It takes a certain kind of man to lead two lives. And we all know at least a few of them.
Some men have the ability to lead one life in private and a very different life in public. Sure, women can do it too, but this is far and above a male problem.
Take Don Draper, from the show Mad Men. In the first episode of the series, we meet a very successful advertising executive with a high rise office and a gorgeous girlfriend that he meets for an afternoon tryst. And then, at the end of the episode, Don goes home to his beautiful and faithful wife and children at their house in the suburbs. Don has the uncanny ability to carry on a long-term relationship with two separate women. It’s as if he enters the office, and sets his family on the shelf; then he returns home to pay with the kids and cuddle his wife while his work life stays in the city. And we learn, later on, that when he doesn’t have someone on the side, he actively seeks someone; it’s an obsession, a compulsion.
Those of us who aren’t Don Draper might be fascinated, confused, or outraged by this, but most of us simply don’t understand how this could happen, and how it could be sustained. What makes a man capable of both having a family and an entire other life, cheating on them on the side?
My stepfather, Kent, was a different kind of man with two sides. In public, he was a stalwart Mormon family man with a big heart, showing up at church every week with a firm handshake, a hearty laugh, and a genuine smile. Yet behind the closed doors of our home, he had a violent and explosive temper, and would use violence and words to manipulate and control the members of the household.
Perhaps the most extreme example I can think of is Dennis Rader. I read his biography a few years ago. A God-fearing, church-going family man with a wife and children and a full-time job, baseball games and barbecues and family outings. Yet he had a secret, decades-long life in which he would violently murder others as the BTK Killer, taunting police with clues along the way. When he was arrested, his family had absolutely no idea about his double life.
I often have clients come in to my office (I’m a therapist) who have just learned about the double life of a spouse. A man married for ten years has learned his husband has been cheating on him the entire time. A woman with five children finds her husband arrested for sexual molestation of a young teenage girl down the street. A 60 year old woman finds a note in her husband’s pocket, calls the number, and learns about a five-year long affair. A young wife discovers a bank account her husband never told her about, and learns about his addiction to gambling funds on the stock market.
The first emotion is shock. Then a deep sense of betrayal. How could he do this to me? Then there is a deep pain, a combination of rage and hurt and grief and shame. How could I not have known? Why did he hurt me? Maybe I’m not meant to fall in love. I did everything for him and he betrayed me!
Many times, the client has confronted their spouse before they come in. And it often looks something like this.
Maggie: Mark, I know about Jenny. I saw her text messages.
Mark: What? I told you not to go through my phone! I warned you!
Maggie: Don’t yell at me. I’m so angry with you. You cheated on me.
Mark: Oh please, we were just texting. We didn’t actually do anything.
Maggie: Mark, I know you’ve been sleeping together. I saw the content of the messages.
Mark: I don’t know what you think you read, but you’re wrong. It’s not a big deal.
Maggie: If it wasn’t a big deal, why didn’t you tell me about her?
Mark: Because I knew you would act like this!
Maggie: I’ve packed my bag. I’m going to my parents.
Mark: What! Oh my god, you’re over-reacting!
Maggie: Goodbye, Mark.
Mark: Wait! Don’t go! Okay, okay, I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want?
Maggie: I want the truth.
Mark: Okay, okay, I slept with her. Once. But then it was over. It didn’t mean anything. Then I called it off.
Maggie: You texted her this morning. She said you were with her last night.
Mark: She’s lying! Nothing happened!
Maggie: Goodbye, Mark.
Mark: Fine, go! I make one mistake! Nothing I ever do is ever good enough for you!
There is no easy way to measure out the long-term effects of a betrayal. When you trust someone that much and build a life with them, a wide wound opens up, a rift within, when you learn about this secret life divided.
And there is no easy way to understand how someone can live these lives. It happens far too often. Small secrets and lies lead to larger and larger ones. People divide themselves into pieces and, with practice, become very good at it. It requires a certain sense of narcissism, a heavy sense of entitlement, an ability to take advantage of a person deeply loved and trusted mixed with an ability to think more is owed or deserved outside of the relationship.
For any who have been betrayed, you can live a happy and healthy life with love and passion and success. You have to allow your wounds time to heal, you have to learn to put your needs up to the surface, to prioritize and to take care of your self and obligations. It’s a long process, and you’ll come out the other side stronger as the wounds heal.
And for any who have done the betraying, it is likely you’ll hurt another person without help. The compulsion to have your cake and eat it too, or to have the two separate lives you want… it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t something you can keep doing over time without consistently hurting the ones you love. You have to learn to be accountable and empathetic, to sacrifice your needs and compulsions in order to have the stable and happy family life you want and crave. And you have to want to stop hurting the people you care about.
No man can easily wear two faces. Not for long. And not without hurting everyone he loves.