How I Came to Terms With My Boyfriend's Infidelity -- and My Own
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My boyfriend and I have fidelity issues. We haven’t strayed lately — at least, I think. But we both have a history of it. This was something we admitted to each other on our first date. The Greek chorus screeched so loudly when we decided to go out again, my ears still throbbed the next morning.
I want to feebly premise this by saying that we are both nice people. Ben especially (though Ben is not his real name). He spends much of his career helping others, and is adored by everyone he meets. I don’t know if this counts as much, but my hobby is chasing down lost pets and finding their homes. We both rabidly loved our wronged former partners, all of them. But that’s not the point, because it never is. Cheating is not about love.
The relationship proceeded in a cautious yet positive manner, despite our unsuccessful pasts. We are both writers, so we had enough to talk about. (Space breaks! Semicolons!) We fought well, which I always find important. I liked to watch him rearrange my books; I appreciated the scuff marks his boots left in the kitchen. The dog grew fond, after a mourning period. Ben just seemed to fit.
Yet still the nagging problem: our wandering eyes. At first, this reared its head in a disappointingly expected manner. “You should still see other people,” he said one afternoon, looking up from “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” “I’m still pretty hung up on the last one.”
It’s not as if I hadn’t heard this line before. (Another classic: “I never said I wanted a girlfriend.”) With other boyfriends, I’d cried. But this time, I was uncharacteristically calm. Maybe the thing to do, I thought, was just try it.
The more I pondered it, the better it sounded. Yes! An open relationship! Still, I needed some reassurance that this wasn’t completely stupid. Some people, in this situation, would seek advice from friends, or perhaps some data from sociological institutions, like the highly regarded National Marriage Project. But I already knew my friends would say that I was fooling myself, and data bores me. So, I turned to my most trusted source: fiction.
I didn’t have to look hard for examples of adultery in literature. In fact, the steam seemed to rise from my bedside table as I tentatively fingered the Salter and the Berriault. Of course, in most examples, stepping outside of a relationship brings ruin and misery. Emma Bovary’s death, for example: “Her chest soon began heaving rapidly; the whole of her tongue protruded from her mouth; her eyes rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of a lamp that is going out.” Pretty unappealing. Then there is April Wheeler in “Revolutionary Road,” who bleeds to death after violently aborting her own child when her adulterous marriage goes sour.
And yet, I was determined. There had to be instances of successful open relationships somewhere in the stacks. After all, it happens, doesn’t it? In France? Utah? After a few days, I found some Updike stories where both husbands and wives seemed quite tolerant of a bit on the side. In Josephine Humphreys’ excellent “Dreams of Sleep,” Alice is downright thankful when her dreary husband of 10 years takes up with someone else. There is Nicole and Dick Diver’s rather modern, look-the-other-way setup in parts of “Tender Is the Night.” And certainly, at the beginning, Marya has a terrific time with the Heidlers in Jean Rhys’ “Quartet.”
It was settled. Preemptive non-monogamy would obviously be better than the inevitable sneaking around. So, after the third time Ben said it was OK for me to see someone else, I did. I mean, I really saw him, the way Dean saw his French girl in “A Sport and a Pastime. ” The result was not shocking. It didn’t help my relationship with Ben at all.