It’s been almost four months since I discovered my husband’s cheating. Three and a half years of it, some of it in our house, some of it without protection.
We had been monogamous, or so I thought, for 16 years.
When people used to tell me about how devastating infidelity could be, and what measures to take to prevent it, I took their advice with a grain of salt. Such betrayal would certainly feel crushing, I knew, but surely it could be managed.
But in September, when a stranger reached out proffering a photo album of incriminating screenshots ― a Tinder profile showcasing my husband’s smiling face, in which he claimed he was “slightly married,” a series of graphic sexual text messages, and time logs of hourlong phone conversations ― I realized that these earlier claims weren’t exaggerated or relegated to a sensitive few. The knot twisting in my stomach proved their validity.
I suddenly found myself careening through a type of grief, as if the person I thought my husband was had died. As if, in fact, a part of me had died. What remained was now being dragged, kicking and screaming, through an existential metamorphosis into something new and unknown.
At first, I thought divorce was our only option. “Once a cheater, always a cheater” looped in my head, along with the imagined porno film of what my husband had done. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely eat. I lost weight. The walk to the STD testing clinic felt like a funeral march. And through it all, that horrible movie kept playing on repeat, torturing me with all the visuals and sounds and smells that I imagined had occurred in his adulterous moments. In a frenzy of despair, I banished a couch ― “the couch of sin” I called it ― onto a truck-bound journey that assured I would never see it again.
I was destroyed and couldn’t fathom recovering.
The idea of separation seemed foregone, logical, natural even. But extensive therapy and time with thoughtful, open-minded friends (some of whom possess decidedly unorthodox relationship arrangements) slowly nudged me out of my misery. I began to tentatively question the ideologies I had been acculturated into, and to wonder about the very nature of sex and love and relationships.
The notion dawned on me that perhaps some of the pain I was feeling stemmed from a preventable social malady rather than abject personal failure. Maybe, to a certain degree, our institutions had misunderstood love, and taught it to us all wrong.
What if the lack of respect that made infidelity so agonizing was less about sex and more about dishonesty? If honesty could be achieved and mutually maintained, then, could my husband and I develop a level of empathy that would allow for more sexual freedom without damaging our partnership? Could we think and feel past the societal taboo of sex outside of marriage and discover a truer definition of love? Was there a third viable path hidden alongside divorce and forced monogamy?
My husband and I had talked about opening up our relationship nearly a decade ago, before we got married. It had been my idea at the time, and he had nixed it over concerns that I would have much more success at the endeavor than him. I now understand that his worry was rooted in the kind of abandonment fear that fuels jealousy and a tit-for-tat mindset. The kind of visceral half-conscious terror that, when left unexplored, upholds institutions like monogamous marriage and vilifies other ways of living.
It’s a kind of fear that’s baked into our society, and that’s reinforced on each of us with the overrepresentation of monogamous romance we see in life and in fictional narratives. Even the idea of a couple, as synonymous to a relationship, signifies that the only ethical partnership exists in pairs of two. And yet in modern society, there are so many examples of successful throuples and open arrangements, and so many more examples of failed monogamies, many of which fell apart solely due to cheating, lacking other toxic dynamics.
So in the wake of my husband’s infidelity and the philosophical renaissance it catalyzed in me, I found myself at a crossroads, wracked by cognitive dissonance. I understood intellectually that ethical non-monogamy could perhaps be a truer expression of love than traditional monogamy, but emotionally I was still bound to the traditions into which I was raised. Disney princesses. Happily ever afters. All or nothing. Good or evil. True or false. I felt that familiar fear of abandonment ― of being replaced ― clawing at me.
My husband told me he needed to be non-monogamous to feel whole. He said he was sincerely sorry for what he had done, and claimed he could be monogamous now, but would not be truly happy if he was. He also said he could be safely, honestly, and ethically non-monogamous, if I would allow it. He was willing to do the necessary work to address the dishonest parts of himself, he claimed, in order to enter this new chapter from a place of trust and respect.
I could feel the alluring tug of potential new romances too; I understood where he was coming from. I decided to give non-monogamy a try, with the understanding that I could end it if other toxic aspects of our relationship ― unexplored resentments, dishonesty, bullying ― remained unresolved and rendered things too fraught. If we couldn’t tackle our personal demons through therapy and introspection, we couldn’t hope to bring additional people into our relationship in a healthy way.
We sat down together and wrote a list of guidelines unique to our situation, some of them hard rules ― like using protection and not meeting up with established friends or family ― and some softer, more malleable but requiring open conversation. We agreed at the outset that we would remain each other’s primary partner, and though we would still be capable of developing deep, meaningful connections with other partners, the main purpose of opening things up would be for friendship and sex. We knew the only way we could successfully navigate the ocean of gray we were introducing into the black-and-white narrative of our traditional marriage was through radical honesty and compassion. We needed to be able to sit with and articulate our emotions without becoming blinded by jealousy, depression or anger.
“I understood intellectually that ethical non-monogamy could perhaps be a truer expression of love than traditional monogamy, but emotionally I was still bound to the traditions into which I was raised. Disney princesses. Happily ever afters. All or nothing. Good or evil. True or false. I felt that familiar fear of abandonment ― of being replaced ― clawing at me.”
We continued couples therapy under the banner of our new plan. My husband began individual therapy in order to process the resentments and emotional regulation issues that had driven him to cheat in the first place. And as we started dipping our toes into dating, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery that made me feel more alive than I had in years ― in all of the joyous and terrible ways one might imagine.
I felt the elation of attachment and the dejection of it not being reciprocated. I was let down, and had to let others down, and had to learn to be content with both. I learned ― and am learning ― about new people, with interests and life stories vastly different from my own. In meeting with others in an atmosphere of such complete emotional openness, interpersonal barriers I once thought immutable seemed to fall away. I’ve forged deep connections, some of which, with luck, could endure for a long time.
I feel those barriers falling away between my husband and myself too. Jealousy and fear have posed their threats, and have made some days unbearable, but overall the experience thus far has been one of reconciliation rather than division. We’re gradually learning to talk more candidly and empathetically about our feelings and experiences, to work through past and present traumas, and to see the other in ourselves.
Four months ago, I never would have imagined that I could feel truly happy when my husband had a nice date with another woman, just as he now has the capacity to feel happy for me when I enjoy time with other men. We talk frankly about our experiences, about what worked and what didn’t, and though at times there’s still jealousy, we have an emotional toolkit to work through it healthfully.
I’m learning about myself as well and have developed a sense of confidence and self-contentment that I never before thought possible. My obsessive need for self-care that I had been clinging to for years as a coping mechanism for anxiety and self-loathing is finally, bit by bit, transforming into self-love. In experiencing sex and intimacy outside my marriage, I’m becoming a freer, more actualized sexual being. I feel more comfortable physically exploring and being vulnerable, and am able to bring what I’ve learned back into the proverbial marriage bed to strengthen our primary bond. Through the compassionate eyes of others, both new lovers and old friends, I see now that I have value and am on the cusp of no longer needing that external validation to know my worth.
And for those who aren’t compassionate? (Dating apps possess their fair share of selfishness and manipulation, after all.) The more I know myself, the more I know which red flags are stop signs. With safety as the number one priority, I’m developing the ability to vet people, and to see the inherent beauty and collaborative growth potential in each person I decide to meet.
Both my husband and I are balancing our push toward radical open-mindedness with a mitigating dose of risk management. COVID-19 exposure and testing are now a part of the conversations we have with potential partners about their STI history. We try to coordinate dates at someone’s house rather than at restaurants or bars, and we’ve focused most recently on seeing just one or two regular partners, bringing them into our quaranteam, so to speak, rather than further expanding our bubbles.
Perhaps most beautifully, though, I’m remembering the gratitude and love that drove me to marry my husband in the first place. More and more, we’re returning from our individual sexual experiences with a newfound appreciation for, and desire to be with, one another. In its finest moments, this experience has been a reminder, to both of us, to not take each other for granted, a notion that I would have thought counterintuitive before living it.
Will things between my husband and I progress into the mutually empathetic utopia I imagine? Only time will tell. One or both of us could prove emotionally unfit to sustain an open arrangement and our experiment could fail. And there are sure to be bumps, some jarring, even if we succeed. I still have moments when I think I ought to consider separation as an act of self-preservation, when I wonder whether the mental load of our new arrangement destroys more than it builds. Inevitably, though, those darker moments are followed by the conviction that the true act of self-preservation is to maintain courage in the pursuit of happiness ― to follow whatever paths, no matter how unorthodox, lead to that place of self-actualization. And for now, at least, the most promising path involves walking with my husband, side by side.
Melissa Gabso (she/her) is a writer, graphic designer, and illustrator living in central Connecticut with her husband and two four-legged house gremlins. She writes science fiction and personal narrative, creates branding and publications for a number of nonprofits, and draws realistic landscapes and portraits with colored pencil. Her most recent artwork can be found on Instagram at @melnessguru.