The man I was with for three years had a girlfriend in another city the entire time we were together.
How could I not know? Easy. I loved him. And he was willing to lie.
I found out because she called me. She found out on the same call. The woman I knew only as his ex was confused why it appeared her partner had been staying with this other woman across the country on his trip out west. I was confused as to why that would be confusing to someone he’d dated five years ago. I told her we’d been in a relationship for three years. She told me they’d been in a relationship for 15 years.
I guess that made me The Other Woman.
We were long distance, I was here and he and she were there. Every time the distance became too much and I couldn’t get him to commit to coming here or me going there, we would end until crises would bring us back together. When he lost his job, when his mom got sick — he would call and I would answer.
When those closest to me, those who saw me through the whole dissatisfying three years, found out, more than one said, “Ohhhh,” like it finally all made sense. Yeah, oh. I could see it too once I got over the difficulty I was having breathing.
How Could I Not Know?
Easy: I loved him. And he was willing to lie. Not evade, not be vague, lie; and it is just not a part of my make-up to question whether or not someone I love is telling me the truth when I have no reason to doubt them. I don’t lie, why would someone else? A lot of the lies are obvious now, like, “No I’m not still in contact with my ex,” or “No, I’m also not sleeping with anyone as per the terms of our committed relationship.” But also random things that there was no reason to lie about like where he was born, who he was spending time with, his finances. I have made a point of not counting the lies or even looking for more lies, I just assume that it’s possible that absolutely everything he ever told me was a lie and leave it at that without trying to figure out fact from fiction. It’s easier somehow than trying to discern what was real and what wasn’t.
I guess there were more than just the two of us as she, ‘The Woman,’ (if I’m The Other Woman, I think she gets to be The Woman) found sexually explicit emails between him and other women. It sounds hard to imagine juggling it all given how many hours there are in a day and how much contact we had each and every day. I truly didn’t think this was possible given how connected we were, how available he was to me, and, dammit, how committed he seemed to be to me. There were times we were on the phone and video for eight hours a day. Where did he find the time? Morning, noon, and night we knew what the other was doing (I thought), were available to each other and, if we couldn’t talk in the moment, were sending pictures, videos and audio messages of our days in action.
I knew he was capable of cheating, he had a super promiscuous past and super shitty history with women and we talked about it ad nauseum in the beginning. “Don’t you believe people can change?” he asked, and, “Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?” Trusting him was hard early on but I did and, as time went on, I just didn’t think there was the goddamn time to be involved with someone else. I assumed that whatever blocks to the kind of relationship I wanted with him were more complex like attachment and intimacy issues. Clearly, I was wrong. Clearly, I was overcomplicating something that was actually incredibly simple: he was banging his girlfriend every night. I was just filling in the gaps in their schedule (or vice versa).
I don’t know how he kept his stories straight, I don’t know how he was able to talk to me when he was drunk, I don’t know why someone who thinks so highly of himself would want to live with so many lies. Now his anger over innocuous things, questions that wouldn’t bother someone who was telling the truth, make sense. ‘Where were you, who was there, what’d you do, how was it,’ were questions he didn’t want to answer.
“I can’t give you more freedom than the entire country that already exists between us,” I told him. “If that still isn’t enough, I don’t think I can make this work.”
He was backed into a corner. He had to lie or tell the truth. So he lied. For years and years and years.
The Woman wanted to go through all the lies, every story, find all the times we were fooled, but I couldn’t. A part of me still felt a loyalty to him, to our relationship, to the commitment I made when I said I was his partner. To do so would have left me with nothing, no memories of love and I still wanted to hold onto them. I wasn’t ready to fully let them (or him) go. And also, who cares? At this point, it’s safe to say everything was a lie, right? But in the weeks that followed, even in the minimal contact her and I had, more lies were always found without intending to. Even where he was born, even that was a lie. I was just so tired.
Imagine being an alcoholic and waking up with a hangover every single day. That was this man’s life: waking up every morning to yesterday’s lies and having to tell even more just to keep everything together.
I thought I had some control over my own life. I thought I understood the situations I was in. I thought I had my eyes wide open. Even in a relationship that wasn’t meeting several of my needs, I thought I understood him and its limitations and that I was being mature in my choice to remain in it. This, finding out, hurt as much as it did because the very thing I value most — autonomy, control over my own life — I didn’t have and never did. I had no control over the relationship I was in, and that was the one thing I thought no one could take from me. I felt like an extra in my own life. Someone else had scripted, cast and established the plot; I was just merely a supporting role, someone in the back waving feathers around. My life was happening around me for someone else. If I had the energy, I would hate him for that but just like my agency, he took that, too.
I said to my parents when I told them, “I still believe he loved me in the only way possible for him.” But how can this be classified as the same thing as what I felt for him? Surely this is not that. Surely this demonstrates a lack on English’s part. Surely this is something different altogether.
I said to her on the call, “I was the other woman. That is abundantly clear to me.” But it didn’t fully register. In my psyche I still believed that I and what we had was special, that I was the one he had the real connection with. Subconsciously I thought that what they had must have been dissatisfying, vacant, wanting. That there was no way either of them could have been engaged in the relationship for him to have been this invested in what he had with me.
But no, what we pieced together was that this, this maintenance of two simultaneous relationships, this claiming two women as his own, was calculated. The three-hour time difference between her and me made it easy for him to be in constant communication with us both at key points in the day. And then I found it. A message in my phone that he had sent way-back-when that included a third person, an unknown number. He had fucked up. He sent the same message to both of us in the same chat and neither of us caught it. But because her number was finally saved in my phone, I could see the three-way I’d been in for all those years staring back at me. That was when I got it. That was when I understood.
The sex part is where I’ve struggled the most. He lied his way into my body. He lied about his sexual reality, he insisted on monogamy when I started to question its reasonableness, and he insisted on not wearing condoms when we did sleep together. I have to assume he never saw me as his equal, maybe never as a person, even. By lying he took away my right to decide what kind of relationship I was in, what kind of sex I had and what kind of risks I took with my body. We were both in a dishonest relationship, he was just the only one who knew it.
For three years we worked and worked and worked, and then when the time came for commitment and one of us having to get on a plane, he would either pick a fight or delay, cancel or reschedule. When we broke up, we would come back together promising we could make it different this time. We’d try counselling, we’d do whatever we had to to make it work. I really thought we were in it together. Last December when he was here and we went to my bed I cried as he made love to me. The difficulty of the distance, the instability of the way we had been off and on for so long, and the depth of feelings I had for him all came out then. And finally that night, with him inside me, I said ‘I love you’ again. I’d stopped saying it in the months preceding his visit because I didn’t believe in us anymore. So when we’d end our phone calls, he’d say ‘I love you,’ and I’d smile and take it in, but I couldn’t say it back.
When I said it that night into his ear, all he said was, “I know.” Oh.
He laughed. When he told her that he didn’t wear a condom when he was with me, he laughed. I had no idea who I’d let into my bed.
In the last year we were together, I knew things weren’t lining up, his words, his actions, things were off. But I also knew I couldn’t be in a relationship with someone I didn’t trust and I wanted to be with him, so I decided to trust him. Looking at the facts, it all adds up. It’s obvious and it’s clear, but I did ask the questions. I asked if he had been with anyone when we broke up and I asked if he had any flirtations online and I asked if he had any contact with his ex (see: current), ‘No’ was always the answer. Resounding, unequivocal, non-negotiable No.
We first met when I was 26, three years before we started dating. That was the first time we slept together and, I guess, the first time he lied to me about his relationship status. At that time he told me he’d been single for a year. Spoiler alert: he hadn’t been. We started dating when I was 29.
Trusting yourself as a woman comes as a result of hard labour and harder time. First you do as you’re told, wait for being a good girl to pay off; then slowly, achingly slowly, you start to question what you accepted as truth during your formative years.
For me, listening to myself didn’t really start until I was in my early thirties and it has been (and continues to be) a slow climb. I was not a hostage in this relationship. The signs were there, I just never knew I could trust myself. I never knew that my feeling that something was amiss was enough to get out.
He had a mean side that I never saw coming and always felt like I’d been slapped after it came and went. But he had a lovely side as well and when he shined his light on me, it was the best feeling in the world. He could overwhelm me with attention and love and laughs and then I could go months without hearing him say a kind word. He was spiritual and creative and so much smarter than me, but he could also use his intelligence as a weapon or my weaknesses against me.
He knew that if he accused me of insensitivity or breaching our trust that I would cave. I posted a picture of him that he had given me to my Instagram once and the anger and accusations that ensued threw me deeply off balance.
“That was a breach of our trust,” he told me. “That was a gift and you violated my right to privacy.” I wasn’t sure who was right. I caved and took it down. I couldn’t argue that he had given it to me as a gift, maybe I had broken his trust? Or I didn’t send him pictures of my body once so he stopped talking to me. I pointed it out to him and we moved on.
He had a mean side.
An odd light in the dark is that he was forced to lie. If I had just allowed him to be vague or if I was too afraid to push, I might feel more shame or responsibility for this relationship than I do. But that isn’t the case here. When things didn’t line up, I would push to understand. He might get angry, but he would answer. He out and out lied over and over and over again for years.
This was not a healthy, sane, confident person abusing a healthy, sane, confident person. I do not believe that’s how this works. Both people brought their damage into a situation. He was willing to lie and I was able to be lied to. I said I wanted intimacy and transparency, but I was settling for much less. I had autonomy to leave this relationship and I did. But then I kept going back. I did not have the confidence to follow through and even after just finding out, I reached out to him. Part of me still believed we had a connection and he would answer. He did not. Maybe he got off on controlling another person, keeping me off the market and unavailable to other men, maybe the lies spun out of control and he was too deep to turn back, maybe he’s a sociopath or maybe he hates women, but me knowing the truth seems to have changed our dynamic too drastically for him to engage in a conversation with me. When I asked him to talk, I asked if it could be by video, I wanted to see his face. Maybe to try to understand, maybe to say goodbye, maybe to see if there was anything there I could believe.
I can understand having the best of both worlds. Having your needs met by multiple relationships that serve you and feeling like if you were to be honest then you’d lose them both. I understand that path to lying.
In the weeks that followed after finding out, it’s difficult to articulate the despair I felt. It was a sadness so deep I know not what to call it. When I was in my twenties a man cheated on his partner with me and I knew it. Even though I know this isn’t how the world works, there was a part of me that could not look away from the possibility that I had earned this. That I had done something or was something to have brought this into my life. And then, as I leaned on those closest to me, as I saw the grief in the eyes of so many that loved me as a result of where my actions had led, I saw that I had a responsibility to have done better, to have taken better care of myself, to have chosen better. I feel guilty for that.
Him and I had been apart for a year by the time I found out. Still. He was still able to hurt me even after 12 months of no contact. He was still able to hurt my loved ones as they watched me crumble, watched me second guess myself, watched me make the wrong conclusion that this said something about me instead of something about him.
I keep thinking about the time I was in bed with a man and I said I didn’t want to have sex. I kept my clothes on and he lifted my skirt and put his penis inside me. I gasped, opened my eyes and said stop. He stopped. But with this man, this man I’d called my partner for three years who was never actually committed to me but insisted on otherwise, at no point did I know to say stop.
To the man who said he loved me I never knew to say stop.