Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. Today we talk to Mandy*, who found herself weighing up whether she should embark on an open relationship with her husband… only to find out that she was already sort of in one, without knowing it.
In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband.
Mandy was watching TV when her husband first suggested they bring someone else into their relationship.
It happened quite out of the blue, while they were watching Succession, as two of the main characters talked about having a threesome (in an earlier episode the wife, Siobhan, had told her husband she wanted an open relationship – and on their wedding day, no less).
Perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, as the episode continued, Tom – Siobhan’s husband – continued to become increasingly uncomfortable and anxious about the idea.
“Yip, that tells you everything you need to know about my ex,” says Mandy. “He watched that show, completely oblivious that Tom was suffering, and how selfish Shiv was in her desires, AND then said that we should give it a go.”
They laughed about it for a while, until her husband, Mark, started talking about it quite seriously – like who it should be and when.
“As an abstract idea, I thought it was kind of funny or fun,” says Mandy. “But not as a real exercise. Full power to couples who do it, but personally, the idea of watching my husband be intimate with someone else made me feel physically ill.”
Her husband wasn’t deterred though and figured she’d come round to the idea. “His birthday was coming up and he dropped a lot of unsubtle hints about what I could get him.”
But just a few days before his birthday he made another remark about it and Mandy cracked.
“I’d said so many times that it upset me, but he didn’t seem to notice,” she tells. The next day after they’d cooled off, she had a more serious conversation with him and told him that her position hadn’t changed on the topic – it wasn’t something she wanted to do.
“He said – get this – that if I didn’t want to see him with another woman, maybe we should spice up our relationship by swinging or having an open relationship for a while.”
Mandy says she was so gobsmacked she just told him that was no better an idea, and she had no interest in being with anyone else and then – stunned – went to have a long shower to get some space and cool down.
“I think deep down I knew our relationship was already over,” she reflects. “But I didn’t want to let go of our marriage, or that relationship. We’d been together for so long. I didn’t want to be single and have to start again at 30.”
It was about six weeks later when they were out for dinner when her husband told her a guy sitting at the bar was checking her out.
“Initially, I felt really flattered,” she shares.
But that quickly unravelled.
“Then Mark said, ‘If you want to go home with him, I can find my own way home.’ It came out of nowhere.”
At first she laughed, forgetting that it had been a topic he’d fairly recently raised.
“Then I realised he was very serious,” she tells.
From there, Mark – in quite a manipulative way, she says – tried to talk Mandy into approaching the man.
“The bit I remember the clearest was me saying, ‘oh, ok, so I’ll just go see if I can go to this man’s house and have sex with him and you’ll do what, go home and watch cricket?’ And he said, ‘No, I’ll go do the same, it’ll be fun.” I said, “Who with?” And he said, “oh, do you want us to share the identities of the people we’re sleeping with?”
Mandy says she felt a strange sense of calm come over her body, rather than the rage she expected she would feel in that situation.
“I knew then that he’d already started sleeping with other women and that I was in an open relationship without knowing it.”
And so – feeling strangely calm – she just asked her husband about it. In turn, he talked quite openly about the women he’d slept with over the last few weeks and she sat there, having a slightly out of body experience as he rattled on.
“Then I asked him when he thought I’d agreed to having an open relationship, when we’d discussed boundaries if it, and when he’d let me know that’s what he was leaving the house to do?”
He told her it was a couple of days before his birthday, when they’d discussed it.
“I said, ‘I told you I didn’t want to do it.’ And he said, ‘No, you just said that you didn’t want to sleep with other men at the moment.’ So I picked up my glass and threw it over him and walked out.”
Mandy has been living with a friend ever since and has only told that one friend why her marriage really broke up.
“The shame is massive,” she says. “I couldn’t tell my parents, I’m too embarrassed. I know I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong – although I could have done things a lot differently – but… I’m just embarrassed to tell anyone.”
It’s why Mandy reached out to tell her story, because on some level, while she doesn’t want people to know what happened, she’s also desperate to tell people.
“I feel a strange dichotomy of wanting to hire billboards and internet ads with his face on them, saying what he did and what a piece of shit he is, and also wanting no one to find out why we really broke up.”
She says she feels like warning every woman in NZ about him by telling everyone about him, but also can’t bring herself to tell friends, family or colleagues, for fear that they’ll feel bad for her.
“Their sympathy will just feel… awful,” she says. “And – this may not be true – but i feel like everyone will be gossiping and judging. I know open relationships exist and we’re getting more accepting of them, but I also just imagine people looking at me and knowing that my husband wasn’t satisfied with just me.”
Sadly, Mandy feels an enormous fear of getting into another relationship, knowing that she’ll battle feeling insecure, suspicious and guilty. But she’s ruled out talking to a professional and getting therapy.
“I’m not a therapy person,” she says. “I’d rather spend that money on massages or a holiday or something.”
She’s hoping telling her story might help release some of the anger and shame she’s feeling – or that it might resonate with someone else.
“There are so many awful parts to this – the least of which is that I can’t even watch Succession again – but the worst is probably how alone I feel. If anyone else has been cheated on but is too ashamed to talk about it, I hope this story makes them feel less alone. I’m sure it happens a lot more than we think.”