My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Watching her slowly wither, and seeing my father mourn even before she died exposed the darkest side of love—losing it. Months before and after her death I found it necessary to pull back from the world, internalize instead of connect, afraid of the bond that comes with sharing, scared of caring too much.
My husband found my withdrawal particularly disturbing. I wasn’t there for him like I’d always had been—his emotional connection to himself and the world, his sounding board—questioning, evoking him to explore and get in touch with his feelings daily. We worked, and took care of our two children, then two and five. I was the canonical mom—their needs were met physically and emotionally, as it is simply not possible for me to distance myself from my kids, but at the end of the day I had little left to give to my husband. So, two months before my mother died he went online to Craigslist and found someone else to talk to.
He made me privy to his relationship with “Betsy,” three weeks after I buried my mother. We were sitting on our bed in the evening. He was brushing my hair (a shared ritual since dating). Per usual, I casually asked about his plans for the following day. He hesitated before telling me he had a lunch date. With who, I inquired. Again, he hesitated, then told me with someone ‘new,’ a ‘friend’ he’d made online. They’d been emailing each other regularly (perhaps daily, though I’ll never know), he explained flatly. And by the way, this ‘new friend’ was a single female who lived just the other side of the bay, only a few miles from his office in San Jose.
My skin started to prickle. I sat in front of him while he stroked my hair and listened to him explain how he’d gone onto a Craigslist discussion board to find someone familiar with the grieving process. Betsy was among many who responded but the only one that struck a chord, sparking their ongoing correspondence. He hadn’t mentioned her sooner because he hadn’t thought of it, he defended upon my inquiry. Their communication had been strictly online and meeting tomorrow for lunch wasn’t on his radar until I asked about his plans. He insisted it was innocent, that it wasn’t ‘anything,’ just a possible new ‘friendship’ he wanted to explore.
I turned to face him, sat cross legged on the bed in front of him. My heart raced as I tried to form my words. Betrayal was only one of a flood of feelings. His expression of righteous indignation at what he clearly considered my overreaction to his news felt as if he were mocking me. I tried to keep my voice steady, knowing he wouldn't hear me if I yelled, or was cutting, got mean, though I wanted to hurt him for hurting me. What happened to his original intention to help me with grieving? Finding a stranger to share his feelings instead of going to a counselor if he felt he couldn’t come to me was undermining to the extreme. Part of our foundation was based on our mutually agreed upon commitment of fidelity when we married. Having an ongoing intimate dialog with another woman without telling me was deceitful at best, but arranging a meeting, bringing their relationship out of cyberspace into the real world was beyond inappropriate—it bordered adultery, regardless if they ever became physical.
My husband’s hackles raised, he discounted cheating with a wave of his hand, stating he had no intention of ever getting physical with Betsy. His online relationship had no potential to go beyond friendship. He was in total control, sought only a companion since I’d become distant. He insisted I was completely wrong assuming him naive, assured me he’d fend off any advances if the unlikely event occurred, and did not understand why I was so upset that the friendship he’d begun just happened to be with a woman.
I tried to communicate how lonely it made me feel that he chose to invest his limited free time developing a relationship with Betsy instead of with me, which is why I could not sanction him meeting her the next day. I reiterated my profound disappointment he'd chosen to enhance the distance between us instead of looking for ways to bond us. I apologized for my distance, explained my reasoning for it right then, watching my mother die, and the intensity of my father's grief.
We talked into the early morning hours. My husband apologized for checking out of our relationship when I did, going outside of us instead of trying to reach me. He agreed to cancel his lunch date, and I believe he did. Throughout our entire exchanged, he vowed he had not, nor would ever have an affair. I resolved to believe my his intentions were exactly what he said. The next day he told me he wrote Betsy one last time to tell her he was ending their email correspondence. I trust it was their last communication.
I'm reminded of Betsy occasional through the years when politicians, military leaders and other prominent people are caught publicly committing adultery, or involved in other salacious relationships that began and/or matured online. Last week my cousin emailed me he just found out his wife has been involved for over a year in an email relationship with a man she met on Facebook. My cousin happened upon over three hundred correspondences. Unable to resist opening them, he found most were casual exchanges about kids or politics, or rants about daily frustrations, but this did not quell his “irrational?” feelings of betrayal. He, too, felt abandoned, and rattle by the lascivious possibilities, though questioned if his wife's relationship with this online friend constituted cheating if it never left cyberspace.
Last month my husband and I celebrated our eighteenth wedding anniversary. As far as I know he has never sought, nor established another online relationship unrelated to business, though I used to wonder— did he miss her, and then chastise myself for my suspicions. Trust is a fickle mistress, for both of us, to be sure. We try and stay connected now, plugged into each other. We stay in touch throughout the workday via quick emails, make time for just us nightly, have a date every couple of weeks. Cultivating relationships outside of us is virtually impossible with commitments to our kids, jobs, family and friends. I'm grateful we both choose to spend our very limited free time together now.
Since my husband never met Betsy, and stopped their correspondence when I made my feelings about their relationship known, there was no technical violation of our contract of fidelity. But sometimes I still consider if our lives would be different had they met. Is a cyberspace relationship real or virtual I can't answer, but I can't help the hurt I feel, now personally involved in this ongoing debate, which to date, even all these years later, feels very real to me.