Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
This time the Sugars are joined by Julie Metz, author of Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal. They talk to a young wife who has learned secrets that have her doubting her marriage. In this letter, she describes learning that her husband had hired prostitutes and messaged women on dating websites.
About six months ago, I married the man I had been in love with for seven years. I had a feeling of safety with him that I never felt with anyone else, and a deep connection, despite our very different backgrounds. My husband grew up in Central America with an abusive, alcoholic biological father who died when he was young, an often-absent teenage mother who was constantly working to provide for her children, and later, an American stepfather who was in the Air Force. Once in the U.S., my husband's family moved often because of his stepfather's job, while my husband struggled to acclimate himself with the culture and the language. In contrast, I grew up in a four-person, stable, middle-class family in Pennsylvania.
My husband and I met each other right after completing college and somehow, despite our strikingly different pasts, connected instantly and grew to realize that we viewed the world in very similar ways.
Then, recently, something changed. About a month ago, I found out terrible secrets about my husband that were, to me and to everyone that knows us, completely unfathomable. I learned that my husband: First, had a deactivated profile on a dating website throughout our relationship that he reactivated on and off to message people. Second, that he was posting personal ads looking for people to "get drinks with" on Craigslist while traveling for his job. And third, the real kicker: Over the past two years while we got engaged, planned a wedding, and got married, he had hired prostitutes, also while traveling for work, and left nasty, degrading reviews about them online.
But what followed was the worst part. It was a series of lies. Lie after lie after lie after lie. Every time I found something new, my husband would only admit to that piece of information. You believe you know someone, and then, somehow, suddenly, you don't.
After only six months of marriage, I'm contemplating filing for divorce. My husband claims that he never met anyone from the dating website or Craigslist. He admits to paying for sexual acts four times and says that someone he works with showed him how to do it. He makes his actions seem like part of a fantasy world, something that was mostly lived out online. But at some point, Sugars, real people became part of this world, and it was no longer a fantasy.
My husband says that he has demons from his childhood and that he's bad at being alone. That he was drinking when he was alone on the road and stressed out about his job. That one thing led to another, and ultimately, he didn't know how to deal with his loneliness and stress.
My husband wants to stay married and get better. He has confessed to his family, my family, and some of our friends the same information that he has confessed to me. He is seeing a therapist, and I have gone with him three times. Lately, he's turned back to healthier distractions in his life: running, doing yoga daily and reading regularly. But how do you recover from something like this?
I'm questioning our entire relationship. I feel like our marriage was a fraud and that I was missing a key piece of the puzzle when I entered into it.
I am about to be 30 years old. I can't help but think I can get out of this and have a fresh start. But I'm still struggling with the reality of it all. Sugars, how do I proceed?
Two Truths and Many Lies
Steve Almond: This letter reminds me of [a line from] The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth ... that man is not truly one, but truly two."
Cheryl Strayed: In order for you to succeed in your marriage, and in order for your husband to heal, he's going to have to bring those two selves together, and you're going to have to learn how to love those two selves. So that healing journey, if you decide to go it together or if he decides to go on it as an individual, is about learning how to love the darkness that is this man you married.
When I read this letter, I'm thinking that it sounds to me like your husband has a behavioral addiction that's connected to this shame-based sexual life that he's put deeply underground. We're talking about somebody who has repeatedly, over a long people of time, continued to engage in a behavior that he knows is destructive. And in this case it's about sex.
Steve: The sexual stuff is symptomatic. The real problem is that he's a compulsive liar. And the first big lie is to himself. You know him as this put-together guy who's compassionate and thoughtful, and that's who he has made himself into. But underneath that are a whole bunch of traumatic, complicated experiences that he hasn't resolved and worked through.
Julie Metz: I certainly felt for this writer, because I've been there. In 2003, I was 43 years old and the mother of a young child. My husband was 44, and he died suddenly. About six months after he died, I found out many secrets that he had been keeping.
The worst of it was that [my husband] had been involved with a woman in my town who was the mother of my daughter's best friend. This woman was in my house every day, and she had been having an affair with my husband for at least two, possibly three years. All of it was intensely painful when I found out, and it really upended my life completely, in every possible way.
There's a kind of person who has a disturbing ability to compartmentalize their lives. I believe my husband loved me, and he loved his daughter, and he didn't want to lose that. So he kind of found boxes for all those things, and I think TTML's husband is actually another such person.
Cheryl: Let's say you found out these things [about your husband] while he was alive, or that your husband confessed them to you. What do you think you would have done?
Julie: Knowing who I was then — and this brings up the big huge difference between where I was in my situation and where TTML is, which I feel is very key — I had a small child. I think I probably would have tried to keep it together for a while because I would have been thinking to myself that it would be in the best interest of my child. I don't think we would have made it. Unlike the place where I was at 43, she can afford and deserves to think really about herself. She can start over at 30.
Cheryl: TTMY, you're not responsible for your husband's life, but you are responsible for your own. Maybe you will look into your husband's eyes and see that he's very sincere, and he's going to really tackle this, and you're willing to wait. And maybe you want to walk away tomorrow. And I think anything you do is the right thing to do.
Steve: Or, some position that's in the middle that essentially says, "We need to separate until you have figured this out and you can come to me with something other than 'I'll fix it, I'll mend it, it was only this, it didn't mean anything.' "
Sometimes it's OK and appropriate and the best thing not to foreclose the possibility of some kind of healing, but also recognize that you can't be with this person right now until he figures out some basic stuff.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear an extended response and an update from "Two Truths and Many Lies" about what's happened with her marriage since writing to the Sugars.
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