Long-time readers of this blog know that Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a compilation of her incredible run as Dear Sugar on The Rumpus, is one of my favorite things in the world. Dear Sugar is now back...on radio. And the most recent episode, a celebration of Valentine's Day, features a letter from a woman who reconnected with her high school boyfriend.
It began with a phone call from him...and evolved into daily texts and calls and a meeting (no sex, though, she swears!).
Our heartbroken letter writer wondered, now that her first love's wife found their correspondence and he stopped all contact, whether her "emotional affair" was actually cheating. She also wondered whether she should stay with her husband, for whom she no longer felt any passion though she loved him and had a good life with him.
The "Sugars" – Cheryl Strayed and co-host Steve Almond – were their usual compassionate, warm-hearted, wise selves.
But what was particularly interesting for we Betrayeds was how typical the trajectory of this emotional affair was. Everything about it was cliché. And viewed through the lens of detachment, it can be helpful for us to see just how little our spouses' affairs had to do with us.
Her former love reached out to her when she was about 50. Her kids had left home. She and her husband had a nice, if predictable life. Her career was...fine. Her marriage was...fine. But mid-life is when so many of us begin to wonder if this is all there is. Marriage can, if we haven't worked hard on it, seem a little...stale. Where's the passion? we wonder. Is this all there is?
Her first love represented passion and excitement. He reminded her of who she used to be – young, sexy, fascinating. They reconnected and shared their new selves. As Steve Almond says, they shared their stories, which is a more intimate betrayal than sex. So now you've got this alchemy happening. Someone at a crossroads, trying to figure out where to go with her life, meets up with someone who distracts her from those big, scary questions. He makes her feel young again. Like all things are possible.
The phone call becomes regular texting and more calls. They arrange to meet up. They do and it feels wonderful to be with someone who, they believe, really knows them Really gets them. Sure there's a spouse at home but he/she hasn't paid attention to them in years. Doesn't even seem to notice that they're having this secret relationship. Besides, nobody's getting hurt. Right? They don't have sex but the atmosphere is charged. Electric with possibility. How can routine home life compete with that? It can't.
The wife finds the texts. She insists that her husband make a choice. Either he loses his marriage and family or he re-commits. He chooses to re-commit telling his former love that his wife found the texts and it's over. We don't hear on the show how this played out...but we're living how this played out.
The Married OW Wonders What's Next for Her
She writes a letter to a radio show that offers advice. That advice includes: Yes, emotional affairs are cheating. They're as devastating (sometimes more!) than sexual affairs. And then the Sugars tell her that there's no escape from life's big questions. We can distract ourselves (look! somebody likes me just the way I am!). We can ignore what's right under our noses (a spouse who loves us. A spouse who's likely feeling as disconnected and lonely and confused as we are. Or who will listen to us as we outline just how disconnected and lonely and confused we are). But there's just no way around coming to terms with who we are, what we want out of our lives, what we want from our relationships, and how we want to spend the rest of our days. They urge her to tell her husband about what she did (thank-you Sugars for advocating for deep, painful honesty over deception and a much shallower connection!) and see if they can reconnect based on the love they continue to feel for each other. They recommend that she do some deep soul-searching of her own to determine what she wants from her life. They remind her that long-time love will never have the intensity or passion of new (and forbidden) love but that it brings rewards of its own.
We don't know what letter-writer decides to do. But we have been given a glimpse into the affair itself. It's so clear that circumstances converged that allowed both former love and letter-writer to reconnect in their secret friendship, convincing themselves all along that what they were doing was okay. Instead of self-examination (who am I now that my kids have left home? how do I create meaning in my life? how do I maintain passion in a 25-year-old marriage?), they opted for fantasy. They created their own world in which responsibilities, disappointments, real life was held at bay. A world in which their spouses were kinda erased.
It had to end. But, unfortunately, not before other hearts were broken.