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The Moral Mistake That Haunts Me To This Day

Just the thought of it turns my stomach.

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illustration of woman driving away in a car with thunderstorms in her hair
Marina Muun
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’Cause girl you’re amaziiiiiing … just the way you are. Bruno Mars sang through the speakers on my car radio. I hadn’t thought this song held particular meaning for me, but here I was, feeling moved by the sound of Bruno’s voice. On this Monday morning, I had hopped into my car with a smile on my face and a profound sense of gratitude. The weekend had been amazing. It was my weekend with the kids and every moment was worth savoring: They were funny and helpful; I was patient and present. We had spent an incredible four days together. This part I understood. But there was something more.

Why was I thinking back to  that time in my life? Why was his name invading my mind:  Timothy, Timothy, Timothy. Why was this coming up now and why was I about to cry? What was I feeling? My stomach turned.

I tried to shun the memories, move my thoughts to something more pleasant, remember the weekend with my kids. But I just couldn’t shake it:  Timothy, Timothy, TimothyUgh, I thought. And then the tears started flowing. They wouldn’t stop. My heart sank and for a few minutes, maybe only seconds, I blamed him.  How could he? What kind of a man pursues a married woman with young kids? He is a disgusting human being. Then my blame shifted to the alcohol:  I was drunk all of the timeThe alcohol blurred my judgment. But the tears kept streaming down my cheeks, and I knew the thoughts of blame had to stop.

No more pointing fingers. No more stuffing it down and no more dismissing his name or my part in the affair. It was time to own it. I cheated on my husband. I said those five words over and over again in my own mind as I cried.

It was hard to believe and process the fact that there was a time in my life when his name made me feel warm and excited. A time when I truly believed he was my soulmate. I had met him in a restaurant 10 years ago: I was a waitress; he a bartender. He pursued me and I welcomed every minute of it. My marriage had been crumbling for years, but the kids? They needed us together. And so my husband and I stayed together and tried to be happy. When that didn’t work, we faked it. I wanted to be part of a forever, intact family. But I didn’t want to be married to my husband anymore. I just couldn’t admit it or accept it just yet. So the affair? Well, it forced the inevitable.

I told my husband that I had feelings for someone else. He wasn’t surprised. I had been rolling in the house at 3 a.m. several times a week. I was drinking more often and I had become very distant. I suddenly loved my bartending job more than I loved being with my family. The job, the drinking, Timothy … they were my escape. We would flirt on the floor, share conversation until the early morning hours, and text in between shifts. When I was at work with him, I felt giddy, butterflies, beautiful and happy. I felt like a teenager. I felt energized and empowered and thought for sure that this was true happiness! In contrast, when I was home with my family, I felt dirty and guilty. I was constantly hiding my phone to conceal his text messages. Being with my kids made me feel like a disgusting piece of crap, and so I chose not to be around them whenever possible.

I told my husband it was time to quit my job. He disagreed. We needed the money, he said. So I went back to work, and we went to counseling. I think we both knew that counseling couldn’t save us, but we needed to try everything for the kids, even if our attempt was only half-assed. Things only got worse. We tried three different counselors. We never discussed the affair. We talked about my drinking, my poor spending habits, and every other complaint my husband had about me. We both pretended Timothy didn’t exist. One year after our first counseling session, the divorce papers arrived on my doorstop, and to this day I am not sure how many details my now ex-husband knows about this affair. I do know that we still would be divorced today if the affair never happened. I also know that I regret the affair more than I regret anything else in my entire life.

I had always imagined my life post-divorce would be spent with Timothy. I was certain that I loved him. But here I was 10 years later, crying in my car, disgusted by the thought of his name. I felt dirty even thinking about him. I cried uncontrollably, feeling extreme shame and a huge sense of relief simultaneously. Then I picked up the phone and called my beloved friend who knows every single thing there is to know about me; I knew I just had to speak the words out loud to another person : I cheated on my husband. For 10 years I had said,  but I never slept with him and  it was just an emotional affair. Both of those statements were true, but I now knew that they didn’t disqualify me from having been part of an affair.

My friend told me the tears were God’s way of telling me it’s time to forgive myself. I cried more and I felt shaky. I literally felt myself shifting from the inside out. What was happening didn’t feel good — not even a little bit, but my spirit, my heart and my conscience needed this discomfort to grow, to forgive, to accept and to learn.

I am still feeling a bit unsettled as I try to accept the past and forgive myself in the present. What next? I so desperately want to know the answer to this question. Do I apologize to my ex-husband? Do I have to somehow punish myself before I can fully forgive myself? Am I suddenly a better person because I am owning the biggest moral mistake of my life? The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know what comes next. I am still living this story and the discomfort that accompanies it.

I do know that this moment has left me feeling humble in a way that I have never experienced. I also feel a great sense of compassion — for my ex-husband and my kids, for myself, and for everyone who has ever made a moral mistake. I want to become a person who judges less. Life is hard. I screwed up more than I ever imagined I would. No one in my life today would believe that I cheated. I can’t change it. I can’t dismiss it. And I can’t blame anyone or anything else.

I am grateful that I am finally ready to face this head-on. I know that the me who shows up for her kids today, doesn’t drink and has self-worth is a stark contrast to the broken, vulnerable and hurt woman who cheated on her husband years ago. The painful memories are a catalyst for gratitude today. I am not her anymore. I am so much more. Sometimes, I can’t even believe I used to be her.

What next? I don’t have the answer to this question, and that is OK. Life kind of has a way of throwing the right lessons at me at the right times. So, I will hang on for this ride and continue to be the best person I can be today. And hey, if Bruno says I am amazing just the way I am, who am I to argue?