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I Caught Him Cheating With His ‘Work Wife’

The texts between my husband and his pretty, blue-eyed coworker referred to me as ‘the b*tch.’ Here’s what I did next.

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Even before the Thanksgiving leftovers had been packed away, my husband was on Facebook.

I heard the fast-paced pings of a lively Messenger conversation and looked over his shoulder, assuming he was exchanging holiday pleasantries with a relative. Then I saw her name: Victoria.

Months earlier, my husband — let’s call him Michael — had come home from work gushing about a new colleague. She was ambitious, more professional than any of his other sorry coworkers at their publishing company. And she was a writer just like me. She had her stuff together — just like me.

But she’s not me, I thought. I’m your wife.

Michael’s glowing admiration unsettled me because ever since he’d been diagnosed as depressed, but had resisted medication and therapy, he rarely got excited about anything anymore. He’d become withdrawn, disappearing on solo walks, ignoring his phone for hours and even standing me up for dinner dates, claiming he needed breathing room. Despite his talent as an illustrator, he only halfheartedly pursued art as a career insisting, with a bravado that masked his insecurity, that our Southern city was too small-minded for the epic scale of his innovation. Yet our sex life, albeit sporadic, was good. At least it was until I him asked to move the television out of our bedroom and he started sleeping on the couch.

Meanwhile, as Michael was flailing, I was enjoying my graduate program, traveling and expanding my social networks. I was thriving. And I felt guilty about it.

So I swallowed my discomfort. I wanted to be progressive and supportive. She was married and had two small children. Married men and women could be platonic friends, right? I wanted to believe that, despite the fact that he balked at my friendship with a gay man I grew up with. If he was excited about this friendship, the least I could do was put aside my qualms. I wanted him to have a social network that didn’t rely on me and to encourage his interest in anything.

When Michael suggested she join us for lunch, I agreed. It would give me a chance to scope her out and see if, as he suggested, she and I were going to be fast friends. At our local taco joint, they carried on a conversation as if I wasn’t there. She responded to my questions and smiled, but her deep blue eyes watched me closely. Worse, his followed her every move.

I gave it a few days, then confronted him. “Do I have anything to worry about regarding our marriage? I didn’t like the vibe with you and Victoria. I felt like a third wheel, and I’m married to you.”

No need to worry, he assured me.

But weeks later, after nights listening to him talking on the phone in his quiet storm voice when he thought I was asleep, I logged onto the computer we shared. I knew I was violating his privacy. But I needed to know what was wrong, because something definitely was.

Their Facebook Messenger conversation told the tale. He confessed to having feelings for her and not knowing what to do with them. She responded that she was flattered, but she didn’t rebuff him. They talked about their respective spouses. He called me a bitch. She was so sorry he had to live with a shrewish wife and confessed that her own marriage was passionless.

It’s hard to relive that moment because I was feeling so much. I seethed with anger, incredulous that the man who was once my best friend now felt this way about me. I was insulted by Michael’s name-calling and livid that it was echoed by this random woman who only knew me through him. I’d never expected to get married, and I felt betrayed by this person whose seemingly unconditional love made me change my mind. I was wounded after months of Michael’s silent rejection.

But I wasn’t alone with my emotions for long.

As I was reading, Victoria pinged me (assuming, of course, that I was Michael). There was small talk until she asked about the bitch wife. That’s when I revealed myself. I told her I’d read their messages and that this workplace friendship that had morphed into a vehicle for escaping their spouses needed to stop. She logged off instantly.

I called Michael and told him I knew about their inappropriate friendship. But when he walked in the door from work, there was no contrition or apology. Instead he ordered me never to speak to her and swore he’d had no sex or physical contact with her. That was his focus: her.

Was I supposed to believe that this was OK because there was no physical contact? Was emotional cheating somehow less of an affront? I was the injured party, blindsided by Michael’s almost cheating, but I also wanted to understand my part in bringing us here. I wanted to find out what I could do to repair the relationship.

Until he answered.

She was fun, he said; we never went out anymore. I was too focused on getting my Ph.D., didn’t pay enough attention to him and was always exhausted; she was relentlessly upbeat. Because she doesn’t live with you, I thought. She was going to help him publish the poetry collection he’d been writing for years — the same collection I’d carefully gathered from steno pads, napkins and sheets of paper and sent to a pricey letterpress printer only a week earlier.

And in that moment, during the confrontation that marked the beginning of the end of our marriage, I started to grasp something I wouldn’t totally get until years later when, after couples’ therapy and numerous disastrous reconciliation attempts, we finally said goodbye.

We had a confidence gap. It wasn’t that he was a bad person or lacked talent. But he was never going to hustle to get closer to his dreams. I valued his creativity and success as much as I valued my own, but he was content to work in a job he hated because he couldn’t see a way out. I never expected marriage to be 50/50 every moment of the day, but I hoped that if we were both invested in the collective labor of loving each other, it would even out in the end. But I hadn’t been counting. He had — every honor I racked up, every day I was gone for work, every setback he experienced counted against me.

I started counting, though, when I found out that he continued to communicate with Victoria. Months after my email discovery, he casually mentioned that he’d left his jacket in her car after a lunch outing. I blew up. Eventually, he stopped talking to her, but he also stopped talking to me.

Believe it or not, I didn’t let go of my marriage then. I didn’t want to be a failure, another divorce statistic, another educated Black woman without a partner, or to have to explain to my family, who adored Michael, how little he seemed to care about me.

Degree in hand, I took a year-long teaching gig out of state. He stayed behind in our house, though I still paid half the mortgage. We agreed that time off would be good. Maybe we’d come to appreciate each other or be less blindingly mad or awkward with each other. Worst-case scenario, the break could serve as the one-year separation necessary for divorce in our state.

I returned, hopeful but skeptical at the same time. I was wondering about whether forgiveness was possible on both sides, whether I could feel my pain and deal with it without making him pay every day. But after a year’s respite from our relationship tumult, he resented my presence in our home. And one night as I was preparing to drive five hours to say goodbye to a beloved friend I had just found out was dying from cancer, he announced that he was leaving me while I was tossing clothes in a duffle bag. In the end, he ended our marriage with a smirk. He wouldn’t be home when I got back.

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