I’ve had a lot of practice at telling women that their boyfriends are cheating on them with me.
Sometimes it feels as if I’m a military representative knocking on the door of a newly widowed army wife. “Hello, my name is Lena. You don’t know me but I’m a friend of your husband’s. There’s something I have to tell you. You might want to sit down for this.” And then without me having to even say a word, she can already surmise that something is terribly wrong. The man she loves is dead, or at least, her relationship is.
After repeating this cycle three or four times, I’ve started to notice certain patterns in the way girlfriends respond. Once the girlfriends get over the initial shock, they want to hear everything, all the particulars, the dirtier the better and the easier to get over him with. I swallow the awkwardness to describe every touch and taste. I get more honest than I’d like. I tell them the rawest details about my sex life, lay bare my sexual proclivities and reveal what he did to serve them. I recount to them exactly how far things went before I realized something didn’t quite feel right.
I have had these conversations with girlfriends over coffee, in their places of employment, but mostly, over the phone. Sometimes, these women are acquaintances of mine. Other times, we are speaking for the first time. It is never easy. It is never completely expected. They almost always express a desire to be my friend. “I wish we could talk in person. You seem like such a cool girl,” some say. There is a feeling of sisterhood formed from these conversations, as if being betrayed by the same man means we share the same blood. Look at the common storm we’ve weathered. Look what we survived.
I fancy myself a guardian angel of sorts. The men are unlikely to tell the truth, so the burden of exposing deception lies with me – a party who’s been unwittingly deceived herself. But at least I’m not usually months deep into a relationship; the girlfriends are, and I feel for them. I badly want to help. I would drop everything in a second if one of these girls needed me to. And so I counsel them in the aftermath, allay their worries about going at life alone, answer frantic text messages and middle-of-the-night phone calls. In return, I am rewarded with innumerable thank yous and sleep a little easier knowing they are wiser.
Perhaps I feel responsible for the transgressions, as if there were signs I missed that could have prevented all of this. Or more likely, maybe I can relate because I know precisely how they have been manipulated. I want them to know they’re not alone and they’re not crazy, regardless of how their boyfriends may spin the situation. I know these men too. I know the feel of their lips and the shape of their lies. I am intimately familiar with their tricks and their effortless denial. These women are far from crazy. Their men have merely been figured out.
But mutually betrayed or not, we are still not sisters and it’s silly, really, this desire for a bond forged over shared turmoil. Even if I think all that I do creates a sense of solidarity, the reality is that I have much less at stake than they do. Even if they are grateful that someone told them the truth, let’s be honest: how thankful can someone really be for a favor that they never requested? What are they going to do, send me a fruit basket with a note, “Thanks for informing me my relationship, as I know it, is over”?
Besides, most of the superficial pretensions about sisterhood fall away as soon as the men are confronted. Like those in mourning, girlfriends experience denial and doubt when told that something is wrong. I could be an admirer scorned or an unstable ex, after all. How well do they know me, this strange other woman who came from nowhere? What are my motivations for intruding on their perfect-until-now relationship? Am I to be trusted over the man they love?
Sometimes, this denial passes but often, the girls decide to sustain their delusions and it is at this point that sisterly love turns into hostile suspicion. Worse than having to wake them up from their dreams is to have some of them turn back over and willingly fall down the rabbit hole all over again. It’s almost frustrating enough for me to swear off ever trying to be honest again. What’s the point if I just get written off? After being misled by a man, I then have to deal with being distrusted by a woman I’m only trying to help. It makes me feel like not only is this a thankless duty, but that I can’t even do my damn job right. Listen, I want to tell them, I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t want to be the harbinger of bad news.
I’m not saying that men can’t be sorry or that relationships can’t be salvaged or that every woman acts like an idiot about cheating. But in my experience, most people prefer to go about the aftermath with optimistic delusions rather than level-headedness.
Last Christmas night, a woman came to me asking for the truth. I spent four hours on the phone confirming her worst suspicions about her almost-fiancé. I’d been hooking up with him sporadically for longer than they’d been together. She told me she was leaving him. “I can’t spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder,” she said. But then New Year’s came and she spent it with him and his family. Well into January, they were still not over. She admitted all of this to me while acknowledging that leaving is easier said than done.
I can’t be hurt if she chooses to ignore my warnings. I don’t know what’s at stake for her so I can only try to understand that her decision is nothing personal. These are their lives, not mine. And now that I’ve done my part and told the truth, my job is done. If they choose to move on from the misstep, to move on from me, then so be it. For my own good, I can’t afford to wait around for my desired outcome.
Still, our conversations about shared men, broken trust, and loss of faith have left marks not easily erased by desperate rationalizations. I, too, will have to go about each day just like I did before any of this unraveled. But unlike some of these women, I could never so effortlessly deny all that’s transpired. And every now and then, I still wonder about all the sisters I wish I had.