it's complicated

Learning About Love From My Parents’ Infidelity

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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Growing up, I slept in a bedroom with a glass door. Even as a kid, I understood it as a perfect metaphor for the way I believed my family to be: everything visible, out in the open.

And I liked what I saw. I worshiped my sister Rebecca. I deified my dad as the youngest, coolest parent at school, and the Perfect Husband to my mom, who was always clad in black, steeped in therapy, and 12 years older than he was. To me, their relationship was the union of two unlikely soulmates.

We told each other everything. Rebecca and I shared tales of school crushes, bad grades, fights with friends. And our parents trusted us to deal with the challenges of adult life all the same: credit-card bills, health scares, geopolitical conflict. Our family was a safe space. We had no secrets.

The summer I was 14, I spent eight weeks at an arts camp. I was thrilled to reunite with my family at the end of the session, when we’d drive to Martha’s Vineyard for the last weeks of August. I couldn’t wait to share my newfound love of painting, the songs I’d learned to play on guitar, how I grinded with a French counselor-in-training named Pierre at a dance.

On the car ride, I drifted in and out of sleep as Squeeze’s “Pulling Muscles From the Shell” played on the stereo, my parents’ voices muffled behind the metallic guitar riff. But I woke up suddenly to the sound of my mom’s voice — panicked and unsteady.

“Are you having an affair with her?” she said.

“No,” my dad answered, his voice limp with defeat. “Not yet.”

I kept my eyes shut. I could gather more information if I looked like I was still asleep. Quickly, it became clear they were talking about a filmmaker Rebecca had been interning for over the summer. During the internship, she mentioned contract issues happening at work, and my dad offered pro bono legal work. He was always too friendly to strangers.

Eventually, I couldn’t listen anymore. I jostled my sister awake and told her, loudly enough for my parents to hear from the front seat, that our dad was having an affair. Rebecca started screaming. I didn’t recognize my voice when I told her to calm down.

We pulled over on the side of the road in a trailer park somewhere in New England.

“I’ve always hated living in New York,” my dad sobbed once the car stopped. “I hate being a lawyer.”

The four of us cried in the trailer park, my sister and I holding each other. I told her it wasn’t her fault, knowing she’d probably blame herself for introducing my dad to his mistress. Thankfully, the internship was over.

A woman with leathery skin watching from her window came out to offer us iced tea and ask if we needed help. We said no thank-you and got back into the car, where I insisted that we keep driving toward our family vacation. We were going to stick this out. But when we arrived at the ferry in Cape Cod, my mom refused to get on the boat. We turned the car around.

Last August, we celebrated my parents’ 30th anniversary together at a restaurant. They had separated for less than a year in the wake of my dad’s infidelity, and my mom had considered leaving him permanently. But some magnetic force — perhaps codependency — pulled them back together: My dad was lost without my mom’s zaniness to uplift him, and my mom would float away without my dad’s pragmatism to ground her.

I was relieved when they eventually decided to stay together, but still alternated for a while between hating each of them. I was furious at my dad; I told my mom that she had no self-respect. Mostly, I was angry that the myth of their perfect marriage, and our perfect family, had been debunked.

Now, though, I’m grateful — for that car ride, for the utter destruction of my family mythology. It’s how I learned about real, adult love, and all the shades of gray it contains. At 27, I no longer blame my dad for seeking affection outside of his marriage. By my age, he was already married with two kids, his carefree years already behind him, and my mother was always more interested in Rebecca and me than in him. Over time, it all began to wear on him. Pursuing relationships with other women was my dad’s ill-advised way of crying out, begging for attention. There’s never an excuse for infidelity, but there can be good reasons, or at least reasons that demand a little empathy.
And one of those reasons, I’ve learned, is when the relationship is neglected — when the people in it treat love as a default state, rather than a practice to be cultivated.

Another lesson: Sometimes, an affair could even make a relationship stronger. My dad’s infidelity forced my parents to get real with each other: My dad meditated, started therapy to get clearer about his needs, and sporadically saw a life coach to help him soften his communication style; my mom owned her part, and stopped seeing herself as the sole victim. The whole thing even inspired my mom to change her career: After 35 years working as a textile designer, she trained to become a life coach herself, and often works with women struggling with adultery in their marriages.

It’s really only within the last few years that I’ve arrived at this point, where I can see the good that the whole incident brought into their lives. At 22, I ended my first major relationship when my boyfriend texted me at 4 a.m. that he’d kissed another girl after too many drinks. New to intimacy, I deemed his micro-betrayal a deal-breaker. It didn’t have to be. But in the aftermath, to rationalize the breakup to him and to myself, I said that infidelity — any infidelity — was too triggering.

A year later, at 23, I was curious about polyamory. I pursued a university professor 11 years my senior for an open relationship, now allergic to the idea of being “tied down.” I wanted the professor to see me as spontaneous, liberated, ebullient — someone who could teach him new ways of existing in the world. Often, I subjected him to philosophical tirades on desire, as if sexual liberation was the central focus of my life. During that time, it kind of was.

Ironically, I never slept with anyone else when we were together, though the professor did. It didn’t work out between us, but our relationship gave me a couple pieces of useful information about myself: (1) Monogamy came naturally to me, and (2) chemistry was different than compatibility.

I’m now monogamous, with a partner who sometimes struggles with jealousy. In the beginning of our relationship, when I talked about male friends, he would occasionally ask, “Should I worry?” Each time, I reassured him with tender reminders of our bond, and he beamed with delight. Strangely, I liked the moments he would show insecurity — they made me feel needed. Over time, I also began opening up to him about my own unreasonable jealousy. Above all, though, I relished — and still relish — the regular opportunity to reassure him of my commitment. It’s like a ritual for me, reminding me to pay attention to the practice of love.

Learning About Love From My Parents’ Infidelity