[OPINION] Infidelity is a choice

In April 1995, a phone call let me know that my husband of four years had another newborn son. My life and marriage was thrown into a crisis of hell burning proportions, or was it? For a while through my own pregnancy I had suspected something was happening, but I could never confirm it. We had a fun marriage, a great group of friends, a newborn baby boy of our own, date nights, holidays away with our family and plans for a future with more children (or was it just me with those plans?). He was often late home from work. I couldn’t contact him sometimes and there were always good reasons. He was late to collect me from work and sometimes he dropped me very early. At 7 months pregnant after being dropped off at the station, I walked under the dark subway and felt, “This is not okay”.

Hindsight is an unpleasant reality. Many signs were there but I just didn’t have the courage to expose myself and deal with them. What if? Telltale signs like the passenger sun shield being down when I got into the car, the lady’s blazer in the boot, the office pager that never left his sight (in a world without mobile phones much privacy was possible) and an extension lead to our landline that reached upstairs or out to the garden.

What it meant to me was that I was not good enough; I was mundane, demanding and bossy. I was financially independent and I had a good corporate job. As a young girl I was raised to get myself educated, independent and self-sufficient before getting married. Possibly life-saving advice and lessons shared by my parents. With marriage therapy, talking to friends, being authentic about my hurt, betrayal and pain, many people shared their stories with me. People I least expected had been through similar situations and most handled it with secrecy, covering up and pretence. This was not for me. I shared with my family and my closest friends. They closed in on my son and I like a life buoy. Our raft kept sailing.

What the affair came to mean was that it had less to do with me and more to do with a choice he made. I was just not expecting it, so I never looked. That affair took up many years and moments of my life. Through it I learned what I am capable of and that I had a choice. It felt like a relief by the time I found out for sure, I was not paranoid. I am clear I ignored the signs because I had no idea what to do about it. When I raised my concerns he told me I was being paranoid, he loved me, “look at her, look at you... she is not my type”, “why don’t you ask her? We just work together and we’re friends.” I think he knew I wouldn’t approach her, I am not that type. The actual showstopper was, “You have to stop this, you are being just like your mother.” This was the way I backed off and out often.

The phone call confirmed all my suspicions, fears and that if I was, I was right to be like my mother. The difference is my mom had nothing to worry about with my dad and I had enough to worry about for both of us, when I summoned the courage to look. It was simply easier to be in denial - not a river in Africa, but a set of armoured guards and blinkers to move forward day to day and ignore the reality that the life I planned was not going to happen.

There are many common threads between people who cheat and people who don’t cheat. As the person who was betrayed, I questioned myself. I found all the reasons I would betray me. All the insecurities I had about myself throughout my life stood up and glared at me, hands on their hips. I collapsed them all to mean that I deserved this. It was a mad time. Knowing my worst fear was realised, that someone I promised to share my life with had a life so separate and so similar to the one we shared led to months of harrowing searches. How? Why? When? How could you? What about us? What about our son? What about our plans? Their baby was born when our eldest son was 9 months old. Wrapping my head around the fact that all that was happening on what were the greatest days of my life was impossible and unforgivable. I felt robbed.

Choosing whether to stay or leave was the biggest choice I have had to make. People I trusted said: “People have affairs, it doesn’t have to mean the end of your marriage.” Another common discomfort was: “Welcome to the real world!” Finding out how many people knew long before I did was equally horrific. What did I expect them to do? The truth for me is that even if they had told me, I would have felt pressure to do something that I really was not ready to do.

Did I want to get out of my marriage with a 9-month-old son? Our new home was freshly renovated, our families loved each other and my sisters had a big brother they loved and cared for. Did I want to give away my life or the potential of it? No! Did I love him? Yes. Could I collapse what they did with how I felt about him? I wish I could. It is not easy. Did I realise neither of them thought about me or my son while they were meeting up secretly and publically in others towns? I didn’t want to. Did I feel I wanted to rescue our marriage, work harder on it and ignore everything? Yes, I wanted to. Is it possible? I don’t think so. We tried. I could not move on. I wanted to know everything. When I did it hurt all over again, every time.

After a few sessions at marriage counselling and a meeting with his mistress, we decided to give our marriage a go. It was a blissful time of love and adoration and apology and remorse from him. I felt fully loved, favoured and I took charge of everything. I set up a meeting with this lady at her home. The three of us sat around the little baby lying on the bed. She talked and had a full timeline to share with me, dates, venues, boarding tickets and many blanks were filled in like a well-rehearsed script. I believe she knew we would be having a conversation at some point. I listened and registered everything, every word. I claimed my sanity in those moments; I felt it all the while. He only interrupted when she didn’t tell the truth. That meeting helped me a lot. I fitted all the pieces together and the puzzle was more like a house of cards. Nothing was the same after we left. Her opening remarks were: “I realise that he is serious about not leaving you...”. In a twisted way, I felt like I won. By the time we reached the highway going home a gut-wrenching screech scratched its way from my gut. I felt like I was dying.

The truth is, I didn’t die. My heart kept beating. Life carried on all around me; I looked at old couples and wondered, how?

Over the course of a few months and much reconciling and truth and fighting and resentment and separation and reunions and back and forth, we chose to stay together and I wanted to have another baby. It all sounds so thoughtless, but I had my plan and I knew what was good for me then. He left the company they both worked at. A new life we created. When I was 8 weeks pregnant he went off on a business road trip. Just ahead of their destination, he was in a fatal car accident, leaving me pregnant and widowed.

What I have learnt and what I am sharing with you is that people do have affairs, we do and we don’t have a choice about how it works out or ends up. An affair is usually the result of something else and not the start of the breakdown of a marriage. Men and women can choose to have affairs. The escape of an affair can be alluring, there is excitement, moments of fun and carefree, a sense of belonging and value and often it is not only about sex. Our bodies are machines; we can have sex without meaning, without love. What we often need is acknowledgement, attention, intimacy, friendship, love and interest. I believe many affairs can be just physical, or there is an emotional connection that is new and satisfying.

I married again 16 years ago. We have four adorable secure and loved children. After realising a number of things I feel life has prepared me for almost anything. I live in the moment with a heart that has been made whole again by someone whom I am privileged to share myself with. I am clear that no marriage is affair-proof and some people make better choices than others. I know the phases of grief over death and betrayal are the same. I got to choose whether I would guard myself against being hurt again or open myself to being loved again. I chose me, I chose love and I chose vulnerability. There is more power in that.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn