I’ve been mulling this topic over for a while because I see such vast differences in opinions on various blogs and message boards about how affairs really start — some nasty disinformation is prevalent out there, designed to shame the cheater or former cheater. Especially men, as the stereotype goes. That most men cheat or will cheat if given the opportunity. He’s a predator. Not much more than a dog with male hormones. He will poke anything that’s willing to let him, no matter how great his wife is. Well, it’s sexist, it’s wrong, and frankly misses the point of why most affairs really start. So it’s time to set the record straight at least a little bit.
Most affairs are not one-night stands — the result of “sexual opportunity” — where an unexpected opportunity presents itself and a married person, who is otherwise happy and in love with their spouse, takes it. Yes, this DOES happen, but it’s not the norm. These relatively loveless affairs usually happen when people drink and lose impulse control. Alcoholics are the ones most likely to have these flings.
Other affairs start as a caring friendship and develop over years to become a complete relationship that solves most emotional and practical issues for the couple. These relationships become so complete and persistent that spouses are eventually divorced, and the lovers are united in marriage.
Rather, most affairs are somewhere in between one night stands and long-term relationships. I’ve read that the average affair lasts 2-3 months and emotions are heavily involved, whether or not they become physical or not.
Affairs rarely happen to happy people – When people are happy and content in their marriages, they don’t have affairs, unless they are the Tiger Woods/Bill Clinton type philanderer or sex addict, which is rare. There is something horribly and profoundly wrong inside their marriage and themselves that make them vulnerable to an affair, even if every inner conviction they have would have them deny that this would ever be a possibility in their lives.
With all that being said, there is one truism that many people don’t realize or want to accept: Most cheaters did not set out to cheat.
They really don’t. In fact, most are like me– looking back and we can’t believe that we actually did this! It was not our plan. We aren’t proud of it yet, we did it! Sometimes I look back at those two years and it’s like watching a third person. I can’t believe it was me. What was I thinking?? It went against who I really am! Yet, I did it anyway.
I know many people want to merely dismiss all cheaters as horrible human beings and predators without a conscience, that decided that they were going to have affairs and set out to do it, but the reality it, that’s rarely the case. Most affairs start as the result of an innocent connection made between two people. Usually people that already know each other. Might even be friends for a long period of time. Or coworkers. Neighbors. So how does it happen? I thought this psychologist put it brilliantly:
People say, “I never meant for this to happen.” They’re being honest when they say that. Typically, they’re in a committed relationship, but they aren’t perfectly happy. No one who was perfectly happy in their primary relationship gets into a second one. They’re a lot unhappy, or maybe just a little. Maybe they have no plans to cheat.
And then the other person somehow floats onto their radar screen. The image that I have is like someone who has been wandering around with a couple of empty wine glasses who suddenly meets someone with a bottle of wine. And so they want a little taste. It starts very innocently. Very slowly they get to know each other. It’s often an emotional affair to begin with. Maybe they have long conversations, whatever.
However it happens, eventually they realize that they’ve crossed some sort of line. But they realize it after they’ve crossed it. And it feels wonderful because it was a line they were hungry to cross. But it also feels terrible because they know it’s cheating, and they know they never wanted to be a cheater. But it keeps going. Think about it. If you don’t want to divorce, and there are many reasons people don’t — for the children, for financial reasons, they don’t want the stigma of a divorce — this is a way people cope. They have the illusion that no one will know. If I get a divorce, it’s a public act and everyone will know that my marriage failed, that I’m a failure. But if I have an affair, I’m able to pretend that everything’s O.K. and no one will get hurt. So they find themselves involved in the two relationships and it looks as though it could work. And the guilt seems manageable. And they’re not really thinking about the future. They feel like they’ve got this wonderful, wonderful present, and it seems to solve all their problems.
Precisely. This is in no way an excuse for having an affair — there is no real good one — but I think that many Wayward Spouses can relate to the above. Something is missing in your primary relationship. Perhaps you are in the “semi-happy marriage” (too safe to leave, too boring to stay). But something IS missing. Something big. Something critical. And probably for a long time. You don’t intend to have an affair, but you make one small compromise after another and literally find yourself in the midst of one almost quite astonishingly. And then you don’t want to stop it, despite your fears, despite your guilt and confusion, because frankly if feels so good. So you try to manage both of these lives at the same time.
But it rarely works. Few affairs last more than several months. Most affairs are a fragile house of cards and the longer they go on, the more fragile they become. Most people are either caught or they realize that this is not something they want. Or their lover puts pressure on them for more although the married partner may be trying to keep it stable and exactly the same. But inevitably, someone slips up and it’s discovered. Or one of them ends it because one or both cannot deal with the stress, the guilt, the shame, and the risks to their entire lives.
And most end with a whimper, not a bang.
I’m not trying at all to excuse or make an affair seem more noble or even accidental. There is no excuse for an affair. They are not noble acts, and to call it an accident would be to remove all responsibility from the cheater. However, I wrote this to provide insight into the mind of the cheater. Few cheaters really intended to be. And after? Most feel incredible remorse, guilt, shame and internal damage. Most would go back and erase it all if they could. We feel like we’ve not just let our spouse down, but ourselves. Few cheaters will go back and cheat again once they’ve gone through it once, despite the stereotype. We’re not the monsters that many would paint us as.
As one man wrote,
I never planned on having an affair. Even a couple months before it happened, if you had told me I would be involved with another woman, I would have sincerely denied the possibility. But when the conditions were just right, every conviction flew out the window.
Several months afterward, a man sat across a table from me and exclaimed in no uncertain terms, “I might be guilty of a lot of things, but that is one thing I could never do.” It may have sounded like conviction, but I sadly recognized a proud naivety that I had once possessed.
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