I am a middle-aged woman. Several decades ago I had an affair with a woman I met in a writing class at a prestigious university’s continuing-education program. I was at a very fragile and vulnerable point in my life. My husband and I and our young children had recently moved to a new town where I knew no one. My children were both in school — I’d quit my job to raise a family — and I was lost, insecure, unhappy in my marriage and deeply depressed. (I was later put on antidepressants, which I continue to take to this day.) Not only did this woman think I was special and build my ego up as no one had ever done, but she also thought my writing was amazing. She had impressive credentials (she was published; she was enrolled as a graduate student in another program at the university and so on) so her support and encouragement made me feel as though I could accomplish anything.
The affair, however, was tumultuous and abusive — she had a Svengali-like hold over me. I can remember spending hours of my time, to all hours of the night, on the phone or instant messaging with her because she insisted she needed me and that if I hung up on her, she wasn’t sure what she would do to herself. She made up illnesses. She kept talking about suicide. She told me her fiancé had recently died. She insisted many other women were interested in her and she would move on if I couldn’t commit to her. She infiltrated my family life: buying expensive gifts for my children, dropping in on special events and much more. She also wheedled her way into my sibling’s good graces and began turning my sibling against my husband. She pushed me to seek a divorce; she told me my husband wasn’t good enough for me, that I deserved someone who would encourage my writing, encourage my independence and encourage me to be me. And I fell for it completely.
My husband and I began divorce proceedings. He kept trying to tell me that she was controlling me, that I needed to “wake up” and see what she was doing to me, to him and to our children. I admit I had some doubts, but with the divorce proceedings snowballing, I felt I had to continue on the course I had set. She insisted I sue for sole custody, which meant there was no chance my husband and I could settle our divorce agreement out of court.
During the trial, my husband’s lawyer called her a sociopath. I had no idea what that really meant but soon learned that she was a serial predator and had been lying about virtually everything she had told me about herself. I was humiliated in court. My instant messages and my writings were blown up and printed on large whiteboards. I heard testimony from various people refuting all her claims about herself. One of the deans from the university testified that she had been recently reprimanded for stalking someone. Her claims about the advanced degree she was studying for and the dead fiancé were also false.
I collapsed (physically and emotionally) and accepted a shared-custody deal that stipulated that our children would never have contact with her.
I saw her only a couple of times after the trial. The first time, my sibling stayed close by. (In court, my sibling realized that this woman had bamboozled all of us.) I called her out on her lies. She apologized profusely and told me she was manic-depressive and would be honest from then on. I told her that I didn’t care, didn’t believe her and that I never wanted to see her again. She tried to restart our relationship with more empty promises, but I refused. She eventually left me alone.
I slowly began to rebuild my life. I went back to work, started therapy, began the hard work of repairing the relationships I’d trashed and embarked on some deep soul-searching.
Fast-forward a number of years: After many years of self-reflection and therapy, my husband and I got back together and ultimately remarried. Our relationship is different from before — more grown up and respectful, and I cherish what we have. I went back to work full time, gained the self-confidence that I had been lacking and just plain grew up. I feel as though the experience happened to someone else in a very distant past. I still blame myself for what I allowed to happen to my life but now look back with a much better understanding of how depressed and vulnerable I was, and I’m able to cut myself some slack.
My children are now wonderful, well-adjusted, successful adults. I have one nagging reminder of that dark period, however. We never told the children exactly why we divorced. Because they were so young, we were counseled to keep it as generic as possible, and we did. Should my husband and I come clean to the children?
I used to write all the time, but since the trial, I haven’t written anything. Just lately, though, I have had the itch to begin writing again, and I enrolled in a weeklong, memoir-writing workshop.
I am cautiously looking forward to exploring this dark period of my life. Who knows if I’ll be published, and I’m not sure I care. I want to write my story and get it down on paper, for myself. Maybe I will finally be able to put some demons to bed.
But I also feel as if there is something so real about doing that, so wouldn’t it be better for me to tell my children? I worry that they will find out about the affair someday. Yet, I am terrified of the effects of telling them. I love my relationships with them. I am so worried that I’ll ruin these precious relationships and everything will change. Name Withheld
Sometimes — as a character says in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” — if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. The relationship that you have with your adult children isn’t the one you had when they were young, and this episode of your life has clearly come to weigh heavily on your mind. That relationship is evidently becoming shadowed by a sense that you’re keeping secrets from them.
Besides, your children, having lived through the divorce and remarriage, already know something about the effects of your depression and your affair. And adults should be capable of dealing with the fact that their parents are people — that they have dealt with psychological and other personal challenges. So you have good reason to take them into your confidence.
But you might be driven by other considerations, and if you decide to go forward, you should first get clear in your mind why you’re doing this. Is it to pre-empt their finding out some other way from a source less interested than you are in framing the story to your advantage? Is it because you want to write about the episode and realize that they may well end up seeing what you write? Is it simply because you think they’re entitled to know why their childhood was disrupted? Each of these motives suggests a different focus for your conversation with them. And honesty with yourself about what you’re doing will be a good preparation for honesty with them.
Bear in mind too that honesty with yourself involves an acknowledgment of your own agency here; this episode wasn’t simply something that was done to you. This isn’t a matter of blame. It’s a matter of coming to terms with decisions you made, the role you played in a turn of events that you now deeply regret. The story of your life can’t be written in the passive voice.
Be prepared to learn that your children may not want to hear all or, indeed, any of the details. You might just offer to tell them about what happened and fill in the details as they ask you about them. You should also be prepared to learn they know more than you and your husband realize. Your divorce involved a trial, and so some of the proceedings may have been public; there were a variety of people involved whom your children could have contacted, if they were curious.
A final point. Your husband should be part of your deliberations. For one thing, there were periods when he was taking care of your children on his own between your divorce and remarriage, and he may have told them more than you know. For another, he will have views about what they might or might not want to hear from you. More important, you owe it to him to seek his counsel because telling your children about this episode may affect their view not just of you but also of him.