Exploring unintentional misogyny, anger, and grief after infidelity
The tears sprung hot and angry as I read the article. My stomach burned and my neck and face flushed.
I had felt unsettled and antsy for days. It seemed ridiculous that a shoddy story from the New York Post had pulled the ripcord in my sternum and let all the rage pour out. But something had to give sooner or later.
The article illustrated a story where a man sought relief in the company of a chatbot. Meanwhile his wife endured postpartum depression, to the extent he was considering divorce. As he got to “know” the chatbot and vice versa, he realized all along he should have been connecting with his wife. Thus; the marriage was saved. Happily ever after.
All too recently, I had unknowingly been in the near-exact position of the chatbot. The same Twitter algorithm that fed me the article was also how I found out I was the other woman. Although I am not an artificial intelligence program, I was treated like one.
The story hit every raw nerve exposed from the loss of something that I thought was genuine and stood a chance. The parallels between what James had done and the story hit too close to home.
During the fallout, I was not angry with James. I had already forgiven him and it was partly because I knew the grief would come. And with it, anger, a natural part of the process. If we never spoke again I wanted it to end with as much love and grace as possible. There was enough pain to go around and I didn’t want to add more to heal later.
But after reading that story with irresponsible and patriarchal reporting, the dam broke.
What he did was not an accident. And I am the one who paid the price, not him.
The story glorified the emotional labor of a machine that did not have feelings. But most who commit infidelity do not have an inanimate object with which to therapize their situation guilt-free. It is a hideous truth: if a married man betrays his wife, his actions are irrevocably misogynist, regardless of intention. The reliance on other women to bear the burden of his insecurities is the peak of what most unintentional misogyny actually is.
James is by all accounts a gentle giant. Unusually tall and brawny, he could intimidate anyone his path if he chose to. Instead he’s soft-spoken. His attention is undivided. He has an innate calming presence. He’s genuinely progressive and feminist in a way that isn’t for clout, it’s just who he is. The last thing he would ever consciously want to do is hurt someone.
And yet, here we are. I have to accept that this man wielded his considerable power over me to siphon goodwill and validation exclusively for his benefit. Whether he wanted to return it, he did not know how to. And the moment he introduced himself under a false name and purported to be available, he chose not to at my expense. Knowing that when the time came, he could not make good on the bill due for emotional support.
I thought I was giving him the freedom to be himself, figure things out, and come to me when he felt ready. In reality, he was using me to plug the holes in the sinking ship of his marriage. And when she returned, there was no need for me. If one woman was defective and absent; the other would do just fine.
James was not ignorant the damage he wrought. He was adept at naming all the things he did without me having to remind him. He knew what he had been doing all along, fear and guilt filling every nook and cranny between us. It pains me to think of what may have happened to him if the situation had gone on any longer. It was evident that he had carried the load for too long.
But he framed it in his own shame. Insisting he was a monster, a jerk, something terrible and unlovable, and nothing I said or did could convince him otherwise. He could not separate his actions from his sense of self which only served to suck more pity and empathy from me. More labor to soothe him as he faced the consequences of his own actions. As if I wasn’t losing something that I never actually had and thought I did. As if he wasn’t telling me he couldn’t love me, that he’d rather patch things up with his wife, mere days after we had shared tender things.
“Turns out I actually love the woman I was so miserable around that I went and found another who actually understood me. Gosh, sorry about all that! Thanks for everything! Have a good life!”
James would often say how much he “admired and respected” me. I believe he did. The problem is that respect is not an emotion. It’s an action. Abandoning someone and letting them believe false circumstances is absence of respect. Even if what they shared was genuine. Both can be true.
In our last moments, it was the only thing James pushed against. He minimized it, countering with that he had “both respected and disrespected me in different ways.”
But that boundary is not his to determine. It is mine. His resistance was because of his shame, which only permits him to continue hanging his head. He knew all the lying and leading me on was wrong, no doubt. And I know he felt every ounce of pressure about it.
But there is no healing until there is acceptance that he did the thing he would not ever want to do: violate me. What he did was not an accident. And I am the one who paid the price, not him. Self-flagellation is not absolution. Healing the roots of his pain and forgiving himself is the only way.
He didn’t know how to handle that I never controlled him or forced his hand. That I would always give him freedom to make his own decisions.
Before finding out, something had shifted between us. For lack of a better cliche, I felt every wall within me start to soften. I wasn’t ready to take them all down. There were things I needed to know, first. But I was letting him in.
All I had asked of James was to simply show up and we could figure out the rest one step at a time. He had done exactly that. Even from our distance I could feel the warmth of our hands together. Knowing he wasn’t doing it out of duty but because it came so naturally to him. He was giving as much as he was receiving and for the first in a very long time, I felt safe.
It is not something that comes easily to me. And for once I felt as though someone understood me and I didn’t have as much to fear anymore. It wasn’t the anxious butterflies of limerence. It was the knowledge that someone was there in a way we both needed, and that I believed they were not going anywhere.
The night before I found out, I made a mental note to myself to check in with him, to make sure he was not the only one giving. That he felt appreciated and cared for, too. It felt as though the patience had paid off, that things had begun to align, and we were both ready. I wanted him to feel as safe as I felt.
This man would tell me he admired my independence while he kept me bound in the dark. He wound his shame like a rope around my wrists, through my hair, over my eyes. The closer we became, the tighter he pulled. I thought I was leading him into the sunlight, showing him how free things could be. What it was like when two people trusted each other. But instead he pulled me further into the cave. He pressed me against the walls, ensuring I stayed in the shadows of his insecurities and cowered with him.
I asked him if he would have ever gotten on a plane or met me at the airport. At first the answer was, “Probably. Yeah.” And then later after he confessed to his wife, I asked again: would he have followed through on anything? He said he didn’t know.
I was never meant to be seen.
It is possible that my independence James admired so much may have some innateness to it. That it’s something I’m born with. But he doesn’t understand that much of it is because I simply have no other choice. Consistently, I am the only one in my life who makes choices for my benefit and well-being. I am the only one who has kept me safe. I’m grateful for what it’s taught me and its other benefits, but it comes at a price.
James has to learn that independence is always right there. He just has to claim it and take up his own space. When I gave it to him, he still chose dependency. On lies, on his own pain, on his home life that had not been serving him and maybe never had. He didn’t know how to handle that I never controlled him or forced his hand. That I would always give him freedom to make his own decisions when he was used to someone else doing it for him.
He was half-afraid I would expose him. It would remove all the choice he has to own up to it, and therefore give in to his self-pity again. It would make me the villain punishing him, whether or not it was righteous. It would be out of his control, retribution that would complete his self-fulfilling prophecy. He’d have no choice but to be shamed, and I would still be shouldering the burden for him. Whistle-blowing is an exhaustive undertaking that would put my safety even more at risk — something he has never had to worry about.
What is it, exactly, that am I angry about? If I have already forgiven him for his actions, what is left to boil?
It’s everything else.
I’m angry I can’t be there. I’m angry that I will always be a secret while he has the privilege of riding the high of a fresh start that I granted him, regardless of its challenges. I’m angry he doesn’t understand all the regrets he has yet and that the worst ones are coming. I’m angry for him, at those who convinced him he deserved so little that he had to take so much, at those who did not see what I did.
I am angry at myself. That I wound up in this situation and didn’t do enough to protect myself from the pain I am in. I’m angry that my only real outlet is to pour this out, that I can’t mask it and heal in silence the way I wish I could.
I’m angry that I have something to learn from this, too, and it’s not what I thought it was.