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Don't bet on closure when you confront a mistress

Julie Metz's memoir, Perfection, may tempt wives to dial up their husbands' mistresses, but expert opinion is mixed on the manoeuvre - even Ms. Metz doesn't wholly recommend it.

Recently there was Jenny Sanford, who did it by proxy, warily allowing her husband, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, to meet his Argentine mistress for dinner with a "spiritual adviser" in tow.

Before that there was John Edwards's mistress Rielle Hunter, who suggested - albeit with dripping sarcasm - that she, Mr. Edwards and his wife Elizabeth could "maybe all be friends one day."

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Marilyn Yalom doesn't think making contact with a mistress is a good idea, even if hubby is dead. The author of A History of the Wife says reaching out to mistresses is "a bizarre way of keeping him or her 'alive' in memory. …

"It's sometimes a way of punishing him and his mistress posthumously. It will probably not bring closure, but will open up more distressing questions."

Montreal-based Imago relationship therapist Sophie Slade has counselled couples in which one party is itching to confront the lover for "some relief of their own suffering." The therapist tries to explore their motivations.

"Once people work through what their own agenda is, they often don't need to [find the lover]any more. They can work it through with their partner."

That wasn't an option for Ms. Metz, whose husband suffered a pulmonary embolism and died in her arms in January, 2003.

When she confronted her husband's mistresses, some didn't have much to tell her. Christine, the fellow knitter from California, e-mailed with Ms. Metz for a time but tired of the process, finally apologizing for her role in the "yucky mess" - words that conjured comparatively innocent images of spilled pudding and dirty diapers for Ms. Metz.

"I sensed her wish to be done with me and this whole sordid tale, to move on to a happier life chapter," Ms. Metz writes. "But I did not have such a luxury."

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Closure is not a given when a spouse confronts the other woman or man, Ms. Slade said.

"The likelihood of that other person responding in the way you want them to is probably nil because they are coming into it with their own stuff. You're not going to get the response you want, almost certainly."

She said this type of investigation can open up more wounds and only helps when a person is doing it to glean more self-awareness, as Ms. Metz ultimately did.

"If you can do it really from a place of curiosity, rather than self-hatred or self-blame, then it can be really productive. But that is a long journey," Ms. Slade said.

Elizabeth Abbott, a Toronto-based social historian and author of A History of Mistresses and the forthcoming A History of Marriage, said many widows would simply bury the evidence, fearing stigma.

"There are tons of women with letters that find this out and they don't tell, they don't want anyone to know. They burn them."

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Still, she thinks women are entitled to know: "If you can sleep with someone's husband, then [wives]can come to you and inquire about it."

In some cases, the exchanges can morph into female conniving.

Ms. Metz acknowledges the vengeful spirit of her exercise when she tells Christine that her late husband's nightmare was "that you and I would meet and get along famously, go off into a corner to talk and knit and forget all about him."

Ms. Abbott says: "She got him back. And his being dead, as she said, is very convenient because that's it: She got the last laugh."

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Zosia More


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