Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Because, like it or not, your days are numbered."
I work at a new(ish) & great job surrounded by commercial artists in film, many of them high-functioning crazies/social misanthropes like myself. I'm still married (thankfully) to a wonderful & forgiving wife (also an artist) and we have two small boys.
Last year I made the horrible mistake of having an affair with a coworker. Six months prior to that, my wife and I had hit a point where neither of us were sure if we were in love with each other and the daily grind of kids & work had strained our conversations down to concrete tasks only. Due to my job, there was a long period where we'd live apart for months at a time, with me away at work, her in the house with the kids—and both of us checking out of our relationship little by little, emotionally and physically. Nothing extramarital happened then, but this kind of physical & emotional estrangement set the stage for last year's foul up when I headed to a new city to scout for a place for the family to relocate. I would be separated from my family for three more months, seeing them once a month. I soon found a place, and was left with two months to "enjoy the new city." I went way too far with that.
This coworker was fun, attractive, smart, a decade younger than my wife and available. She knew I was not, but, thanks to the incessant partying and my own shitty "judgment," we wound up initiating a relationship with the agreement that this would end as soon as I moved out of the new city into the new burbs, where I would try to sort things through with my wife. I was a total asshole. My coworker's heart got broken, and badly. So did my wife's when I told her. Even more selfishly, I allowed my coworker to rely on me to try to comfort her, which didn't go well for anyone—more sex & co-dependency. I encouraged her to see other men. Later on, she said she was ready to be my kids' stepmom. Eventually it ended, amicably enough, I guess; she dumped my weak ass after I told her there was no way we could be together without my trying to be a single dad for a while. That would take a couple of years, and she shouldn't wait up. Surprisingly, we remained friendly, and meanwhile my wife and I managed to work through it all & I'm so, SO, thankful for that.
Months later, I got a sobbing call from my coworker and she told me that she had been having another affair with another coworker for the entire time that she was turning to me for emotional & sexual support. She was telling me because this guy's wife was intent on trying to ruin my home life when she found out. At the time I was shocked and angry. It got worse when I realized that this guy, my mistress, and I had spent most of last year hanging out, and they never let on to me that this was happening. I had suspected, but this woman had denied it flat out, and I had believed her. I wound up telling those two that I was glad that he was there for her when she needed someone. I was disappointed in everyone including myself, but I didn't want to hear from his wife. And I didn't.
The thing is, I couldn't handle this. Like, at all. It drove me nuts for some reason. I thought we were all close friends, but they couldn't tell me until they got busted by his wife. I got really angry with her and let her know it. Then I felt guilty for feeling angry with them. Those two avoided me at work while they vanished into their relationship (he remains married), which made me resentful. The shaming and blaming started at the studio, and it was those two against the world, confessing all, me trying to close gaps with other friends on my own. Those two invited me out a few times, but the woman was never comfortable with the idea of my wife showing up, and she said so. Clearly. Meanwhile, I got to see those two practically making out in the hall. I developed latent anger issues, joined a kickboxing class in earnest. I finally gave up trying to be socially adjusted at work (it was backfiring anyway, I became passive-aggressive), so I stopped going out, turned down invites, etc., and concentrated all of my positive self on my household. My wife and I grew closer, found love again after talking it all out, banning concrete tasks from our talks if we went out without the kids and the like. She even took responsibility for her side of the gap that appeared in our marriage. Wonderfully compassionate. She set the bar for me.
Meanwhile, these two coworkers barely talked to me at all. When they did, I came off as resentful, which I was—but I couldn't understand why I was. This lady often laid her situation at my feet with "I was only funny to impress you." and "It only happened because you broke me, but you didn't deserve what I did to you." Drove me nuts. She made poor choices, as did I. I didn't make them for her. She wanted to talk to me when she and the guy were having relationship issues, and I told her I didn't want to know and she should keep it light if she wanted to talk. Meanwhile, he avoided me entirely, which suited me fine. His animosity waxed and waned, but he never explained why. I suspect he resented the attention from the rest of the studio, but I didn't kiss and tell—other people they had told about their affair had. Eventually, she quit the job for the other coast, for personal reasons. Among the other innocuous things said in her last text to me was "I'll miss you." I hardly saw her in person outside of meetings for weeks prior, we never had IM'ed or texted about anything of substance, and she had avoided coming to my office during that entire time. I texted her that I didn't hate her like she thought, I wished we had been better friends after it all, but I wouldn't miss her as much as I thought I would thanks to her avoiding me for a month, and I asked her not to text me for at least a week or two, and then do so if she felt like it. This was just recently, and I now feel horribly guilty all over again.
So, now, I'm trying to follow-up with this guy she left behind, my former pal. I have no idea what their relationship status is. I just let him know that I feel like I've been acting like a passive-aggressive douche (I had sent him some texts I regret, it's true) and if he was ready to catch up, I was. We're getting a beer together tomorrow. I think. Haven't heard from him yet.
Should I even bother? What's the point? I feel like I'm acting like a passive-aggressive nutjob over nothing.
Have you ever heard of Rotten Island? It's a terrible, rocky place depicted in a children's book by William Steig, a place that's covered in gravel and volcanoes, inhabited by hideous flying insects and nasty monsters with jagged teeth who growl and bite and push each other off tall cliffs. When a beautiful flower appears on the island, the nasty inhabitants flee in fear, repulsed by the pretty thing.
You and your buddies would really love it on Rotten Island. You could flirt and fuck and avoid each other and text to apologize and threaten each other and fuck again and get angry and text to explain that you're only angry because you miss each other and fuck again and push each other off tall cliffs. Splat!
Either your wife is pathologically patient, or you lie to her constantly, which means you may as well have never stopped fucking your freaky, attention-seeking, flying insect mistress. Or maybe your wife is just too distracted by the beautiful flowers at home (your kids, I mean. Oh yeah, them!) to worry about what you're doing out there, among the volcanoes that spit poison arrows and double-headed toads.
Clearly, you should've learned long ago that any further contact with those miscreants from Rotten Island was a bad, bad idea. Yes, you fit in well with them, that much is obvious, with your confused, bloodshot googly eyes and your twitchy, lizardy skin and your petulant hissing and spitting. Somehow, though, you've managed to trot out this creepy, pustule-covered self to your wife, and she still loves you. Incredible! So you've been offered a second chance to remain in a land of rainbows and flowers, where there are home-cooked meals and innocent, funny children and no scary insects sending passive-aggressive texts. Praise the sweet, merciful Lord on high!
So what do you do with your second chance? You stomp all over every pretty flower in sight with your giant, filthy claws. Now please, read this sentence that you wrote, which is a thing of Gothic, grotesque glory: "I texted her that I didn't hate her like she thought, I wished we had been better friends after it all, but I wouldn't miss her as much as I thought I would thanks to her avoiding me for a month, and I asked her not to text me for at least a week or two, and then do so if she felt like it." You couldn't paint a more deliciously awful portrait of your deeply insecure depravity if you tried.
So, do you belong on Rotten Island or not? That's the question you have to ask yourself. Because if you want to ignore your two kids and your very kind wife and spend the rest of your life fucking and texting and shoving people, that option is available to you. There are always hissing harpies and sea donkeys and double-headed toads around, belching and shoving and fucking to their hearts' content. Their lives are very "exciting," if lying and backbiting and two-timing and confessing are exciting to you. Rest assured, the excitement never ends! Your flying insect mistress? Why, she'll exchange texts with you until the end of time, trust me, as long as the subject is her—how much you do or don't long for the high, flapping whine of her approaching wings, why/how you've dodged her drooly proboscis, what your wife thinks about her twitching thorax these days.
If you're sure that Rotten Island isn't the place for you, then you're not to contact either of those freaks ever again. Never, ever. No Facebook. (Unfriend right now.) No nothing. Polite, necessary exchanges with the double-headed male toad, at the most. No beers, no apologies, no friendship. No. More. Words. You also have to be honest with your wife from this point forward, about everything. Every single stupid lie, even about tiny little things, screws up a marriage. Put the rotten intrigue behind you (No more sexy conversations with coworkers, no more flirting, no more "Why, if I weren't married…"). Try very hard to live in a way that doesn't constantly compromise your self-respect.
If you're not in therapy, you should be. If you are in therapy, you should get a new therapist and double up on your sessions. You are very confused about your emotions and your culpability. You never owed those two anything, but you kept crawling back to them for more insanity. The problem with being as confused as you are is that you don't trust yourself, you lie to the people around you (because you don't trust that anything you say won't sound insane), and, as a result, you can't really connect with anyone.
I don't care how good things happen to be with you and your wife and your family, you're not remotely in the clear yet. You're missing some crucial bits of understanding, self-knowledge and self-acceptance that make a sane, loyal, committed life possible. If you really want to be true to your wife and kids, you need to work really hard with a therapist to become the kind of person who doesn't hide from and lie to the only people who are loyal and true to him.
Or, return to the gravelly hillsides and shoving matches and fire-belching volcanoes of your dreams.
I dated a guy in college for about two years. By all practical accounts, he was a horrible partner. He cheated on me, failed to make time for me, was a bad communicator and routinely chastised me in front of his friends. But like all good-for-nothing first loves, he was dark and intriguing and had his moments of kindness. Although we live in different cities, we have sporadically kept in touch and have both been in relationships since parting ways. I feel like I have become a much more competent and discerning person and have repaired much of the psychic damage he did.
He was recently in my city for a few days for work—one thing led to another and we were in bed together. He has mellowed and I'm less willing to take his shit so the handful of days we spent together were surprisingly lovely. The sex was dirty/fun/maybe a little shameful and soul sucking. (As Lord Alfred Douglas says, "Of all sweet passions Shame is the loveliest.") We have continued to be in touch since his visit and I mentioned that I was planning to be in his city in few months to visit some old friends. He invited me to stay with him. I would rather sleep in his bed than on a friend's couch. Part of me wants to continue this pattern of flying back and forth across the country to have nostalgia sex, but another part of me wonders if this could undo all the emotional healing and maturation I did after dating him. Ugh.
Reunited and It Feels Disconcerting
A very wise woman once told me, "The right plane can't land if the wrong plane is blocking the runway." Although it can feel pretty good to have the wrong plane in your runway (ahem!), it's no good.
That reunion-sex glow you feel now comes from feeling proud (and reassured) by the fact that 1) your ex still finds you attractive and b) he seems to dig your funky new swagger. This prideful thrill will fade the second you land in your ex's city for more bad-plane fuckery. He'll be far more indifferent and demeaning, you'll be far less swaggery and sure of yourself, and the whole thing will almost immediately begin to mimic the shittiness of the original relationship. Repeat this bad pattern a few more times, and you're stuck on Rotten Island with the enormous insects and the scheming sea donkeys.
So yes, fucking this guy is the absolute perfect way to undo the emotional healing and maturation you've achieved since dating him. What's nice, though, is that the second you tell that broken-ass plane to get the fuck off your runway, voila! You are far happier than you were before. You are no longer a woman who accepts sloppy sex with a damaged ex. You have standards, and a clear runway, sparkling in the mid-day sunshine, beckoning shiny new planes to land.
Are your friends inconsiderate? Is your spouse unfair? Do you expect too much? Write to Polly and find out!
Previously: Ask Polly: Why Do Guys Dump Me Like a Hot Potato?
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Desrosiers Photo.