Double Lives

Brian Taylor

September 28, 2010

We all know the type. We've seen them at conferences. They lead double lives, and academic conferences facilitate their deception. While their partner is elsewhere, these scholars have a fling. Things get more complicated, however, when the betrayed partner is also an academic.

I know just how messy it gets because my partner cheated on me with someone in our field. A federal grant financed their first contact, conferences enabled their affair to flourish, and colleagues, friends, and even the other woman's dissertation adviser were dragged into the deception. And because what goes around does, it seems, really come around, it was thanks to a conference that my partner's double life was finally exposed.

My partner and I were involved for many years in a long-distance relationship, as is routinely the case in academe. We had gotten together in midcareer and middle age. He was a full professor at a college in a midsized city; I was an associate (later full) professor at a university in a major metropolis. As commuting relationships go, we were fortunate; our two cities are linked by a seven-hour drive, or a short flight.

We worked around the constraints of campus obligations and our respective families: his children (who were moving toward independence) and my aging felines (on an opposite trajectory toward assisted living and hospice care). I was accustomed to living alone by the time I met my partner, so the commuting relationship wasn't a hardship for me. I relished both my independence and the time I spent with my partner.

Our professional lives were as happily intertwined as our personal lives. We co-authored a book with two other colleagues. I wrote a book for a series he edits. We even planned to write a book together and had already taken two research trips to gather material. I looked forward to spending the rest of my life with him.

He had other plans. I will never understand why he didn't end our relationship last year when he decided he preferred another woman, but, unfortunately, he chose to have an affair instead. They met in 2009 at a summer institute at which she was a participant and he was a teacher. By December 1, they had answered a call for papers with a conference proposal, and by early March, he and his new friend made their conference debut. Conferences were at the center of my partner's duplicity, and our long-distance relationship provided the cover he needed to carry on his affair.

Conferences had been important for my partner and me because of our commuting relationship. If one of us needed to attend a conference, the other one would often go along so that we wouldn't miss a weekend together. This past year, I had managed to get papers accepted at meetings in locations my partner had specifically mentioned he was eager to visit, and at meetings he regularly attends.

But seven conferences between October and June came and went, and he declined all invitations to join me. He was too tired; he was too busy; he was too broke. I offered free accommodation and frequent-flyer miles, to no avail. And, in turn, he invited me to none of his conferences, not even one in Charleston, a city we loved to visit. Instead, he asked his new friend to join him.

Conferences turned out to be useful for them, too, because she lives in the same city as me, and they were also commuting. Unlike those more circumspect philanderers we all speculate about at conferences, my partner and his new friend openly shared hotel rooms and were inseparable at panels and receptions. Their affair was so public that her dissertation adviser, an old friend and colleague of mine, learned of their relationship at our field's national meeting. When people asked, my partner concocted a lie that our relationship was over. Friends and colleagues he was likely to see at forthcoming meetings received well-timed e-mails, several weeks ahead of the event, with a fabricated tale of our break-up.

As the logistics of his double life became more complicated, he began inventing or exaggerating problems with our long-distance relationship as a diversion from his infidelity. In May, he called with the cheerful news that he would be joining me in nine days to celebrate my birthday and to stay for a week. Four days later, the manufactured crisis began.

It centered on two themes familiar to any long-distance couple and perfectly designed to maximize my feelings of guilt and stress. First, he berated me for visits that were too short or too infrequent—although I had visited him twice as often in the past year as he had visited me and stayed for three times as long.

Then he launched into a systematic attack on my reluctance to leave my job, which I happen to like so much that, in the past six years, I have turned down job offers from two universities more highly ranked than my own to stay put. My partner, in contrast, disliked both his job and where he lived. His position was that I should be willing to take any job, anywhere, for us to be together. I knew from personal experience what it was like to have a job I didn't like in a place I didn't want to live. Moreover, I didn't understand his urgency. The only jobs he had been a serious contender for in recent years were even farther from my home town than his current position.

But in May, he declared that the most important thing in life was for us to live together, and that I had to make compromises in my work situation to achieve that goal. He was so busy criticizing me that we never talked about the compromises he was willing to make: Perhaps he was planning to give up his promiscuity. Nor did I understand why he was reluctant to move to my city, where hundreds of colleges lie within a three-hour train ride.

He spurned my suggestions for ways to be together. He would not apply for fellowships. I could not spend my forthcoming sabbatical with him because he would not allow me to bring my 18-year-old cat into his house. When I said I would consider job applications on a case-by-case basis, he was enraged and insulted. When I observed that it would not be healthy to build a future together on a job I didn't like, he memorably e-mailed that he would resent me if I refused to take a job I disliked. He was so hostile, hurt, sarcastic, and irrational that I worried he was suffering from clinical depression or some more serious malady.

On the day he was supposed to arrive to celebrate my birthday, he e-mailed that he was too upset to see me. So he drove to my city, dropped his child off two miles from my house for a summer internship, and then, rather than talk to me in person about all of the important issues he had raised about our future, he turned around and drove 300 miles home. So, at least, he claimed at the time. He may well have driven a few more miles down the road to be with his new friend.

I was shattered. I scoured The Chronicle's forum on the "two-body problem" in search of insight, since I thought we were having a crisis around the challenges of a long-distance relationship. I begged him to go to counseling with me, but he refused unless I agreed to leave my job. Our more cynical colleagues have suggested that he wanted to take advantage of my success at getting job offers to find a better position for himself.

Our relationship limped on through July, while he professed his love, lamented his loneliness for me, demanded I look for a new job, stood me up (again by e-mail) for yet another visit, and told me not to come on my own scheduled trip. He "needed time," a phrase I have since learned is the classic evasion of the philanderer. He especially needed time to go to conferences with his new friend, with whom he carried on publicly throughout the entire period he was berating me for my inadequate commitment to him.

But conferences give, and conferences take away. They provide opportunities to cheat, but they also contain scores of people well-positioned to disentangle the cheater's web of deceit, even if the grapevine turns out, from my perspective, to have been painfully inefficient, especially compared with the rapid transmission of gossip about job offers and tenure battles.

The lies he told our colleagues finally found their way back to me, thanks to one colleague who was shocked to see my partner with another woman at a July conference. My partner told that flabbergasted friend that our relationship had ended a full year earlier, and that we had both moved on.

I was stunned to learn of his betrayal. I traced the dismaying longevity of his affair through the accounts flowing in from many horrified colleagues, the deadlines of the calls for papers they answered, and the conference programs they are on, all very helpful evidence to have on hand when he denied the affair.

Disentangling our personal lives has been relatively straightforward, if emotionally exhausting. The professional connections, unfortunately, will endure for years. Our publisher wants a new edition of our co-authored book. We pursued an unusual model for that book in which each author wrote in every chapter. At the time, it was intellectually stimulating and fun to work in that cooperative fashion. Now the revisions loom as a dreadful ordeal. If my book in his edited series ever requires a second edition, the publisher will have to handle all communication. I'm sure editors are accustomed to dealing with estranged co-authors, but it seems a shame to pile more work on such busy people, all because my partner preferred sneaking around to telling the truth.

As for my former partner and his new friend, they are still together. Informed of his deception and of his denial that she exists, his new friend apparently does not care about his double life and her public role in it. Despite my partner's insistence this summer that the most important thing was being together and that I had to quit my job to make that possible, the commuting life seems to suit him just fine. And their conference regimen continues, even if his double life has finally come to an end, at least for now.

Their next scheduled stop on the conference circuit is Britain, where they will be greeted by several colleagues who know all about his cheating. Maybe I'll show up, too. After all, what better place could there be than the home of the Beatles to sing a few songs of betrayal and revenge?

C.P. Williams is the pseudonym of a professor in the humanities at a major research university.