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January 25, 2012

Is Divorce Contagious?

When my friend cheated on his wife, I questioned my own marriage.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

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It was 2 A.M., and I should have been blissfully snuggled up in bed beside the warm body of my husband, Michael. Instead, I was skulking around our dark kitchen, trolling through his recent text messages like some possessed psycho. I scrolled through the usual notes from work contacts and friends, until I saw one from Holly (who the hell was Holly?) that began, "Are you here???" My heart kicked into a gallop when I opened the message and read, "I miss you so much. I need a hug. Come find me." The text was sent to Michael during his recent business trip to a trade show in Vegas, hundreds of miles away from our home in California. I was livid. I charged up the stairs to confront my sleeping husband — and, as it turned out, made a complete ass of myself. The text, I learned from a groggy, befuddled Michael, was sent by an old colleague of his who's lovey-dovey with everyone. I remembered then that she even called me "sweetie" on Facebook, and I'd never met her.

I was never this distrustful or deranged — until our best friends' marriage imploded that summer. Sarah and Steven were our go-to couple, the ones we invited for dinner when we just felt like hanging out, the ones who helped us carry boxes when we moved, the ones we called when we had to race to the hospital at 1 a.m. to give birth to our second son and needed someone to stay with our 2-year-old. They had been together 20-plus years, and although their relationship had its issues — he's a football fanatic, she has season tickets to the ballet — it seemed like a given that their till-death vows would stick. But a year prior to Steven's affair, Sarah had hit a rough patch emotionally. We knew that Steven was weary of her malaise--but we had no idea how weary, until he revealed that he'd found solace (and scorching sex) in the arms of a hot yoga teacher, whom he referred to as his "soul mate."

It's one thing to read about a celebrity cheating scandal. You might imagine what it's like to be in Demi's shoes and wonder if your guy could pull an Ashton, but it's easy to reassure yourself: Your partner is not a movie star and, as a result, does not have adoring women hurling themselves at him every time he steps outside the door. It's another thing entirely when you witness the devastation of Hurricane Infidelity on a daily basis. When you field the sobbing calls from the brokenhearted wife, and your husband hears the steamy details (sex in public bathrooms! Sex in broad daylight!) from the gleeful adulterer, it hits you where you live. It's more personal and more unnerving — and defies simple explanations or rationalizations. It feels scary, as if scientists suddenly announced, "It's true, aliens really do live among us." Which is probably why Steven's duplicity unleashed in my mind a deeply unsettling and tenacious line of thought: If a regular, married guy — someone I thought I knew and understood, who seemed reasonably happy — could go rogue with a yoga instructor, what's to stop my husband from doing the same? In fact, might his best friend's cheating open the door for Michael to stray, too — to think, Hey, if Steven can do it, why can't I?

It was under the influence of those disorienting concerns, as well as two margaritas, that I flailed blindly into Incident Number Two. We were at a swank party, high on a hilltop not far from our home, when I looked across the room and noticed that Michael was engaged in an animated conversation with a woman I'd never met. She was pretty and flirty, with aggressive cleavage and perfectly straight dark hair. Instead of walking up and saying hello, as I would have even a few months before, I left the room. Give him a few minutes, I thought, and he'll come looking for me. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. The hide-and-seek routine clearly wasn't working, and when I walked back into the room, it was obvious why. He was still engrossed in Miss 36D. I took a deep breath and reminded myself of the text-message episode. Perhaps this was an old colleague, too? But no. When I finally grabbed Michael's hand and introduced myself to the woman, she looked stunned and embarrassed. His face was inscrutable enough to set off alarm bells. I said we should leave.

What ensued was a scene I'd rather forget. Michael claimed to be grateful to me for dragging him away from the conversation. "I don't remember her name, but she wouldn't leave me alone," he said. I didn't buy it, and I told him so. Loudly. With accusations and profanity. We barely spoke for 24 hours, and when we did, we were polite, careful, detached. I had truly offended him.

I felt miserable. It was bad enough that our friends' relationship was blown to smithereens, but now ours had been hit by random shrapnel. I knew I should be trying to mend things — or at least find a way to not act crazy. But the more I watched Sarah's agony and Steven's joyful liberation, the more freaked out I got.

I read articles on how to tell if your man is cheating, then scoured Michael's behavior for clues: Has he become more fastidious in his grooming? More protective of his phone? Changed his work hours? Become more solicitous? One night, he called apologetically to say he'd be home late. Solicitous? Check. Changing work habits? Check. If I went to his office, would I catch him mid-tryst? I had worked myself up into such a state, I barely spoke to our two sons during dinner and finally called him. He sounded exhausted. Not the voice of a husband who's just had an illicit encounter, but the voice of a man who's working hard to put money in our kids' college funds.

When he came home that night, I tried to act normal. I figured he'd be too tired for sex, so I was surprised when he responded to my come-hither glance by happily locking the bedroom door. Is he really into this or just putting on a good show? I wondered, as we made our way lovingly and expertly through our bedroom routine. Yes, we have a routine. After 19 years, two kids, and a six-figure mortgage, it would be tough not to. Our sex isn't shocking and full of surprises. And that, I realized, was the crux of my fear. When it comes to sheer excitement, longevity can't compete with novelty — and new is the one thing Michael and I can never be for each other. Would our relationship start to look dull compared with Steven's endless downward-dog stories — not just to Michael, but to me? Would one of us catch the wanderlust that had infected our friend and leave our marriage? I hope not. But for the moment, as Michael drifted off to sleep next to me, I felt reassured that Steven's cheating and our friends' imminent divorce hadn't changed Michael at all so far. The only person it had changed was me.


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