I have a lovely friend whom we will call Marla, for the sake of this discussion. Marla is just like us. She is a smart, capable, attractive young woman with loads of potential and that mixture of confidence and nagging self-doubt particular to modern women in their twenties and thirties. Marla has nice shoes that she keeps under her desk, a subscription to the Financial Times, and commutes daily and smartly to her city job at a respected bank. With continued focus and effort, Marla is Going Places. She also has a nice boyfriend she loves, but with whom she is not certain she sees a long-term future. No matter; Marla is focused on her job and happy with her relaxed relationship. She is living in the moment, and the moment is good.
And then. Marla attends an important client event with a number of her colleagues, including several VPs. The dinner goes very well, the drinks are flowing, the mood is giddy, and somehow, without prior intention, Marla goes back to a hotel with a Senior VP from her company.
“I didn’t mean to sleep with him,” she says. “Even when we went back to the room, I thought we would have a drink or two and then I would leave. We talked a little about his wife, as a matter of fact. I never felt like he was trying to seduce me, or vice versa. It was late, and I curled up in bed, and then… Well.”
It took coaxing to get out more of the story. She was already ashamed to tell this much, but once she got past the stumbling block, she couldn’t say enough. She never expected to feel anything for him and would have chalked it up as a mistake, except that they found they liked one another. He is handsome, smart, and kind, of course. He is driven and successful. He emails her to tell her she is beautiful, and that he misses her. He talks to her about his children with ease, and winks every time he passes her in the hallway, giving her an electric charge. Days rolled into weeks rolled into months, but he has only seen her four times alone when they can sneak in a meal or a drink or an overnight. After months of daily communication and increasing, mutual declarations of affection and interest, it dries up. She knows he is working 14-hour days and unavailable, but is taken aback.
When she first tells me about this, I am non-judgmental. It is clear to me that this infatuation will pass. I even avoid saying the obvious things: He is too old, too married, too settled, and he works at your company. She knows all these things and doesn’t need me to say them. She is not naive or foolish. And yet I can see her falling into a cliched trap, even as she struggles against it. Two months later, she is a bit of a wreck.
“I can’t stop thinking about him. I dress up every day on the off-chance that I will see him and he’ll email or call to take me to dinner. It never happens. I get so anxious about him at work I can barely concentrate, and then I am depressed when I get home at night. My boyfriend doesn’t know what’s wrong, and I feel like such an asshole. Even though I told myself over and over again that it was idiotic, I hoped he would do something, just a little something, for me for Valentine’s Day. I think I got a wink. That was all.”
When we have this conversation, she is looking wretched. She confesses that she dreams about him, and that, most shamefully, she has constructed a future in her mind with this man, wherein she becomes a beloved stepmother to his children and they conceive of one more adorable love-child. I gag on my wine.
“I know,” she says. “I am not crazy, or a simpleton. I am not a bunny-boiler. I don’t wish any ill to his wife… God, no. I feel terrible and wrong to feel this way. I don’t know what is happening in their marriage and I’ve not pried, but I hope she has a piece on the side. When I think about him cheating on her, I feel awful for her. Then I feel awful for myself, because I am selfish and I want this man in my life. And then I hate him for the way I feel, and for how she would feel if she knew. And yet. If he came back to me tomorrow and said let’s try this, I would do it in a heartbeat. He hooks me in a way I haven’t felt in years and years. It was like a lightning bolt; I’ve never seen a future with someone so clearly. But I won’t pursue him, because he belongs to his family. I am just an interloper.”
So, I no longer have any advice to give, because Marla knows what is wrong about the situation. I’ve told her to get over it and move on, but she knows this as well. She just doesn’t know how, and thinking back on my own battlefield of an emotional life, I don’t know what to tell her except that it will take time. Fall in love with your boyfriend, be single, see friends. Accept that life is like wiffle ball and you’re going to strike out violently and foolishly most of the time. Sometimes it feels unbearably sad, but there is usually another inning… Right?
I thought of this post because Marla told me she was considering writing to Dan Savage for advice. As fervently as I love Savage, I said, I can tell you right now what he (or any other advice columnist) will say: If you want an open relationship with your boyfriend, you should ask him for one, because cheating is not okay when he is doing everything he can to meet your needs. Secondly, married men never leave their wives. Sorry. Thirdly, you should focus on yourself. Eat well, exercise, develop hobbies and interests, spend time with friends and family, etc.
It’s just basic, isn’t it?
And so she replied with the other fundamental truth: “You’re absolutely right. It’s perfect advice, and it’s correct and time-honored. The only problem is that you don’t know him in the way that I do right now, and you don’t know how my heart hurts. Because you forget about it until it happens to you, which is the excellent thing that allows you to give clear and good advice to friends. So I will take your advice with thanks, and remember to dish it back to you when you need it most.”
(PS – “Marla” gave me permission to write this, so it’s all cool.)