The Heartbreaking Truths About Having An Affair
I told myself that what I was doing wasn’t wrong. Then it went from thrilling to terrifying to dangerous.
Years ago, I judged people who had affairs. Of course, I did. Adulterers are weak-willed, cruel, selfish, deserving of all the scorn and shame piled upon them. What sort of person betrays a spouse and risks tearing apart a family? I’m that sort of person.
From the outside, having an affair looks tawdry and scandalous. From the inside, you feel reborn. Life is suddenly sparkling with possibility. A superhuman energy courses through you. Thrilling, yes, but also as terrifying as any midnight walk in an alleyway or rollercoaster ride during which you are sure you’ll be flung to your death. An affair separates your adult life into a stark before and after. Once you’ve crossed that line, a line that you probably never thought you’d cross, you will be changed forever. Here’s how.
For a time, you will feel justified.
Because you feel so happy, so alive and transformed. You feel like you did when you had your first great kiss as a teenager. You are sure that you have met your soulmate, even if you are still married to the love of your life. There are times you will feel unjustly trapped in your marriage that now feels false and wrong. If only you could explain it to the rest of the world: You aren’t a woman sneaking around being unfaithful. You are someone who has discovered the secret to a happy life.
Even though you love your spouse, you do it anyway.
Not all people who cheat are in unhappy marriages. Let’s say you’re in a long-term marriage. You love your spouse, but there have been some issues that grow over the years so you pull away, at first just a bit, and over time even more. You stop communicating like you used to and then, out of nowhere, someone new shines their light on you. That light is so intoxicating that you turn to them as a flower turns to the sun. You feel sexier, smarter, prettier, more charming than you ever have in years. You will do anything to maintain this feeling.
You will be unkind to your spouse for no good reason.
Because a good reason would be that my spouse was unkind to me. But he wasn’t. I began lashing out at him in a way I never had in our marriage. Unconsciously, I blamed him for preventing me from leaving him for this new person. I blamed him for not being more like this new person because if he were, I wouldn’t have been unfaithful. I blamed him, too, because every single time I saw him, his mere presence was a constant reminder of my betrayal.
You will be sure that this is real. And that it will last.
It isn’t and it won’t. True, there are exceptions. But for most people I know, this is the inevitable outcome. No matter how much you wish for this person to become your person forever, the odds aren’t in your favor. From the very beginning, the seed of your relationship, planted in the soil of deception and hidden from light and air, has such shallow roots that can’t possibly grow into something healthy and sustaining.
You are now that person.
Long ago, I remember self-righteously glaring at my friend Mona’s cheating husband Robert when I ran into him at Costco. I tried to melt him with my laser-eyed judgmental stare. Then, I became Robert. I imagine people have glared at me and gossiped about me at cocktail parties and grocery stores, although I can’t be sure. Even if they did, I was too self-consumed to notice. People in the thralls of an affair become beyond self-absorbed. But once the brutal truth of what I’d done sunk in, nobody judged me like I judged me. I was someone who lies and cheats. It is exhausting and debilitating to carry this terrible new person with you wherever you go.
You don’t only lie to your spouse. You lie to everyone.
When you are having an affair, you don’t just lie to your spouse. You lie to everyone around you. When you go out to lunch at work and your colleague asks who you were meeting, you lie. When you talk to your best friend over the phone and she asks what’s new, you leave out this detail of your life. You are so ashamed, after all. You are even dishonest with your children. How can you honestly explain why you got in late the night before or who you were talking to on the phone with such intensity that you wandered off from playing a game of ping pong with your teen? Did I mention that you will also lie to yourself? For so much longer than you should, you will lie to yourself that what you’re doing isn’t wrong.
You’ll lose friends and family.
With some friends, I had become so evasive that I didn’t return emails or calls or texts. I didn’t notice I’d lost them. I was too caught up in my second, secret life. It wasn’t until the affair ended that I realized how estranged I’d become from close friends and family members. When a beloved relative found out that I had confided in her about problems in my marriage without showing all my cards, she was shaking with understandable rage. “Who are you?!” I felt like I would break apart since she was someone I admired so much. In a rare moment of honesty, I answered her: “I don’t know who I am anymore, either.”
You’ll lose yourself.
If you ever thought of yourself as a good person, that notion will vanish as the months of the affair churn onward. When you wake up from your dream of this alternate universe, you’ll see someone new staring at you in the mirror. You don’t recognize this person, a strange woman who has betrayed those she loves, and herself. As for your moral compass. What moral compass? Your husband will tell you he doesn’t know who you are anymore. That makes two of you.
You always feel homesick.
When you are out sneaking around, you long to be safely home in bed with your husband. When you are home, you are desperate to be with your lover. The days that should be the happiest, aren’t. Birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s, certainly Valentine’s Day, you’re yearning to be with the other person. You torture yourself imagining them with their family. You feel miserable because this is your family, your husband, but you can’t enjoy them because your head and heart are somewhere else.
You’ll act like a drug addict.
No, you are a drug addict. You’ll do anything for that intoxicating rush of dopamine you get with every text, email, phone call, and rushed meeting. To keep getting that rush, you are as reckless as any addict. Not coming home until 2:00 and hoping, against all reason, your spouse doesn’t notice. Meeting your lover in a cafe not far from your house. Leaving your computer open where your spouse can easily read your emails, which he will eventually do because he knows you are lying. At some point, the drug eclipses everything until your normal life has disappeared. Desperate, you will try to end things. But like any addictive drug, you relapse. Finally, once one of you ends it for good, the withdrawal is terrible.
Your spouse will find out.
There is a moment in the movie, “Unfaithful” when two women are gossiping about infidelity and one says this prophetic line: “They always find out.” It’s true. Well, not always true, exactly. I know of a couple of marriages in which the spouse still doesn’t know. But I would argue that even when the spouse doesn’t know, deep down they know there’s been some sort of cover-up, a betrayal they can’t abide.
You will suffer heartbreak alone.
When it’s over, you will have to go through the breakup without any support. When on a Saturday afternoon you get into bed and are sobbing, you will do it without your spouse, the one person who, in any other scenario, would have been to the person to offer you comfort.
You and your spouse will get hurt.
Emotionally, by all means. That’s a given. But physically, too. Both you and your spouse are under so much stress that you are a danger to yourself and others, much like a person asleep at the wheel. My husband got into a bike accident that required more than 10 stitches. He did a careless u-turn with a rental U-Haul and smashed into a parent’s car during drop-off at our child’s school. I put others in harm’s way, too. On my way to get my son at school, I hit a car, injuring a mother who had just picked up her daughter. Fortunately, in all of these, no one died. Well, not entirely true.
Surprisingly, the one vow you honored was, “Til’ death do you part.”
The person looking back at you is someone who is capable of betraying the person she had vowed to stay true to until death do you part. You learn that you did succeed in honoring this marital promise. The old you is dead. The marriage you had is dead. You killed them.
You will become more honest.
After the affair, you now and will always practice and value honesty with the passion and zealotry of a convert. A false life eats away at you, sullies your soul. You feel for those who are living a lie, too. You understand that they are trapped inside of a particular breed of madness, and you feel for the suffering they will go through until, if they’re lucky, they come through the other side with compassion and mercy.
Others will be more honest with you.
Once it comes out in the open, others open up to you about their darkest secrets. It’s a psychological phenomenon: Once you are honest with someone, they will meet you with honesty in kind. I learned about other people’s affairs (until it seemed like the entire world was having one) or sexual proclivities or marital woes hidden behind blissful Facebook posts. This is the part I loved. Not because I want people to suffer. But because finally, people were being honest.
You will find love again.
“Leslie, you abandon yourself in relationships. You lost yourself with your husband. You did in your affair. Try having a love affair with yourself,” my therapist “Laura” told me when everything had fallen apart for good. No husband. No lover. Just me. So much time alone gave me room to breathe, to reconsider life on my own terms. I’ve reclaimed myself and came upon a clarity that only comes in the wake of chaos and crisis. The price of admission was high, but I know and like myself as I never have in my life. Was all of this unhappiness worth forging this new version of myself? I’ll never know. But here I am, on the other side of the affair, at last breathing calmly and being careful with myself, with others.