Four years into our marriage, my husband found me on OkCupid.
I had only joined the site to check out his profile. He had joined to find someone else.
A friend helped me with the long sign-up process after we returned to my place from our weekly two-ounce glass of moscato at the Mission Inn wine bar. Neither of us were really drinkers — I was new to alcohol in my mid-40s — and this was as much as we would allow ourselves, this tiny swig of sweetness.
“What name should I use?” I said, curled on my couch as my friend sat at my desk with my laptop, feeling loose and pleasantly tired from the wine. “I definitely don’t want to use my own.”
“How about Glittergirl?” she said. She was a big fan of glitter; I often wound up with sparkles on my skin and hair after I hugged her. I wasn’t into glitter or anything makeup-related but gave her the go-ahead to type it in. I wasn’t planning to use the site for anything but recon.
“Glittergirl” was already taken, so we chose a rather crude alternative instead. This isn’t real anyway, we thought, so why not have some fun with it?
My husband and I had been separated for a couple of months at that point, and he had recently started seeing a woman he met on the site who was in an open marriage. We had considered opening our own marriage after I developed an obsession with a man I knew who lived across the country. My husband even ordered books like “Opening Up,” and I read them with great interest, but it became clear I wasn’t capable of the deep, honest communication necessary to make such an arrangement work.
I was in a tunnel vision of infatuation, my heart clamped shut outside those narrow walls, clamped tight against the husband I had been wildly in love with not so long before. I decided to move out, landing with our 3-year-old son first in a motel, then in an apartment in my father’s retirement community, and finally in the little cottage where my friend and I now sat, filling out my dating profile.
I hadn’t dated much in my life. I had one serious high school boyfriend and a couple of college flings before I met my first husband when I was 19; we stayed together for 20 years before divorcing. Eighteen months later, I found myself pregnant by my then-boyfriend, and we decided to get married. Soon we would endure a series of crises — my mother died right after our baby was born, and my husband’s mother died less than four months later, causing our new marriage to buckle. My obsession with this other man sent it crashing to the ground.
OkCupid led me and my friend through what felt like an endless questionnaire, asking about various turn-ons and turn-offs and ways of looking at the world. My friend read the multiple-choice questions out loud, some of which — like “In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?” — made me shake my head. In answer to the question about who I was looking for — men, women, or both — I checked “both.”
There were a few sexy questions, and I chose the wildest answers for fun, but those answers also felt true in their wildness, answers that spoke to desires I could have followed had I not fallen into commitment at 19, had I not first become a mother at 22. I wouldn’t have changed those early decisions, but I had to wonder: What if I had given myself permission to play more, to ask for what I really wanted? What if I had allowed myself a larger swig of sweetness?
Then my friend read a question that hit close to home: You get married. Five years later, you realize it was a mistake. Discussion and counseling haven’t made a difference. You just don’t love your partner anymore. He/she still loves you. Do you decide to keep trying — marriage means commitment — or get a divorce?
“Let’s skip that one,” I said, blinking back tears. Separation was clearly better for us than living together, but something in my body resisted the word divorce.
She eyed me before going on to the next question: “How much affection can you take?”
I chose the first answer: “Infinite.”
When we finally finished, the site offered up a list of recommended matches. I was shocked to see my husband at the top, nearly 100 percent compatible. Apparently, he had let himself be honest about his wildest desires, too. His profile was earnest and thoughtful — he was studying to be a yoga instructor and learning guitar, journeys he had embarked upon after our separation. The photo he used was a cute one I had taken of him in a tree, looking up at the sky.
Also high on my list was the woman he was dating, whose profile made her seem like someone I would like to know. This offered some intriguing possibilities, but I was too invested in our separation and my romantic fixation to propose the threesome so ripe for the picking.
Possibilities bristled everywhere I went. Taking off my wedding ring had been like taking off an invisible shield, one that had protected me from frank stares, from strangers striking up conversation in public places. As much as I had wanted to expand my horizons, I didn’t find this new attention fun or welcome or liberating. It felt predatory.
That’s how the sudden flood of messages from the dating site also felt, all the racy pictures and explicit descriptions of what these strangers wanted to do to my body, a body they could only imagine as I hadn’t posted a photo. I wondered if my crude username had emboldened this never-ending stream of propositions, but I learned from friends this just went with the territory.
I didn’t reply to anyone’s advances; perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this.
Then I received a sweet message: “I see we’re a 98 percent match. Would you like to meet up and see what life has to offer?”
It was from my husband.
I could feel a corner of my heart begin to thaw, could hear “He’s a good man” whisper from that same place, but it quickly froze back over. I wasn’t ready to let myself soften toward him, wasn’t ready to let go of my stubborn pull toward this other man, even though I had begun to think that I didn’t mean as much to him as he did to me, a suspicion that soon played itself out during a five-day trip together, and in his coldness toward me afterward. As I reeled from this rejection, I started to understand what I had been putting my poor husband through.
Neither of us had been our best selves in the time leading up to and during our six-month separation. I became cagey and dismissive as my attention was pulled elsewhere; he turned passive-aggressive.
My friend suggested I ignore my husband’s message the same way I had ignored all the rest, but some part of me — perhaps that part that couldn’t say “divorce” out loud — wanted to tell my husband that he had written to me, wanted to tell him why I had joined the site in the first place.
I thought he would find it hilarious. But when I did tell him, he was angry and hurt, and when he told the woman he was dating, she was, too.
“She feels like you’re stalking her,” he said, and I felt awful. I hadn’t meant to upset her. And despite my bad behavior, I had never wanted to upset him, either. I had just become addicted to the endorphin rush of infatuation, a limerence that stole my common sense as it stanched my own pain and grief.
It took a few months for my husband and me to find our way back to each other, and much longer, of course, to rebuild the trust between us. We’re in a good place now, grateful for what truly does feel like 98 percent compatibility, grateful we took another chance on seeing what life had to offer us together.
We’re no longer interested in opening our marriage; we’re committed to being open with each other instead, to listening to our bodies and letting the other know what sweetness we desire. I still don’t drink wine all that often, but when I do, I take a generous pour.
Gayle Brandeis, who lives in Incline Village, Nev., is the author of the memoir “The Art of Misdiagnosis.”
Modern Love can be reached at email@example.com.
To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.
Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”