Affairs are dysfunctional and unsustainable by design even when the feelings are real. What happens when one plants a tree in a window box?

The day after my 35th birthday, I found out I had been the other woman in an affair. Despite the betrayal and terrible surprise of having such a part of my world upended without warning, I chose forgiveness right away. I wanted to spare additional undue pain. Because I knew what was coming, how raw and terrible the grief would be, and that everyone was in for a world of hurt.

One of the most painful parts of grief is when the fog lifts. At the outset, when the event first occurs, the shock and confusion protects us. There is no sense to what has happened to us and the chaos whirling inside is a comfort in its own way. All one has to do is fall into it and let it sweep them away. It’s the autopilot that directs us, protects us from our own emotions and deepest thoughts.

But bad storms eventually blow over. And even if the sun shines after they do, assessing the damage is a necessary part of healing. What can be fixed? What must be discarded? What are the logistics and realities of rebuilding?

Those moments are when the real pain sears. When our minds can flip the emergency shutoffs back to “on” and let us begin feeling again. Facing the whole truth of what happened. The bad, the good, and everything between. Seeing from the perspective that was there all along, we just had no orientation to focus on it.

In the wake of what I experienced and as my perspective sharpened, I was left with questions I didn’t have before. They were painful to say out loud but I knew that acknowledging and accepting them was my way out. They were the sign I had at least located the home stretch even if I was not ready to traverse it.

Was I sold out to save his marriage?

I didn’t ask James much about his wife. It would only serve to pit two strangers against each other and not focus on the man who hurt both. I did not want to know.

James came to me later and told me how things went. When he did, I couldn’t help but wonder what she knew. How much did she demand to know? How much of me did he sacrifice to get back into good graces with her? Did she know everything about me, or at least more than I knew of her? Did he minimize it and wave it all off as nothing?

As a writer, the irony wasn’t lost on me that I was the one airing it all out. I wrapped it up in neat little essays, platformed it for all the world to see. Yet I took great care to protect James’ identity and dignity while holding true to the things I needed to express. I hope he extended the same consideration — one of the very few things he owed me.

Did he understand the buck did not stop with him?

There were many flags around James. They were not all red. But one in particular always confused me. After a long period of silence he would return and then immediately throw up his hands: “I shouldn’t be here, this is your space. Should I just go?”

I always welcomed him. I wasn’t sure where he got the idea I wanted him to leave; he was the one that would slip out without a word and leave me stung and confused. James thought he as a person was the problem. It is the crux of everything he did. If he was gone, then the problem was, and thus I would have no further problems.

But attraction, bonding, and relationships don’t work that way. And after all the tears I shed and the things I raged about, it doesn’t change the fact that grief is love with no place to go. It doesn’t change that there was serious loss — of someone I cared for, of a relationship that mattered, and my own sense of emotional safety.

I would not have been upset if the big secret James had withheld from me was, say, a child. It would have made perfect sense to protect an innocent party. It was something we could have navigated. Or perhaps something in his life he was ashamed of, such as living with parents or financial struggles. None of those were deal-breakers to me.

But this — hiding the fact he was married — is something that did not just fracture my trust in him but also people in the future, and even in my present. I could not fathom getting close to someone again in that way. The thought of it caved my chest in.

James’ betrayal wasn’t the same as the stuff I was prepared for in our future. That maybe attraction wouldn’t last or we would find out we weren’t as compatible as we thought. Or we grew apart and someone changed their mind. Those are normal things that can happen.

But being lied to, believing I had a chance with him, seeing the hard work pay off only to find there was a next-to-nothing chance at all does far more damage for me in the future. It is the thing I feared the most in relationships.

Did he ever admit the truth to himself?

Something stirred within me as the reality crashed down on us when I confronted James. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There he stood, telling me how wonderful I was. He counted off the numerous things he admired about me, why he was so drawn to me, how much I deserved to be loved the way I needed — all the while he skirted around the elephant in the room.

“But you don’t love me,” I said. “And you never would have.”

I didn’t realize how heavy the words were until they came out. They hit us in the chest and knocked the wind out of us both. Where last-minute confessions and affirmations poured out, everything ground to a halt.

“Am I wrong?”

After a pause, he answered: “Yes.”

Something new hung in the air that couldn’t be taken back.

The premise James created around us was false, but the connection between us had always been real. The truth I had avoided as I grieved was right in front of me: we did love each other. The challenge we faced was not knowing exactly what kind of love it was. That was the fear. That was the unknown. That was what we would have only understood in person.

There exist at least seven types of love. Could it have been eros, passionate love, that we shared? Psychologically, in a situation with such unavailability and deception, the answer is both yes and no. What we shared was real, but not whole. Could it have been ludus (playful love) or philia (friendship)? What about all of the above? The fact is: we just did not know but instinctively understood it existed. Finding out the specifics would have spelled disaster.

While affairs are dysfunctional and unsustainable by design, in an emotional affair the feelings shared are very real. They are born from the desire to connect with others, to seek intimacy. The problem is that insecurity and selfishness limits the scope, and there is no room for the love to grow. What happens if one plants a tree in a window box?

As we tended each others’ wounds and swept up the mess, I kept repeating myself: “I just want what’s best for you. You have to forgive yourself and stay true to it. Everything is going to be okay.”

“It wasn’t just lust,” he’d say in return. “You have to know there is more to it than that. I just want you to be happy.”

There are many ways to show and tell someone you love them. When I realized that’s what we were saying to each other all along, that’s what we meant and didn’t know it, everything else fell into place. Finally, peace started to calm the storm inside.

It doesn’t reduce the impact of James’ selfishness and deception. But in situations like these, mired in lies and uncertainty — it is the truth that frees us. And the truth is that we both freed each other.

My forgiveness released James from depending on my anger as a receptacle for his shame so he could find the path to loving himself. His honesty — without omission — freed me from self-doubts and what-ifs so I could pick myself back up. We did the hardest thing that love asks of anyone — to let go.

I may not ever know the answer to these questions. And as the other woman, I don’t get to ask. Not today. But that is the bitter beauty in them. Knowing the answers wouldn’t change anything. The path to trusting others in the future and healing the wounds lies in me trusting the whole truth of what happened, both good and bad.

all names have been changed

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