marriage: an investigation

He Cheated in an Open Marriage

Kristi Coulter, Married 22 Years

Six weeks after #MeToo hit, I had sex with a man who asked for permission when he wanted to touch me somewhere new. I was straddling him in a back seat, skirt up around my waist. My mascara was on his face, his thighs. It seemed obvious to me that he was welcome to touch me wherever. But I knew I was supposed to want him to ask. At one point he got ahead of himself and froze with two fingers inside me. “Sorry, is this okay?” In response, I tilted my hips to slide his fingers in deeper. I hoped it didn’t seem like I didn’t appreciate his respect.

After that, we met up every few weeks for long afternoons of sex and talk — about books, our childhoods, how he’d laughed and wept watching the eclipse. Then we parted: he to his house down the street from his wife and son’s — they kept separate places — I to the one I shared with my husband of 20 years.

My marriage isn’t a swingfest; it’s just understood that the occasional discreet fling isn’t the end of the world. In fact, I hadn’t gone on walkabout for years when the permission-seeking man, an artist I’d known for a decade, kissed me outside a café. I knew he also had an open marriage. Months earlier, he’d told me its parameters: no lying if asked and no fucking her friends. “Are your friends off-­limits to her?” I’d asked.

“All my jealousy was beaten out of me in college,” the artist said, when his first real girlfriend cheated on him. He’d been crushed and simply decided he’d never feel that way again. He had a tight, formal way of speaking that suited a man who thought he could decide how to feel. He said things like, “My wife takes considerable advantage of her freedom, but my extracurricular dalliances are exceedingly rare.”

Our affair wasn’t about love, but it wasn’t emotionless, either. “Being with you makes me want to dig a little deeper in my work,” the artist said in bed one day. “Being your illicit lover has been good for me too,” I said.

“Licit lover,” he corrected me. He was a stickler for the legality of our affair under our respective marital bylaws. Still, either theoretically chill spouse could find out and freak. “What will you do if your wife asks about me?” I asked the painter one day.

“I’ll tell her the truth,” he answered. “And it’ll just be a conversation.”

Three months later, they had that conversation. I found out because his wife informed me via email, text, and voice-mail that I was a dirty skank; that she’d be telling my husband and ruining my writing career.

Wait, what? I thought. We’re licit. And then a dampness spilled down my scalp, like when you’re a kid and someone cracks a fake egg on your head.

I met the painter the next morning and barely let him sit down before asking, “Are you, in actual fact, in an open marriage?”

“Yes,” he said emphatically. But he’d broken the rules. His wife had asked about me once, months ago, and he’d lied. “If I’d told the truth, she would have made me end it. She always does.”

“But she sees other people, right?”

“She does,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s like she just wants to control me.” She was threatening to leave with their son if he saw me again. “I’ve done you a disservice by not being frank about the difference between what she agreed to in theory and how she behaves in reality,” he said tearfully.

We kissed on the brick sidewalk outside. Then his eyes got clear and he looked steadily into mine for a while. “I don’t know if I can say good-bye to you while I’m looking at you,” he said, voice breaking again.

“Come find me when you can,” I whispered.

“I’ll try,” he whispered back.

The cold-egg feeling came and went. I cried so much that my eye sockets felt stretched and desiccated. I’d told my husband right away, before the wife could. We’d talked it through, reknit ourselves. The painter was incommunicado, but his wife and her friends sent letters about how I’d destroyed a family. I didn’t respond. Then, a week later, she posted an Instagram video of a small bonfire and tagged it with the name of a book I’d written; only a few bright shreds of cover were left among the ashes. I emailed the artist requesting he intervene. Crickets. So I emailed the wife, requesting she stop being a book-burning lunatic. She replied that she’d burn anything of mine she found: paper, metal, glass. My impulse was to combust, but then I realized I didn’t actually know what the artist had said about me. I sent her a brief note: “You have no reason to believe me, but if I’d known the two of you were misaligned on the terms of your arrangement, I would have steered clear.”

She replied saying she did believe me — that the painter had misled me, and outright deceived her for months, breaking their rules. He’d called her paranoid, delusional.

He told me he’d lied just once, I wrote back, picking up on “many months.”

“He lied for six months,” she said. “Six months of gaslighting for a one-night stand.”

“We saw each other for six months,” I replied.

“Could we meet for coffee?” she wrote.

At the coffee shop, I told her she could ask me anything she liked.

“How many times did it happen?”

“Two or three times a month for six months,” I said. “So let’s say 15.”

“He said it happened once and was meaningless.”

“Then he did something meaningless 15 times.”

“He’s still lying,” she said. “I told him I was meeting you and it was his chance to own up. And he said, ‘Okay, it happened twice.’ ”

She kept coming back to his insistence that I’d meant nothing, and on this point I couldn’t give ground. “Look, it wasn’t about love,” I said. “But I’ve been a generic fuck-toy before. And this wasn’t that.”

Later I’d wonder why I believed her side of the story so readily. After all, I’d believed the artist too. All I can say is that I believed her because she was believable in a way that cast his own glibness and filigreed paragraphs into a harsher light.

“How does a man who’s allowed to sleep with other people still end up cheating?” I asked near the end.

“It’s who he is,” she said softly. “He designed our relationship to suit himself, and he breaks it to suit himself.” It made sense. In all his requests for consent, the artist had never asked if I’d help him wreck his marriage. He’d made a show of asking what I wanted when he’d already decided what I was going to get.

“I’m sorry about your sunglasses,” she said as we parted. “I hope you understand why I had to burn them.”

I remembered her message about metal and glass. “It’s fine, but I’m not missing sunglasses.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said — and then stopped short.

“That motherfucker,” she said. “How many women are even in this thing?”

There’s a third, she texted later. She’s the one he cares about. You were for fun. And I’m his mainstay. He said our relationship can survive anything. A string of vomit- and devil-themed emoji followed. BTW, he hopes the apology he emailed you helps.” I checked all my folders for the apology. There was none. I’d known there wouldn’t be.

She called with a final update a month later. There was no third woman; the sunglasses had turned out to be his sister’s. “He thought if I believed he was a sex addict, I couldn’t be mad,” she said, sounding oddly cheerful.

“He made up a whole woman?”

“Well, at least he’s leveling with me now.”

I wondered. So far each of his lies had required a new one — why stop now? One lie to escape his marriage, another to restore it, ad infinitum. But I said nothing. She could believe what she wanted, like I had.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

He Cheated in an Open Marriage