“Oh my God ― he’s dead,” I whispered to myself.
As I was enjoying a peaceful evening with my husband, I heard of the sudden passing of a man with whom I once had a four-year secret affair.
“Are you sure?” my husband asked, his concern twitching slightly as he sensed the emotional tsunami headed toward our happy home.
“I … It’s my opinion. His company just issued a press release,” I replied.
My world was crumbling around me.
As I tried to talk, I struggled to understand how I could grieve the loss of someone I had never meant to love.
Flashbacks to months after my first marriage brought me back to that moment when the affair began. It was fueled by an insolent self-justification insisting that I had cheated by my husband, and therefore had the right to cheat.
My affair was about as clichéd as they come: an office romance with a man who was already in a very public relationship. The secret affair was full of furtive glances at the boardroom table, and an undercover language containing innuendo that only we knew. My work hallway was filled with stolen moments, while my bedroom or his house was full of nights spent alone. Feigned business lunches quickly became fake business dinners. This led to breakfast meetings, weekend away and escape from prying eyes.
We began to see each other in public, even if it meant we were able to go to Christmas shopping and a matinee. Or sharing meals together without having to use our laptops or piles of files on the tables. This was a way to hide what really happened. While colleagues and close friends raised eyebrows, we didn’t offer any excuses. While I did feel some shame and regrets, I found them drowned by the buzz of anticipation whenever I imagined spending time with him again.
I moved gingerly between those statements of love (or what I desperately wanted to believe was love) and the gutting moments when I was alone and knew he was with her ― when I was left with the simple fact that I was the other woman.
“I don’t really care if she knows about us,” he said one night as we lay entwined in our wool socks and sweaters while watching a movie during the blustery romance of the first snowfall of the year. It was hard for me to believe him. I needed so much ― too much ― from him that it allowed me to ignore the calculating coldness of someone who could even say such a thing.
“Let’s just wait and see how you feel when she really does know,” I managed to reply.
I moved gingerly between those statements of love (or what I desperately wanted to believe was love) and the gutting moments when I was alone and knew he was with her ― when I was left with the simple fact that I was the other woman and a willing participant in this infidelity.
He called me one night to inform me that their relationship had ended.
“It is?” I gasped.
“It’s done,” he said plainly.
I still don’t know what he told her exactly ― if she ever knew about me or if he told her, “I love someone else.” Maybe he just ended it without offering her an explanation. Perhaps she did end it. It wasn’t my relationship and I didn’t feel I could ask. And yet, I’d played a role in its demise and that weighed heavily on me.
After that, he and I both knew something had shifted and the twisted, lusty feelings we’d shared morphed into muddy, hard-to-read emotions ― a confused kind of love. Can it still be called love if it’s confusing? Does love have the ability to leave such a stubborn, wounding mark? Surely it isn’t always clean and simple, right? Isn’t there room for both the complicated and the simple, the painful and the gentle?
I loved him regardless. But I couldn’t look past the fact that he had lied and cheated to be with me ― and I not only allowed it, I aided him in doing it. The memories of what we’d done, and the way we did it made me numb to my past and it was triggering fear in me that our relationship would be unhealthy and unresolved.
My dilemma was between trying to summon the courage, humility, and the will to have a meaningful relationship with him, and closing the door upon his smile, voice, words, and touch. Our affair continued off and on for several more years as he and I moved in and out of various relationships with other people, both of us unsuccessfully chasing absolution for what we’d done together in the form of an honest relationship with someone else.
Then, eighteen years ago I met someone who blew my mind. It was amazing to me how he spoke, treated me and his commitment to kindness and care. It’s goodPerson. I found a man who turned my every thought and desire toward him ― and only him ― and it terrified me. I just didn’t know if I could be faithful to him after all that I had been through and how I’d been living my life for so long.
It was part of my personality and my identity. I couldn’t imagine a better way to give my whole self to my new partner than sharing every bit of it. That meant telling him about everything ― even those shadowy corners in my heart that held space for another man.
However, the strong love that I felt for my new partner made me realize it was exactly what I needed and so I decided to make a change in my life. It was a success. This amazing man was my husband. I told him everything about the long, painful tryst that I’d had.
My affair was part and parcel of who I am. I could not imagine any other way of offering my heart to my lover than to open up to him every inch of me. That meant telling him about everything ― even those shadowy corners in my heart that held space for another man ― and he listened and accepted what I’d done and who I was and it made me love him even more.
The love we shared was wonderful and I am happy to report that any fears about my affair from the past were unfounded.
And then I suddenly learned about the death of my former lover and I didn’t know what to do. Even though he and I hadn’t been together or even in contact for years and I was completely in love with ― and committed to ― my husband, my heart still wept at the news.
I wondered if I should tell my husband how deeply this man’s death rocked me. Does faithful people behave like that? Is it possible for a woman to tell her husband she’s in pain over the loss of a former lover? It wasn’t like I was going to sleep with the guy again ― he was dead. What did feeling overwhelmed by such feelings signify? These feelings made me guilty of infidelity. Is it possible to be unfaithful?
Exhausted by my solitary and hidden grief, I asked a pastor friend for his thoughts and he told me I was “in the dark night of the soul.”
“I’m just so confused,” I told him. “How do I get over something that I don’t feel like I’m supposed to talk about ― much less with my husband?”
Months went by but my secret grief refused to dissipate and I struggled to understand why I still felt the way I did ― and why I felt it so strongly. Did it mean I was still in love with this other man or, worse, that I didn’t love my husband?
My aunt was the one I confided in. Her experience working with local hospice societies gave her insight which I believed might help me.
“Your love at that time was a story ― a beautiful story,” she told me. “Just think of the feeling of loss you experience when you finish reading a beautiful story. You don’t put the book down and never think of it again. It stays with you and builds on who you are.”
“It stays with me and builds on who I am,” I repeated, rolling the sentence over in my head. Okay. So what are you building on? I wondered. And who am I at my core ― a cheater or a faithful spouse?
Who am I at my core ― a cheater or a faithful spouse?
I wanted to be faithful. I wanted to be faithful husband. I felt shaken by the deep sadness I experienced for my husband. I worried that I might have built my marriage upon a foundation of unresolved emotions.
There was one person that I longed for, despite everything. There was just one man who knew me so intimately ― so fully and rightly ― that I knew if I could only bring myself to tell him what I was feeling, he would instantly provide the clarity and relief I wanted.
After speaking to my aunt, it took me six months more of lonely and confused mourning before I was able to talk to my husband.
“I think I’m still struggling with his death,” I admitted. “And I don’t really know what to do.”
“Are you sure you’re not just trying to attach yourself to him again?” my husband asked. “Are you sure you’re not just wanting to be able to say, ‘I knew him too ― and I knew him more than almost anyone else Did’?”
“But I did know him,” I sputtered back angrily.
“All I’m saying is be careful that your emotions aren’t being fueled by a hidden desire for melodrama,” he replied calmly.
Those were not the tender words I thought he’d offer me. His response didn’t encourage tearful reminiscing about my former lover or the time we spent together. Instead, I realized, he was giving me the space to reevaluate what I was feeling ― and why ― in hopes of realigning my shaken spirit. He was essentially saying, “Mourn this loss but try to be clear about exactly what it is you feel you lost when you learned this man had died.”
It wasn’t what I thought I wanted to hear but it was exactly what I needed to hear.
We miss someone we love when they die, but we also miss the memories, gestures and stories we shared together. We can end up confusing the grief we feel at the loss of the personal meaning we attached to someone’s presence ― how that person affected and changed us ― with the person himself. Understanding that there is a difference in grieving and being able remember those experiences and to honor them was important.
One time I was in secretly in love with a man, but that relationship didn’t work out and couldn’t be sustained. When he died, I thought I had to grieve the loss of what we had ― however dysfunctional and problematic ― all over again. The unsentimental truth is that I had already grieved the loss of him ― his physical and emotional presence in my life ― when we ended our affair over eight years ago.
I also realized that doubting my husband’s ability and willingness to help me navigate this twist of emotions meant I was doubting our marriage and it made me feeI that I was being unfaithful. Although I was not actually a cheater, the fact that I believed there was something I couldn’t do with my husband made me feel like I was entering into a dangerous territory.
I’ve learned that when it comes to the secrets we carry, if we can find a way to be honest with ourselves and the people we love and open up about the mistakes and errors we’ve made, we can hopefully find a path to redemption and atonement. By sharing my thoughts and struggles about love ― however complicated or uncomfortable ― while in love, I found I was able to follow through on the elements of my marriage ― compassion, empathy, humility, grace ― that mean the most to me. What’s more, I was reminded exactly how lucky I am to be married to an incredible man who loves me unconditionally and wants what’s best for me no matter what kind of challenges I ― or we ― face.
In the end, I was able to heal the grief I experienced from the death of a secret love by faithfully turning to the very man I had promised to be faithful to and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
Kate Gilgan is an author, mom and reluctant adventurer Kate’s husband Michael and their children live a family life of exploration, discovery and adventure.