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Sex, Lies, and Collateral Damage


Most of what I knew about Kathy was hearsay; this woman who was separated from her husband and engaged in an affair with a man who divorced his wife, thinking he and Kathy would marry. Then, she was sitting in my apartment, larger than life, revealing so many intimacies, including the length of the affair, ongoing for more than six years, and beginning several years before her lover Dan left his marriage.

The visit and ensuing emails provided clarity.

She said she needs both her husband and Dan. She likes the control, the thrill of keeping her stories straight. What she tells her husband. What she tells her lover. But that Dan was never the man she’d leave her husband to marry.

She was a massive contradiction. Said she’d bought Dan a set of flatware, identical to hers, so that when they eventually were together, their utensils would match. But she claimed she never told him she would end up with him. And she wrote: “There were a couple of years I seriously had two husbands. Loved them both, equally but differently.” Dan had been “so happy to hear me say that, when I realized it. That he was my second husband.” But sometimes she felt pressured. His telling her their love would set an example for her children sounded a little too much like a sales pitch.

Kathy had a burn phone. When she called Dan, “Enduring Conversation” appeared on his cellphone screen.

Sitting across from me that day in my family room, she said she always reconciled with her husband during the “crucial holiday season.” And this: “I want you to know I breastfed my children.” She said this proudly, as if breastfeeding is some ritual of sacrifice, allowing a mother to do anything thereafter, regardless of the consequences, a wild card against accountability and collateral damage. The children aren’t stupid. They see their father’s pain. They see their mother’s absence, even when she’s present.

“This is a real love story.”

“No, it’s a real love story only if it’s real love.”

She’d just broken off the affair for the gazillionth time, telling me she wanted to reconcile with her husband, a “good man”. So decent, yet she did have a complaint—he was not an engaged parent. But she admitted the control she wields in this area. She’s the parent. She’s in charge of the children and doesn’t hesitate to tell him this.

And she’d just discovered Dan had cheated on her. She felt he’d “hijacked” her trust. I lingered on that one—the hypocrisy unacknowledged and therefore unexamined by Kathy.

But she understood his anger. After all, she had two men. I could have reminded her that Dan didn’t stop with two women.

A day after she’d been in my condo, she sent an email with the subject line: “How I handle a breakup.” Told me she’d gone to a bar near her office and picked up a man wearing a kilt. That he was an investment banker, scuba diver, and skier, from out of state.

… (perfect. I don’t have to take him to my house and I can leave the hotel whenever I want and fuck Dan off my brain. Old habits die hard). He’s fit, tall but not too tall… Did I mention he’s a competitive dancer? We kissed in the parking lot…

I responded with: “What does this mean? I don’t want to be unkind, but if you want to preserve your marriage, what are you doing?” I asked why she wasn’t’ home, making love with her husband. Told her that more and more people would be hurt. “You can’t hurt others without hurting your conscience.”

She wrote:

I want to separate the sin from the sinner, that’s the way I am… I commit full on to kids and to family and a few friends, but men are a little harder for me to let all the way in. My therapist has been asking for years why Dan is so willing to be with an unavailable woman. And the answer always was because he loved me so much that he could accept crumbs from the table of joy, in hope of a better future.

My question was why, if he loved her so much, he’d cheat on her. And why, if she loved him so much, she didn’t leave her husband, file for divorce, and be with the man she really loved at the “table of joy”. In some of her emails, she questioned this love, but in others she wrote about his “deep love” for her “that he doesn’t know how to stop, and which drove the pain train through the center of a fully occupied town.”

After a week or two of email exchanges, I told her I wanted no more involvement. Her visit and the correspondence had separated the unconfirmed from facts, but I wasn’t her therapist. I’ve thought about her though, especially after hearing she and Dan are seeing each other again, continuing their dramatic imbroglio.

These two move their wings–the butterfly effect of chaos theory for her family.  For the one he left. And for the women on whom he preys, objectifies.

I think of Kathy’s use of “occupied”, looping it through my mind to its military connotation: invasion, carnage, body bags. Children of war. Lies. War porn.

Control, like that wielded by a superpower, is Kathy’s weapon of mass destruction. And Dan’s. Each asserts exceptionalism. She’s cheated on her husband for years, but it’s her trust that’s been hijacked by Dan to whom she won’t commit but offers humanitarian relief before and after carpet-bombing him. While Dan tells each of those women with whom he’s simultaneously involved that he’s monogamous.

This is a real war story between two willful, selfish, childish adults, leaving a trail of destruction. Enduring insanity. And as with any war, nobody wins.

Missy Beattie can be reached at

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail:

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