I’m twenty-nine-year-old woman who is engaged to be married to a man I’ve been with for about two years (we’ve lived together for one). I’m very close to my sister.
She’s much older than me (fifty-three) and she’s technically my “half” sister (we share a father who had one marriage very young, another quite old). My sister and I have always been close, but because of our age difference she’s been more like an aunt to me, though over the past couple of years our relationship has shifted and we’ve become more like equals. Recently, we went on a weekend trip together, just the two of us, and I learned things about her life that make me feel…I don’t even know what the word is, Sugar. Sad? Uncomfortable? Angry?
Disappointed? A mix of all four. That’s the reason I’m writing to you.
My sister has been married for twenty-five years. I love my brother-in-law almost as much as I love my sister. I’ve always considered them to be my “role model couple.” They are still in love after all these years and still best friends. Everyone who knows them, including me, thinks they’re the perfect couple. They are proof to me that happy marriages are possible. Or at least, they were.
You see, what happened is that while I was away with my sister I asked her what the “secret to marriage” was and during our long talk about it, she revealed things that surprised and upset me. She said while it’s true she and my brother-in-law are happy to be married to each other, there were several times over the years she doubted they’d make it. She confided that both she and my brother-in-law have cheated on each other. Several years ago, my brother-in-law had a full-blown affair that lasted a few months and at another point my sister had a brief, “technically unconsummated fling” that she opted not to tell her husband about (she figured why hurt him when she’d “learned her lesson” and wasn’t going to break up her marriage over it). Together, they eventually repaired these breaches, but it wasn’t easy.
I know they’ve been happy too. They’ve raised two kids together, traveled, and shared many interests. It isn’t as if everything I’ve seen in them is a façade. I understand that. But I can’t help but admit my picture of them has changed and I’m having a hard time with that, as I plan to have them walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I know this might sound naïve and maybe judgmental, but I’m shaken and bummed and now I don’t know if people who cheated should play such a big role in my wedding.
I know couples have to work on their relationships, but my position on infidelity is that it’s a deal killer. My fiancé and I have agreed if one of us ever cheated on the other it would be automatically over between us, no conversation required. When I told my sister about this she actually laughed and said we were being “too black and white,” but, Sugar, I don’t want to think that in twenty-five years I’ll be saying that there were times I didn’t think my husband and I would make it. I want healthy love.
From reading your column, I know you’re married and I wonder what you think. It seems to me that you and Mr. Sugar are a perfect couple too. What’s the secret to a good marriage? Have there been times you didn’t believe your relationship would make it? Isn’t infidelity a deal killer? Can my sister and brother-in-law still be my role model couple now that I know they’ve failed to keep their vows at least at some points along the way? Should they walk me down the aisle? Why do I feel so let down? My heart feels heavy with the fear that marriage can’t work for anyone if it can’t work for them. Is marriage this horribly complex thing for which I’m ill prepared? Am I being stupid to ask why two people can’t just love each other?
I’d be grateful if you’d answer me soon. My wedding is at the end of August.
Happily Ever After
Dear Happily Ever After,
One day about a year after Mr. Sugar and I moved in together, a woman called our house and asked to speak to Mr. Sugar. He wasn’t home, I told her. Could I take a message? She hesitated in a way that made my heart beat faster than it had any right to. When she finally said her name, I knew who she was, though I’d never met her. She lived in a city thousands of miles away, where Mr. Sugar occasionally went to work. They weren’t exactly friends, he’d told me when I’d inquired about her a few weeks before, after I’d found a postcard from her to him in our mailbox. Acquaintance was a better word, he’d said. Cool, I’d replied.
And yet as I held the phone, I got a funny feeling, in spite of my internal scoldings that I had no reason to feel funny. That Mr. Sugar was crazy in love with me was entirely apparent, both to me and to everyone who knew us, and I was likewise crazy in love with him. We were a “perfect couple.” So happy. So meant to be together. So utterly in love. Two people who leapt from the same pond to miraculously swim down parallel streams. I was the only woman he’d ever called the one. And who was she? She was just a woman who sent him a postcard.
So I surprised even myself when, that afternoon as I held the phone, I asked in my gentlest, most neutral voice, while everything inside of me clanged, if she knew who I was.
“Yes,” she replied. “You’re Sugar. Mr. Sugar’s girlfriend.”
“Right,” I said. “And this is going to seem odd, but I’m wondering about something. Have you slept with Mr. Sugar?”
“Yes,” she said in a snap. He’d come to her apartment the month before, when he’d been in town, she informed me. They had an “intense sexual attraction,” she said with a breathy puff of pleasure. She was sorry if that hurt me.
“Thank you,” I replied and I meant it.
When I hung up the phone, I remember very vividly staggering around the room as if someone had shot me in the heart with an arrow that would forever be stuck in my chest.
Mr. Sugar and I hardly owned anything then. In our living room there was nothing but two ratty, matching couches we’d been given as a hand-me-down, each one lining an opposite wall. We referred to them as the dueling couches because they sat in an eternal face off, the only things in the room. One of our favorite things to do was recline on the dueling couches—him on one, me on the other—for hours on end. Sometimes we’d read silently to ourselves, but more often, we’d read out loud to each other, whole books whose titles still make my heart swoon, so powerfully do they remind me of the tender intensity between us in those first years of our love: Charlotte’s Web, Cathedral and Other Stories, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.
All of that was a pile of shit now, I realized as I collapsed onto one of the dueling couches. By going off and fucking the woman who sent him a postcard and then not telling me about it, Mr. Sugar had ruined everything. My trust. Our innocence. My magical sense of myself as the only woman he could possibly desire. The pure and unassailable nature of our perfect coupledom. I was shattered and furious, but most of all I was shocked. How could the man who’d meticulously pried the Made in Argentina sticker off the bottom of the bathroom sink and used it to make a card for me have done this? The one who said you don’t have to be broken for me?
When he walked in the door an hour later and I told him what I knew, he crumpled onto the dueling couch opposite me and we had the duel of our lives.
I didn’t think we’d survive it. I was pretty sure to do so would be kind of sick. I wasn’t the sort of person who took crap from men and I wasn’t about to begin doing so now. I loved Mr. Sugar, but he could sincerely go and fuck himself. I’d been true and faithful to him, and in return, he’d broken the deal. The deal was killed. Even being in the same room with him felt humiliating to me.
But there I was, nonetheless, crying and yelling while he cried and apologized.
I told him it was over. He begged me to stay. I told him he was a lying, selfish bastard. He agreed that’s exactly what he was.
We talked and talked and talked and talked and after an hour or so my rage and sorrow subsided enough that I went silent and listened while he told me everything: exactly how it went down with the woman who sent him the postcard; what I meant to him and what the woman he’d slept with meant; how and why he loved me; how he’d never been faithful to any woman in all his life, but how deeply he wanted to be faithful to me, even though he’d already failed at that; how he knew his problems with sex and women and intimacy and trust and secrets were bigger than this one transgression and rooted in his past; how he’d do everything in his power to understand his problems so he could change and grow and become the partner he wanted to be; how knowing me had made him believe he was capable of that, of loving me better, if only I would give him another chance.
As I listened to him talk, I alternated between sympathizing with him and wanting to punch him in the mouth. He was a jackass, but I loved him dearly. And the fact was, I related to what he said. I understood his explanations, infuriating as they were. I’d been a jackass too, given to failings of my own that hadn’t manifested themselves in this relationship yet. When he said he had sex with the woman who sent him the postcard because he got a little bit drunk and wanted to have sex and it didn’t have anything to do with me, even though of course it ultimately very much did, I knew what he meant. I’d had that sort of sex too. When he looked me in the eye and told me he was sorrier than a person has ever been and he loved me so much he didn’t even know how to say it, I knew he was telling me a truer truth than he’d ever told anyone.
I’m going to guess this is the sort of crossroads your own personal perfect role model couple was at a few times in their incredibly successful and loving decades-long-and-still-going-strong relationship, Happily Ever After. And I’m going to guess if you manage to live happily ever after with your honey you’re going to be there a time or two as well, whether the precise issue be infidelity or not.
This isn’t a spotless life. There is much ahead, my immaculate little peach. And there is no way to say it other than to say it: marriage is indeed this horribly complex thing for which you appear to be ill prepared and about which you seem to be utterly naïve.
That’s okay. A lot of people are. You can learn along the way.
A good place to start would be to let fall your notions about “perfect couples.” It’s really such an impossible thing to either perceive honestly in others or live up to when others believe it about us. It does nothing but box some people in and shut other people out and it ultimately makes just about everyone feel like shit. A perfect couple is a wholly private thing. No one but the two people in the perfect relationship know for certain whether they’re in one. Its only defining quality is that it’s composed of two people who feel perfectly right about sharing their lives with each other, even during the hard times.
I think that’s what your sister was getting at when she revealed her relationship struggles in response to your question about the “secret to marriage,” sweet pea. She wasn’t trying to bum you out. She was actually trying to tell you the secret. In allowing you a more intimate view of her much-touted but flawed marriage, your sister was attempting to show you what a real perfect couple looks like: happy, humane, and occasionally all fucked up. I can’t imagine anyone more fitting to walk you down the aisle on your wedding day than your sister and her husband, two people who’ve kept their love and friendship alive for more than twenty-five years. That you’re doubting this after learning not all of those years were easy, tells me there’s something deeper at work here that has nothing to do with their marriage and everything to do with your own insecurities and fears.
You appear to be focused on infidelity as the “deal-killer” that you believe would compel you to “automatically” dissolve your own future marriage, and that’s fair enough. I understand the icky place in your gut where that impulse lives. There is probably nothing more hurtful and threatening than one partner breaking from an agreed-upon monogamous bond. A pre-emptive ultimatum against that allows at least the sense of control. But it’s a false sense.
Painful as it is, there’s nothing more common in long-term relationships than infidelity in its various versions (cheated, pretty much cheated, cheated a teeny bit but it probably doesn’t quite count, came extremely close to cheating, want to cheat, wondering about what it would be like to cheat, is flirting over email technically even cheating? etc). The letters in my inbox, the stories of many of my friends, and my own life are a testament to that. I’m not suggesting everyone cheats, of course, and I sincerely hope that you and your husband will never have to confront this issue. But if you really want to live happily ever after, if you honestly want to know what the secret to sustaining a lifelong “healthy love” is, it would be a good idea to openly grapple with some of the most common challenges of doing so, rather than pretending that you have the power to shut them down by making advance threats about walking out, “no conversation required,” the moment a transgression occurs.
This will require a rethink about your own dark capacities, as well as those of your future husband, and the members of various couples you admire. Most people don’t cheat because they’re cheaters. They cheat because they are people. They are driven by hunger or for the experience of someone being hungry once more for them. They find themselves in friendships that take an unintended turn or they seek them out because they’re horny or drunk or damaged from all the stuff they didn’t get when they were kids. There is love. There is lust. There is opportunity. There is alcohol. And youth. And middle age. And twelve-day-long writers’ conferences in rustically genteel settings that give one the impression that the world one left no longer exists. There is loneliness and boredom and sorrow and weakness and self-destruction and idiocy and arrogance and romance and ego and nostalgia and power and need. There is the compelling temptation of intimacies with someone other than the person with whom one is most intimate.
Which is a complicated way of saying, it’s a long damn life, Happily Ever After. And people get mucked up in it from time to time. Even the people we marry. Even us. You don’t know what it is you’ll get mucked up in yet, but if you’re lucky, and if you and your fiancé really are right for each other, and if the two of you build a marriage that lasts a lifetime, you’re probably going to get mucked up in a few things along the way. This is scary, but you’ll be okay. Sometimes the thing you fear the most in your relationship turns out to be the thing that brings you and your partner to a deeper place of understanding and intimacy.
That’s what happened to Mr. Sugar and me a couple of years into our relationship, when I learned of his infidelity, and told him to go fuck himself, and then took him back. My decision to stay and work it out with him in the aftermath of that betrayal is way, way far up on the list of the best decisions of my life.
And I’m not just grateful that I decided to stay. I’m grateful it happened. It took me years to allow that, but it’s true. That Mr. Sugar cheated on me with the woman who sent him a postcard made us a better couple. It exposed a wound that Mr. Sugar finally, in the course of his relationship with me, opted to heal. It opened a conversation about sex and desire and commitment that we’re still having. And it gave us resources to draw upon when we faced other challenges later on. The truth is, for all the sweet purity of our early love, we weren’t ready for each other in that time during which we loved each other most sweetly. The woman who sent him the postcard pushed us down a path where we made ourselves ready, not to be a perfect couple, but to be a couple who knows how to have a duel when a duel needs to be had and emerge from it, hand-in-hand.
I hope that’s what you get too, Happily Ever After. A bit of sully in your sweet. Not perfection, but real love. Not what you imagine, but what you’d never dream.