I was tossed back into the online dating pool by a Facebook message that arrived on the first day of a family vacation with my partner, David, and our young son. After a frantic morning of preparation, we were filling the car with gas, headed to the beach, when I settled in to check messages.
One from an unfamiliar name stood out, a simple command: “Tell your husband to leave me alone.”
I felt struck by cognitive dissonance: I did not recognize this man’s name, nor were David and I married. Was this a mistake?
Then it dawned on me. I felt the chill of cortisol spreading through my body from a point between my ears, my worst fear being realized, just starting our vacation with our son in the back seat.
The message was from a woman whose nickname is also a man’s name, and she told me that she and David had been having a mostly online affair after meeting at an out-of-state convention nearly two years earlier. Something had clearly upset their relationship, prompting her audacious message.
When David got behind the wheel, I silently handed him my phone.
He froze as he read the words. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said quietly.
No. It’s usually worse.
I know, because I said the same thing 15 years earlier to the man I was committed to at the time. I had cheated on him and then, worse, tried to deny it. To this day, he understandably wants nothing to do with me and he remains the only important person from my past with whom I have no contact. Yet his silent judgment of me pales in comparison to the punishment I administered to myself for being a selfish, weak person who hurt another. It took me a long time to forgive myself.
David and I tried counseling, but, for me, any small bits of traction we gained each time were gone by the following day. After one particularly clarifying realization that our efforts were futile, I let go of the fantasy of staying together just so our son could have two parents in one home, and instead I focused on a plan for the dissolution of our relationship.
David seemed confused by my refusal to walk back the threats we had made, which was what I had often done in the past. Then he began dating with a vengeance, as if replacement were his only goal. Within a month, he was dating someone exclusively.
Not long after, I decided to try dating again after an 11-year break. Technology had changed so much, and I was curious to see what it was like to go from websites with clunky messaging systems to smartphone apps requiring just the swipe of a finger. Yet the premise remained the same: We were browsing a human library, judging the books by their covers.
I decided my only expectation would be to meet new people. I had no desire to find a long-term partner. I wanted to have fun and I wanted attention — male, sexual attention, which had been missing since our son was born.
Soon enough I connected with a man, and our communication quickly turned sexual, despite my saying I wasn’t interested in virtual sex.
Jens said he lived in Norway, had been separated for six months, traveled a lot for work and was in my area every two months or so. He was here right now, in fact, and he wanted to meet. But I wasn’t available, and he had to fly out.
We stayed in touch, and soon photos and lascivious flirtations were streaming back and forth. He told me I was beautiful, attractive, desirable — things I hadn’t heard in years. It didn’t matter that we were typically 4,000 miles apart; the distance and the anticipation worked in tandem to magnify the desire.
I often would hear from him around dinnertime, which was his bedtime. More than once I found myself texting racy thoughts while putting a pot of pasta on the stove. His thing about visiting every two months became a joke to us as the two months stretched to three, then four. Finally, he sent a text saying he would be visiting in a week.
“Really??” I texted.
“Really really,” he replied.
After he arrived, his proximity fired up the sexual tension. He would be in town for three nights. The first night he had a work dinner, the second we were supposed to get together but he canceled without a reason, and the third he also canceled, without an excuse: “I’m sorry, but I can’t meet you. I can’t explain why. I’m so sorry.”
I was stunned yet also surprised that I could feel crushed by someone I had never physically met. When you’ve shared so much intimacy online, does a physical presence become superfluous?
Parsing the situation with a friend, we leaned toward the wife as an explanation.
“Maybe he lied about being separated,” she said. “You know most men online are married.”
“Possibly. Probably,” I said. I had decided early on that I would default to believing what men told me unless or until I had a reason not to. The alternative — assume everyone is lying — didn’t seem like a positive attitude when embarking on such a personal journey.
“If they choose to lie, that’s on them,” I said to my friend. I’m fairly certain she thought me a fool, but she refrained from saying so.
Communication with Jens dropped off to nearly nothing. A couple of “How are you?” texts punctuated weeks of silence. To one of them I replied, “Where are you?”
“In the U.S.,” he said.
“Are you going to ask me out?”
“I will,” he said.
“Are you ready to tell me what happened?”
But he didn’t ask me out. We chatted over text but I was tentative, drawing a line so it wouldn’t become sexual or even flirtatious. I’d had a couple of promising dates with a sweet man named Marc, yet it was still so new and fragile. I feared Jens had the ability to sweep him out of my head, and I wanted to give Marc a chance. Jens left town without us meeting.
He texted a month later to tell me he would be returning soon on what was likely his last United States trip for a long time; his company was focusing on other markets. And he was ready to explain why he had canceled on me.
He had indeed still been married, and his wife had learned of his online exploits around the same time we were supposed to meet, hence the cryptic cancellation. They tried to reconcile but were unsuccessful.
“That’s unsurprising,” I said. “The fact that you were still communicating with me suggests your heart wasn’t exactly in it.”
Maybe not, he admitted, but now he was free. And ready to meet me.
I was conflicted. I was still seeing Marc, happily so, but I was unsure of where it was going. My friends couldn’t understand why I would even consider meeting a person who had lied to me, who was willing to cheat on his wife with me.
“I feel like we have unfinished business,” I said. Eight months had passed since Jens and I first texted. I knew it could go nowhere, but I was curious to meet the person whose attention had buoyed me during difficult times.
More important, I realized that when I had finally decided to forgive myself for cheating on a partner 15 years earlier, that forgiveness came with an added responsibility: I must forgive everyone who has ever been unfaithful, because to judge others for something I had done would be the height of hypocrisy.
Which is why I forgave David, too. I know why he sought attention from other women because I had been there, in a similar place, frustrated yet feeling as if there were no other way to keep the life I thought I wanted while exploring the excitement I knew was missing. I understand it. The fear, the passion, the risk and the excitement. I understand all of it.
Understanding someone’s bad behavior is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that understanding precludes judgment. The downside is that I sometimes find myself defending people who have acted shamefully. But to remain righteously indignant of others takes more energy and is far more caustic to one’s soul, a price I’m not willing to pay.
I did not meet Jens during his last trip. Marc and I had a turning point in our relationship — we had been seeing each other casually, but then he deleted his Tinder profile for me. With that in mind, meeting Jens would have made me feel dishonorable. Marc deserved the best me there is. So I texted Jens one last time to say goodbye, and then deleted our entire text history with the swipe of a finger.
Karen Loeschner is a research analyst in Washington D.C.
Modern Love can be reached at email@example.com.
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