By Hugo Schwyzer
Courtesy of ifstudies.org
WARNING: Following essay includes an honest discussion of one man’s infidelity and its consequences in his life and the lives of his children.
It is a Sunday night at my ex-wife’s house, and I’m getting ready to say goodbye to the kids after a happy, rough-and-tumble afternoon. As I prepare to leave, my six-year-old son goes to the bookcase and pulls out a slim, black volume, clutching it tightly to his chest. I ask to see what he’s holding, and he hands it over, but not before kissing the image on the front. It’s a photo album, one of those custom-made jobs you order online. This album is a collection of photos from our family trip to Israel in 2015, and the cover photo that my son kissed features him, his older sister, his mother, and me all beaming at the camera.
It is one of the very few photos of the four of us, and perhaps the only one of all of us taken in his living memory. Although his mother and I separated in 2013 when he was just 13 months and my daughter was four, the trip to Israel was one we took as divorced parents so that my son could have his first haircut on his third birthday in the Holy Land—an Orthodox Jewish custom. My little boy treasures this picture, tangible evidence that while he now sees his daddy only two days a week, there must have been a happier time when his parents slept under the same roof, in the same bed.
My then-wife demanded a divorce after she discovered that I had engaged in not one, not two, but a series of affairs stretching back to the years before the children were born. I had been chronically unfaithful to my kids’ mom, just as I had been to the three wives before her. (I’d cheated on every former girlfriend too, at least those who’d lasted with me more than three months.)
I begged her to stay with me, promised more therapy, and 12-Step programs, but she was firm, for our kids’ sake as much as her own. “If we stay together,” she told me, “I’m sending a message to our daughter about what she should put up with. And I’m sending a message to our son about what women will accept.” I didn’t have a good argument to rebut her. I still don’t.
I grew up in the 1970s, the “Me Decade” where, as David Frum so elegantly illustrated, the pursuit of personal fulfillment stood at the top of the pyramid of virtues. Divorce was hard on children, surely, but worth it because it gave adults the freedom to start over as often as it was necessary until they got it right. This was not something I grew up questioning, as to do so would have been to doubt the parents I adored. My father had found great happiness with his second wife, the woman for whom he left my mother. Even my mom, who remained friends with both my dad and my stepmother, praised the divorce as “freeing everyone up to be a little happier.”
For a host of reasons, I was confident (or at least hopeful) I could do what my own father had not, which was to stay enduringly faithful to one woman. I entered relationship after relationship, sure that I wouldn’t cheat. But sooner or later—usually sooner—I proved unfaithful. Every time I cheated for the first time, I would weep in shame and disappointment with myself. As the old detective’s adage goes, the second murder is a thousand times easier; with repetition, I numbed myself to what I saw as my own built-in, immutable failing.
In the breakdown of my parents’ marriage, I lost something before I knew I had it, and I felt its absence keenly. In the way they clutch pictures and demand stories of the “time before,” I see that my children feel the same way.
From the breakup of my first marriage to the collapse of my fourth, I received two kinds of false (or at least unhelpful) advice from therapists, friends, and family members. The first set of misguided reassurance suggested that I was unfaithful because I had (once again) selected the wrong woman to marry. She was too demanding, or too withholding, or too undersexed, or perhaps she and I didn’t have the right chemistry. Once you find the “right woman,” these friends suggested, the urge to stray will vanish and an enduring contentment with monogamy will arrive. I never found that argument persuasive for long, but many people do—as if enduring fidelity becomes near-effortless once you’re matched with your soulmate.
The second type of bad advice suggested that I wasn’t cut out for monogamy in the first place. “Being faithful isn’t your nature,” these folks suggested, “and it may not be most other people’s nature either.” I was going through my third divorce in 2002 when a friend gave me an article to read about polyamory, which she presented as the perfect mix of sexual variety and intense emotional intimacy. I would go on to try “ethical non-monogamy” several times, but the result was always the same: everything was glorious and a great deal of fun—until I fell in love with one woman and realized I wanted to try a monogamous relationship with her.
The fact that I had given in to temptation so often (every time, to be precise) didn’t in any way lessen my craving for an enduring, committed, monogamous relationship. I’m a relentless optimist, and a realistic one, too. I’ve long accepted that ethical non-monogamy leaves something to be desired, even though it may be ideal for others. I’ve also been through too much therapy to buy the lie that I’ve cheated solely because I’ve been matched with the wrong women. I want to be faithful—but a fear-based compulsion consistently undermines my desire. It’s my job to do the long and exhausting work of coming to terms with that compulsion.
Marriage and divorce rates are falling—in part because marriage has become, as sociologist Andrew Cherlin put it, the “capstone” rather than the “cornerstone” of a carefully constructed life. The capstone model advises getting married only after one has a college degree, a fulfilling career, and, presumably, a sufficient number of previous relationships and enough emotional reflection (or expensive therapy) to be able to take on the challenges of lifelong monogamy. Only after a sufficient number of oats have been sown, only after enough tears have been shed in a therapist’s office, can one truly count oneself ready for marriage. The capstone model is far easier for the upper-middle class to access, which is why they’re the ones who are likelier to marry. The unspoken subtext of the capstone model is that marriage and fidelity are too difficult to do too soon.
The other consequence of the capstone model is that infidelity has become far more unforgivable than before. As I wrote for The Atlantic in 2013,
The capstone model is much less forgiving of sexual betrayal because it presumes that those who finally get around to marrying should be mature enough to be both self-regulating and scrupulously honest…The evidence suggests, however, that the capstoners are more than a little naïve if they imagine that a rich set of premarital life experiences will serve as an inoculation against infidelity.
I wrote that last line with something between a wince and a wink. Just weeks later, the mother of my two children would (not wrongly) throw me out of the house after finding the evidence of a series of my own affairs. Experience, education, therapy, and middle-class comforts had not affair-proofed my fourth marriage.
My first three wives are gone from my life now, on to new marriages and new lives. We seldom if ever speak. My fourth ex-wife and I speak almost daily, exchanging schedules and plans with a matter-of-factness that oscillates between the tender and the brisk. She has forgiven me for her own sake and the children’s, and I do not take that for granted. Forgiveness and restoration are, of course, not the same thing. While she could forgive my infidelity and encourage me to be the involved but noncustodial father that I am, she was unable to look past what I did, over and over again, with so many others over so many years. The lesson to our children is the right one: your parents can still be a team, working together on your behalf, even if the damage of serial infidelity cannot be undone.
Sometimes, there are no do-overs, just do-differentlys.
Children of divorced parents can spend years doing as my son does, clutching the photographs of a dimly remembered “happy time” when mom and dad were together. Long after my father married the stepmother whom I came to adore, I would wistfully study the photos of my own parents’ wedding or stare in fascination at the images of the two of them pushing their firstborn, the infant me, in my pram. In the breakdown of my parents’ marriage, I lost something before I knew I had it, and I felt its absence keenly. In the way they clutch pictures and demand stories of the “time before,” I see that my children feel the same way.
We raise young people with conflicting messages about monogamy. It’s either unnatural (and shouldn’t be promised or sought), or it’s nearly effortless if you’ve met the right person. Bromides about the inevitability or the banality of infidelity do nothing to comfort the partners, children, and grandchildren of those who cheat. There is always a way forward of some sort, a way to make the best of heartbreak and loss. There is, on the other hand, no good way to tell a little boy, his tears dripping onto a photograph, why what he longs for is gone forever.
Hugo Schwyzer was a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College from 1993-2013. He has written for The Atlantic, Jezebel, and the Guardian, among other sites. He holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. from UCLA. A father of two, he now works at a Trader Joe’s.