My first husband's girlfriend and me

Sure she was an adulteress, but I needed her.

Published February 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

For a long time, I didn't know why my first husband, Tom, left me. We had been together for 12 years. We had lots of friends. We traveled and went to movies and restaurants and parties. I thought we were happy.

But suddenly Tom began disappearing, and then he announced that he wanted a divorce. There wasn't anyone else, he said, he was just completely unhappy and wanted me gone. I was devastated. For weeks, I begged and pleaded for a reason, an excuse, for anything that might help me stay this marital execution, but he stayed silent.

I begged him to go to counseling with me and he refused. I asked his sister what was going on, I corralled his friends, but no one seemed to know anything or if they did, like Tom, they weren't talking.

Finally, because there was nothing else to do, I left, taking up what I hoped was temporary residence in New York and counting on my absence to make my husband's heart grow fonder. Tom called me every week to see how I was. And although he still talked about divorce, he never served me with papers, and because I ached to get back together, I never got a lawyer, either.

In the meantime, I tried to be happy. I sold a novel. I found new friends, including a man who began to love me, and after a while, to my astonishment, I began to care about him, too. But no matter how good things were, no matter how many months had gone by, I couldn't seem to commit to him; I couldn't cut the cord with Tom.

Not until one night when the phone rang, and the "other woman" called me for help.

I'll call her Stella. She was soft-spoken, and the first thing she said on the phone was, "I've been seeing your husband since before you were married." She said her relationship with Tom was floundering and she was terrified that he was thinking about getting back together with me. Was this true? Was I still in contact with Tom? Had he ever mentioned her to me?

I was astonished by her audacity. What kind of a woman calls the woman she's betraying to ask for advice? Was she crazy? Or just sadistic? I wanted to bang the phone down on her. I wanted to curse at her and then call Tom and curse him. But more than that, more than anything, I was riveted. I wanted to know more. And only she could tell me.

"He doesn't tell me anything," she blurted. "He'd kill me if he knew I called you. But I'm desperate. And you're the only person who can help me."

"I was about to say the same thing," I said.

For three weeks, nearly every night, Stella and I talked for hours. We started at the beginning, telling each other how our relationships with Tom began, the things we did, the way we talked and fought and even made love. We told each other everything, like confessions, filling in the gaps in each other's histories, providing context, explanation and time lines. We were busy helping each other to figure out our lives with Tom.

"Was Tom with you all the time when you first met?" Stella asked me. "And then did it abruptly taper off?" "It did!" I felt a sudden shock of relief. It wasn't just me. It happened with another woman, too. Tom, she told me, had met her while buying a present for me. He had talked to her about nothing but me, and then had called home right in front of her to ask me what color I liked, and when I said I didn't need clothes, he had hung up, furious.

"He thought you were rejecting him by rejecting his gift. He asked me to lunch right after," Stella told me. "That's how it began. And then every single day after that, he came to see me. He called me 60 times a day. And now, all a sudden, he doesn't."

I thought of all the times Tom had been late coming home. I remembered a business trip he had taken to California. "California!" Stella cried. "He was with me! Any trip, any late night we were together." I felt a flash flood of anger, of shame.

"How could you do this to another woman?" I cried. "He was married."

Stella sighed. "He said the marriage was over. He said you didn't appreciate or understand him."

"Why didn't he ever tell me any of this?" I said, astonished.

"Because he thought, as his wife, you should just know." She laughed. "Oh God, what that sounds like! I guess that's part of my problem with him, too. Maybe he doesn't talk, but I do and I'll tell you anything you want to know."

I began to call Stella more and more. We were so addicted to each other, we would put the phone down to pee and rush back again. We ate our dinners talking to each other. We cleaned our kitchens with our phones clamped to our ears. And like any couple, we sometimes fought. I yelled at Stella when she told me she had slept with Tom in our bed. "Our bed!" I shouted. "How could you do something so appalling?"

"It was his place to look out for you, not mine," Stella said defensively. "And anyway, how could you not cook dinner for him? Why was your house such a mess? Why didn't you like all his friends?"

"We are so different," I told Stella angrily.

"And so much the same," she quietly responded.

Talking to Stella changed the way I looked at my marriage. It changed me. I didn't lie awake nights anymore worrying what had gone wrong, what had been the matter with me and how I could fix it. Because of Stella's honesty, I knew. I thought of Nick, the man I was now seeing, and how we told each other everything, how different this relationship was from the one I had had with Tom and how, for the first time, to my absolute surprise, I felt good about being out of the marriage.

It felt good to find someone and something so different. I began to feel happier about my life. To see that what had seemed the worst thing in the world might turn out to be the best. One night, when I got off the phone with Stella, I got out the Yellow Pages and found a divorce lawyer.

Everything began to feel different. Even the way I began to look at Stella. She almost seemed a younger version of me. And I began to feel sorry for her because Tom was now treating her the same way he had treated me, disappearing, refusing to discuss anything. There wasn't anything wrong with her, just as there hadn't been anything wrong with me.

I told Stella I was filing for divorce, that I wouldn't make things harder for her by naming her in any suit or even by telling Tom that I had been talking with her. She had helped me. I wanted to help her. And in any case, it didn't matter. All I wanted was a divorce. And suddenly, I was the one telling Stella, "Maybe you should leave Tom. Move on. Maybe you can be happier, too."

"How can I?" Stella said bitterly.

"Because I can," I told her.

I began spending more and more time with Nick. My need to talk about Tom diminished, and with it, so did my need to talk to Stella. "You're happy," Stella said when we finally connected. "I guess I did something right." She still didn't know what she was going to do. Tom, she said, hadn't even told her he had been served with divorce papers. She still loved him. She still hoped he might marry her.

"I want you to be happy," I said. And I meant it. And as I began to be out more and more, our calls dwindled. Once a week, then once every two weeks, and then finally, not at all.

It's been years since all of that. I didn't marry Nick, but I am married again, to a wonderful man, and we have a child. I haven't spoken to Tom or Stella since the divorce was finalized. But just a few weeks ago, from out of the blue, Tom's sister tracked me down and called me. I always liked her and I was happy to hear from her. She told me Tom was remarried now, to a woman whose name was not Stella.

"What happened to Stella?" I asked.

"He left her," Tom's sister said, and I felt sad. I had wanted Stella to be the one to leave, to be strong. "It was awful for her. She went into therapy, but she's OK now. She's doing well, working, seeing people."

"Good," I said, and I meant it. Because when I think about Stella, I feel no animosity toward her at all. Instead, what I feel is gratitude. She wasn't the "other woman" who ended up ruining my life. In the end, Stella was the one who saved it.

By Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of "Pictures of You," "Cruel Beautiful World" and more. Her new book "With or Without You" will be published by Algonquin in Spring/Summer 2020. She can be reached at

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