“Oh my God ― he’s dead,” I whispered to myself.
I was spending a quiet evening at home with my husband when I learned of the sudden death of a man I had once shared a secret and adulterous four-year affair with.
“Are you sure?” my husband asked, his concern twitching slightly as he sensed the emotional tsunami headed toward our happy home.
“I ... I think so. His company just issued a press release,” I replied.
I was shattered.
I strained to speak as I shook my head and tried to comprehend how to mourn the loss of a man I was never supposed to have loved.
I flashed back to the time, just months out of my first marriage, when I began the affair, fueled by a brazen self-justifying insistence that because I had been cheated on by my then-husband, I had earned the right to cheat.
My affair was about as clichéd as they come: an office romance with a man who was already in a very public relationship. Our secret relationship was filled with furtive glances across the boardroom table and a covert language filled with innuendo known only to us. There were stolen moments in the hallway at work and nights spent in the hidden safety of my home or his. Feigned business lunches became feigned business dinners, which gave way to breakfast meetings and weekends away to escape prying eyes.
Soon we began to meet in the open, daring to be seen together taking in a matinee or Christmas shopping or sharing a meal without a laptop or files piled on the table in an attempt to disguise what was really going on. We offered no excuses or explanations even while colleagues, friends and family members raised their eyebrows. I felt mild shame and hints of regret, but they were drowned out by the thrum of anticipation I felt whenever I thought of spending another moment with him.
I moved gingerly between those statements of love (or what I desperately wanted to believe was love) and the gutting moments when I was alone and knew he was with her ― when I was left with the simple fact that I was the other woman.
“I don’t really care if she knows about us,” he said one night as we lay entwined in our wool socks and sweaters while watching a movie during the blustery romance of the first snowfall of the year. I wanted to believe him. I needed so much ― too much ― from him that it allowed me to ignore the calculating coldness of someone who could even say such a thing.
“Let’s just wait and see how you feel when she really does know,” I managed to reply.
I moved gingerly between those statements of love (or what I desperately wanted to believe was love) and the gutting moments when I was alone and knew he was with her ― when I was left with the simple fact that I was the other woman and a willing participant in this infidelity.
Then one night he called to tell me their relationship was over.
“It is?” I gasped.
“It’s done,” he said plainly.
I still don’t know what he told her exactly ― if she ever knew about me or if he told her, “I love someone else.” Maybe he just ended it without offering her an explanation. Maybe she ended it. It wasn’t my relationship and I didn’t feel I could ask. And yet, I’d played a role in its demise and that weighed heavily on me.
After that, he and I both knew something had shifted and the twisted, lusty feelings we’d shared morphed into muddy, hard-to-read emotions ― a confused kind of love. Can it still be called love if it’s confusing? Is love capable of leaving such a stubborn and wounding stain? Surely it isn’t always clean and simple, right? Isn’t there room for both the complicated and the simple, the painful and the gentle?
Regardless, I did love him. But I couldn’t look past the fact that he had lied and cheated to be with me ― and I not only allowed it, I aided him in doing it. I was haunted by what we had done and how we had done it and I feared because of it, we would never be able to have our own healthy, untainted relationship.
I found myself trapped between summoning the courage and humility to venture into a real relationship with him and finally closing the door on his smile, his voice, his words and his touch. Our affair continued off and on for several more years as he and I moved in and out of various relationships with other people, both of us unsuccessfully chasing absolution for what we’d done together in the form of an honest relationship with someone else.
And then, eight years ago, I met a man who stunned me. I marveled at the things he said, the way he treated me, his dedication to being a kind and caring and good person. I found a man who turned my every thought and desire toward him ― and only him ― and it terrified me. I just didn’t know if I could be faithful to him after all that I had been through and how I’d been living my life for so long.
The affair was part of who I was and I knew no other way to fully offer my heart to my new love than to share every part of me. That meant telling him about everything ― even those shadowy corners in my heart that held space for another man.
But the love I felt for this new man was so strong that I knew it was what I wanted and I had to try to change my life. And I did. That amazing man became my husband and I was completely honest with him about the yearslong tryst I had taken part in.
The affair was part of who I was and I knew no other way to fully offer my heart to my new love than to share every part of me. That meant telling him about everything ― even those shadowy corners in my heart that held space for another man ― and he listened and accepted what I’d done and who I was and it made me love him even more.
Our life together was beautiful and, happily, my fears that my past affair would threaten any future relationship proved wrong.
And then I suddenly learned about the death of my former lover and I didn’t know what to do. Even though he and I hadn’t been together or even in contact for years and I was completely in love with ― and committed to ― my husband, my heart still wept at the news.
I wondered if I should tell my husband how deeply this man’s death rocked me. Is that what faithful people do? Does a wife tell her husband that she is mired in sorrow over the death of a past lover? It wasn’t like I was going to sleep with the guy again ― he was dead. But what did being overwhelmed by these feelings mean? Was I guilty of infidelity because I felt them? What exactly makes someone unfaithful anyway?
Exhausted by my solitary and hidden grief, I asked a pastor friend for his thoughts and he told me I was “in the dark night of the soul.”
“I’m just so confused,” I told him. “How do I get over something that I don’t feel like I’m supposed to talk about ― much less with my husband?”
Months went by but my secret grief refused to dissipate and I struggled to understand why I still felt the way I did ― and why I felt it so strongly. Did it mean I was still in love with this other man or, worse, that I didn’t love my husband?
I found myself confessing what I was feeling to my favorite aunt. She worked with the local hospice society and I hoped maybe her experiences there might have given her some insight that could help relieve my heartache.
“Your love at that time was a story ― a beautiful story,” she told me. “Just think of the feeling of loss you experience when you finish reading a beautiful story. You don’t put the book down and never think of it again. It stays with you and builds on who you are.”
“It stays with me and builds on who I am,” I repeated, rolling the sentence over in my head. OK. But what am I building on? I wondered. And who am I at my core ― a cheater or a faithful spouse?
Who am I at my core ― a cheater or a faithful spouse?
I wanted to be a faithful person. I wanted to be a faithful wife. Still, shaken by my profound grief for this other man, I worried that no matter how good or pure my intentions had been, maybe I had built my marriage on a faulty foundation of unresolved feelings.
Throughout it all there was just one person I truly longed to talk to. There was just one man who knew me so intimately ― so fully and rightly ― that I knew if I could only bring myself to tell him what I was feeling, he would instantly provide the clarity and relief I wanted.
It took six more months of confused and lonely mourning after I spoke to my aunt before I finally found the courage to speak with my husband.
“I think I’m still struggling with his death,” I admitted. “And I don’t really know what to do.”
“Are you sure you’re not just trying to attach yourself to him again?” my husband asked. “Are you sure you’re not just wanting to be able to say, ‘I knew him too ― and I knew him more than almost anyone else did’?”
“But I did know him,” I sputtered back angrily.
“All I’m saying is be careful that your emotions aren’t being fueled by a hidden desire for melodrama,” he replied calmly.
Those were not the tender words I thought he’d offer me. His response didn’t encourage tearful reminiscing about my former lover or the time we spent together. Instead, I realized, he was giving me the space to reevaluate what I was feeling ― and why ― in hopes of realigning my shaken spirit. He was essentially saying, “Mourn this loss but try to be clear about exactly what it is you feel you lost when you learned this man had died.”
It wasn’t what I thought I wanted to hear but it was exactly what I needed to hear.
When someone dies we miss them, but what we really miss are the gestures, words, stories and experiences we shared with them. We can end up confusing the grief we feel at the loss of the personal meaning we attached to someone’s presence ― how that person affected and changed us ― with the person himself. Recognizing that difference and being able to grieve and remember and honor those stories and experiences and the impact they had is important, and as soon as my husband helped me to understand that, my sorrow evaporated and everything changed.
I once loved a man in secret and that relationship did not work and could not be sustained. When he died, I thought I had to grieve the loss of what we had ― however dysfunctional and problematic ― all over again. The unsentimental truth is that I had already grieved the loss of him ― his physical and emotional presence in my life ― when we ended our affair over eight years ago.
I also realized that doubting my husband’s ability and willingness to help me navigate this twist of emotions meant I was doubting our marriage and it made me feeI that I was being unfaithful. True, I had not physically strayed but believing there was anything I could not share with my husband was, for me, essentially entering into that dangerous realm.
I’ve learned that when it comes to the secrets we carry, if we can find a way to be honest with ourselves and the people we love and open up about the mistakes and errors we’ve made, we can hopefully find a path to redemption and atonement. By sharing my thoughts and struggles about love ― however complicated or uncomfortable ― while in love, I found I was able to follow through on the elements of my marriage ― compassion, empathy, humility, grace ― that mean the most to me. What’s more, I was reminded exactly how lucky I am to be married to an incredible man who loves me unconditionally and wants what’s best for me no matter what kind of challenges I ― or we ― face.
In the end, I was able to heal the grief I experienced from the death of a secret love by faithfully turning to the very man I had promised to be faithful to and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
Kate Gilgan is a writer, mother and hesitant adventurer. From a life at sea to life in Bali with their two youngest children, Kate and her husband Michael delight in family-style discovery and exploration.