We had a secret online affair ... and then he killed himself

My Internet lover had a wife, two kids and some kinky obsessions. Now that he is dead, I want to reach out to the widow.



Cary Tennis
June 6, 2007 2:20PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

In my teens and 20s I had a terrible self-image and did not do well with men. Seven years ago, as I turned 30, I met an older man online -- I'll call him Peter -- who was handsome, successful, intelligent, fascinating, intensely sexual and very interested in me. He was also married. I fell into a deep, self-destructive infatuation with him.

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To be honest, I did not give much thought to his wife and kids except to be very discreet and to also caution him about discretion, as he tended to take risks and be more brazen than I thought he should be. Our relationship was mostly long-distance IM'ing and telephone conversations with intense talk from both of us about love, being together someday, and even having children of our own. I was selfish and self-centered and just wanted as much of him as I could get.

By the time we finally met in person (the single time we did) I now know that Peter's interest in me was already cooling. Soon I suspected that he was spending much of his time pursuing other women. I was heartbroken and wasted a year or 18 months of my life mourning the loss of a relationship that was really just fantasy from the start.

Over time, as he was drawing away romantically he confided that he was involving himself in more and more sexual experimentation -- BDSM, bisexuality, role playing -- with other people online and in person. Disturbingly, he started to hint at pedophilic interests and told me that he had joined a sex story site to read text porn stories about incest and sex involving minors. It seemed to me that there would be an inevitable fall from grace for him if he continued his risk taking, and I found the strength to gradually distance myself from him. For what it's worth, at the time I was fairly sure that he could draw the line between sexual fantasy and reality and that he was not a threat to children, his own or others.

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About five years ago, as my relationship with Peter trickled into nothing, I met a man who is now my husband. He is kind, sweet, strong, emotionally open, and a person of admirable integrity. I adore him and our life together is everything I would like it to be. As awful as the relationship with Peter was, I believe that it gave me confidence in my own desirability, without which I would not have been the woman with whom my husband fell in love.

Even though Peter and I lost touch, once or twice a year out of curiosity and interest I would Google him to see if there was anything new going on in his public life. I did so last night and was shocked to discover that Peter committed suicide a few months ago. Given the secret lives Peter liked to lead, I think there could have been a brewing scandal or even a criminal investigation that precipitated his suicide. If so, it has been successfully hushed.

I feel sad about Peter's wasted life and stupid choices, and devastated for his now young-adult children and his wife. I know his wife knew about some of his infidelities, so getting caught in another affair would probably not have been enough to trigger Peter's suicide.

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The thing I wonder at this point is whether I should just put this all away in the back of my mind or whether I should consider contacting his wife in case I may have any knowledge that could help his family piece together the "why" of his suicide.

My husband knows all the details of the relationship with Peter and would support me either way. What do you think is the right thing to do?

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Older and a Little Wiser

Dear Older,

I do not think you can help the family piece together the "why" of his suicide. It is interesting, though -- and you seem to be a self-reflective person so you may find it interesting, too -- to talk about the impulses we feel when something terrible like this happens. In some way you do want to reach out to the wife, no? There is some residual feeling of relationship there. And yet it is so, so, so very off-limits! It could cause her nothing but pain to be contacted by a person with whom her husband had carried on secret intimacies.

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And I am sure you do not want to cause her pain. You want to help in some way. And that is what interests me -- the way the amoral and the compassionate brush elbows at the scene of the tragedy. Nothing could be accomplished by contacting the wife, and yet, we feel that curious and useless impulse to reach out to her. In part I suppose you want to say, I knew your husband and I too am affected by his suicide. I suppose you want to say, We all feel terrible about it. But again, that's all off-limits. I wouldn't even go there.

So that is what suicide leaves us with, isn't it? I've talked before about the essential contradiction of suicide, that we are left simultaneously angry at the perpetrator and sad for the victim, who are one and the same. It is an impossible thing.

Your feelings toward the loved ones of the suicide victim add a second layer of contradiction: You want to reach out to them and yet doing so would only hurt them.

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The famous "12 Steps" make a crucial distinction in the part where they talk about making direct amends. You know, that well-known and often misunderstood step (remember George in "Seinfeld" demanding a better apology!). So what the step says, wisely, is to make such amends wherever possible "except when to do so would injure them or others." I think that injunction is there for many reasons, but one of the practical ones is that in cleaning up the wreckage of our past we endeavor to simplify our lives and fix problems, not make them more complex, dramatic and interesting!

Contacting her would bring drama at the expense of serenity and acceptance. Now, of course this is only my opinion. There are no doubt some exceptional people in the world who would want to know everything. But if that were the case, she would have to make it known. A person like that might do a forensic analysis of his computer and find all the people he had contact with. That is an extreme case, it seems to me. All I am saying is that I don't think you should contact this woman.

But how then, are the rest of those who loved him to grieve his death? An excellent question! That is another sad fact about those who kill themselves with secrets: Public, collective mourning is denied to so many who loved the person! You may want to mourn his suicide privately, or with someone else who might have known him, or known of your involvement with him. Maybe you can think of a way to do that.

Anyway, your reasons for wanting to contact his widow may be many. Perhaps you feel guilt and remorse. Perhaps you feel you owe this poor woman something. Or perhaps, indeed, what you feel is simply the pure impulse to reach out to her -- not for moral or ethical reasons at all but just ... that's what you feel: You want to reach out to her.

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And yet, I do not think contacting her is a good idea. Sadly, because part of his life was conducted in secret, it died in secret and will be mourned in secret.

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