The bestselling psychologist Esther Perel says that affairs aren’t always the result of unhappy marriages. Here five people explain what led them to be unfaithful
September 16 2017, 12:01am,
‘Whether we were together or apart I felt desirable’
Lucy, 50, is a married writer living in London
This time last year I was in the throes of an extra-marital relationship. It was — as most affairs are — selfish, impulsive and thrilling. Most would say it was also wrong, but there is some new thinking about the reasons for infidelity. Affairs can be an opportunity to discover “the real you”, and in some cases breathe life into your marriage.
Reading an essay titled “Why happy people cheat” in The Atlantic magazine by the psychologist and relationship therapist Esther Perel made me wonder whether I might have saved some heartache and found a less underhand way to “rediscover” myself. Because, according to Perel’s theory, it was not my former lover who drew me into this erotic experience, it was the part of me that was re-awoken by the seduction and pull of a forbidden liaison.
Perel talks about how affairs are born from an identity crisis. “You’re reconnected with an energy, a youthfulness.” It’s no coincidence that I was nearing 50 when my affair began. In her words I indulged in a “belated adolescent rebellion”.
And it is true that for those five months I was effervescent, thrilled by life. If you’d met me then you would have believed me to be a loved-up woman in her thirties, not a married mother pushing 50.
Overnight my skin became luminous and my eyes shone; the weight dropped off me. Mothers at the school gates asked if I’d had a facelift.
I was worn down with the mundane constraints of my marriage when I was sucked into the affair. The love and respect had gone shortly after our eldest was born. I craved company, conversation and intimacy, and so when a handsome, eligible divorcé showed an interest in me I seized what I saw as my emergency exit.
Perel has written an essay on affairs called Why Happy People Cheat
I was instantly reconnected with the “me” I’d lost more than a decade before. That spirited, carefree risk taker was back, running barefoot down country lanes into the arms of her lover, kissing in public and laughing out loud. She didn’t give a thought to the man she’d married and was betraying every waking and sleeping moment. But according to Perel, it was not my lover that I fell for, it was me. For there is rarely genuine intimacy in a secret affair. “It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique,” she says.
I barely knew my lover. Perel hits the nail on the head when she says an affair is more about “feeling sexy than having sex”. We managed sex only a handful of times, and then it was rushed, before I had to pick up my children from school, both of us knowing that fundamentally what we were doing was wrong. Apart from one occasion it was far from earth-shattering, but whether we were together or apart I felt desirable — this was intoxicating.
I wasn’t a serial adulterer. Those who are know that these relationships tend not to end well. So when my lover broke off all contact for reasons known only to himself it was devastating. I had to endure all over again the bereavement for the “me” I’d all too briefly rediscovered.
One cannot predict how deceived partners will react when an affair is discovered, but experts now recognise post-traumatic symptoms in many, often as devastating as bereavement. Perel says: “The maelstrom of emotions unleashed in the wake of an affair can be so overwhelming that psychologists turn to the field of trauma to explain the symptoms: obsessive rumination, hypervigilance, numbness and dissociation, inexplicable rages, uncontrollable panic.” My husband manifested all these emotions after he found my emails that revealed my affair in unsparing detail.
For the first time in our marriage, and with nothing left to lose, we started to talk honestly and openly. With everything laid bare and exposed, we were slowly able to rebuild, and for the first time faced the realisation that we wanted each other.
Perel, whose book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is published next month, describes how in the wake of devastating betrayals couples tell her that they “are having the deepest, most honest conversations of their entire relationship”. That has certainly been true of my husband and me. We are starting from scratch and have consigned our failed marriage to the distant past, while looking forward to a new partnership, with love, respect, understanding and, in time, trust.
I have been fortunate in that the discovery of my affair has breathed new life into our relationship. It has given my husband and I a second chance.
‘The affair was a ego boost that got out of hand’
Jenny, 55, is an office manager. She is married with two grown-up children
I was never unhappy with Ian, which is why I find it so hard to forgive myself for my affair. It happened two years ago. Our younger daughter had just left home and I had a bad case of empty-nest syndrome. I felt redundant as a parent, I was menopausal and, after 23 years, our marriage had settled into “comfortable”. I felt that nothing exciting would ever happen again.
I knew how lucky I was to have Ian — hard-working, kind and faithful. He tried to support me through my sadness, but he was having a tough time at work and I didn’t want to add to his burden.
To cheer myself up I signed up for dance lessons, thinking I might meet some new friends. Instead, I met Matthew, a widower. He was attractive, a great dancer, and there was a spark between us.
It took only a few weeks to develop into infidelity. I lied to myself that it was “just a flirtation”, but the adrenaline of a secret text, or a rushed meeting, was a much more powerful drug than I’d ever imagined. It’s such a cliché, but I felt I was living two lives. I still loved Ian, we still ate dinner together, chatted about our day, made love occasionally. I lost weight, I glowed — Ian thought the dancing was helping.
At first, I was in such denial I didn’t even feel guilty, but as the months wore on I realised I had no idea how to resolve the situation — I’d never had any intention of leaving Ian, the affair was just a huge ego boost that had got out of hand. Matt eventually told me he was in love with me, and I had to end it. I wasn’t in love with him; unlike Ian, he didn’t really know me. I’d just enjoyed being what he thought I was — free and fun and still sexy.
Our marriage had never been unhappy, and I wasn’t prepared to wreck it by confessing. I feel my ongoing guilt is the price I pay for my affair. I have tried to focus on creating more fun for me and Ian — we’ve travelled more recently and see friends together more often.
But I will never forgive myself for what I risked, just because I was bored and sad.
‘Most of my affairs have had nothing to do with love’
Cosmo Landesman, 62, is a journalist. He is in a relationship
There’s no drug or human experience that is as exhilarating as a new love affair: it’s bungee jumping with your genitals, it’s smoking crack with your heart and winning the lottery of lust — as long as you are the doer and not the done to. Then it’s a different story, a sad story of betrayal and a broken heart.
I’ve had a few affairs with married women — but, I hasten to add, not when I was married. I’ve always thought that it’s tacky to cheat on your wife, but that never stopped me from cheating with other men’s wives.
Hypocrite, moi? You bet. But people who have affairs don’t care about hypocrisy, morality, trust, betrayal — at least until it’s too late and the damage is done. They’re too enthralled by the excitement of the moment to care about tomorrow’s consequences.
Most of my love affairs have had nothing to do with love. They were affairs of lust — and lust is the greatest liar of all human passions. Lust convinces you that it’s not just great sex you’re having, you’re actually in love. Lust likes to whisper into your ear: “It’s OK, really. No one will get hurt. Go on, you deserve a little bit of fun and happiness.”
Oh the lies we tell ourselves. I once had an affair with an older married woman when I was in my twenties. She was pretty and posh and would come to my dingy squat to make whoopee. She once thanked me because our affair, she claimed, made her a “better wife and a better mother”. The idea was that she felt happier in herself and this spilt over into her home life.
There’s no drug or human experience as exhilarating as a new love affair
At first I was flattered. I was a shag artist and marriage counsellor all rolled into one. But then I thought about it and said to her: “Oh yeah? Try telling that to your husband.” And she did — after he found out. Funnily enough, he didn’t see it her way. It was a lie that allowed her to feel good about what she knew intuitively was bad.
But I could lie to myself too. A friend of mine with a clear sense of morality once asked if I didn’t feel guilty sleeping with a married woman, especially one with children. “Don’t you realise the damage you could do to a family?” he asked.
My defence went something like this: “Well, if these career-obsessed husbands spent more time trying to make their wives happy in bed — and in life generally — then they wouldn’t be having affairs in the first place!” Yes, it was all their fault. I even had a whole spurious feminist spin about how these were “autonomous, empowered women who made their own choices”; of course, it was complete balls.
And then one day I did discover the damage that an affair can do to a family life. I don’t want to go into details, but my affair with one married woman led directly to her divorce and estrangement from her children.
Why did I have affairs with married women? Did I take some masculine delight in getting one over on other men? No, not really. You’re either attracted to someone or you’re not.
I look back at my younger self and I can’t believe how callous, uncaring and selfish I was. And I must confess that I was once in a long-term relationship with an amazing woman and I had a series of short-lived affairs. It’s one of the most shameful episodes in my life.
The greatest lie in every love affair is the belief that if you’re careful nobody gets hurt
I’ve known women who claim that the worst thing about an affair is not the sexual betrayal, it’s the lying that goes with it. I used to think that was silly. I was convinced that men betray women with their dicks, women betray men with their hearts. They actually fall in love with the person with whom they’re having the affair.
Now I realise that it’s the deception that does as much damage as the deed. I was recently asked for advice by a young woman friend who had met a man and was thinking about having an affair. I told her that it was a bad idea and that she should have the affair with her husband — or at least try to.
The greatest lie that lurks in the shadows of every love affair is the belief that if you’re careful nobody gets hurt and there are no consequences. But there are. For as well as hurting the one you
love — or claim to love — you hurt yourself. And what you don’t realise is that with every betrayal a bit of you dies. Your good bit. You lose your claim to be a good, honest, trustworthy person. Consequently you become a stranger to someone who loves you. And no sex — however exciting — is worth that.
‘Discovering the affair would be devastating for my husband’
Lauren, 34, a writer, is married without children
My husband Mark is silly and loveable, the definition of a “nice guy”. That’s why I hate myself for having an affair. This is my first episode of infidelity; it began six months ago, and my guilt is made all the worse by friends who say Mark and I were “meant to be together”. I guess we were, and we’ve now been together for five years.
Our love life was never super-passionate, but having dated (and been messed around by) my share of “bad boys” in my twenties, that was something I thought I was over. Mark and I met work, moved in together and 14 months later we were married in a lovely country ceremony. It all looked very good on Facebook.
The irony is that I would call my marriage happy
Three years on and now we talk about having children, but our chats never get farther than that. We have a nice house, good jobs, but I’m the one stalling, mainly because, cliché of all clichés, I am sleeping with a man who works in my gym. Josh is 29, Australian, a macho alpha male, and the complete opposite of Mark, who is sweet and bookish. Josh flirted with me from the off and made it very clear that he was interested. He and I don’t have deep conversations like I do with my husband; he doesn’t read, he’s not interested in politics or current affairs. Josh swims in the shallow end of the emotional pool.
I know that I don’t love him, I know that finding out about the affair would crucify Mark, and yet I continue because, selfishly, Josh makes me feel excited. There’s no baggage, no feelings to consider, no future. What there is, though, is oodles of frisson. Sometimes Josh will wait a day or more to reply to a text message, which drives me crazy — it’s like he’s not that bothered about me, and I know he probably isn’t. Mark would never do that.
The irony is that I would call my marriage happy, and for that reason I am ultra-careful about protecting my husband from the knowledge of my infidelity. If I were to have children with anyone I would want it to be with Mark. He’ll be an incredible dad, but I can’t consider that option until this silliness is out of my system. It’s immature, I know, and I will put an end to it soon, but right now Josh gives me the excitement that my loving marriage does not.
‘My marriage survived but my wife may never trust me again’
David, 51, a lecturer, is married with two children
Three years ago I was addressing a conference when I noticed a very attractive young woman making direct eye contact with me. That same evening I was in bed with my admirer and I discovered a new side to myself.
I enjoyed the risks. I really enjoyed the sex. There was flattery involved, of course. She said I was “commanding, inspirational and yet vulnerable”. People see what they want. I didn’t have the courage to argue.
I was married with two children under six. My life has been characterised by commitment and responsibility: boarding school, no gap year, then university and finally a professional working life. I don’t think that I’d ever had a carefree period. As soon as I faced a personal challenge at home, I succumbed.
It might have remained a secret, except that I texted my wife instead of my ex-mistress
Things were tough domestically. Our second child was weak and sickly and my wife took extra-long maternity leave. I am not proud of this, but home was sometimes a place that I didn’t want to be.
The affair didn’t last long. My mistress got bored and was soon making excuses for not seeing me. The fading interest began around the time I mentioned how much I loved my wife and our struggle with the new child. Suddenly I was not the brooding enigma she imagined.
All might have been well. The affair was effectively over and it might have remained a guilty secret, except that I accidentally texted my wife instead of my ex-mistress, asking her to keep her counsel. It was devastating for my wife to find out, even after the fact. Trust in a marriage is built up day to day, over years. While she had been struggling with our two young children, I had betrayed her.
I thought that our marriage was over. However, we entered two years of counselling and that saved us. The affair was a symptom of a deeper malaise. During the sessions my wife revealed that she had been depressed since our second child arrived. She missed her career and the fulfilment it brought. She expressed feelings around losing her identity, but also guilt because she felt that she ought to be devoted to our new son. That explained why our sex life had waned. Childishly I took this as a judgment on me. I thought that she simply didn’t love me or find me attractive any more. I cannot believe how immature that sounds.
My marriage has survived, but I know my wife will never trust me in the same way again. All it takes is a late-night text or a later-than-usual return home and I sense her tension and anxiety. My fragile ego has wrought tremendous damage. Three years on I am still trying to pick up the pieces.
Some names have been changed
‘Can marriage survive an affair? What the psychotherapist says’
By Jean-Claude Chalmet
Marriages can survive affairs — I’ve seen it happen with many couples — but it takes a lot of hard work and commitment. I have three couples in treatment in which both or one partner have had an affair.
I emphasise that if the relationship is to survive it’s essential for each partner to understand how the affair came about. It’s usually because people feel neglected or abandoned. The woman might have focused all her love on the children, or the man spent so little time with his spouse that she feels sidelined. It’s understandable if they seek attention elsewhere.
The reflex reaction of the betrayed partner is often “how could you do this to me?” Women tend to be more distressed and men more angry, but for both there’s underlying fear and hurt. It’s important to ask honestly: “What was going on in our relationship that made you feel the need?” This requires profound soul-searching on both sides.
Next, both sides need to establish whether they want to remain together. For the children? Wrong reason. Resentment and passive aggression will ensure that nothing changes. If they decide to stay, it must only be because they want to be together and forge a better relationship.
If this is the case they need to consider whether it’s possible to forgive. This can only happen if they work to acknowledge why the affair occurred and rebuild intimacy and trust. The partner who has cheated must accept that they’ll be under scrutiny for years, until the cheated-on partner feels safe to trust them again.
The couple should use the new transparency and openness as an opportunity to learn from each other what was missing, and build a stronger relationship.
It’s important to contain discussion of the affair, otherwise it will strangle the relationship. I advise clients that they only talk about the affair in the therapy session. And if the marriage is to thrive, after a certain point of examination people must be able to draw a line under the past, embrace their new approach and move forward.