Three days before Valentine’s Day 2018, I discovered my husband of 13 years was cheating on me. Just 72 hours later, I participated in a student-led Valentine’s Day Q&A panel at the university where I teach as a psychologist with interests in social technologies.
Ironically, the students wanted the panel to talk about healthy relationships and love. I didn’t experience the panel as painful, but I still have no idea how I got through that event other than the protection provided by being in a state of shock. I do recall talking about how unhealthy it would be to use technology to constantly track your partner’s location due to mistrust, which was also completely ironic considering I was about to track my husband’s location due to mistrust.
My discovery began with a text message, in which my then-husband told me about an amazing church he was visiting in North Carolina, where he had supposedly traveled for a work trip. He sent me photos of the singers on the stage, noting the name of one of the singers in particular, so I could find her music later. My husband, who told me he attended the church with a work buddy, explained that he enjoyed the service so much, he wanted to share the experience with me.
I told him he was lucky to be there for that special occasion for the church. But all it took was a simple Google search of the singer’s name and the date of the event to learn the church was in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since we’d lived there before, I’m sure my husband knew he wasn’t in North Carolina.
I repeatedly watched video footage I found of that church service, and eventually, I saw my husband standing big as day in a yellow sweater vest I bought him, texting me with one hand, and holding another woman’s hand with the other. I was so stunned ― I realized my body was completely still, and I was holding my breath. It felt as though the world was going to fall apart if I exhaled.
That moment four years ago set off what would become the most excruciatingly painful next few months of my life.
I didn’t confront my husband. Instead, I became my own private investigator and went on a quiet rampage.
Dealing with bills made me anxious, and my husband said he was better at finances and management, so I let him handle them. I wondered what I didn’t know about. So I opened the piles of mail that were stacked neatly on the kitchen table, in our office or by his bedside. I found he had opened multiple credit cards in my name that I didn’t know about.
These bills provided records of shopping trips, dinner dates and out-of-state concerts. I also found a Happy Holidays card thanking him for spending Christmas with another woman’s family in Tennessee (instead of his own two children, my step-daughters). That year, he had expressed his disappointment and frustration that he had to work on Christmas, but he attempted to assure me that he was out of state working on our hard-to-remedy financial hardships. He wanted me to see him as a loving, dedicated, family man taking care of his responsibilities. He’d call and text his daughters and me to check on our holidays (he had just done the same thing to us that Thanksgiving). This was the first time in our marriage he had ever missed two holidays, but he insisted that this unusual circumstance would end when this new work situation was more resolved. I also found receipts that showed he bought a hoverboard for that other woman’s daughter and gift cards for her parents. He bought nothing for his daughters, who I brought to Chicago to be with my family.
I powered up his old computers and cell phones which provided the bulk of the materials that documented the pervasiveness of his cheating, which apparently started only a few years after we were married. I obtained receipts for flowers and communications with other women from his emails.
I found sexually graphic pictures and text messages. I read intimate conversations. He would converse about me with some women and even went so far as to tell them about my infertility issues. I wondered if some of the women (there were at least 15 by my conservative estimate) knew about each other because some of them absolutely knew about me.
The sheer amount of data I discovered, which spanned numerous years, was overwhelming. The man I learned about from all this evidence was not the husband I thought I had been married to for 13 years. I was heartbroken and embarrassed that I had never known about his infidelity, but I trusted and loved him, and I couldn’t believe he had done ― was doing ― this to me.
I decided to make a few clandestine out-of-state trips of my own to see him cheating with my own eyes because despite everything I had found, I was still in denial. For one of the trips, I rented a small Jeep (my husband liked using my SUV for work trips because it was much smaller than his gas guzzler) and headed to Knoxville.
I was unsure of what I’d do or find while I was there. I got a nice hotel for a couple of days, visited my old stomping grounds on The Hill at the University of Tennessee and attended service at the church where I first caught my husband cheating through their archived Facebook page live stream.
I also began tracking my husband, which, thanks to the GPS system in my SUV, was easy to do. I followed him to Farragut Dog Park and parked on a hill that afforded me a perfect view of him and another woman. I saw what I needed to see and recorded a video of myself talking, while watching him cheat right in front of me. It helped soothe me and kept me calm. Since I learned of his affair through an online video, it felt poetic for my healing to start with making my own video. I never posted it on social media ― in that moment, it was just for me.
After seeing the truth for myself, I now had no reason to hold this secret any longer. I told the people I cared about the most, who I believed deserved to hear the news from me: my stepdaughters and sisters-in-law. My husband found out I was leaving him through his own family. I didn’t waste my breath talking to him. When we did text, he continued to deny everything and claimed that our relationship would be better as soon as he finished his out-of-state training. He admitted to nothing.
Before our divorce was finalized, my husband and the last woman he had been cheating with had a baby. Sadly, my health insurance company made a huge mistake when I transferred my health insurance to my own, separate policy (within the same company). It mistakenly placed that baby under my account! The claim was ultimately denied, but not before I saw the baby’s name, and when I did, a pain so deep within me spilled out of my mouth as a wail and a dry heave.
My husband and I had been actively trying to get pregnant. During grad school, I created a list of gender-neutral names I wanted to use for a girl. My ex-husband took my top name and gave it to his son. When I saw that name on my computer screen while logged into my health insurance account, I felt as though there was nothing else this man could take from me. I wondered if the child’s mother knew that her baby daddy’s wife named her child. I wondered if she knew she wasn’t the only one. It took me a while to realize that blessings come in all varieties, and I feel fortunate that I never had a baby with him.
In the months after my discovery and our split, I felt disgusted. My weight fluctuated. I had constant headaches. I continually wanted to cry but was too exhausted and dehydrated. I wanted to vomit, but I had nothing left to give.
I made it a personal mission to delete his entire existence from my life ― starting with my social media. We were together for over 15 years, so this wasn’t going to be an easy feat.
In a caffeine-induced manic state of determination, it took about a week to scrub out his digital presence. It certainly didn’t go perfectly because I stayed connected to close in-laws and select shared friends. I also was unable to delete pictures of him from my family’s social media pages, like old family reunion photos.
These are digital remnants that I can never fully erase.
Despite my research interests being in social technologies, I had never fully considered the anguish that digital technologies can cause. Since I was a young girl, I’d had a beautiful relationship with technology. Outside of my parents and my Aunt Ester, my first love was my first “computer,” a Whiz Kid. Years later, that very love of technology and gaming actually brought my husband and me closer together because it was our shared hobby. Technology had only brought me joy ― personally and professionally ― but I now understood there was another side of it that could bring suffering.
As I went through my divorce, which was finalized a few months before 2020, I realized that I may never become the researcher in social technology I had once hoped to be. It’s still too painful.
Despite this ― and everything I’ve been through ― I always kept my head high. I continued teaching and working. I still run an active lab full of students who examine the complexities of social technologies. For the first time ever, I lived on my own and bought a car on my own. I knew that I could pay my bills because now I controlled my money.
I also did what I needed to do to leave my ex’s toxicity behind. I confronted him once for leaving notes on my car at work, but I never saw him until our meeting at divorce court.
I now have a new, wonderful partner. Because I had some trust issues, to say the least, we’re taking things slowly. In the beginning, we talked on the phone for hours like teenagers. He validates my experiences. He is empathetic and transparent. He buys me flowers. I chuckle when he leaves his email up on his laptop or leaves his phone unlocked with the screen up. I know it’s intentional, but I’m still at a place where I appreciate the intention. It’s nice to date someone so mild-tempered, trustworthy and consistent.
I am still experiencing trauma from my marriage and my husband’s infidelity. Some of it may always remain unresolved because my ex-husband died last year. There are days when I wish I had told him that I knew everything he had done to me ― I’m still not sure he knew I was aware of the extent of his deception. Other days I feel empathy for him and the pain I know he experienced at the end of his life. Relationships are complicated. Love ― and the loss of it ― isn’t clear-cut. Betrayal is confusing and difficult, and the way forward can be just as confusing and difficult. But I am moving forward.
Some of my family said it was ironic that I teach “Couples & Family Therapy” because I went through such a painful experience. But, just as an oncologist isn’t immune from developing cancer, I am no more immune to family difficulties than others. The difference may be how we respond and cope with life issues within our area of expertise and if we’re able to live the truth we espouse ― once we’ve discovered it, of course.
Dr. Samantha Gray is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis. She has taught a variety of courses, including Research Methods and Statistics, Interventions with Couples & Families, Lifespan Development, and a Technology & Psychology readings course among others. Dr. Gray oversees several studies being conducted in her research lab where she and her graduate students explore how various psychological factors are associated with modern tech-mediated interactive platforms (e.g., social media, gaming, mobile device consumption).