#1393: “How can I stop other women from hating on me for my happy life?”

Dear Captain,

I have been very happily married for eleven years while also happily having an affair, without my husband’s knowledge, for ten years. The truth is it doesn’t take a web of elaborate lies to hide something if your partner doesn’t push to know the hidden life you don’t want to reveal. That has given me the freedom to enjoy holidays with my lover as well as my husband. Both of the men in my life are successful, handsome and love me, as I love them. And the sex is great with both of them. Of course, the women whom I consider my friends hate me for this and also think I am squandering the lives of both men I am happily entangled with. The truth is they both make me feel special and happy and I carry that into both of my relationships. If my husband found out tomorrow that I have had a lover for this past decade, I think he would forgive me as my lover would forgive the occasional fling I have without his knowledge. I’m happy but am I destined to always live under the negative judgment of other women?

I’m curious, so I’ll bite, but I have more questions for you than answers and you might leave with the judgment of your friends + the entire internet in your back pocket instead of whatever “You go girl!” encouragement you were maybe hoping for. If you’d like more questions and opinions than suggestions, read on!

I don’t hand out scarlet letters around here. People are messy, and I don’t necessarily think all cheaters are inherently evil or irredeemably broken. But if I had to pick three things that cheaters, especially serial and long-term cheaters, are extremely good at, those things would be 1) magical thinking, 2) making excuses, and 3) magical thinking and excuses specifically about consent, and those three things are all over your letter.

My ethical problems with cheating have nothing to do with church or state, they’re pretty much consent problems. Relationships between consenting adults require the full, informed, transparent consent of everyone in them. If you also value consent, then what’s stopping you from telling your husband about your lover and asking outright for an open relationship? You say you’re pretty sure he would “forgive” you, though forgiveness isn’t the same agreeing to continue a relationship in light of new information. But if this is all so harmless, if everyone’s so blissfully happy, why not negotiate an agreement where everybody knows the risks, everybody has agency, everybody can be maximally protected, and nobody has to lie? As long as your husband doesn’t know what he’s really agreed to, then you don’t have his consent.

Then, you’re giving us the classic argument, that as long as your husband is happy, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. And that is incorrect on so many levels. Bluntly, if your husband believes the two of you have been each other’s only sex partners for the last decade, and you’ve let him continue believing that this whole time, then you’ve been risking his health, and possibly his life, without his consent. (And since you phrased it that your lover “would” forgive the occasional side quest, not that he *did* forgive them, you’re on shaky consent ground there as well).

If you’ve been scrupulous about regular testing and strict about condom use and other safer sex practices for the last decade, I’m relieved (skeptical, but relieved). If there haven’t been any STI scares so far, then I’m very relieved. But that’s doesn’t mean it’s all fine, it means you’ve been lucky, so far. Your husband can’t possibly make good decisions about his own sexual health, his own risk tolerance, or how to best protect himself if he doesn’t know about potential risks posed by your lover, your flings, their lovers, their flings, etc. If he doesn’t know what he’s consenting to, then he can’t consent.

Plus, consent isn’t just about sex. Your friends have called you out for “squandering the lives” of both men you’re involved with, and I don’t know all the details, but I can visualize their point. There are married people who lie about their intentions, and if you’re one of them, that’s a problem. But let’s assume that your lover has always known that you’re married and plan to stay that way and nobody is stringing anyone along. That means that over the the last decade, your lover has been able to make informed choices about how he wants to invest his time, effort, money, etc. into a relationship with you. What happens if he meets someone else, what happens if one or both of you decides you want or don’t want children, what happens in case of emergencies or big life events? Since you both know the true shape of your relationship, you can make decisions together with all the information in front of you.

Your husband doesn’t know that he spent the last ten years living in an invisible tripod. If he’d known, maybe he’d have done a lot of things differently. With his money. With his time. With his romantic and career choices. With his reproductive choices. With decisions about where to live, where to spend the holidays and family events, how to best support and care for aging parents and other family members, and all the other priorities and compromises that come when you join lives with somebody else. Instead, you let him make these huge decisions about his life without having all the relevant information, while you and this entire other secret dude had all the facts, including the facts about him.

If you had come clean ten years ago, and asked for the kind of relationship you truly wanted, maybe you’d have gotten divorced and found different happy lives eventually, or maybe your husband would have surprised you and found a way to make it work. Maybe he’d enjoy having other partners, too, but has refrained out of respect for his promises to you. Maybe he’s had his own secret side thing going this whole time and this is a Horny Gift Of The Sexual Magi situation. Asking for what you truly want carries risk of not getting it, but by not asking you’ve risked both your futures, ensuring that you’ll both keep living in a marriage based on assumptions instead of ever truly knowing each other. Ten years is a long enough time that even the most jealousy-averse, most adoring, most loyal, most sexually adventurous spouse in the world might have a hard time getting over feeling like he’s been robbed of his choices. Who are you to decide what someone else needs to be happy, and what they need to know?

But you insist that you’re happy, he’s happy, everyone’s happy, and this is really a problem about your judgmental female friends. Sure, let’s go with that, but I’m not sure we’re going to get any closer to what you want to hear.

I based the post title on the subject line of your email, but is it truly just women who judge you? Do you have male friends* who know what’s up in your love life? How do they feel about it? [*Note: Any friend of any gender who has had sex with you during your marriage is  automatically disqualified due to conflict of interest.]

Next thing I’m wondering is, how many of the friends you feel judged by also know your husband? How many of them are not just your friends, but “our” friends, part of your joint social circle as a couple? How many of them were at your wedding? How many of them were in your wedding? How intertwined are you, your husband, and your friends with each other’s partners, coworkers, hobby spaces, communities, and families? Are you asking people to lie to a friend for their friend?

You say it doesn’t take “an elaborate web of lies” to hide your affair, but asking people who are friends with both you and your husband to keep your secret for the last ten out of eleven years means asking them to participate in at least one pretty big, never-ending lie. Along with questioning your choices, your friends aren’t unreasonable for having questions about your integrity or for being uneasy about what keeping your secrets for another ten years might reveal about their own integrity. If you’d lie about something this big, for this long, to someone you love so much, is it really silly or unfair to wonder what else you’d lie about, if you thought it was in your own interest, or if you assumed the other person couldn’t handle the truth?

Obviously you’re free to continue whatever domestic and sexual arrangements make you happy, but one consequence of doing just as you like and telling everyone you know (except the person most affected by your choices) is the risk that not everyone will share your casual approach to consent or be a willing accomplice to your selective version of the truth.

Is that really surprising? This isn’t about “destiny,” it’s not about women tearing each other down, it’s not about your friends being insufficiently sex positive or sophisticated or jealous of your ability to lock down two hot guys, and I don’t think it’s all that complicated. You told your friends some stuff they didn’t want to know, and now they’re telling you stuff you don’t want to hear. People can love you and want you to be happy and also think you’re making some shitty decisions. Sometimes it goes like that. At least they care enough to tell you to your face?

Now that you know how your friends feel, you may want to apologize for putting them in an awkward position and do a consent check before sharing any more details or involving them in more secrets and lies. You may also want to choose different confidantes in future. If support and a safe place to process your feelings is what you’re after, consider a therapist who is bound by confidentiality and at least a starting agreement that your side of any story is the one that counts. If approval, solidarity, and swapping juicy secrets with people who are in similar circumstances is what you need, maybe search the internet for places that provide both community and anonymity. (Your guess is as good as mine for where to start looking, but you’ve got a working internet connection and if you can dream it, then chances are strong that somebody’s already built it.) If you mostly need a place to organize your thoughts, they sell paper journals with locks and electronic journals with passwords, so write it down, lock it up, and let your own judgment suffice.

I’m not sure if this is what you wanted, but it’s what I’ve got. And as a P.S., in my experience it’s better to climb down from an unstable situation on your own schedule and terms than it is to crash down when it collapses under its own weight, so I hope you’ll be safe out there if nothing else.