We all experience small deaths during our time on this earth. Some are more common than others. Mine is of the most common variety, so common as to be hardly worth telling, but as with all deaths it brings a profound and uncommon change upon the one who goes through it.
At the end of my first week teaching at a university, about a month after moving to a new part of the country, my husband told me that he had been having an affair for six months. As his words entered my awareness—he loved her and didn’t know if he wanted to stay with me—I felt as if all the trees on my Earth were being dug up by their roots. These roots that held the ground in place were torn out. All I could do was sit and watch the earth fall away.
I had always imagined that if I were faced with this type of situation, I would immediately kick the guy out, and not put up with another minute of his offending presence. Instead, to my surprise, I wanted desperately to save our young marriage. How could this person, who had seemed so genuine, so solid and dependable, so utterly devoted, be capable of this measure of betrayal? We’d been together for nearly four years before marrying—if there were a chance he’d cheat on me, wouldn’t I have seen warning signs? I couldn’t believe this was happening. I took it to be simply a horrible aberration: not a character flaw on his part but a simple case of poor judgment.
Between visits to a marriage counselor and my own therapist, between fights at home and moments of real happiness together, I struggled through my first semester, scraping by from lecture to lecture. When I wasn’t teaching I would sit in my office with the door closed and cry. I couldn’t talk to my colleagues about the situation; I had no friends within several hundred miles and no family within a few thousand. Every day was a giant wound opening and re-opening. Yet in that terrible loneliness I felt connected to all the people who had traveled this path before me.
The earth was gone. What was left? With no ground to stand on I floated through the formlessness of uncertainty. Toward winter my life grew darker and darker as I exhausted myself. I was trying so desperately to be understanding and compassionate toward my husband, knowing that without that, there was no chance of rebuilding our marriage. At the same time I knew I had to acknowledge my rage and deep disappointment. I began to see images in my mind of my own death, graphic and terrifying images.
Over the Christmas holiday I had to get away from him and our life together. I didn’t want to go home to my parents. Although they were incredibly supportive of me, they lived only fifty miles from my husband’s lover, and I could not move in that direction. In fact, everything west of the Mississippi I needed to avoid at all cost. Instead I escaped to Europe and stayed with the host family I had lived with in high school. Their daughter, about my age, had been a true source of support through the whole ordeal. It did me good to be in her presence, to feel her genuine understanding and compassion, and to remove myself from the suffocating situation I’d been living in.
In my short time away, it became clear to me that my husband’s “bad judgment” stemmed from the deeper problem of not knowing what he wanted; in my view, of not knowing himself. Whereas at first I assumed we’d get beyond this (he’d just cut ties with his lover and come back to me wholeheartedly, as simple as that!), I now saw the gravity of our plight: I saw what it would take to repair my trust in him, how deeply he loved this other woman, and how uncertain he was of his love for me. Upon my return to North Carolina, I asked him to move out as soon as possible.
In January, four days after my thirtieth birthday, we separated. We had been a couple for exactly five years and three days, and that seemed an awfully long time. On the day he left for Rochester to take a research position at the university, I drove him to the airport. Through tears I asked him once more if he could say for sure that he wanted to stay with me forever. He couldn’t.
That day was the beginning of a curious and remarkable transformation. As I moved into spring I rediscovered my love for my work. I cultivated new and supportive local friendships. I bought my first house, which I loved. Gradually I began to know deeply that I did not want to take him back, even if he wanted to re-establish our relationship. I started meditating semi-regularly and reading about Buddhist thought and practice. I learned to sit with whatever was there, to sit with whatever emotions or physical sensations or thoughts arose and observe them without judgment. I learned about tonglen, the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving. I would breathe in all my pain and anger and sadness, and I’d breathe out compassion, sending it out to the world. I practiced sending loving-kindness: first to myself, then to my husband, and eventually to his lover. I walked right into my anger and welcomed it into my life, inviting it to sit with me for as long as it needed to. After some months of this practice, my question was no longer, Who was right and who was wrong? but, How can I make my life better? My anger left.
When my husband came down in May to get the rest of his things from our place, he felt like an old friend. We had a pleasant visit, although his lover called in a panic because she was afraid we would sleep together (neither of us wanted to). When he left with his things it really felt like the end. We both cried for a long time. After he drove away I went back into the bedroom and sat down on the bed. I looked out the window at the trees and light. It was a curious light, almost as if I were looking at the world for the very first time. I was looking at the world with all the layers peeled back.
At the end of the summer, near the anniversary of my discovery of the affair, I ran into my husband’s lover at a conference overseas. Although I tried to avoid her, she approached me. She told me how much pain she was in, how much she still suffered. I believe she thought it would make me feel better to know that she suffered too (it didn’t), and I believe she wanted me to absolve her (I didn’t). I told her what I had learned: “Allow yourself to be with whatever is there and know that everything changes. With every out-breath we die a small death, and with every in-breath we are reborn. This is what that means: Our suffering is not fixed, and with every moment we can choose how to encounter it.”