Submitted By: Erica Manfred
I have not only been the betrayed wife but the other woman. I know how it feels to be in both positions. No matter what they say, being the other woman was a hell of a lot easier. Or maybe I was just younger then.
In college my boyfriend was married AND an alcoholic. Why would I pick such a loser? He was incredibly brilliant and dazzled me with his mind. He was Puerto Rican and liked the way I looked, extra padding and all. His wife, a boring housewife who didn’t “understand” him or appreciate his intelligence, lived in the boring Bronx with their daughter.
I lived in glittering Manhattan with a roommate. His wife wasn’t real to me–she was just an obstacle. Every once in a while he’d move in with me for a few days and I’d be thrilled. The prospect of having him to myself was exhilarating.
Eventually his drinking grew old and I stopped seeing him. I found that I wasn’t attracted to alcoholics and never went out with another one, but married men retained their appeal. They were older, more sophisticated, and definitely more appreciative.
When I was 22, right out of college, I worked at the New York City Welfare Department, in a cavernous room filled with rows of wooden desks with linoleum tops. Michael, a charismatic poet, sat at the next desk. He was a tall, blond, intense but rather aloof fellow, a couple years older than me, who lived on the lower east side.
He’d published a few small poetry collections and was well known in the small circle of lower east side artists and writers he hung out with. I was adrift in New York City with no idea what to do with my life but I worshipped the arts and artistic men in particular. To me he cut a powerfully romantic figure.
I’d never considered myself attractive because I’d struggled with my weight my entire life, but had recently lost the same 50 pounds that I’d gained and lost a number of times before, so felt I was at my height of sexual allure and wanted to test it out. It was the sixties and the welfare department was the temporary refuge for artistic types who needed to support themselves.
I hated the job and spent my days flirting with Michael, practicing my newly acquired powers of attraction. The only hindrance to our budding romance was his wife, an artist, and their child. His marital status just made him more attractive; seducing him was a notch in my ever-smaller belt.
Michael and I fell madly in love and had a steamy affair. I reveled in his adoration of me. I tried desperately to talk him into leaving his wife, invoking the power of our love. I was a romantic to the core and never questioned that love should always triumph. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with breaking up his marriage.
The women’s movement was in the future and in the meantime I was a child of the sixties who assumed marriage was a bourgeois invention that should be trashed along with the establishment.
Michael resisted, deeply ambivalent about leaving his wife who he said he also loved, though not the way he loved me. No mad passion there. He felt she needed him and was reluctant to just dump her. His solution was to take a trip across the country—alone—to think about it.
For me it was out of sight, out of mind. I fell madly in love with yet another romantic writer, an adorable fellow from Montana. Larry and I took acid, declared our love, traveled cross-country, dropped more acid in Haight Ashbury during the Summer of Love, and then traveled through South America.
After living together in Argentina for six months Larry grew tired of my hassling him to marry me, and shipped me back home. I was devastated—for a while—I was mad about Larry and wanted to marry him.
When I got back I called Michael to see if he wanted to take up where we’d left off. Although he said he still loved me, the answer was a resounding no. It seemed his wife, who was pregnant when we’d met, had found out about us and then committed suicide after the baby was born. She was devastated by his infidelity, and was also undoubtedly stricken by post-partum depression as well, an unknown malady at the time.
He now had two small children and felt too massively guilty to have anything to do with me again. I was shocked, horrified, but it never really occurred to me to feel guilty about his poor wife—or poor kids– my ethical development was sorely lacking I’m afraid. To my eternal shame I only felt sorry for myself. No man, no place to live, no job.
The wheel of karma turns. Thirty-five years later I wound up a victim of the other woman. I’m not superstitious enough to think the two were related, but the universe works in strange ways. Yes, I suffered terribly from being dumped, but I recovered. I may have contemplated suicide, but I’m just not the type.
In the end I realized I was better off without him. My suffering was garden variety. The one who really suffered was my daughter, Dorothy, who, at age seven wound up in a psychiatric hospital diagnosed with a mood disorder. She felt abandoned both by me, since I was too depressed to be there for her emotionally, and also by her father who left me for another woman.
He had been her primary caretaker as well, so that compounded the injury. She cried every night for a year, and then became progressively more angry, destructive, violent and even suicidal. The poor kid—whose birth mom had been an addict–really didn’t have the inner emotional resources to deal with divorce. She desperately needed to be held together, but instead was torn apart.
One day while I was visiting her in the hospital she said, “mommy, I wouldn’t be here if you and daddy hadn’t got divorced.” My heart about stopped. Her therapist at the hospital concurred, saying that there wasn’t a kid there who wasn’t a child of divorce, and since our divorce was particularly high-conflict, Dorothy had suffered terribly.
The hospital shrink virtually ordered us to get along for our daughter’s sake. I wish I could report that we’ve managed to do that, but we haven’t. We’ve managed to reach an uneasy truce, which sometimes blows up into all out war.
The ironies in my life never end, however. The wheel of karma turned again recently when Dorothy starting living with her father and stepmother because I couldn’t handle her anymore. This woman now has to raise my daughter, and it isn’t an easy task, even though she’s better at it than I am.
She stays calm while I get hysterical. However, I know her dream was to have her own baby, her own husband and a cozy family life. That’s gone to hell since Dorothy is a full time job. When I don’t feel like killing her, I want to write her a thank you letter.
Erica Manfred is the author of He’s History You’re Not, Surviving Divorce After 40. She has written for Cosmopolitan, New York Times Magazine, Ms., Parenting, Women’s Day, and Bottom Line/Personal. She currently runs a women’s divorce support group in her hometown of Woodstock, New York.