|One sour lemon is pretty much like another.|
“Affair choices are usually far more neurotic than marriage choices. When one is chosen to be an affair partner, one should not feel complimented. The most important characteristic of such affairees is their immediate availability.” ~Frank Pittman, Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy
I once confided in my friend that I worried my husband was cheating on me with his assistant. Her? my friend scoffed. Ewww. He would never cheat on you. And certainly not with her.
I felt relieved. And, frankly, I thought the same thing. He would never cheat on me. And certainly not with her. She was portly. She was demanding. She was a drunk. She was often unkind. I reassured myself that I was just feeling insecure and neglected because my husband was spending so much time at his new job.
Turns out, of course, that my suspicions were correct.
Six months later I learned that there were plenty of hers, not just one. And when I asked my husband's counsellor what these women had that I didn't, he told me, "What these women have is nothing you would want."
While I took some comfort from his words, it was still months before I could wholeheartedly agree. After all, the one thing these women had that I wanted was my husband's attention. It was only when I began to really understand the dynamics of affairs that I understood what the counsellor meant. My husband didn't select women based on their beauty or their charisma or their sexiness or any of the attributes that he might consider in a partner. He selected them because they were willing and able. That was all it took.
On the one hand, that's pretty damn insulting, isn't it? He risked our marriage and family for...what exactly? But that's the thing with affairs. They're not rational choices. Even the language we hear around them – "we couldn't stop ourselves", "it just happened" – speak to a lack of rational thought. It's possible, of course, to argue that love isn't rational. And yet...healthy love is. Healthy love is the product of mutual respect. It's the result of two people who've taken the time to get to know each other, to admire each other, to feel safe with each other.
Affairs reek of desperation. Unhealthy people seeking what's missing in themselves wherever they think they can find it. In that sense, people who engage in affairs are no different than people who gamble secretly. Or drink. Or snort. Affairs are a distraction from real-life. A parallel world in which the rules don't apply.
In my husband's case, he cheated with his assistant because she made herself available and he was on some self-destructive path that I still don't entirely understand. Sex, for him, meant escape. Thanks to years of porn, he had expectations that weren't necessarily in line with the reality of longtime marriage. Sex was a drug and she was one of his suppliers. It just provided the requisite high that allowed him to ignore all those uncomfortable feelings he couldn't face. Long-buried grief around losing his father. A terror of true intimacy. Years of guilt and shame around sex, thanks to an oppressive childhood. What's more, meaningless sex gave him the freedom to focus exclusively on his own physical pleasure.
With time, however, it was becoming harder for him to pretend his actions didn't have consequences. For one thing, he was becoming disgusted with himself, less and less able to compartmentalize. His anxiety grew. He became more depressed. He was close to hitting bottom when I finally figured out what was going on – and had been going on for years. He even confessed relief in the week's following D-Day. The jig was up. The sneaking around was over.
He could lose everything, which suddenly made him see the value in all that he'd been escaping from. He didn't know how to perform all his roles perfectly, which he thought was expected of him: to be a father, to be a husband, to be a provider, a friend. He felt like he was failing at all of them.
Without the affairs to distract him from his pain, it hit him hard. He worked with a therapist to examine and challenge the thought processes behind his actions. He felt enormous guilt and shame. He had never imagined he could be capable of such deception, of so deeply hurting the most loyal friend he had. He fully expected me to leave.
Like my husband, a lot of men have no hesitation in dropping their affair partner because the appeal vanishes when they realize the price they might pay. They're not interested in a relationship with their affair partner. They've been chasing a feeling, not a person.
Which is why other guys have a hard time letting go. In rare instances, they really have fallen in love with their affair partner though the statistics don't bode well for relationships that start as affairs – fewer than 3% will last. But even the vast majority of those who don't want to lose their wife or their family can have a tough time giving up that feeling – that he's sexy and exciting and interesting. On top of that, our human brain craves novelty.
And yet so many of us, in the days and weeks and months following D-Day wring our hands, stalk the OW on Facebook and try to discern what she had that held our husbands in such thrall. Why would they risk everything for her?
And the answer is as simple as it is confusing to us: They were there. They were willing to participate in deception. They were willing to lie. To manipulate. To hurt.
Nothing we would want.