I’ve just gotten out of a complicated year-and-a-half long relationship with a married woman. I was her first girl. She was the first person I’d fallen in love with, during my own open marriage to a woman I’ve been with for five years. The first half of the relationship with the married woman was sexy and intriguing. We’d spend weekends in a hotel room on the outskirts of the town where we live, fucking and drinking and talking for hours about the art we admire and the art we make. Our conversations felt generative for my own work. Our relationship felt like a work of art, too, because we invented it, as we needed and wanted it to be. We even took a trip abroad together, with my wife’s blessing and, I thought, her husband’s. She met my wife and my close friends; though I never was invited to her house, I was grateful to her husband for letting us become so close. My love for my wife, who had other relationships of her own, deepened during this time.
But the last half of this relationship revealed self-deceptions, and finally, a discovery that she and her husband were not in an open marriage, as she’d said they were. The whole scene made me feel duped, bamboozled. The relationship ended partly because of this fact, but also partly because I felt disregarded as she continued to negotiate her feelings about me with her husband. She wanted me, but my feelings no longer mattered—only, it seemed, her own and her husband’s. She expected me to be her therapist, and to help her to work things out with him. She would tell me she couldn’t see me, and then show up at my office, which felt selfish, like a way of prolonging my agony, in order to reassure herself that I was still there, still wanted her. I have felt this thing before—when someone’s love feels suddenly selfish. It remained unclear whether she’d lied to me, or only to herself. When I told her I couldn’t talk with her any more, since she didn’t have an agreement with her husband, she sent me a text in which she accused me of abandoning her. This was several months ago and I have not responded. And she hasn’t written me another—this, after over a year when we wrote to each other almost every day.
There are some days when I can’t stop agonizing about this—how did I trust her? If she was lying about me to her husband, and about him to me, what else was she lying about—and how could she have seemed so real, so genuine with me? On these days, I think she’s evil, a monster—how could she play such games with me, blame me for the end of our relationship, and then claim she loves me? Other days, though, I just miss her. It breaks my heart to think that you can feel so close to another person, and then suddenly, they’re not in your life anymore. That you can admire someone so much, and then have such anger and misunderstanding between you. I’d like to reconnect with her in a different way, to build a friendship, to start fresh, but I’m not sure this is possible. To write to her now feels awkward, and frankly, I’m not sure how to address my long hiatus. What should I do?
Many times, now, I’ve opened my laptop to answer your question, and every time it leaves me speechless. When you love someone you make a world with him or her. It seems like the world, but shining. Part of the hurt of lost love is discovering the singularity of that world, the way no one but the two of you really knew it, when you are left there alone. There are ways of honoring this, in the leaving. But some people would rather destroy that world to save themselves from mourning, even if it means making you doubt the reality of the love you thought you’d made. These sentences don’t begin to capture the nightmare this can create for you, left there wondering what was real. In the presence of that nightmare, what can a person say?
That this happens to lots of people, all the time, is the furthest thing from comfort. As I think about your question, Leonard Cohen sings into my ears that “love is not a victory march,” that it’s a “cold and broken hallelujah.” I space out, I start thinking of other betrayals, I face the fact that maybe this is all there is, and then, moments later, there is Phosphorescent: “I know love as a caging thing / Just a killer come to call from some awful dream.” But shut up, Leonard Cohen, and Matthew Houck, and everyone on my playlist: shut up. Why is this always happening? Haven’t we had enough of people devastating one another? How can we be expected to keep loving again if whenever we manage to become generous and naked and pimpled or fat or skinny and drunk and orgasmic enough to really enter the world of another and invite them into ours, and make a new world in the process, one or the other of us will eventually inevitably make that new world feel entirely like a fake? No more breakups, I say. No more.
That the end is always there in the beginning is, obviously, no comfort. Our strangeness and difference from one another is what makes it feel so expansive and generous and effervescent to learn each others’ bodies and worlds; this is what makes the world shine, and then empties it out, for a while, when the other becomes strange again. It’s true, but it’s also bullshit; some people are able to learn one another again, apologize, forgive, make new. She could have. He could have. You could have. I could say: Next time, ask to meet the husband. But you are not asking what to do next time. You are asking what can be saved, if anything, of the world you made together.
And some might say, I mean they do say, all the time: open relationships never work, anyway. It wasn’t real love, anyway. It’s like a vacation people take from real relationships. Because they’re scared of intimacy. Because they can’t commit. And then there’s the way that when open relationships fail, explaining your heartbreak involves such complicated descriptions of relationship structures that the whole thing you’ve done, constructed as it was over the course of time through these gentle intricate generous increments via conversations as considerate as those in any great monogamous relationship, and perhaps even more vulnerable and tender and generative of love, sometimes, because you’re negotiating actual, present-time jealousy over real people—despite all that work, it can sound like a shit show. It just does. It sounds like fucking around. Maybe people haven’t read your question that way but toward the end, it does get a bit complicated, and shit-show sounding, so I’m just saying. And that is the worst of it, right? It sounds like a shit-show, when what you’ve been doing is actually loving, fighting for the kind of love that exists beyond owning someone, which is the best part. Anyway. I wanted to say something in honor of the work you did to make this thing happen, for that year and a half.
And then, all of a sudden, that is not how it is. It looks like everything else, everything you’ve been escaping. And you’re not only left alone in a world you thought you’d made bigger, but one she was lying about, and to make things worse, the story is illegible: no conventional boy-girl or girl-girl true love story, no Facebook relationship status, not to mention any wedding, or U-Haul, or dogs, or strollers, nothing but the hotels on the outskirts, the trip abroad, the art you made after. You dared to create a different kind of world, and then the real one, it must seem, crashed down, as it does.
I have no doubt, given the language of your question, that you have been strong about this. That you have grieved, but not in such a way as to destroy your marriage. And now you ask: Can I repair this relationship in some way. Is there some way to recuperate it, to change an end into a something other than an end, to change one kind of relationship into another, to ease the hurt. I think that your impulse—tikkun, the Hebrew word for it, to mend what is torn apart or bring together what has been broken apart, to repair the world, as if it is our responsibility, in the absence of God, or until God comes back—answers the question I would have about your question. You don’t merely want to escape the pain of your shattered world: you want to incorporate into our world what you have known with her, despite her betrayal of it. Despite his. To salvage its realness.
You love her. You invited her into a certain relation with you, which you are able to make, a kind of utopia. But she was also in a different relationship, and you were in that one, too. You agreed to it. You agreed, at least, to not know. To not see. I bet you will not do that again. And this is what I have to tell you, and this is a sad thing: there are people who use open relationships in order to escape what they cannot face. There are people who use open relationships in order to have some place to go in that moment when you become ugly in the face of a loved one and want to hide when you should stay. There are people who use them to pit people one against another. To dominate women. To have secrets. To avoid the endless conversations that you have had. To save their marriage, or wreck it. To piss their husbands off. It is no utopia, what you have chosen. It is the same as everything else. Except for the fact that you somehow, in your patience and imagination, managed to honestly and openly, for a while, have a spouse and a lover, something people all over the world dream of, in their secret minds. It means nothing, to all these people, unless you keep doing it and talking about it. Write about it. Sing about it. Paint about it—whatever your art, make it. I wouldn’t talk to her. There’s nothing wrong with you for believing in her, and you can love her, always. But don’t talk to her, dear. You made a world with her, but now, you have to realize, you made it also despite her. You can do it again, and it will be better. Don’t stop.