My story of the affair I didn’t know I was in, a lesson in forgiveness and, yes: friendship afterward.

This essay comes with a bold trigger warning. If you are a betrayed partner who is reeling, seeking to understand the affair: this may not be the story for you. I am not the person with whom your partner cheated. There are no answers here for you. Regardless of its circumstances, when infidelity occurs, all parties’ experiences are valid. Everyone hurts.

A lot of conflicting and emotional content exists on the internet about infidelity. The betrayed, the betrayers, and those in the middle that could be neither or both. The majority of it is loud and brash, pointed fingers and shaking voices, wave after wave of trauma and despair crashing down.

In all of the content I have found, the unaware affair partner — the one who did not know they were the object of betrayal — is often discarded and forgotten. But my story matters. I believe in nuance; in grace; in compassion; in forgiveness. There isn’t always room for them in every situation but I am fortunate that there was in this one.

A black and white photo of a woman getting tattooed
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

The fresh tattoos on my thighs ached, crying for ointment. I blinked at the time on my phone — it could not actually be 2:20 in the morning. On a Monday. I’m a morning person but I have limits.

I sighed. I had gone to bed too early, again. Biphasic sleep would be the name of the game for me for a while. With it would come the guilt of whether I’d get up and use the time or scroll and hope to doze off again.

This time, I chose the latter.

When I saw James’ face on my Twitter feed, a YouTube link and cover retweeted by a mutually-followed account, I shot right up in bed. I was wide awake. There was no mistaking it. I’d recognize it anywhere. But never once had I seen it cross my own Twitter feed and it was the last place I’d expect it.

Discovering the Twitter account was, at first, a boon. It underlined everything I had learned about him over the years. James had established a whole community, opened himself up, and created something special. I was so happy to see it, to see him thriving. There were things he shared there that made a lot of sense and answered questions I wasn’t ready to ask.

It was serendipitous to know that after all this time he had always just been one degree of separation away, completely unaware our circles overlapped as long as they had.

Then I saw a tweet mentioning his wife. I didn’t panic: maybe it was a fluke, a humorous aside. I searched his account for the word and it returned dozens of results. I squinted and double-checked; even in the pre-dawn glow I could clearly see the ring on his hand in all his videos.

No blood rushed my ears and my heart didn’t race. But I was crestfallen, knowing that what I suspected before and trusted was false upon his return had actually been true all along.

James and I met in a niche online community in late summer 2019. He was a pretty face with piercing eyes. His profile captivated me. He seemed so kind and interesting; a great candidate for good conversation that I needed. With the considerable transatlantic distance between us, I was not available for more than to get to know someone.

He wasn’t either. He vanished every time we talked, deleting his account and disappearing into the ether. He did this often, reappearing sporadically. I was not so naive to reject the obvious: he was hiding from someone or something. But I did not have enough information to know what it was. It could have been anything: a demanding job; anxiety; serial monogamy.

But after two years of it I put my foot down. If he actually wanted to know more about me, I required availability and openness. I wouldn’t be a toy or a fantasy in his pocket.

I wasn’t even sure how I felt about him. We bonded over the things that bring people together: values, perspectives, life experiences. Our conversation rarely if ever got any racier than flirting. We always returned to the real stuff, digging deeper. We found more and more of what we had in common that few others shared in our lives.

His ephemeral presence only warmed my hands. I just wanted him to hold still long enough to get a good look, to evaluate whether I could move closer. I just wanted to befriend him. I wasn’t sure if I could give or receive anything else until that was achieved. Something else bubbled under the surface but I knew better than to give in.

After one incident in the summer of 2021, I didn’t hear from James for six months. When he returned, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the genuine apology he extended. He asked for a real chance, recounting his poor actions and their impact on me. He was “done with hurting people,” as he said.

James came clean the moment I asked. He didn’t defend his actions; we both knew the jig was up. We cried for hours. He took every ounce of accountability and answered every question. It was so hard for me even as I bled, seeing this person I cared for suffer so much to go to the lengths to do what he did. Soothing loneliness and marital solitude by deceiving people he cared about because he didn’t believe he deserved to have his needs met.

It doesn’t excuse his choices and actions. Over and over, the thought that rang through my mind was that if only he’d told me in the beginning, I would have still wanted to be his friend. I didn’t know enough to offer more. If I had known from that the outset, many of our interactions would have still been similar. I would have set boundaries to prevent others.

I simply couldn’t bring myself to be angry. The mystery was solved. All the red flags that I had demoted, set aside, didn’t investigate: they were all answered. I finally knew what I needed to know. The decision was made and honestly: it was a relief. Everything else sloughed off the coil wound between us, stripping it bare, leaving only what should have remained all along.

Two people sit on a couch, clearly upset with each other.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to be angry; threatening me. But you’re being so kind,” James said. Bereft of any self-esteem — exactly what got him into this mess — he could not accept that I had already forgiven him.

“Because I care about you. And I care about myself.”

I didn’t need to pause or complicate it further. It was the truth he had avoided for too long and that I refused to fear. The romance we shared was a product of his projected loneliness and manipulation. It coupled with my softened boundaries that prevented me from meeting my own needs.

It was never a matter of her or me. I knew that very well; we’d made no promises. It went without saying that I was no longer part of this equation. And if James had even considered that choice in my favor: I would have told him no. He may be a walking poster-boy for accepting the love we think we deserve, but I am too.

Knowing that I couldn’t trust or guarantee what we’d shared romantically is a critical failure. Nor am I a homewrecker. The romantic part of our relationship wasn’t just insecure; it was not meant for me. It was never even about me.

That fact made it so easy to let go of what wasn’t meant to be, like throwing water on a dogfight. It left room for the one healthy, living root of what we did genuinely share latch on: a deep friendship. One where two people supported each other, held them accountable, and listened. What we had done all along.

By Thursday evening, my new tattoos felt like sunburns, well into the itchy-peely-can’t-scratchy phase. Aside from choking down nopales tacos and wine the day it happened, I’d run on half a cup of coffee and cold oatmeal since. Water tasted like acid. I attempted at all costs to avoid rupturing the rock that sat in my stomach.

Worse than the grief was the isolation. No one understood that I wasn’t angry and many told me I was wrong for it. Others disregarded me entirely; as the other woman, I had no right to any feelings at all. That because the relationship was founded on a lie, everything with it should disintegrate. I was chided for not discarding everything else that I knew was true of James outside of the enormous lie he carried.

Friends wanted to rip him apart. Their rage was an insult to my judgment. They didn’t know how cautious I had been and why I chose which maneuvers. They couldn’t separate what I could. That the trust I had given had fractured but was not shattered and useless. And that despite the pain, I knew I could take care of it myself.

I didn’t expect to hear from James that night. After he’d broken the news to his wife, I supposed he’d disappear for months, if not forever. That’s what I had prepared for considering that was his modus operandi.

I was catty and bitter at first. I could feel myself snarling as I responded to his messages. I had hit my pain limit. During the entire fallout, I had pulled out every core wound within me, holding them up like flashcards against the light. I sought to make sense of them, squinting at Rorschach blots, pressing them all into his hands.

As we talked, it dawned on me that the only one James hit was betrayal. All the other wounds were ones I had re-injured myself. They were the ones I wanted to cling to most, to somehow make it my fault even though we both knew it was entirely and irrevocably his.

I then remembered that I was the one rejecting him. I was the one telling him this was unacceptable. I was the one telling him to get his act together and stop jerking people around before he lost them all.

James accepted it all with grace and patience I’ve never seen from anyone in a mess that they single-handedly created. I finally understood he was not there just to say goodbye, but to wipe the wounds clean and take inventory. And when the time came, after healing and progress — asking if we could return to what had survived this ordeal: friendship.

In most cases like this, it is an absolute no-go. But in our situation, I think, it is different. With the mud wiped away, we uncovered the foundation that had been improperly built over. It’s damaged and needs repairs, but it’s not a salvage just yet.

My story is unique. If either of us had boarded a plane, it would have been a much different outcome. A single kiss would have sealed a far worse fate. Something was going to give sooner or later. Much better that an algorithm tipped me off in the middle of the night rather than a condom breaking in the middle of a getaway.

Two people in silhouette lean in for a kiss.
Photo by Loc Dang from Pexels

At any time, James could have dropped and run but instead he chose to face the responsibility of what he did. He couldn’t re-gift the dignity he denied me when we met. But he had already initiated changes he needed to make to succeed long-term.

James has to get over the illusion and separate what he thought I was — a proxy of his partner — from who I actually am. He was selective in what he revealed to me about himself. In return, he chose not to see everything about me that I revealed and put me on a pedestal.

When James does figure out who he is and repairs the other damages he caused, we can finally give the thing we should have nurtured all along the second chance it deserves. Honestly and openly. I have the fortitude to assert, respect, and maintain boundaries when the time comes. I won’t accept less from him in the future. There are parts of me he will never have access to again.

Because of this, my mindset has shifted: I already see James as the friend he needed and wanted to be all along. But now he has to go be his own. That soothes the sting of absence and replaces shaky what-ifs with the excitement of knowing that the future will be better than the present.

This has been one of the most painful and humiliating things I have endured in a long time. But I’m not sure that I would have changed anything about it. If I had to go through this, I can’t imagine anyone else I would or could have survived it with. Even knowing it all happened because of his selfish choices.

My new tattoos don’t itch as much but they aren’t quite ready. I clean and moisturize them dutifully. I exclusively wear shorts and skirts without crossing my legs for fear of damaging them. But the peeling and scabbing will end, sooner than later. The color will pop and I will happily show them off. The work and patience will be worth it.

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