I thought my wife wouldn't mind if I fooled around a little

This whole thing started out innocently enough, until we all became friends!

Published October 24, 2006 10:04AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My wife and I have been married just over two years, and we dated -- lived together, actually -- for seven years before that. We're each other's best friends, confidants, lovers. We've had a myriad of "interesting" sexual encounters -- usually together but occasionally alone. We just bought a house, we're pregnant with our second child, we have good jobs and our lives are just about perfect.

But I have a problem. At a friendly weekend get-together last month, I made out with an acquaintance of ours. The morning after, I told my wife about it and she was amused more than anything. We laughed it off because we both thought it was a spur-of-the-moment, one-time thing.

That turned out to be wrong. Since "the incident," the three of us have become friends, although "the other woman" and I are somewhat closer than she and my wife. We did sleep together one other time, a couple of weeks after the first encounter, and at the time, we both thought my wife would be OK with it, but she wasn't. She didn't blame the woman, just me, and I certainly see that -- I should have known better than to give in to my urges and should have been more responsible. I keep thinking that if I'd handled the situation differently, things might be different now.

According to my wife, she'd have no trouble with my sleeping with the woman if we weren't friends -- if it were just sex, in other words. She's afraid that the physical intimacy, coupled with the emotional intimacy of friendship, would break the bond between us (my wife and I) She doesn't realize that the emotional and practical bonds holding me to her are unbreakable. But I don't blame her for feeling the way she does.

As for "the other woman," she's younger than we are by a few years, has no responsibilities to anyone else and is a really "free spirit" -- and something in me responds to that, no doubt because my life is full of new responsibilities. I can't say that I'm in love with her; we have great conversations and we're natural with each other. Call it infatuation -- the "newness" factor, which is something that, after nine years of our being together, is missing from my relationship with my wife.

I know this is a classic tale -- the man with the wife and kids meets the young vivacious woman who seems inexplicably taken with him, and he's thrown into a whirlwind of passion and confusion and ... I'm starting to sound like a trailer for a bad romantic comedy, and in truth, I feel like I'm stuck in one. I know I should just get over it and treasure it for what it was and move on. But I'm having trouble doing that.


Not Moving On

Dear Not Moving On,

I'm not a therapist or anything like that, but if I were I guess you can imagine I'd be sitting in a big red armchair under a portrait of Spinoza, waiting with infinite patience and mild curiosity for you to process this disconcerting wrinkle in the heretofore harmonious progress of your marriage. I would read the clock with a nearly imperceptible glance, fold my hands together like a monk in prayer and ask you if the same time next week is good for you; and you would say yes and we would part, you a little poorer, I a little richer, both of us satisfied that we had done our parts to maintain the fraying social order.

But as has been said more than once in this space, I'm not a therapist at all, but a peripatetic writer of small, strange gifts, in whose accidental vocation the glorious victories are rare.

Yet almost always something uniquely human emerges -- as in this case: Hearing you measure off a prudent ironic distance between yourself and your words as if withholding judgment on yourself until those more capable can render theirs, holding such ironic distance even from your own actions as if only actions that broke the mold could be authentic and true, I intuit that beneath the narrative you are genuinely troubled, more than you let on.

That is not surprising. It makes sense to me. I think that after a rather remarkably free and open sexual relationship you have encountered for the first time the primitive limits of the human heart, the implacable animal nature of sexual possessiveness whose roots reach down eons into a vast, unquenchable yearning.

You, my friend, have hit the wall.

Welcome to the wall, I like to say when guests arrive. The wall, as you see -- and now I am giving a guided tour, having crashed into this wall many years ago and subsequently made a lifetime study of it -- is made of ancient stone and is rough to the touch, higher than any man could leap; its presence here in the relationship is completely unexpected; it looms up before you with alarming suddenness; there is nothing in the landscape that would hint at its presence, but suddenly it is there, dumb, mute, thick, unmovable. Upon close examination -- because naturally when you get to it you get out of your car and look around -- it does not seem to be made of local stone, but of some material transported here by unknown means in the distant mists of prehistory. This wall, the relationship wall, baffling, unscalable, seems to have no purpose other than to embody the very principle of obstacle itself.

But then after one has fought against it for a while certain things become clear. For one thing, it simplifies. Before the wall, choice is infinite. After the wall, there is only the wall -- that and the infinite and somehow baffling space one traversed to get here. Some have wondered if radical simplification might not be its ultimate purpose, if in evolutionary purposes it exists solely to accommodate and symbolize the limits of consciousness itself.

Anyway, you can camp out here for months. Look south at the fires beginning to burn at the close of day, lit by men who struck this wall with such great force -- after all, you don't expect it; it looms out of nowhere! -- that they are still dazed and confused, asking how this wall could be here, how it could be here, why it is here, why it is here, why it is here, why it doesn't make any sense, make any sense, make any sense, why isn't it somewhere else, somewhere else, why it has to be here, here, what sense does it make, what sense, this wall, this stupid wall, this stupid-ass wall; cooking their beans and philosophizing, some of them over copious booze, others over the Bible, others over books by Max Weber and Walter Benjamin -- anyway, what was I saying? I seem to have drifted. (The wall does that to you; it overwhelms thought itself; its very presence seems so senseless, so primitive, such a rebuke to thinking men!) Even syntax crumbles before the wall. This is what you have come up against in your seemingly innocent dalliance: You have come up against the primitive wall, against which even your careful thinking will crumble. The wall will make you mutter incoherently for a while. Don't worry; it's common. You will hear a good bit of that.

Look far to the north, if you can see that far. There is a thin shadow there in the sandstone-colored wall. That is the pile of rubble removed by one man who thought if he dug long enough he would eventually find his way through. His exhausted body was pulled from the hole after months of fruitless digging. It is evident that the wall is thicker than anyone would imagine.

We hear stories. We hear that on the other side of the wall women cavort with each other topless and mate easily with any man who approaches; we hear that they seem to lack both jealousy and high standards, that they value all men simply as they are. We hear these stories. But we are not sure we believe them. After all, if they were true, why would the wall be here in the first place? My personal opinion is that such stories originated in the minds of those poor men to the south who simply hit the wall too hard.

Anyway, it is with a dour sense of foreboding and fatalism that I say to you: Welcome to the wall. It has little to recommend it, actually, and you could simply turn around now and try to find your way back. The thing is, however, as some would point out, the very implacability of this wall imparts to us a kind of freedom. We realize, after months of digging, that there is little we can actually accomplish. We exhaust ourselves trying. We try to climb over it and fail. We try to reason with the wall. We try to understand it. But there is nothing to understand. It is simply a big wall, impassable, unscalable, thicker than any other wall.

We exhaust ourselves and then finally we sit down at the base of it in the shade and await the newcomers roaring across the plains and screeching to a halt before it.

We greet them with weary, knowing smiles, but we let them discover things for themselves. You can't tell them anything. They just have to hurl themselves against it and dig into it and try to scale it themselves until after many months they too sit down at its base in the shade with us.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Infidelity Since You Asked