Last week, I went out of state with my daughter to go on a camping trip with my family (my wife stayed home). On the last day of the trip, one of my oldest friends, "Danielle" (who is still a family friend) came to visit for the night with her two boys (her husband stayed home).
To provide a little context: I have known Danielle for over 20 years. We met when we were 10 or 11--neither of us can really remember for sure. But we grew up together. We've never been an official couple, but we've always skirted romance. Over the years we've kissed on a few occasions, made out a few times, but nothing ever came of it all. Everyone in both our families always thought we'd end up together. We eventually went our separate ways and she married her boyfriend, who she's been with now 15 years. I married my wife and we've been together 12.
Anyway: the camping trip. I haven't seen Danielle in four years. We are cordial at first, then flirty. We drink a bit, start holding hands, and snuggling by the campfire. We're laughing and joking and it's basically like we're kids again. Being myself around her is fun and easy.
We wander down to a dock near the campground. We sit and stare at the stars, all the lights around us reflecting off the water. Danielle finally breaks down: "My husband sucks." He's not very involved with their kids. He doesn't like doing things that don't involve drinking anymore, and that she doesn't feel like herself around him. She misses me. She misses my family (for various reasons, she hasn't been close to her own family in over a decade and has always sort of been part of mine). She doesn't remember the last time she felt really happy around him.
I share my own dissatisfaction. I feel much the same about my wife. We don't have fun together. We spend most of our nights watching Netflix or alone doing our own things. When we do get time alone without our daughter, we spend it talking about her. There's more (lacking sex life, general negative vibes, etc.) but the gist of it is...we just don't seem to like each other much anymore. I don't remember the last time I felt really happy around my wife.
Danielle and I make our way to another part of the campground and after another round of reminiscing, we start making out. We both knew we couldn't go further or we'd regret it (also, it's a crowded-ass campground and my niece is sort of trailing us at a distance to make sure we don't do exactly what we did). We cry, we hug, we stop a few more times on the way back to the fire to make out a little.
And that was it, basically. We hugged briefly in the morning before she left with her boys and I bawled my eyes out as she drove away. I got in a plane about seven hours later and flew 1500 miles away to come back home. I can't stop thinking about her.
We won't see each other again until Christmas, and both our spouses will be there. I don't feel like we can talk about it without making things worse. I know I should tell my wife. But I can't tell my wife that when Danielle and I kiss, it feels unlike any kiss I'd ever had from her. And I can't tell her that I don't feel guilty for cheating. I don't know what to do. This was all just a stupid mistake, right?
First and perhaps foremost, stop cheating. Don’t do it again. You’ve had your little moment, you have more than enough information to take the next steps. I’m not here to make you feel guilty about the cheating (that’s the word for what you did. And by the way it is a thing you did, not a thing that happened, remember that). I don’t even personally think that cheating is an automatic dealbreaker. I’m just saying you’re using a lot of romantic, flowery, distancing language, which might be a large part of the reason that you claim you don’t feel guilty.
What you did was both wrong and cowardly. Kissing someone who is not your longterm partner is the easy way out. Are you a bad, irredeemable shipwreck of a person for it? No. But it’s not “just a kiss” and it’s not ok because “there’s always been something there” or because she’s an old friend, or whatever other layers of justification you want to try to glaze on top of your personal recounting of events.
Should you tell your wife? I don’t know. I can’t decide that and a lot of it depends on what you do next. There’s no non-selfish choice because you already did a selfish thing. Telling or not telling your wife is at best you guessing what will hurt her the least. In general, I recommend to people in the beginning of their relationships ask partners “would you want to know if someone cheated on you?” A hypothetical is not real life, and the answer isn’t perfect, but it might give you insight into what to do. Personally, if you were my husband, I’d MUCH RATHER you not tell me and start working on our marriage with at least the same intensity you had while smooching and sobbing over someone who is not me. If you want to tell her to assuage your guilt, which you say you don’t have, or to not tell her to avoid shame, I don’t think those are good reasons. If you want to tell her to give her agency or to reintroduce the idea of you being an honest person into your relationship, those are better starting points. Still, some people will be like YOU HAVE TO TELL HER RIGHT NOW OR YOU SUCK. And some people will feel otherwise.
So, to your other question, which basically boils down to: “Is this a stupid mistake or something more?” I say, neither. It was a dipshit move designed to give you more options and happiness, and to rob your wife of both. Therein, in my opinion, lies the hurt of cheating. You’ve taken choice and security away from your partner to give it to yourself. (And you’re a liar but whatever, everyone lies).
Are you and Danielle meant to be together? Ehhh, probably no more than you and your wife are. Let’s address something you said, shall we? “Being myself around her is fun and easy.” OF COURSE IT IS, MY DUDE, YOU’RE TONGUE-FUCKING A NEW PERSON ON A VACATION. How could that ever ever stack up to the drudgery of carpooling kids and picking up prescription yeast infection creams and budgeting for the master bath remodel? How?!?! That’s like being like “going to a bar is more fun than my job??? I’m confused.” (Perhaps it’s problematic to compare being married to a job, but we’ll all live).
Do you want to know why you and your wife don’t have fun together? Because you two aren’t trying to. Yes, it’s going to be harder to rebuild this than it is to jump ship and fuck a person, the novelty of whom you’ve mistaken for chemistry. That would be easy. But would it be good? Would it be right for you? (I cannot answer this). There is a cheesy ass saying that applies here: The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s greener where you water it. Talk to your wife about your concerns. Schedule couples counseling. Plan date nights where you aren’t allowed to talk about your daughter at all (try something that is active, collaborative, or competitive if possible, so that you two have something to talk about rather than staring blankly at each other). Go camping just the two of you. Rent a hotel for one night in your city. Buy a sex toy. I don’t know!! TRY!!! That’s the promise of marriage— when it gets shitty, I’ll try for us.
The fact that your niece was following you around, trying to prevent the two of you from hooking up is embarrassing, especially if your niece is under 18 years old. That means you were such an obvious little horn dog that a child picked up on it. That’s so disrespectful to your child, her children, your wife and your niece. Don’t be that person again. It’s not like it was worth it; all you have now is drama and extra longing that was not abated at all by a kiss (how could it be when what you really want is a different, easy life handed to you?).
You need to think long and hard about what kind of spouse you want to model for your daughter, but also what kind of spouse you want to be as a human. It might be worthwhile to imagine being 80 years old and looking back on your life. What is it that you think you’ll be proud of? What do you think you’ll regret? What matters to you fundamentally?
The answer may be Danielle. That’s fine. But then act like an adult and leave your wife and BE SINGLE FOR A WHILE WHILE YOU GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER BECAUSE YOU CANT BE IN LONG TERM RELATIONSHIPS AND NOT CHEAT AS OF RIGHT NOW and then in a few years—yes, years—circle back to Danielle and see where she’s at. Maybe she’ll still be with her husband. That’s a risk. Because the problem is not your wife, and the problem is not your marriage and the solution is not Danielle. The problem is your dissatisfaction with your marriage and your wife and your unwillingness (or inability, possibly) to work on it at all.
Did you forget that the promise of marriage is to do the work? Have you forgotten that love is hard and sometimes that hard work isn’t taking care of a kid with stomach flu sometimes that hard work is not kissing people you have a crush on because you made literal vows to someone else that you wouldn’t kiss people you have a crush on? This is the hard work. The hard work is not always yelling matches or losing a job or sickness. Sometimes, those things are “easier” to be there for because you’re prepared for them to be hard, you’re anticipating that kind of hard. So often, the hard work is staying when it’s boring, when it’s not as exciting and thrilling as kissing an old friend at a campground.