I stood at the edge of the pool with my toes gripping the cold stone. Treading water, my husband Stuart smiled encouragingly, patiently. We had been married for 27 years, and for most of that time, he understood that I just did not like being in the pool.
For most summers when our children were young, we belonged to the neighborhood swim club. I would sit by the side of the pool, maybe dangle my feet in it, or slowly wade in on occasion to play with the kids. I made sure my children took swim lessons, and that they could fearlessly, joyfully cannonball off the diving board and splash with their friends while I cheered from the sidelines. Yet I never joined in.
But there was something about this night. It was warm, and our Airbnb had an amazing pool with views of the Napa Valley hills and vineyards. I felt a sense of closeness and trust with my husband ― this weekend was a celebration of sorts for the last 18 months of work we’d put into our relationship, as we tried to build back intimacy after our marriage had essentially burned to the ground.
Just before the holidays in 2017, I was convinced that my husband was in the throes of a midlife crisis, and I discovered he was having an affair. It was very much the classic middle-class suburban cliche, except for the twist that he was cheating on me with another man.
While we raised our children with the understanding that love is love (so much so that they both felt the need to come out to us as straight), I did not ever imagine the queer person in the family would be my husband. The weeks after the revelation were gut-wrenching, confusing and sad ― but also beautiful.
Stuart had assumed that when I discovered his affair, I would leave him and he would lose his kids, his friends, his community ― everything. But I watched this man I had loved over half my life, and I saw that he was filled with shame, confusion and pain. So I made the choice to figure out our way forward with him.
I had no idea what a mixed-orientation marriage was ― where one spouse identifies as queer and the other identifies as straight ― until I suddenly found myself in one. Stuart didn’t even know about the Kinsey scale of sexuality, which approaches sexuality as a spectrum, and he had no clue how he identified. Because there was so much to discover and try to understand, we decided he needed space to date, to find out if he was gay or some other orientation, and to learn exactly what this meant for him ― and for us.
“I decided that if he was gay, I could be his best friend ex-wife and we could have this big gay family. I helped create his online dating profile, took sexy pictures of him to upload, and sent him advice articles on gay relationships.”
In between bouts of crying in the shower, sleepless nights and reading every self-help book sold on Amazon, I decided that if Stuart was gay, I could be his best friend ex-wife and we could have this big gay family. I helped create his online dating profile, took sexy pictures of him to upload, and sent him advice articles on gay relationships. In February 2018, Stuart took off his wedding ring and gave it to me for safekeeping. Then he semi-moved to a larger, nearby city to explore.
I knew I was risking my marriage, but in truth, the marriage I’d had was already over. I had to make the decision that I loved Stuart more than I loved our marriage ― that this whole endeavor had to be about finding happiness, and not simply saving the marriage. But more importantly, and much harder, I had to do the work so I could honestly say that I loved myself more than I loved our marriage. This was not the case as I helped Stuart pack his suitcase.
I always knew I was smart, but when it came to how I felt about myself in general, my self-esteem was in the crapper (even more so since learning my husband was having sex with a 25-year-old ex-model). I’d sought self-worth through an overabundance of co-dependency. So while Stuart dated, I got to work on myself. His infidelity wasn’t just about his sexuality; it fed right into my own childhood traumas of not feeling loved or being good enough. I had so many fears ― of being abandoned, of being lied to, of being judged, of being a martyr.
I started a new regimen of meditation, self-help books and readings on Buddhism. I also began a daily exercise routine and a more serious yoga practice. I often credit yoga with saving my life. No matter how bad a day I was having, or how big a screaming match I’d had with Stuart, I could get on the mat and get out of my head. And yes, of course, I was in therapy (with Stuart and also on my own). Little by little, I began to break down my armor and explore some of the origins of my issues. I began to love myself, and I began to work through my own shit. But let me tell you: This is not work for the faint of heart. This has been the hardest thing I have ever done.
By the middle of the year, Stuart had determined that he was bisexual and that he wanted to stay married to me, but he wanted an open marriage so he could also have a boyfriend. To make this work, to really create the space for a boyfriend and how overwhelmingly threatening that felt to me, we created an ethical non-monogamy marriage agreement, with lots of rules, including when and how frequently they could see each other, texting times, and other expectations. I wanted Stuart to be able to take this chance, but I also wanted our marriage to not just survive but flourish. We didn’t know if it was possible, but we wanted to try.
So that’s what we did ― and we agreed that we were going to really prioritize our couple time and make sure our marriage came first. That meant everything from planning date nights and having more sex to creating new daily practices to increase the communication, honesty and vulnerability in our relationship.
At times, we felt like we were working at warp speed ― simultaneously working on ourselves, our relationship and Stuart’s burgeoning understanding of his sexuality. His therapist described the conditions we were living under, and what we were trying to achieve, as a “powder keg.” And things did occasionally blow up: Either Stuart’s shame or my fear could cause things to ignite. When we both spiraled, there were some epic arguments. But on the whole, we really tried to support one another as we tried to become better versions of ourselves.
There is a Buddhist expression: “No mud, no lotus.” For the exquisite lotus flower to bloom, it has to rise from the deep, dark muck. I had that expression mounted on our bathroom wall and even got a tiny lotus tattooed on my foot as a reminder that all of this pain was really a gift to help us grow.
“Marriage 2.0” truly began when Stuart got a boyfriend. I befriended the men he was dating, cooked for them, and even went on vacation with one of them. There continued to be challenges ― things Stuart lied about, STI scares, jealousy, self-loathing ― and I faced them, in part, with the help of therapy and yoga (and more therapy, and more yoga).
Then something began to shift. I had poured so much energy into Stuart’s sexuality, his anxieties, his boyfriends, his stress over work, his fears. As I continued to work on myself, I knew I needed more.
“There is a Buddhist expression: 'No mud, no lotus.' For the exquisite lotus flower to bloom, it has to rise from the deep, dark muck.”
That night, 18 months after we began this journey together, at the edge of the pool at that Airbnb, full of emotion, I finally told Stuart the truth about why I do not go into pools.
When I was 7 years old, we were spending time at the hotel pool on a family vacation. My fearless little sister jumped, dove and cannonballed into the water, laughing and smiling to the applause of my dad. Then it was my turn. My dad clapped and smiled as I walked to the edge of the diving board. I stood there, staring at him, staring down into the abyss of the Holiday Inn waters, paralyzed with fear of the uncertainty and unknown of what would happen if I jumped.
I stood there for over 20 minutes, and my family started ribbing me. It was in jest ― we used humor instead of real emotional support ― but I was embarrassed and ashamed. I felt so diminished in the eyes of my family.
As I told Stuart this story, I saw he had tears in his eyes. He couldn’t believe I had never told him. Sweetly, calmingly, he said: “I am not leaving. I am right here. I will catch you. You will be OK.”
So, I looked at the beautiful evening sky and Stuart’s smile, took a gigantic breath and jumped. When I surfaced, I burst into tears. I was so happy. I bawled as I hugged Stuart. I felt so liberated and powerful. I felt free.
I immediately got out and jumped back in five more times to make sure it would stick. And that is when I set down my fear and felt the joy of letting go.
I jump in the pool figuratively now, too. That has included a sexy threesome with Stuart’s crazy-ass hot boyfriend ― and a few trysts involving just his boyfriend and me (which Stuart approved, of course). I’m now a certified yoga teacher. I no longer work 12 hours a day to prove how worthy I am. And, most recently, I have opened my side of our marriage. At 54, I can happily admit that I love casual sex.
There are no guarantees about where any of this is going. Things are always changing, and impermanence is the only thing we can count on. Even with our deep love for one another, I do not know if our marriage will last. But I know now that wherever I go, I will have my toes at the edge, with fearlessness, curiosity and joy, and I will be ready to jump in the pool.
“Anne M. Hibbens” is a pseudonym the author chose to protect the privacy and safety of her family. She is a native Californian, researcher and proud mother of two amazing adults. Other names and some details in the piece have also been changed.