In the Western world, cultural stories of romantic love resemble fairy tales. Once upon a time, after an unexpected meeting, we fall in love and live happily ever after. These fairy tales emphasize exclusivity. We choose someone irreplaceable to be our special person, our soulmate, and that person chooses us. And then, we live happily ever after.
For adults, this fairy tale version of love also includes emotional and sexual intimacy. With this person, we share our hearts and our bodies: unadorned, vulnerable, naked. In this fairy tale for adults, we grow as individuals and as a family, but always together. Love is our magic elixir, making life more meaningful, helping us cope with hardships because there’s always someone on our side. And being loved by our special person protects us from feeling lonely, rejected, or devalued. No matter what happens, our relationship offers stability, a shelter in the storm.
In some ways, I had a fairy tale marriage. I chose a husband who I valued above all others, and he chose me. He was uniquely special – smart and silly, hardworking and humble. No one else could possibly fill his particular shoes. He knew me like no one else has, including as a young single woman, as a new wife, and as a new mother. We shared our hearts, our bodies, and our lives for almost two decades, supporting each other through sickness and health, until the abrupt end.
After my husband died, I had no choice but to move forward alone. Our love endured, yet our love story had ended. Legally, I became single. I was on my own. Without mutual love and intimacy, life felt lonely and less meaningful. I missed being someone special, chosen, and cherished. I missed having a caring companion, a stable shelter.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet a new romantic partner, someone wonderful, special, and different. We’ve chosen one another, and we’re building a new life together. It’s confusing. For me, shaped by cultural stories, committed romantic love means promising loyalty – emotional and sexual exclusivity. Have I now broken these past promises to my husband by making these same promises to someone new? Have I become the posthumous villain of our past love story, a type of wicked witch, or perhaps in my case, a wanton widow?
Full of unease, I turned to the experts for guidance. Esther Perel’s wonderful and nuanced book, “The State of Affairs,” details how and why violations of promised monogamy feel so fraught. Learning about a partner’s infidelity commonly leads to a crisis. The shocking news lands like a punch in the gut. During the revelation phase, the once-stable ground crumbles and gives way. Learning of a partner’s infidelity leads to a rollercoaster of feelings, including sadness, anger, loss, and betrayal. It’s common to ruminate on the past, trying to make sense of what had presumably been a shared, stable life. What happened? Why? There’s also a sense of alienation, both from one’s partner and oneself. Who am I now, without you at my side, and also, without trusting in us?
I was stunned to find that reading about common responses to this type of crisis felt intimately familiar. These recognizable responses reveal grief. There are undeniable parallels between losing a partner to an affair and losing a partner to death — the shock of the news, the onslaught of emotions, the sense of alienation, the lack of self-recognition. In both types of situations, our fairy tale romance has become tainted and tenuous; the fantasy of stability, of happily ever after now, dissolves. We find ourselves feeling abandoned and alone, stigmatized by factors and forces beyond our control. I didn’t chose this, didn’t want this.
This new knowledge inverted my position, shifting from the betrayer of my marital vows to the betrayed. And so, I rushed to draw distinctions. Shouldn’t intent matter? My beloved husband tried to keep his promises; he’d never want to abandon or deceive me. Eternally loyal, he protected me from the pain of disrespect, humiliation, and suspicion. As a widow, I’ve felt isolated and self-conscious, but never by secrets or salacious gossip. My memories of the past have changed, but only with the hindsight of finality, whereas memories of the betrayed spouse shift with the knowledge of the partner’s simultaneous secret life. Although “last time” memories become bittersweet after loss, for the widowed, such memories remain whole and intact, untarnished by new knowledge about the past.
We all know the fairy tales. They shape how we make sense of love, how we judge others, and also ourselves. As a widow, it’s scary to admit to being intimately involved with someone new. From a fairy tale perspective, I’m betraying my beloved husband. But this perspective overlooks important details. Although our love story has ended, my individual story remains unfinished. My beloved husband always wanted me to be happy; rather than feeling deceived or betrayed, he’d surely feel joy and relief to know that I’ve found love again.
Once upon a time, I shared my heart, my body, and my life with a wonderful man. That story ended, although my love remains. Now, I’m sharing my life with someone else. My beloved husband hasn’t been replaced. He could never be. Although time moves me forward, I haven’t “moved on.” Every day, my husband still is with me. And yet, every day, he’s also still gone.