silence weighs heavy. When, as Oprah points out, I don't feel as "liberated" as I'd like to feel.
It took me many years (decades!) to speak openly about my parents' alcoholism. Now, those who know me well and those to whom I'm a new acquaintance are just as likely to know my history. An offhand comment about my childhood, or a reference to my mother's years in AA make it clear that I have no secrets where that's concerned.
And I suspect the day will come when I'm (almost) as candid about my husband's infidelity. Even now, the circle of people who know is growing. My children are still unaware, but I wonder if even that day will come. I won't lie about it...so if ever my kids ask me if infidelity affected their parents, I'll come clean.
What silence have you chosen? It's an important question. Who are you protecting? What are you hiding from? The answers can give you insight and help you move forward in healing.