I thought my marriage was a modern fairy tale. For years my husband and I crossed paths time and time again until fate finally intervened and we fell deeply, dizzyingly in love. To our friends, colleagues, and family we appeared to be a perfect couple, blissfully in love for a decade. The reality, however, is that our relationship has now been divided into before and after I accidentally found out about my husband’s infidelity and my life as I knew it crumbled apart.
I always viewed cheating as something that happened to other people, not something that my loving husband would ever do to me. All of the typical reasons I believed resulted in affairs—the decline of intimacy after the birth of a child, the daily demands of life making two people more like roommates than lovers, bickering over household chores—that was never us, so I always assumed we were safe. Yet when a strange name popped up on his phone one night and I peeked out of curiosity while he was in the bathroom, there was no denying that my sweet, adoring husband was sleeping with someone else.
If I had been unprepared for the devastation the discovery of his infidelity had on me, the absolute last thing I could have anticipated was its impact on how I interacted with our son afterwards. I was ready to hate my husband, but I would never have expected that in my grief I would resent our child.
The fact is, my social circle contracted during new motherhood, and my emotional outlet shifted from weekly dinners with friends to my husband and the comforting affection of my son’s small body in my arms. He needed me, and I have never felt a love like the intense bond I had with this small vulnerable child. As my son grew older and I returned to work, our bond started to change in small and subtle ways. Babywearing and breastfeeding were replaced by him playing with action figures and attending sporting events with his dad. He is a miniature version of my husband which was always adorable—until his father hurt me by sleeping with someone else.
Children are perceptive and not afraid to ask blunt questions, especially the types of questions you don’t want to answer. Something had suddenly changed in our home, dad was sleeping in another room, and our son was curious why. One evening we sat him down together and explained that sometimes people have fights and need to take time to not be mad at each other anymore. “Mommy and Daddy are having a fight right now, but we still love you and you did nothing wrong.” That’s the extent of what our son knows, and no matter what happens to our marriage, I refuse to cause any damage to the relationship my son has with his father. This secret is our burden, not his, and I intend to keep it that way.
As my husband and I undertake the difficult process of determining if we can save our marriage, I’m occasionally left feeling like an outsider in my own family. I find myself resenting my husband and son’s closeness at a time when I feel more alone than I ever have. I imagine that my son is picking sides in a fight he has no concept of, as if his unconditional love was supposed to be my reward after the toll a difficult pregnancy had on my body. When he accidentally walked in on his tall, broad-shouldered father crying privately, he gently curled into his dad’s lap and asked him where it hurt. My husband cried even harder. I closed the door so they could share a private and vulnerable moment together, went into the bathroom, turned on the shower and sobbed with my face turned up into the spray. Alone.
Only my best friend knows that my husband cheated. She is the only one who I knew would not immediately refer me to a divorce lawyer, parroting “once a cheater, always a cheater,” as if leaving the man I love and breaking apart my family could ever be that easy. I wish people talked more openly about infidelity because trust me when I say those who have been through it feel deeply alone and ashamed. Why was I not enough for him? What did I do to cause this? Can people really change? Some days an image of my husband in bed with someone else will pop into my mind and the pain is sharp like a cold metal spike through my heart, forcing me to hold back a flood of tears. Other days the pain is like a dull ache, tolerable but still impossible to ignore. When my son curls against my husband on the couch watching Paw Patrol, I know that I need to give them their moments together. He looks at me with innocent eyes and asks me to join them and I politely decline. Later I’ll be alone quietly reading a book and suddenly feel his tiny fingers trying to make a braid in my hair, then for a blissful few moments my heart will feel light again.
Since I discovered my husband’s infidelity, I have felt sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger than I ever thought possible. I have said yes to my child’s every request for a second or third bedtime story, I have not let go and allowed my son to hug me for as long as he wants at the school gates, and I have maintained my composure when we attend events as a family. My husband and I are working hard every day on being friends and parents first. We are spending quality time with our son separately, and we are being kind to each other in front of him to keep his life as normal as possible while we navigate the damage to trust and intimacy that are the direct results of infidelity.
Right now my future is a question mark, the betrayal still fresh. My husband and I understand that outside help is needed and have been working closely with a therapist to heal the cracks in our tested relationship. I’ve accepted that our son is allowed to have different relationships with his father and with me. Our family is changing, but no matter what shape it takes in the months and years to come it is still my family and I know that I will always have an important place within it.
The author requested anonymity.
Originally published February 2019; Updated January 2020.