Let’s start with discovery and with anger, because you may be feeling quite a bit of that now. Of course, you are angry at him, but it is possible you are angry at yourself for not discovering sooner, too. Maybe you torment yourself, thinking of all the years it went on while you slept or hung the laundry or knelt before the rack of men’s socks at a department store, making sure you got his correct size. You think how easily he slipped away with another woman while you dusted around the wedding photos, waited at the school gate, or booked tickets to Disneyland, and how you never asked or imagined or gave it any thought.
People will tell you that you must have known all along, that you turned a blind eye, that you were in denial. None of this is true. Your husband was your most trusted partner and he was above suspicion. Above suspicion, meaning you did not search his computer history, or check his bank statements or monitor his text messages. Now, you realize that if you’d done any of those things, you’d have known years ago. And with that, a feeling like hatred wells within you, but it isn’t that you hate yourself now, for something you’ve done. This is worse and deeper. You hate who you are now, and who you have been over a long period of time. Everything about your identity shifted in that instant of discovery. Your husband is a sex addict. Your partner is a sex addict. The person you love is a sex addict. Husband, partner, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend. What matters is that they are a sex addict. What exactly does that make you?
Maybe you’ve found out because there was an hours-long history of pornography mistakenly left on his computer. Or his phone has a text from a woman whose identity is vague but refers him to a code to enter on her website. Maybe he’s been arrested for curb-crawling. Maybe he’s been fired for using a computer at work to look at sexual images. I’ve heard all these stories, and the worst story, that you find out after he kills himself. What we know about some addicts is this: they mostly can’t stand to live with sex addiction. For a few of them, this means they choose not to live at all.
I found out because my husband was having an affair. You might not think an affair could be part of sex addiction (and I am not convinced it was) but I’ll talk about that later in this book. For now, let’s call the affair part of the addiction, just as the pornography and prostitutes and chat rooms and phone sex were all part of addiction. And let’s spend a moment on what finding out feels like, because if you are an addict reading this, it might help you to know what your wife (it is usually a wife, though it can certainly be a husband) may have gone through. So often sex addicts say, but she’s so angry! Or they throw up their hands in despair and call out, But she is so crazy!
I’m not crazy, but I sure felt so then. And you might, too, if you experienced this kind of sudden detonation of yourself, your marriage, and your life. Here is my discovery story. You will have your own.
He’d been spending more time than usual away from home because his mother, aged ninety, had been ill. I thought this was the reason, anyway.
His phone went off at six thirty in the morning. The phone was on the mattress, inches from my face. If I hadn’t been next to it, I would never have picked up the text. He gets hundreds of texts and emails and phone calls every day – as far as I was aware, they were all work-related. I never even checked. I trusted him completely. But I did not want him to read about his mother’s death in a text. I was half asleep and as far as I could imagine at 6:30 in the morning the only reason for someone to text my husband was to tell him his mother was dead.
He was in the shower, the door of the bathroom ajar. A slice of light from the ceiling lamp illuminated a strip of carpet across the bedroom floor. A panel of windows that line one side of the bathroom fogged with steam. I was groggy; the air was wet. I had a fleeting sense of how awful this was going to be, of how I would have to tell him about his mother. I heard the shower water beating against the glass, then a flat bang as he dropped the shampoo bottle.
I was so sure that message would be about his mother that I almost could not read the actual words on the screen. It was as though they had been written in a foreign language and it took several tries before it made any sense at all. The text said nothing about his mother. That was the first thing that confused me. And it was not from his brothers and sisters either. It is from a co-worker, and it must have been a woman, because she wrote, It was so lovely to look across the room last night and see a familiar face. xx.
I read it again. I checked to make sure that he hadn’t picked up someone else’s phone by mistake. He’d been at a work dinner the night before. It would have been a simple mistake to pick up someone else’s phone, wouldn’t it? Pick up one phone instead of another? But the list of contacts were all our friends and family, his colleagues, the passwords for bank accounts that they tell you to memorize and never record, especially on a phone. It was his phone all right, and these two little xx’s were for him.
Suddenly, I found it difficult to breathe. The letters became magnified, the words ballooning. My head began to pound like something inside was flapping against my eyes. There was a shift deep down in my gut, a sensation I remembered from the latter stages of my pregnancies, when the baby suddenly moved and I had to stand very still. The words had such power over me. The casual tone, the way she wrote lovely, the two little x’s at the end. The whole room seemed to disintegrate and reappear, pulsing into my awareness and then out once more. I lost my peripheral vision; everything I saw was tunneled. My breathing was all wrong—little gasps that made me dizzy.
The moment of discovery was so strong it felt like a living thing with a heartbeat, a presence that had entered my house, climbed the stairs and found me asleep in bed. Months later, it remained frozen in my mind: the cascading shower, the steam from the bathroom, the text like a cypher from a hidden world, myself rising from bed, stumbling toward the open bathroom door, calling to my husband over the din of the shower. Our children were asleep, their bedrooms filling slowly with light; our garden hens were asleep, the mist lifting above the felt roof of their little hut.
All of this moment, this little while of my life, stuck in my head like a diorama, like one of the many windows of the queen’s dollhouses in Windsor Castle in which a domestic scene is enacted — children rushing across a floor, the cat suddenly leaping for the yarn, a flurry of activity and sentiment and purpose forever underway, caught in a moment that is never realized and that remains, instead, permanently in motion.
I took the phone to the bathroom. I held it out to him as though it was a skull I had found on the floor. Maybe I said, Who sent you this? Maybe I said, What is going on? I don’t remember what I said. I start going a little nuts inside. My bones were loose; they could no longer hold the weight of my body. I was shaking, trying to stay standing. My lips felt stuck together, numbed into slow movement so that I slurred my words. I was holding the edge of the sink because I could not stand straight. I couldn’t focus. The steam of the shower added to the blurriness of my vision. All this happened in an instant. Suddenly, I could not form a sentence with my mouth; I could not see with my eyes.
He answered me so easily. “She is someone I work with. What is the problem?” His annoyance was drawn on his face: little scowl lines on his brow, a downward bend of his mouth. He looked angry, even disgusted. He was taking a shower, couldn’t I see that? Why was I looking at his phone?
He rinsed the shampoo from his hair, everything about him perfectly normal, except I noticed how his hands lingered on his chin, then his neck. There was something suspicious about the way he moved, exiting the shower as though in slow motion, his head still, his limbs shifting deliberately, carefully, as though he was thinking about something else, something important and far away. He, too, was entering a state of shock but he wanted to hide this fact. He was vigilant, wary, exercising a kind of professional caution. He did not want me to notice anything unusual about him, anything odd. I couldn’t have known then, but he’d had to practice this same self-discipline many times before.
But this time, I knew. I saw the pulse in his neck fluttering like the heart of a bird and I knew he was involved with this woman. He might even be in love with her. It was unimaginable to me. Unimaginable. That he would love someone else, that he would touch someone else. But I saw it on him, that change of allegiance.
His tone softened and he told me to go back to bed, not to worry. He almost smiled but could not pull it off. His skin was pink from the hot water, but his lips were grey. His eyes did not meet mine. He removed a towel from a Victorian clothes rack I bought in a market stall fifteen years ago when we lived in south London and ate in the steamy cove of a tiny Thai restaurant, made love on the stiff, balding carpet of our living room, and talked about what we would one day name our children.
I backed away from him, returning to our bed, a superking-sized Vi-Spring we bought at Harrods when our daughter was born and we realized the old double would not be big enough to fit her between us in the middle of the night. Climbing beneath the covers, I grew suddenly cold. The duvet could not warm me. My body began doing things I did not recognize, my legs shaking as though connected to a power source. They shivered, seeming no longer to belong to me. I felt my stomach lurch; I had to concentrate to keep myself from being sick. It was the two xx’s that did it. One could overlook a single x, even in the very conservative atmosphere of his office—a place in which everyone wears ties and suits in navy or grey and no one, but no one, signs x’s with their names. But not two xx’s from a colleague and a flow of text that so clearly implied intimacy. No need for an introduction or a sign off name because he would know it was from her.
He stood in the bathroom, his hand on the doorframe, staring into the bedroom with a faraway expression, not really seeing me. He had a towel around his waist, another draped over his arm. His hair stood against his scalp. He was handsome, well proportioned, athletic. I thought how pathetic I must seem, shivering, weak, unable to get out of bed, while his body took up the whole doorframe.
I hugged my knees. I said, “Who is this?” I did not want to use the word “she.” He turned away. He dried his right thigh in that same slow deliberate manner, as though trying to remember how to move like a human. Then he looked in the mirror, picked up a razor, ran some hot water, all this done in slow distinct steps as though he was listening to an instructor tell him, Do this, now do this.
“She’s someone I work with,” he said into the glass.
“Don’t you think this text is awfully…familiar?”
“I’ll speak to her about it.” His words were dry and flat and seemed to come from far away. I was talking to a robot, to a shell. The man I lived with, my husband, had exited through an invisible door.
“I mean it’s obvious that there’s something–”
He turned toward me, glowering. I watched as the lid on his anger lifted, rising higher with each word. “Ring her if you like!” Not just anger, but a hammering disdain. “Go right ahead. Ring her and ask her why she sent the text. Satisfy yourself!” He sounded disgusted, at the limit of his patience. It was as though I were persecuting him. He pulled the razor down his cheek, slapping its plastic end against the side of the sink a little harder than necessary. Everything about his body language said How much more do I have to put up with?
He knew I would not ring her, that I would never do such a thing. And anyway, look at me: my sudden hysteria, the floods of tears, the way in which I had become a puddle in my own bed. He was certain I would not have the nerve or even the physical energy, to make such a phone call.
But he was wrong.
I told him that was a fine idea. I would ring her. That was exactly what I would do. I stumbled into the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub. I was going to, show him—ha!—what I was doing. But the phone buttons must have been moved because suddenly were all too close together. I tried several times but kept getting the number wrong. He ran his razor over his cheek, tapped the basin with it again. You would think he would try to hug me, to console me, that he would find a kind word or two. Nothing. It was suddenly very quiet. I looked foolish; I could not even punch the right keys to make the phone call.
All I could think, there in my bathroom trying to dial the numbers on my husband’s cell phone, was how he seemed disgusted with me. How he appeared to really loathe me. And nothing seemed to work—not my legs with their clumsy lack of strength, not my fingers, certainly not my balance. I’d had to use the wall to guide me from the bed to the bathroom. Now I sat down on the cold tiles, bracing my feet against the floor, and concentrating with all my might just to dial. I suppose it had been safe for him to tell me to ring the woman—he had guessed correctly I could do no such a thing.
He watched as I persisted with the phone. He did not know how much I wanted him to stop me, for him to put an end to this unfolding, and to convince me that what I suspected wasn’t true anyway. The seconds marched by; I kept trying to dial, the task going on and on. Meanwhile, he stopped shaving. He stood in front of me, his hands braced against the countertop. I felt my heart in my chest. I felt his skin, the close warmth, the steam from his body. We were surrounded by a scented cloud of soap and shampoo and my own sweat. I heard the ungainly silence between us. I watched myself as though from the ceiling, trying to work the stupid phone. Finally, he sank toward the countertop, resting his head in his hands, and it was as though I had been hunting all night and had finally, regrettably, brought down my quarry.
And now, just when I wished it least, I heard the sound of a phone ringing—her phone ringing, this other woman who I’d been trying to reach–and I thought, You mustn’t answer, Please don’t answer.
She was laughing as she said hello. In the background were sounds of a restaurant: cups and saucers, the buzzy expanse of a large room. The laughter was breezy and free. The restaurant served in my mind as a theatre for her happiness. Seated at a table, the white linen cloth brushing her leg, the coffee hot before her, the phone to her ear, she was quietly excited. She was expecting a call from my husband.
Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe she was just trying to get some work done before a meeting. Couldn’t that be it? And now she receives a phone call from an hysterical woman, whose husband crossed the harmless line from being her colleague to being her friend? All at once, I was sure this was the case, that there was nothing but a friendship between them. Perhaps the way he was slumped beside me now, his hands covering his face, was purely out of embarrassment, not guilt? I told myself, Please stop this. You are making a fool of yourself, of your family. I nearly handed him the phone, but he turned away from me. I wanted him to stop me—I wanted this urgently—but all I saw was his naked back like a wall.
Apparently, he’d had gone the night before to hear this woman’s short speech as part of a company dinner. I found this out later, how she had given a presentation to colleagues and how he’d attended just to listen. He hadn’t needed to be there at all but he wanted to surprise her, and now she wanted him to tell her how good she had been, how smart, how proud he was of her. She sent the message, expecting him to phone back right away, and when she saw his number come up on her screen, she laughed with the delight of it. She believed she would hear his rendition of the night’s event, how well she had come across, how she’d impressed. Another woman’s voice — my voice — surprised her. My presence had not been in the forecast. But here I was.
I told her I was D—-’s wife. “Did you mean to text him?” I asked her. “At this hour?”
The question gave her an opportunity. She could easily have said she’d texted him by accident, that the message was meant for another person entirely who she had not seen in many years. How embarrassing, she might say. And I am sorry I disturbed you so early in the day. Tell D—- I am sorry, would you? But she hadn’t thought fast enough. She couldn’t remember exactly what she typed in the text. Had she used his name? Had she written something overtly sexual? It was too early in the morning and she was too flustered.
Anyway, it did not occur to her to retreat and apologize because she did not believe she had done anything wrong. Not really wrong anyway. That is the level this kind of delusion takes. She believed she had done no harm other than be attractive to other men, to my husband among others. Why should she apologize or feel embarrassed? Why on earth should she explain herself to the wife? The wife is nobody to such a woman.
I waited, but she did not reply. Finally, I said, “Hello? Hello?”
“Hello,” she said, as though the conversation had just started.
“Did you know you sent my husband a text this morning?”
She said, yes, no. Another pause. She asked who I was. “Who is this, again?”
I had punctured her pleasant morning; she had been enjoying the feeling, and it must be a delicious one, of being powerful, exciting, desirable. She had supposed that she was above discovery, that she could hide in my life forever without me realizing it. Now she was suddenly unearthed, exposed. The phone call was inevitable. She’d been run to ground—she must have realized this. Sitting in that restaurant as the day gathered around her, some part of her must surely have been thinking, You’ve blown it.
“You sent a text,” I said. “Twenty minutes ago.”
The sounds of the restaurant became louder in my ear as she decided what to do. I waited. My husband leaned heavily against the bathroom wall, his eyes fixed on the garden outside, the gnarled apple trees, the trampoline, the murky smoke from next door. The sun was orange, the clouds, red. Everything was burning. My head bent down, peering at the phone as though at my own heart. “Who is this?” she asked, as if I were a prank caller. “Who is calling?”
I told her again, but she pretended not to hear. Then she hung up.
It felt like being hit by a train; I could almost hear the roaring in my ears. I was going to experience the event of this discovery– holding the phone, ending the conversation with her, the morning sun glowing through the window, turning once again to D—-, the shock on his face, how I stumbled back to the bed. I was going to relive this again and again.
I put my knees to my chest, my chest wet with tears, having no idea, no idea at all, what was happening. I was scared of what would come next, what would follow after that line of words that ended with two x’s. A rumbling in my life that had gone undetected until now was growing rapidly; a great divide opened before me, everything before, everything afterwards.
“Who is this woman?”
D—- looked vaguely my way. He shook his head as though he did not want to answer. I had the awful thought he would tell me he was in love with her, and that he was not in love with me. And I wished—immediately and more than anything—that I could withdraw the question.
“Have you slept with her?” I asked. I thought he’d say no, not yet. Looking back now, I can almost feel contempt for myself, for how foolish I was, how ridiculous and naive.
He held out his hand, two fingers showing. “Twice,” he said.
I was so desperate, I believed him. Ironically, weeks later when he finally told me the truth—that it wasn’t only this woman, but many others—I couldn’t believe him. Not at first. The notion that he’d been unfaithful to me for years while I was either working or looking after the kids and the house and the cars and him was just too terrible.
In no time at all I had gone from being a woman who thought she was in a stable, long marriage to being the wife of a sex addict, with a husband who would need treatment, therapy, programs, sponsors. My introduction to his sex addiction was abrupt. I had no idea that sex addiction existed when I answered that text. It wasn’t yet in the normal parlance of most people or talked about in the media. He hadn’t started on a recovery program of any kind and had little concept of what an addiction meant, himself, much less any idea what to do about it.
We were like people caught in a war zone—overwhelmed, traumatized. The anguish I went through, that we both went through—some of it self-inflicted, some of it not—has been among the most profound experiences in my life. And while I am weirdly grateful now, many years later, for what has happened since this discovery, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, except perhaps that woman on the other end of the phone who texted that morning. However, I am fairly certain she is what they call a “Love and Sex Addict” and is full of her own troubles.
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