A Mistress Contemplating Retirement

Friday, June 03, 2011

Question

I want to bring up something I don't think you have discussed in your column. That is the situation of a woman who is involved long-term with a married man. In the beginning I believed him when he said he was going to leave her. Maybe a part of him believed his own lie. But after months and months of holidays spent alone and other broken promises, I just accepted the fact that I loved a man who was never going to be 100% available.

There are advantages. I have a lot of independence. He simply doesn't have the right to question any of my decisions. And he's been quite generous with me financially. I could never afford the downtown condo that I live in, or my new car, or my wardrobe, without his contributions. When he's with me, he is incredibly sweet and attentive. Sometimes I think that we get to enjoy all of the high points of a relationship with none of the boring stuff. Other times, I feel that what we have is just a facade. And I do feel increasingly lonely and left out. It was hard to hold back the tears when I saw college friends getting married and starting families.

Then I saw them getting divorced. Often it was because somebody like me was stealing part of the husbands' energy. Should I feel guilty? Or am I performing some kind of public service by holding his marriage together, helping him to cope with a very difficult wife and protect his kids from her emotional excesses? He'd never get custody of his own children if he divorced her. On paper, she looks like a great mother.

I met my lover when I was working for his firm. After we became involved, I realized the relationship would be impossible to hide, and took a job for another company. I thought I was completely satisfied and happy with my situation. Then one day, I arrived about a half an hour early for a lunch date with him. I waited in the lobby for him to come down the stairs. Instead, I saw him waltzing into the lobby with a woman who is ten years younger than me. She was staring at him with adoration, laughing at all of his jokes, and he was eating it up, showing off for her, flirting in the same sophisticated style that once drove me crazy and wore down all of my resistance.

Is he having sex with her? If he isn't, I believe he will, sooner rather than later. Does that mean I will be replaced? Do I want to share my lover with a wife and another mistress? Not really, but what are the grounds for refusing? I can't exactly accuse him of infidelity, can I? Now I find myself thinking the same angry things that my friends said when they filed for divorce. I thought I was enough for him. I thought this was forever. Did he ever really love me? I've been such a fool, to believe I was unique, but I'm really just a convenience.

I have so many questions that I don't know where to start. I guess it all boils down to this: What the hell do I do about this, and how can I start over when I've allowed myself to be on the sidelines, a dirty secret, for so long? I feel ashamed of myself and furious with him. Should I tell his wife? Or is that just being petty? Should I cheat on him? Can adulterous lovers cheat on each other? Why am I surprised by any of this? If he could neglect his wife and lie to her to be with me, there's no reason why he wouldn't justify doing the same thing to me, as soon as it was expedient.

Answer

Did you have an agreement with this man that he would have sex only with you and his wife? If so, you do have grounds for being upset if he strays and makes love with somebody else. The fact that you are his mistress doesn't mean it's open season and anything goes. But when two people come together while one of them is cheating on a monogamous relationship, it is often hard for them to trust one another. You are feeling insecure about getting older, and you saw him flirting with a younger woman. That would trigger anyone. But you don't really know what his intentions are toward this other woman. Unless you have much more substantial evidence that he is romancing somebody else, retaliation is premature. Even if he dumps you, what good would it do to tell his wife? Chances are she already knows there are problems in her marriage. If you tattle, she can focus on you as the source of the bad news, rather than on him and his easy virtue.

Use this unhappy event to motivate you to reevaluate how you feel about your lover and your own life. Rather than get lost in a labyrinth of suspicion and self-reproach, make some realistic plans for your own future. It sounds like this man has been quite generous with you. I'm not sure if you still have a job or not. If you do, evaluate where you are in your career versus where you'd like to be. Get some expert coaching to move you to a track that you prefer. Talk to a financial consultant about your retirement. Do not count on any kind of inheritance from him, as his family will have grounds to contest it. If he wishes to make any sort of bequest to you, it should be done before he passes away, after taking the advice of his tax accountant and lawyer.

Do you want a professional career that requires more education or a license? Start working on those goals now. If you want your own business, see if your lover can help you to plan to set one up. There are also government agencies that help women to re-enter the work force or start their own businesses. Get on the telephone and start searching the web for more information. Again, coaching with a skilled business professional is often a wise move because a third party can help you to set and meet effective goals. Do you want (in several years) to be a successful Woman of a Certain Age who can afford a boy toy of her own? Do you want to find a divorced man your own age who is available to court and love and marry you? Want to move to Europe? Travel around the world? Adopt or foster-parent a child? Do you want to be single and celibate, avoiding the heartache and confusion of desire for a certain amount of time? All these things (and more) are within your grasp if you can make up your mind to pursue one ideal.

I've often found myself in situations where my lover was married or otherwise committed to somebody else. I know what you mean when you speak about the bitterness of holidays you've spent alone. But if you know he will always spend holidays with his family, don't wait around any longer. Plan a vacation for yourself. Invite friends to come over. Bill a day-long spa treatment to his gold card. If you don't have friends who can get you through the lonely times, why not? Make a list of your interests or hobbies, and start going to activities (classes, book clubs, readings, museum tours, volunteer work) where you can find people who share those fancies. Buy a cat or a small dog. Learn how to do carpentry or gardening. You will enjoy him more if you can accept and enjoy what he is able to offer you, and stop resenting or regretting what you've given up. All relationships, even marriages, have limitations, frustrations, and disappointments. I don't want to belittle what you are going through, but I do want to empower you to either make the best of your situation or get out of it and create a different sort of life.

Just be sure that you are going to be able to support yourself before you get out of this relationship. Get some counseling before you make any major changes, so you can be sure you are doing what's best for you. It wouldn't hurt to be assessed for depression, which can make even a good life seem unhappy. The fact that you fell in love with a married man doesn't make you a bad person. Our culture is, in my opinion, unrealistic to expect lifelong monogamy from married couples. After loving Spencer Tracy for decades and caring for him full-time, putting her own career on hold for five years during his last illness, poor Katharine Hepburn felt she had to stay away from his funeral out of respect for his family. (Tracy was a Roman Catholic and refused to divorce his estranged wife.) It's possible to love more than one person at a time, and yet the church and state (not to mention the tabloids) can't digest this simple fact or change to accommodate it. The human heart and libido are complex operating systems, and we ought to all be more humble about their potential to complicate and enrich our lives.

The saddest letters I get are not from the people who loved or love the wrong person. They are from the people who have never found mutual love. There are such unfortunates, so perhaps a little gratitude can leaven your anger and help you to take the next step with compassion for yourself and everyone else who shares in your situation.

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