I recently read Nora Ephron’s hilarious novel Heartburn (1983), a thinly-disguised version of her marriage and divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein. Only Ephron could wring so much humour out of discovering her husband’s infidelity—at the time she was seven months pregnant with their second child. Of course, humour and writing were her ways of coping with a devastatingly painful situation.
My own marriage break-up happened gradually (unlike the experience of Ephron’s character Rachel in Heartburn), and our son was grown up by the time I left my husband, yet I could relate to Rachel’s reaction when she finds out her husband is in love with someone else. In my words:
At the heart of infidelity lies not simply pain, but incomprehension and denial.
In Rachel’s words:
You have lost a piece of your past. The infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was. [p. 64]
Rachel thinks she was unbelievably stupid not to have realized her husband was having an affair.
A complicated mental process goes on with this discovery that “a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was.”
The most dramatic instance of this realization happened to me years after I left my husband, well after I had accepted that he had had affairs with several women during the last few years of our marriage. The killer revelation for me was finding out that he had had an affair that started many years before I suspected anything. It went on for years, and “the other woman” was one of my best friends. This discovery was shocking and incomprehensible to me in light of what I had thought was the reality of my marriage during those years. It re-opened the wound that my husband’s infidelity had caused, a wound I thought had healed.
To make it worse, my “friend” gave me several reasons to justify her behaviour, the primary one being that in my husband she had “finally found a man who could match her sexually.” Well, she might as well have stabbed me multiple times in the gut. How could she think it was acceptable to say this to me?—and think we could continue being friends? What lies did he tell her about our sex life? Why did she think my loyalty would lie with her and not with my ex-husband, whom I had at one time promised to “love till death do us part”?
After the initial disbelief, I felt a primal outrage towards both my ex-husband and my “friend”. In a few days this anger subsided, but my sense of disorientation and confusion persisted. I went through a torturous process of trying to figure this out, rationalize it, and answer basic questions:
Was my marriage happy if I thought it was?
Did my husband love me even though he was having affairs with other people?
Did I ever really know my husband? Was he capable of loving me, or anyone? Then what does love mean, anyway? And how can the sexual bond in a marriage be a sacred thing to one partner if it isn’t to the other?
Why did I end up judging my friend more harshly than my ex-husband? He was a liar and a cheat, and she was just one of the many emotionally vulnerable women he pursued.
I don’t choose to fully explain what I now feel for my ex-husband; suffice it to say that it’s forced me to recognize the irrationality in myself. I’m examining my own denial of the truths that I suspected for years, and the way I rationalized unacceptable behaviours and situations.
In large part, my interpretation of my reactions was provoked by an article I read last summer in the June 9, 2013 edition of The Globe and Mail. The article was “Denial: the secret of humanity’s success?” by Alanna Mitchell. In this article, Mitchell discusses a book entitled Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, by oncologist Ajit Varki. Varki’s book is based on the work of the late geneticist Danny Brower.
Brower’s theory is that being in constant (at least partial) denial of the knowledge of our own personal, inevitable death is part of what allows us to go on living, enjoying life, and procreating. Indeed, it could be that people who are suicidally depressed don’t have this ability to deny reality. As Mitchell puts it: “I know that I’m going to die but carry on as though I’m immortal, meanwhile spreading my DNA around like nobody’s business.”
These ideas about denial helped explain why I hadn’t acknowledged my husband’s infidelity for so many years. In retrospect, there were countless clues about what was going on. Many times, I intuitively sensed an unwelcome intimacy between my husband and other women, either when I saw them together or when I overheard phone conversations. He always vehemently denied any inappropriate relationships with other women. I know now that he lied to me for years, and against all logic and evidence I believed him. This was more than stupidity and naivety—it was denial.
At the same time my marriage was unravelling, I was struggling with another situation that included pain and denial. My coach George, who had lived with me and my family ever since we moved out West, was disabled by both severe hip arthritis and worsening congestive heart failure. George had been unable to run since he was sixty-six; he was initially stopped by arthritis in his knees, but later the hip arthritis became even worse. George never fully accepted his banishment from running; it was one of the reasons he refused to consider joint replacements. He must have tried every kind of snake-oil treatment advertised on the Internet. He could have opened his own “arthritis pharmacy” with the leftover pills, vitamins, and lotions he tried and abandoned.
George loved to work out, but in the final two years of his life his hips were so bad that any kind of aerobic exercise was very difficult for him. If he could have maintained his fitness, his heart condition might have progressed more slowly. But he had a horror of conventional medicine and doctors, and refused to get the medical treatment and advice he needed except when emergencies forced him into the hospital.
I begged George to consider hip replacements many times over the years, but he wouldn’t listen to me. And though I didn’t realize how serious his heart condition was (and his doctors weren’t forthcoming with me), I could have pushed harder to find out. In truth I couldn’t imagine that George had only a short time more to live, even though the evidence for it seems obvious in retrospect. In a sense I was a conspirator in his denial; I found it impossible to speak bluntly about the seriousness of his medical condition when he refused to.
So denial was the mechanism I used to “normalize” what was happening with both my husband and my close friend.
It was during my tormented nights of insomnia that I couldn’t escape from reality:
It’s another night when I haven’t been able to fall asleep. It’s 1:00 a.m. and I know P. isn’t home because there are no lights on—I can see under the closed bedroom door. Can it be true that he’s still with the friends he meets for swimming at the Aquatic Centre?
My ears strain to hear familiar sounds that will signal his return and allow me to relax and fall asleep. First I’ll hear his car in the carport. Then I’ll hear that one bottom stair creak as he comes up upstairs and puts his backpack down in the hall. In a few minutes I’ll hear his footsteps as he goes back downstairs to work in his office.
But I lie there, for hours sometimes. When I stay awake I know he often doesn’t come home until 3 or 4 a.m.
Other nights it wasn’t the absence of sound, but George’s sounds that broke my heart.
Once again I’m awakened by the sound of George’s cane. He thumps along the hallway and then the length of the big bathroom. He moves slowly—I can hear his pain. Then he thumps to the living room instead of back to his bedroom. He must be unable to sleep again. I feel worse about his insomnia than my own. He can’t get in a comfortable position because of his hip pain. We keep trying different pillows and different mattresses, but in the bleak black night I know that it’s no good. George will only get worse. He will die.
Those painful years are over. I still do weekly swim workouts with my ex-husband. I have amiable but superficial relationships with both him and the friend who betrayed me. It requires another kind of denial to maintain this level of contact. There is an unfathomable strangeness in the replacement of intimacy with something so much less. Yet it allows ordinary life to go on.
Denial works most of the time.
But there have been times in the past year or two when I’m talking to my ex-husband or my ex-friend, and something they say triggers my anger. It shocks me, this molten-lava emotion that explodes out of a volcano I thought was sleeping. I’m reminded that even though I thought I was finished with anger, thought I had forgiven them, there are scars that will never go away.
What I’ve written here is, of course, only one version of the story. I could have written much more—or much less. Maybe some of the characters in this story will resent the way I’ve told it here. I could have gotten inside the heads of those characters and told the story from another point of view. I know about their childhood traumas. I know about the mitigating circumstances that existed at the time they started their affair. I can understand, at least partially, why they behaved the way they did. Yet my gut reaction can’t change. Outrage.
Sexual sins are the trickiest of “sins”—(and I put “sins” in quotes because I don’t presume to impose any specific code of morality on anyone)—because of all the moral sins, they are the ones that often don’t feel evil but instead, feel “right”. They are often justified on the grounds that they are the expression of humankind’s most noble and rapturous emotion: LOVE.
I’d like to segue back to Ephron’s Heartburn. At one point in the story, Rachel’s obstetrician asks her whether she believes in love. She doesn’t answer him right away; her interior monologue goes like this:
Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it. [pp. 164–165]
Rachel actually answers him with a simple “I do.”
I like the way Rachel’s interior monologue captures the elusiveness of being certain about love.
Does real love last forever?
That is perhaps an unanswerable question; that is, the answers will differ depending on individual definitions of love.
What I have learned is that forgiveness can include a cessation of anger, but that doesn’t mean the former love returns. If betrayal is severe enough a relationship will never recover from it. Both love and betrayal leave indelible traces that I must live with.
More about Heartburn and Nora Ephron
Quotes in this blog post are from the following edition of Heartburn:
Ephron, Nora. (1983). Heartburn. New York, NY: Knopf.
Nora Ephron (1941–2012) is best known as a screenwriter whose screenplays include When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Silkwood, and Julie & Julia, among others. She was also a journalist and essayist, perhaps most famous for her humour collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman.