I realised that my relationship had problems soon after my daughter was born. When I met Joe*, he was caring, charming, and charismatic; I thought I’d hit the jackpot. We had only been dating for a few months when I found out I was pregnant. Those nine months were blissful. He cooked all my meals for me, took care of me when I was experiencing severe morning sickness, and made me feel completely at ease throughout the pregnancy. Then everything changed.
Joe started drinking a lot when our daughter was a few weeks’ old. He was a bad drunk: aggressive, rude, and generally just quite unpleasant. He became very critical of me, too, and often put me down, failing to apologise when I told him how it made me feel. Instead, he would just laugh and tell me I was being oversensitive. Things got particularly bad during lockdown, as they did for many couples. Joe would start arguments with me out of nothing and criticise every decision I made. I was constantly walking on eggshells around him and started to withdraw so as to avoid him, which was obviously very difficult given that we were stuck in the same space. We hadn’t had sex in months.
I started to come to terms with the fact that he might be a narcissist. Everything, even the way he loved me, was always about him. He had become increasingly arrogant, entitled, and preoccupied with his own thoughts and feelings to the point where mine no longer mattered. He wouldn’t take responsibility for any of his actions, blaming me for his bad moods and tempers. Money was a factor, too. He earned much more than me and saved most of it for himself, while I was left paying for childcare even though I earned much less.
On top of all of this, Joe could be incredibly controlling. I was not “allowed” to have male friends, for example, as he would get very jealous – he has previously hacked into my phone and emails to check up on me. Over time I started to believe the things he said about me. My self-esteem hit rock bottom.
I went online to try and find forums for people in toxic relationships and came across a conversation about a dating website that facilitates extramarital affairs: Illicit Encounters. I’d never considered having an affair but I was intrigued. Paul* was one of the first men who got in touch with me. We would speak most evenings about everything from our careers to our respective failing marriages. He had recently discovered that his wife had been having an affair for four years but, because he didn’t want to split up the family (they had two kids), he was turning a blind eye. We had a surprising amount in common and would speak for hours on the phone about films and books we’d loved, a refreshing change from the arguments about nappies and literally everything else I’d have with my husband.
We planned our first meeting after three weeks. God, I was nervous, but I tried to go into it with an open mind. It wasn’t hard to arrange it, as my husband travels a lot for his job. Once I sorted out childcare, I was free to do as I pleased. We chose an outdoor pub in south London and went for a long walk along the river and ended up at a cosy tapas restaurant.
I was instantly attracted to him. We quickly decided not to speak about our families or partners anymore; it would be more romantic if we just focused on each other. After dinner, we decided to get a hotel room. It was the most exhilarating few hours of my life.
Now, we meet up whenever we can, which isn’t anywhere near as often as I’d like. It’s easier to go to his place, seeing as his wife is often away and his kids are away at boarding school. But sometimes, when Joe is traveling and I can find external childcare, he comes to me. It feels strange being with him in the bed I share with Joe, and I do find myself feeling guilty occasionally. But the feeling I have when I’m with Paul counteracts it: it’s like an adventure. He compliments me and takes me to all the restaurants I’ve always wanted to try that Joe would never take me to, mostly because Joe is lazy but also because he has little interest in going out.
Paul and I have been seeing each other for nearly a year now. I’ve become really good at lying about where I am when we meet up. I don’t think Joe suspects a thing. Sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life, but I’ve found myself feeling happier and more confident than ever. Weirdly, I think I’ve become a better mother, too, given how much more optimistic my outlook has become. My anxiety and self-doubt have also abated.
To be completely honest, I have no idea what the future holds. I know that Paul has no plans to leave his wife any time soon. I have considered leaving Joe, but I also feel like my arrangement has been working for me. I don’t want to risk anything rocking the boat. I think I could leave him when my daughter is a bit older, perhaps. Or maybe when I feel completely emotionally stable. Ultimately, I just want to be a good mother. And to be happy; I think that’s the most important thing.
*Names and identities have been changed
*This article was amended on 20 September 2021 to confirm that Paul has two children.
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