Oh, it’s all very exciting at first. Of course, at first, it’s a thrill and you feel alive and your nerve ends tingle and — yeah. All of that. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling at the point where it remains deniable, it remains “but we’re just friends!”, it remains will-we-won’t-we. After that — not so much.
The delicate balance tips
I remember the exact moment when it stopped being will-we-won’t-we for me. My new friend and I were texting each other more and more often (yes, I should have known something was brewing from that, but no, I was either so naive I really didn’t know it or I pretended to myself that I didn’t) and somehow, the texts turned one day to a lengthy discussion on first impressions and the way that people appear to others when they meet for the first time. “I remember meeting you very well,” said my friend.
“Do you now?!” I typed back, feeling a brief flash of panic that I could not remember the first time we had met. He had made no impression on me at all, back then. I hoped I would not be expected to remember the specifics of this alleged meeting.
“Oh yeah. You had a really haughty look on your face that I’ve since learned is just your natural expression. Your hair was in a ponytail so I thought you were young, but then I got closer and realized you’re older than I thought. Your eyebrows need attention, btw. It’s about time to start using a better night cream and you probably know this already, but your bum is disproportionately large.”
I laughed out loud. I’d been wondering if he found me attractive, and this list of how attractive I wasn’t came as quite a relief. Of course, I now realize that what he was doing is called negging, but at the time I thought that he was being genuinely humorous; that he was making it clear that we were platonic friends only. The sort of platonic friends who are blunt and honest with each other, which is my favorite kind. So I felt free to joke with him as I would joke with anyone else who’d been so outright rude.
“You know,” I tapped back, quick as a flash, “if you wanted to f*ck me so badly, you only had to ask.”
Silence. Three jaunty dots, appearing and disappearing again in the blank text screen below my message. Up and down, those dots bounced. And then: “I haven’t made up my mind about that yet.”
Zing. I didn't want to think deeply about that zing. I put my phone away. I put it upstairs on the charging cable and went back down to finish chopping vegetables and cooking dinner for my husband and children. My skin prickled all over. I was electrified with excitement. Everything I did seemed really important and my life suddenly felt saturated with colorful meaning, like a flashback in a film.
The dawning of the truth of it
I had not felt desire for anyone other than my husband in all of the many years we had been married and no one had ever approached me in that context, either. It felt very strange to consider that someone who was not my husband felt any kind of desire for me. I couldn’t quite take it seriously.
I need to be clear, here, that I don’t mean that my self-esteem was low: I’m quite content with who I am, and that was true back then as well. I’d been immersed in the deep and reassuring waters of my husband’s steady adoration for as long as I had known him, and we both were entirely content with being each other’s favorite person. It sounds quite boring, very staid, but it’s true. I now think that my friend saw the plain truth of this and that he saw it as a challenge.
Whatever the motivation, he was persistent. The chatter ramped up. He did not refer again immediately to his overt texts of flirtation, but he made sure we were in constant contact anyway. I became magnetically attracted to my phone, aware always of its location, glancing compulsively at its screen, feeling a rollercoaster swoop of anticipation if his name appeared in my on-screen notifications. It was glorious. I felt twenty years old.
The result of ignoring that truth
I am wiser, now. The point where it became sparkly and glorious is exactly the point when I should have pulled back and made it clear that I was not interested in any kind of inappropriate contact with him. I should have fudged a genuine platonic friendship that would fast have burned out into nothing because it was only what he pretended to want from me. But that sparkly time was also the exact point when it became the most addictive. It felt like a challenge, sustaining his interest, and I kept rising to it. It made me into what I believed to be my best self.
By the time we met for coffee — my hands shaking, unable to eat the sandwich he ordered for me despite my protests — I was entirely sunk. I’d have done anything to keep the laser focus of his attention on me. The balance of power had completely shifted, and he knew it. I can see, now, that to someone with his many experiences of infidelity, it was more than obvious and he knew he was in charge. But back then, I thought that I was.
I’d had noble fantasies of turning away loftily if he reached for my hand or tried to kiss me, but there was no hope of me doing that. I sat in the coffee shop and literally throbbed with the wanting of him. All of the texts and the emails and the glances had built to this crescendo of anticipation and all of a sudden I knew with a thudding certainty that we would sleep together. It was just a matter of time, but I would break my marriage vows.
One month earlier, I would have sworn on everything I held dear that I would never, ever cheat on my beloved husband or threaten our life together. One month earlier, I’d have rolled my eyes if a friend told me she was unable to break off contact with a married man, that she was addicted to him, and I’d have told her to stop being ridiculous and reminded her how many people she could potentially hurt and was already hurting. One month earlier, the concept of affairs had been entirely abstract, something that happened to other people.
I had shed all of my principles with a speed that dizzied and appalled me.
The grim reality after that moment
I am here to tell you that the rest of an extramarital affair is not like those early, plausibly deniable, amusingly coy, I-feel-so-young flirting days. The rest of an affair, seen in context and however great the good times might feel, is a grim descent into a dark abyss of secrecy, cruelty to others, and self-loathing. It’s a lonely journey of feeling out of place in every place, including one’s own head. The rest of an affair, however high the highs and however it ends, is never a worthy price to pay for a few initial weeks of electrifying flirtation.
I’d do almost anything to go back and never drive to that coffee shop; never play my part in the text exchanges; to cut it all off before the roots had a chance to take hold. I can’t ever do that.
But if you’re at the top of the slope right now, eyeing the downhill swoop that looks so fun and inviting — well, you could. You could still save yourself and many, many blameless people in your orbit from having to experience the sort of pain that makes life feel like nonsense and the future feel like a joke.
That’s why I’ve written this, really.