ETHAN: If I could do it all over again, um, I think that, you know, I would try and have the conversation before doing anything. To say like, this is, you know, I'm - I'm really wanting to cheat and we need to talk about this and we need to manage this.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
We got an email in our inbox a few months ago. The subject line was: “Sugar babies cost me $8000 and my marriage.”
E: It's really embarrassing, I think. Um, it's not, uh, it's not socially acceptable.
This is Ethan—that’s not his real name. He sent us that email about how he used the website Seeking Arrangement to hire so-called “sugar babies”—younger, attractive women—to go on dates with him and have sex with him. All while he was married.
When he wrote us, he’d already confessed to his wife. His marriage was ending. And Ethan said he couldn’t really talk about it with anyone in his life.
E: (Sigh) I've lost, um, most of our mutual friends. And I think that, um, so few people know the whole truth, you know, know everything. Um, I've told people, certain people that I've cheated. Um, but, uh, nobody about, uh, um, with the sugar baby.
ANNA SALE: Are you trying to like explain yourself?
E: Um, yeah, a little bit.
Ethan also told us in his email that the first time he tried Seeking Arrangement was shortly after hearing an episode of our show. I did an interview with a woman who was working as a sugar baby, in an episode called “When ‘Daddy Dates’ Pay the Bills.”
To be clear, I am not proud that this story of the end of a marriage includes our show as a key plot point. But when Ethan wrote, I saw it as an opening to hear what his thought process was as he was deciding to cheat, and to understand what hard conversations he was trying to avoid.
Ethan told me his cheating started when he was on a business trip.
E: I was a little bit intrigued, um, after listening to the DSM podcast. And so I went on and started looking around and started, you know, talking with people here and there. Um. And there was one person, um, that, uh, you know, that we seem to click online and so, and so, yeah. We met up and, uh, you know, walked around in a park for a little while and then, uh, went back to my place.
AS: Did you have sex?
AS: Had you paid a sex worker before?
AS: What was the number you agreed to?
E: Uh, was $400.
AS: What was it like figuring out how to negotiate the money?
E: Um. It was a little awkward. Um, and, um, but it was liberating in a weird kind of way. You know, the conversation was really upfront, uh, really from the beginning, which that was, um, really a relief for me. You know, I could sort of express what it is that I was looking for in an honest way and not feel judged for it.
AS: Mmhm. And that felt different from your marriage.
E: Yeah, for sure.
Ethan told me by the time he cheated, there was already strain in his relationship with his wife.
We asked her about it too. She didn’t want to be interviewed. She wrote in an email: “However he's characterized our marriage to you, I don't feel the need to know or respond.” She also said, “I wish I’d had the self-confidence to recognize that our marriage would never work.”
Around the time Ethan and his wife got engaged in 2013, they moved for Ethan’s job, far away from family and friends. And after their wedding was over, Ethan says it felt like they lost their purpose as a couple.
E: You know, I like to say that like, we didn't have a rough patch. We had a rough marriage. Um, and, uh, things had, uh, our communication had really changed pretty quickly after we got married. I kind of um, slowly just sort of absorbed the, the idea, the belief that, um, you know, that what I felt wasn't okay - wasn't okay to express. Um, and I think particularly around intimacy, that was something that there had been a lot of conflict about, but it was all really under the surface, like we weren't, we didn't have the tools to be able to talk about it.
AS: Hm. Was it - was it that you wanted to have sex more or in a different way and she didn't want to and she didn't want to talk about it further?
E: Yeah - so yes to both more and, and in a different way. And there was, before we had gotten married, there was a, there was a lightheartedness to our sex life, uh, and that, uh, disappeared rather quickly. And, um, she was, um, dealing with depression as well during this time, which of course, you know, I think, um, makes it difficult to want to have sex and then also to, you know, feel lighthearted about it.
AS: Did it feel, looking back, did it feel like you, uh, it started with the mismatch sexually and then bled into how you felt emotionally? Or, or like, how do you think about the relationship of those two?
E: No, I think they, uh, I think it was, uh, the sort of the distance perpetuated each other in both realms. So, it just was, became sort of this negative feedback loop. Like the less that we were able to connect, um, intimately, like then the less that we were able to connect on a day to day basis, and they just kind of fed into each other.
AS: Were you making more money than her?
AS: Like a lot more?
AS: Uh huh. How do you think that played into the dynamic in your marriage?
E: I think that we, um, uh, you know, sort of fell into these, into more heteronormative rules then than I necessarily would have liked? That it was, it was easier for me to work more and then make more, uh, then, um, than it was for her. So then sort of the house duties ended up falling to her. Um, she seemed to enjoy it. There were times when she was able to step back from her work, um, and, um, and that was something that she wanted at the time. So it was, it was nice to be able to provide that for her.
AS: Did it feel like you were in charge in your marriage?
E: Hm. In some ways? I think uh, that there was, um. There was a dynamic that developed, not that I was in charge, but that, um, I had the louder voice. I think just sort of, you know, I'm, I'm naturally inclined to speak my feelings, um, out loud, a little bit more than she, and so then what ended up happening was I, you know, and I realized this after a few years where - that I ended up overpowering her, like in conversations and discussions and decisions. And there wasn't any conflict resolution.
AS: I hear you saying it kind of again and again in your marriage that you lost that you lost that ability to, to hear each other and to be honest with each other. Um. I want to understand a little bit about how you think about your wife's depression playing into this. Like did it, did it feel like she couldn't handle disagreements with you or you pushing back on her because of her illness?
E: I don't know if, uh, just because of, um, because of her illness or not, but that certainly I couldn't rely on her. There was, um, I think one moment, um, early on in our marriage when, um when I had had a really hard day at work. And then I, and I remember going home, uh, and, um, you know, starting to talk about my day and, um. And she was, um, you know, I think she was sad about something, um, I can't remember what exactly. But I remember the feeling, and I remember, I, I think I said, you know, can, can I just be the one who's had the worst day today? Um, and, and feeling like I couldn't. Like that it was like, even when I had had a really bad day, um, you know, and, and asking for, you know, some emotional support from her, um, or for her to like be the caretaker, like for her to, I wanted her to take care of me, um, and I was asking for that and she couldn't. Um, and that was really hard and that really stuck with me, um, of that, she can't take care of me when I need it.
Still though, Ethan says the idea of divorce initially felt really daunting…separating their possessions…splitting their lives. He and his wife decided to try couples counseling, but it didn’t last long.
A few months after they stopped going is when Ethan had that first secret date with a sugar baby on his business trip.
AS: When you come back from your work trip, uh, what did it feel like seeing your wife?
E: (Sigh) So I can be really good at compartmentalizing. Um, and I think that was going on really strong. I, um, it actually, you know, it's really taken me our divorce, um, to realize, um, I think the, the damage that, um, that I had done to our relationship. Um, you know, at first my mindset was, um, you know, I just, I am going to go and, um, and have a good time. And my justification for it initially was, you know, I'm going to have a good time so that I can have more energy to try and fix my marriage. 'Cause I think, you know, when I first went on to Seeking Arrangements, I was, I was exhausted. Um, but I wasn't ready to give up on the marriage yet.
AS: So when you were telling yourself, this is going to give me more energy—was part of the calculus that somehow this would make you feel less resentful of your wife, because you were getting other of your needs taken care of by other people?
E: For sure. Yeah. You know, I think what one of the justifications that I had was, I mean, I think particularly since it was, you know, on Seeking Arrangements, it was, um, it was a transaction, you know, to a certain extent. That, um, you know, one of my justifications was, you know, I had, I had a therapist, you know, that I went and talked to, I had a massage therapist, you know, and I, and I paid these people, you know, to, to interact with me in a certain way. And so it was in that same kind of vein that, um, that I could, that there wasn't any, um, any hints of this is going to turn into, you know, a longterm relationship. This, you know, that this isn't somebody who's like secretly, you know, seeking, um, you know, somebody to be their boyfriend or husband, you know, down the line. That this was, it was, it, um. The fact that it was transactional made it easier to compartmentalize and say like, this is, this is cheating, but in a different kind of way
AS: And it’s self care. You were able to think of it as self care.
E: Yeah. Yeah. I was.
At first, Ethan would only hire women for sex when he was out of town for work. But then he stopped traveling as much, and used Seeking Arrangement to find someone locally.
E: I had had such a good time, uh, when I was, when I was traveling. Um, and that was, I don't know, I guess it was addictive in a certain kind of way. I think it was, it was something that, um, once it was gone for a couple of months, then I was, um. I wanted it back.
AS: And when you would have dates, how would you explain where you were going?
E: Uh, I would, um, either working out or I'm going to, you know, to read, uh, at a coffee shop.
AS: To read!
E: Yeah, I, you know, I think it, it was, it, yeah, it depended on, um, on the situation. Um, but, um, or sometimes, you know, sort of blaming, you know, like, um, that I had to go work, uh, you know, I on something for a couple of hours. You know, like, and so I just needed to be, you know, like out of the house for a little while to just like sit down and get something done. Um, and then come back.
AS: And was that always meeting up for sex?
E: No, we, um, ended up, uh, would have lunch or coffee, you know, from time to time, um, sort of depending on, on what our schedules were like,
AS: Did it feel nice to be with someone, uh, where what - what she needed from you was much simpler than what your wife needed from you?
E: Yeah, for sure. I think, uh, that it was, um, yeah, she was, she was very independent, um, emotionally. Um, and, and so, yeah, that just, you know, like what she needed was, um, you know, another revenue stream. Um, and, um. And yeah, and then, and then the rest of it, you know, was, you know, that the way that we interacted, the way, like we talked about things, it was like clear that if she didn't see me again, like that would be kind of a bummer but not horrible.
AS: And was that kind of titillating?
E: It was, it was, um, you know, I think it, um, probably activated some reptilian part of my brain of like, Oh, you know, this person, you know, doesn't need me. Like, how can I, uh, how can I turn the charm up to 11 to make her, you know, want to need me?
Ethan says those coffees and lunches and meetups for sex went on for about a year.
AS: Would you pay cash?
E: Yeah, initially.
AS: Initially, and then what happened?
E: And then I used Venmo.
AS: What would you put in the memo?
E: Ridiculous emojis. Um, not all about sex.
Coming up, Ethan tallies up all the money he spent on those sugar baby dates, after he decides to tell his wife he’s been cheating on her.
E: She knew who I was at the best of times. Um, you know, and so she needed to, she needed to know who I was at my worst.
Over the last week, you have been filling up our inbox with so many complicated, conflicted and detailed stories about money. We asked to hear what was worrying you in your financial lives, and in particular, to hear where you’re feeling stuck and could use some help.
We are working on something new that we’re designing specifically to help us all think about money with new tools, and less shame. We’ll tell you more about that in a few weeks. It is going to be special.
In the meantime, we also want to hear from you about something else that you’ve told also told us is causing a lot of stress: climate change.
We want to know from you, when you take a minute to slow down and force yourself to focus on climate change, what do you think about? How do you feel? And then, what happens next?
Tell us. Write an email or record a voice memo and send it to us at email@example.com. Tell us, when you don’t look away from climate change, what do you think about?
On the next episode…
ANONYMOUS: (Sigh) I’m not having sex, because like the old Barry Manilow song, the feeling’s gone and I don’t know how to get it back.
We revisit one of our favorite shows, about all the reasons why you’re not having sex.
I’m not having sex because men don’t find me attractive.
Because my body’s broken, and it can’t seem to be fixed.
I’m really terrified of men.
I’ve been celibate for about 14 years…
And the weird thing is that I’m okay with it.
I would rather read a book than be intimate with him.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
While Ethan was still having secret meetups with the local sex worker, he says he and his wife decided to give couples counseling a second try. Ethan says it was his suggestion that they go.
AS: When you think back on that, the conversation where you're saying to your wife, like, why don't we go back to couples counseling? Like, let's work on this with, with somebody else's help, while you're also having a relationship outside of your marriage that she doesn't know about. Um, like, how do you think about that?
E: Well, I never, well, initially I didn't plan on telling her, um, about, um, about me cheating, you know, since, um, I was viewing it as, you know, this, yeah, this part of self care that I'm doing and that the goal is to, to change my life to where I don't need that anymore. Um. And so, um, you know, the goal was still to work on our marriage and be able to, um, you know, communicate and, and sort of, you know, rebuild, um, our, our trust and our intimacy. Um, and just, and recognizing that we weren't doing that, um, on our own, that we needed somebody to, to, to help us along the way.
AS: Mmhm. So you both knew that you were in crisis, your marriage was in crisis, that you needed some help. And what she didn't know was that you had, had figured out this other way, um, to help you cope with how stuck you were feeling in the marriage.
AS: Um, how, how did you disclose finally that, that you were having these relationships outside the marriage?
E: Um, so the, the, um, the topic of divorce came up, uh, in couples counseling. Um, and that was something that we were grappling with, whether it was something we wanted to do or not. Um, I initially was ambivalent. And um, the couple's counselor said, uh, she challenged me. She said, you know, are you, are you really ambivalent or do you know the answer and you just don't want to share it? Um, and, uh, and so then my wife and I continued talking. Uh, and, um, we had a conversation and I, um, she, where I said I was really feeling hopeless about, um, being able to, uh, to save the marriage. Um, and she really wanted to try for three or four months and see how it goes. Um, and then I just, I realized, and I, this was, I had been sort of this realization had been growing in me for quite some time, um, that she needed to know the truth before, before we spend any more time together. Um, and so, so then I told her, uh, and uh, and then, and that was the day that, um, that we decided to get a divorce.
AS: Did you know that when you disclosed that, that it was going to be a deal breaker for her?
E: Yeah. And, and I think partly that was part of the reason why I did it. Um, like having sort of a nuclear option that I could sort of bring out at any time, um, was comforting in some kind of way, I think?
AS: That makes me, um...that makes me uh...feel really mad at you.
E: (Laughs) You're not the only one. Yeah.
AS: It feels very cowardly.
E: It does. It is. For sure. Yeah.
AS: Like, like that you were telling yourself when you were having these, you know, really satisfying dates with, with these women who weren't your wife, that you were doing it to save your marriage. While you also kind of knew in the back of your head you were like collecting ammunition to just like burn it all down, should you need to.
E: Mmhm. Mmhm. Yeah.
AS: And I'm not saying that to, to shame you. I'm, I'm more interested in just like how you think about that.
E: Yeah, no, I think, um, that, um. I mean and a, I mean, yeah, I don't think you're shaming me. I think you're, uh, you know, speaking the truth. Um, I ended things, um, with my sugar baby and I wasn't planning on, um, you know, seeking anything else like six weeks before all of this happened. And there was, I had this growing, growing realization that what I was doing was really toxic. Uh, yeah, I think, you know, it ended up just like my wife needed to know the kind of person that I really was, if she was going to spend any more time with me. Um, you know, and it took me, it took me a long time to realize that, um, but that it was, you know, this toxic thing that was inside of me.
AS: When you say like she needed to know who you really were like, like when you say that, are you saying that with a sense of like, this is a part of me, this is what I needed and I, I sought it out because my needs weren't being met in, in our marriage? Or are you saying it like, this is what I'm capable of and it horrifies me in some ways?
E: Mm. Definitely, this is what I'm capable of. Um, and I wouldn't say horrifies me, but, um, uh, you know, but disgusts me to a certain extent. I think that, um, uh, and just, um, you know, realizing how bad things were, um, between, between us for me to do things that were, um, that was harmful. That was that harmful to our marriage.
AS: I mean, the thing that it makes me think of is like when you described telling your, your wife that you were going reading or had work to do, like I'm flipping through all the times that my husband says he has to go work. And then I think like—to, to have that realization that you're from your spouse, that like, actually that was a, that was a total lie. Um, and, uh, it's, it's not just revealing how you, you know, who you were, it's also revealing to her how you felt about her.
E: Mmhm. Yeah. And I didn't, I didn't get the, the weight, um, of that really until I told her. And, uh, and then, um, she told me how she felt about that. And, um, it really didn't, yeah. That part really didn't hit me. And it was worry - it's been worrisome. You know, how easy it was for me to lie. Um, you know, about all of those times.
When Ethan’s ex-wife wrote to us, the depth of that betrayal and its impact on her is what she wanted to make sure we understood. “Maybe this is all an interesting story to you. For me, it was more than seven years of my life,” she wrote. “ It was finding out that in the end, despite his reassurances to the contrary, I was not enough for my husband. I am still living through the fallout.”
Ethan’s confessions to her came in waves: first, that he cheated, then, it was with sex workers. Then, he says, she demanded to know how much of their money he’d spent.
E: She was, uh, worried that I, um, that I was had a credit card that she didn't know about. Um, I told her I, you know, I had sort of picked up some side gigs, um, to be able to, uh, to pay for it, but that um, she initially asked, uh, for the, you know, for the total sum, she wanted to, you know, the, um, my, my checking account, my credit cards sort of annotated, um, over the past year. Um, she initially asked for that, but then decided she didn't want that information.
AS: Did you go back and look?
E: I did.
AS: How much money did you spend on meeting up with women?
AS: Does that number seem like a lot to you?
E: It does, it seems like a lot.
AS: Something I want to ask you about, um, having the experience of negotiating money upfront with someone that you're going to meet. Um, for, presumably sex. There's something very, uh, like money is not a subtext. Money is direct in a way that is unique because often in our romantic lives, money is present, but it's a subtext. Um, what's it been like? Negotiating your divorce settlement and figuring out, figuring out money, figuring out like what you get to take financially from the marriage and what she will take financially from the marriage. What's it like to been like to look at those numbers?
E: Uh, it's, it's challenging. So I make more than she does, and I'm paying spousal support for a certain period of time. Uh, and, um, and that's been been challenging, I think. Um, and I think -
AS: Challenging because it’s money you don't want to spend.
E: Yeah, yeah. And it also, it it, um, I don't know. It, I feel like it's in the same vein almost as, you know, paying, you know, sugar babies, um, in the same kind of way of like, you know, like that there's, um, I dunno that that there's money tied to this relationship, you know, in a, in a certain kind of way. Um, and so, I mean, I, I, I recognize it as, you know, I think that it's, um. It kind of is what it is. Um, you know, I certainly want to be fair, um, uh, to both, you know, my soon to be ex wife and me, um, for that. And I think, you know, the conversations that we've had, um, have largely been, that have largely been fair. Um, but she certainly has, um, she is only a couple of times thrown back in my face, you know. What I was doing with, uh, with money, um, while we were still married and that she is, she deserves a certain amount from me.
AS: Something that I've noticed going through a divorce myself and then seeing friends go through divorces is like, there's this interesting thing that happens where it's such a private thing that you're having marital problems. It's a secret between you and your spouse, and then all of a sudden it's a very public thing that affects every relationship you have because your work colleagues know that you were married, your friends knew that you were married, and you have to have a sort of a story that you tell about what happened. Um, what, what's the story that you tell?
E: Um. I think that, uh, yeah. That we, we just, um, we had a rough marriage. Um, we tried, um, really hard to be able to communicate with each other. Um, and we just never, uh, we never built the foundation that we needed. Um, and we had given it enough of a time, you know, we had been married for just over five years, you know, that was sort of enough, you know, if we weren't gonna be able to figure out that key part of our relationship then, then, then we weren't ever going to figure it out. And, and so, you know, we needed to move on.
AS: What do you think is the story she's telling about you?
E: I think her narrative, at least initially, I think it's now become more nuanced than this, but, you know, we're getting a divorce because I cheated on her.
AS: Do you think that's a fair assessment?
E: I think it's one lens to look through. I think it is, um—and I would, I would hope that, you know, that, uh, friends and family members and people she talks to, you know, sort of know, know me and know life well enough that, you know, it's never that quite that simple. Um, so it's, it is a story. I don’t think it’s the most accurate.
That’s a listener we’re calling Ethan. He and his ex-wife recently signed their divorce papers. Ethan says he doesn’t plan on using Seeking Arrangement in the future.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, CA. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Our intern is Ayo Osobamiro.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
And thanks to Akila Rice in Chicago, who's a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Akila and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
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Ethan is starting to date again. He put up profiles on Bumble and Tinder. And he says if a relationship gets serious enough, he will tell a future partner about what happened in his marriage. He says he might even play them this podcast.
AS: So if I were listening to this as someone who was thinking about whether I want it to be emotionally vulnerable with you, I would want to hear you say what you take responsibility for.
E: I mean, I take responsibility for my actions, uh, for cheating, um, for knowing what it was doing to my marriage, even though I, um, you know, I put really big blinders on and I, I had all my justifications, but I knew. You know, I've really come to come to believe that, um t hat cheating on my wife was, uh, the worst thing that I did in my life. But I think it's also a challenge. I have to, it's going to take diligence for me for it to remain the worst thing that I've done in my life.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.