I’m a woman in my late 20s, and for the past three years I’ve been babysitting for a family. Two years ago, I began having a strange kind of affair with the father of the children, who is 13 years older than me. By “strange” I mean we make out about once a week. It’s insanely hot: We kiss, our hands wander, clothes get pushed aside and then, after about 10 minutes, he abruptly stops and says he has to go. He also comes to my apartment after work sometimes, but again, only to make out briefly. Nothing more. It’s torture.
I’ve ended this thing many times and he always agrees with me, but we soon find ourselves making out again. I’m becoming someone I don’t like. I can’t stand what I could be doing to the children. If this comes out, I’d ruin their lives. I’m jealous of his wife, who has been nothing but kind to me. I know where they keep their condoms and I count them obsessively to know if they’ve had sex. I’ve considered telling his wife about the affair, reasoning that she deserves to know, but my true motivation is that I want to hurt him like he’s hurt me. He uses me like a toy he plays with then sets aside.
I know I should find another job, but I truly love the children and can’t imagine not seeing them. Yet ending things while still working for him has proved to be impossible. I’m scared that I love him. I’ve dated other people during the course of our affair, but no one makes me feel the way the dad does. Where do I find the strength to leave this situation? I feel sick and hopeless. Why can’t I seem to quit?
Haven’t Hit My Breaking Point
Cheryl Strayed: You can’t seem to quit because you don’t want to believe what you know is true: To this man, you’re a toy to be played with and then set aside. Nothing more. He doesn’t love you. He doesn’t even care about your emotional well-being. If he did, he wouldn’t draw you — his employee and the loving caretaker of his children — into his vapid treachery. Believe that story, Haven’t Hit My Breaking Point. The one that empowers you to set off on the only trajectory that ends well for you. The sooner you cut this man out of your life, the better off you’ll be. And yes, that means cutting his children out too. That’ll hurt for a while, but what’s the alternative? You spend the next decade surreptitiously making out with the dad in the utility closet? His wife discovers your affair and, after begging her forgiveness, they banish you? You don’t have to find your strength to leave this situation. You need only to trust the clarity you already have and act upon it.
Steve Almond: I’d focus on this insight, which is both a diagnosis of your dilemma and its cure: I’m becoming someone I don’t like. That’s the bottom line here. This man’s behaviors are despicable, unsurprising and ultimately irrelevant. They belong to him. What matters here are your actions and the motives that drive them. As Cheryl advises, you should extricate yourself from this toxic dynamic as quickly as you can. But it’s worth asking why you participated in a relationship that converted your desire for intimacy into a form of torture. That’s the emotional pattern you describe here: a relationship in which you’re enthralled for a few minutes, then rejected, unsatisfied, guilty, jealous and vengeful for the balance of your life. It’s perfectly natural that you would ask us why you can’t seem to quit such an affair. But you’ll find the strength to walk away, I suspect, when you start demanding an answer from yourself.
CS: You assert that leaving your job — and this affair — is difficult because no one makes you feel the way the dad does, yet your description of how he makes you feel is utterly miserable. I want to echo Steve in saying it’s important that you explore the question of why you’ve become involved with someone who so clearly lacks the capacity to give you anything you want or deserve, preferably with the guidance of a therapist. But I also hope you’ll be gentle with yourself as you disentangle this man from your life and your psyche. It might be true that in your relationship with him you’re enacting a dysfunctional pattern from your childhood, but it might also be true that you’ve simply gotten yourself into a romantic pickle. You aren’t the first one to conflate “insanely hot” with something that might be love, and you won’t be the last. The scenarios you describe — a secret affair, unconsummated lust, an older man messing around with a younger female subordinate (which is heightened further still by the daddy/babysitter dynamic) — are all straight out of the crank-up-the-heat erotic playbook. Cliché as they are, they’re also powerful, and when we are under their spell, our perception is clouded. This is another reason it’s imperative you remove yourself from your employer’s sphere.
SA: It’s vital that you’re honest with yourself about how and why you got involved with this man. My sense is that a skilled therapist would help, if you can afford to see one. Because beneath all your defensive emotions — the rage and self-recrimination — are more vulnerable emotions: disappointment and heartbreak. However damaging this relationship is, you feel a great deal for this man and his children. You’ve become a part of his family. Leaving all that behind is going to be painful before it becomes empowering. A therapist, or even a support group, will help you sort out your feelings about all this, as well as your motives. Cheryl and I have stressed understanding, and taking responsibility for, your role. But it’s equally important that you recognize the power dynamics here. This man is a dozen years older than you. He’s your employer. He’s the engineer of this adulterous arrangement. And yet, when you think about this affair in relation to his children, you write, “If this comes out, I’d ruin their lives.” Huh? Not only does this suggest that he is blameless, it overlooks the fact that your own life is being ruined. Self-examination is essential here. So is self-forgiveness. You have to recognize the deepest truth here, which is that you deserve more than this man can give you. You’re worthy of a lover who doesn’t hold back or tuck you away in the margins of his life, a lover who nourishes and celebrates you. That’s not how it feels right now. But with enough faith in yourself and hard work it will.