While it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how many people cheat on their partner (data is scarce because, well, people who are unfaithful aren’t always the most forthcoming), it happens. A lot. In fact, the rate of infidelity, per social scientists, has risen steadily over the past decade. That it happens is not a surprise; the why, however, is always a bit more surprising. For some it may be because the passion is over; for others, it may be a result of boredom. But for others, an affair is the only way out.
Jennifer, not her real name, was 27 when she met her first husband. He proposed to her on the second date — something she now recognizes as a red flag but back then was absolutely delighted about. Within six months they were married, and Jennifer was locked in a relationship that was essentially full-scale abuse. It wasn’t until an old flame reached out to her did she begin to realize that she could escape her marriage. And she did: by having an affair. A few years and about 150 grand later, she was divorced.
Here, Jennifer talks to Fatherly about how her affair began, how it became the only door out of her abusive relationship, and how she found peace.
So tell me what happened.
I’m a little bit older. I’m an early senior citizen. I was married the first time in 1982. At that time, women tended to get married at younger ages. I was considered, at age 27, believe it or not, to be an “old maid.” I had dated many guys, I was popular. That was never an issue. But I started to feel peer pressure. All of my girlfriends had gotten married.
So you were trying to meet someone?
I met a guy. On my second date, he said, “If I gave you a ring, will you stop going out with other guys?” He just couldn’t stand it. Of course, had I known then what I know now, I’d know that was a big red flag. But I didn’t know any of that. I said, “Wow, this is great!” Because it was my chance to get married. I was on the hunt. And so here at 27, this person proposed on the second date.
And you said yes.
We became engaged before we even got to know each other. Six months later, give or take, we got married. I started seeing subtle red flags, but I didn’t know any better. He would get a look in his eyes that you knew something was about to come about. He had no way of dealing with his anger management. Bottom line, and I don’t know how far in depth you want me to go, but basically, he pushed, shoved, and threw me up against the furniture.
At that point, were you considering leaving?
We had spoken about divorce, but I got pregnant and so we moved in together again. He was still kind of violent when I was pregnant. Fortunately, not any pushing and shoving, but verbal threats. I had two children with him. It was awful.
What was he like as a father?
He was physically abusive throughout. In front of the two children, too, when they were tiny, two, three years old. He would spit at me and shake me.
That’s awful. So, at some point during your marriage, you met someone else.
It was 1995. We had been married, I don’t know, 13 years, something like that. I received a message from one of my first loves, a gentleman I went out with from the age of 22 to 25. We had a lovely relationship. The problem back then with that relationship was that he was 22 years older than me. We both realized then that I had a whole life ahead of me. He was much older, had been married, was divorced and he wanted me to have the experience of having children. He had already had a child. But by 1995, I was already 40, I had kids.
How did you guys get into contact?
He contacted my brother. My brother knew that I was in a miserable situation. He called me. The kids were still little, and my husband at the time and I were getting the children ready for bed, for their bath. My brother called and said: “Jennifer*, are you sitting down? Is anyone there?”
Why is that important?
Because then my brother asked me, “Do you remember Don?” I responded, “By the way, I’m going to be bringing a cranberry walnut relish to the dinner.” I was trying to act normal. But I was like, oh my God. I was dreaming of Don every night through for those 13 years that I was so miserable with my first husband. Don had become a widower. He knew I had gotten married. He just wanted to see if I was okay, if I was happy, if I had children. My heart was racing and I was telling my brother, “Yeah, don’t worry, we’ll, we’ll take care of the cranberry sauce. Don’t worry, we’ll bring maybe some dessert or something.”
From there — did you two just get together?
I ran to my girlfriend’s house the next day because I knew I’d have privacy. My ex-husband monitored phone calls. Just the classic signs of an abuser. So my girlfriend let me call Don and we kind of picked up right where we left off 13, 15 years ago. And then we met. And he helped me get out of my marriage.
So what did it take?
It took three years and $150,000 dollars in legal fees and custody battles. My ex-husband was particularly litigious. It was horrible. Horrible on the children. But in 1998, we got divorced and I married the real love of my life.
So, did your kids experience any abuse before your divorce? Did you end up getting sole custody? What happened?
My daughter, my older child, was a teenager. My ex lived in a particular school district and she did not want to leave. It was difficult because my younger child, my son, really wanted to get away from my ex-husband. One of the reasons that that custody battle cost me $150,000 in legal fees was because my ex wanted custody of both children, and I wanted them both out of there. But my daughter was happy in that school district. So I wasn’t going to take her out. My son ended up coming with me.
Did that scare you? Having your abusive ex take care of your daughter?
My daughter stayed with him. He also had already met a woman that he was with — whom I trusted, whether or not I trusted him. And I knew it was only going to be a few years before she went to college. I’d be fighting for the rest of my life in court if we didn’t settle that way. So my son came with me. Today, my son is almost 30, my daughter is 33.
Did you ever speak to them about the abuse?
I try from time to time to speak with them to apologize, you know. Not that I feel I should apologize, but it might have been handled differently. I know that I was protecting my son. He was physically abused from day one, but my daughter wasn’t, so she would say that was never an issue. But the emotional scars do exist.
And how do you feel about having the affair?
I think cheating is justified if you’re being abused. You know what I mean? I was miserable with depression and pain. That depression, that behavior, was reflecting on my children. I couldn’t have been a good mother. A door opened to get me out of a desperate situation and I went through that door.