First, a confession. (Hold on a sec. I have to take a deep breath here.) … Okay. So here it is. I cheated.
Here’s what happened.
I was single and he was married. He and his wife had been together for about eight years, most of the time unhappily and in couples therapy. I had recently ended my own decade-long relationship and was rebounding—I just didn’t know it at the time. Rather than grieving my desperately broken heart, I threw myself into an affair. Then complicated things by falling madly in love. Long before I had the affair, I had always judged cheaters. But now … not so much.
Whether you’re the cheater or the person they’re cheating with—or both—here are some basic rules, both good and bad, that always apply. I know it may be hard, but try to set all judgment aside (see No. 1 below) and look at some of the practical lessons I learned:
1. People who judge you for cheating have never cheated.
My ego wants to say, “If you haven’t done it, don’t judge it,” but the fact is, I totally get it. Once upon a time, I thought I understood the rules of relationships. Eventually, some of my friends in committed relationships were unfaithful to their partners (often partners I had grown to love like my friends). When my friends shared their experiences with me, I saw that cheating—like relationships—has a good deal of gray area, and through that, I learned that life does too. There are two sides to every story.
2. Yes, it’s the best sex of your life (but there’s a twist).
Or, better said, it’ll seem like the best sex of your life at the time. Everyone says it’s the illicit rendezvous, the secrets, the newness that make the sex so amazing, and to a degree, that’s true. But that fades over time. What made the sex truly hot for me was the exploration and connection I found with my lover, both of us freed from inhibition. And that was golden, because it made me grow sexually. Here’s another bonus: You’ll take that with you into your current relationship or future one, making the sex, and your satisfaction, even better.
3. Mind-blowing sex has risks.
Doing things you never knew you could (or never even knew existed) is enough reason to justify just about anything … in the moment. Yes, even the possible destruction of a marriage or family—because in the throes of passion that’s the furthest thing from your mind. But that lapse in judgment usually leads to sloppiness—leaving sexts on your phone that your wife finds or skipping birth control and getting knocked up, all of which often has one huge repercussion: getting caught. My affair, long ended, stayed a secret, but most don’t. So if you’re going to play the game, accept that you’re probably going to get caught, and it could very likely be the end of your relationship, or cause long-term alienation from your family. If that happens, I guarantee those mind-blowing orgasms will probably not feel like they were worth it.
4. A cheating spouse is a liar, but their spouse may be lying to themselves, too.
If you and your partner don’t have sex anymore (sex drives don’t just disappear forever!), if your spouse becomes distant or starts working late or going out with new friends a lot, these are telltale signs of cheating. So is coming home showered from the gym or starting to use device passwords. I’m convinced my lover’s wife didn’t want to know he was having an affair, because he was guilty of many of the signs above. Did she know it in her gut? I’m not sure. You can shut off your instincts if you want to. But lying to yourself about your relationship will catch up to both of you. And sooner or later, one of you needs to find the courage to admit it so you can confront your problems, and ideally fix them. Your gut will thank you. It’s one of your best friends.
5. There’s always another side to your lover’s (crap) marriage.
Lying in each other’s arms, my lover and I shared stories about our relationships. This is what I heard him say about his marriage: “We’ve been unhappy for so long.” “We have no sex life anymore.” “All she does is argue with me.” No one was telling the other side of the story about what was still good about the relationship—what he still loved about his wife, how they were still deeply connected (which, P.S., is why your lover isn’t going to leave them no matter what they say otherwise). And God knows what his wife’s side of the story was. Maybe he enjoyed pushing her buttons more than she pushed his. But looking back, I realize if my lover had admitted the good stuff, it would’ve put the kibosh on the affair, because he needed to justify his actions—and I liked being his salvation. Letting him omit also allowed me to keep lying to myself. (And dreaming that he’d leave her for me.)
6. Be brave when it’s time to end your relationship.
For those of you whose relationship really is over, who really don’t have any positive, loving connection left with your spouse, it may be time to grow some fucking cojones and own up. “But we have kids …” “But he’ll be devastated …” Those are the reasons most unhappy couples stay together longer than they probably should. They’re totally good reasons. I believe your happiness is the foundation of your life. If you’re parents, no one can teach your kids how to be happy better than you can—and no one can see how unhappy you are better than they can. Will there be fallout? Most definitely, but it won’t last forever.
7. People need someone else to leave their spouse.
Most people can’t extricate themselves from an unhappy relationship alone. So they find someone to help them, usually a new love. Which is why, in my experience, 98 percent of all the failed relationships have ended when one partner left the other for someone else. It happened to me in the early ’90s when my first boyfriend and I were at the break-up-or-not turning point. I wanted to keep trying. (Uh, see No. 6. No cojones on me.) He didn’t. He’d fallen in love with an actress on a directing gig. Did their new relationship last after we broke up? Nope. (They hardly ever do.) But it got him out, and we both found much greater happiness afterwards. In that way, I think affairs can be really useful, because let’s face it, life is fucking scary, and it’s hard to make big changes all by yourself. If your partner leaves you for another woman, you’ll understandably hate her (and blame her). But once the dust settles, you might thank her. And after his relationship with her ends too, you guys might even become friends.
8. Honesty isn’t always better.
I knew someone whose husband started an affair while she was in treatment for a very serious breast cancer. (I know. It sounds unforgivable.) If he’d admitted his cheating to her, at least during the treatment, it could’ve hurt her health even more. Okay, so that’s on the extreme end of the don’t-be-honest scale. On the other side is this: Not all spouses want to know about infidelity. (See No. 4 again.) If you know your spouse would rather not know, then think twice about spilling the beans. Maybe a better answer is ending the affair, and channeling the excitement and happiness you found from it into your marriage.
9. But sometimes, honesty IS better.
Yes, Virginia, couples can recover from an affair. I’ve known a number of people who’ve admitted infidelity to their spouse. And after a period of intense anger, separation and/or couples therapy, I’ve seen a number of these couples fix the holes of their relationship to become stronger, more intimate and more committed than when they first got together.
10. One-way cheating rocks.
There are many benefits to single-sided cheating. For me, right or wrong—remember, no judgment here—it was a hell of a lot easier to have a clear conscience during the affair. Another benefit of being single is it allowed me—during late night crying fits fueled by loneliness, or lack of a sext in 24 hours—to remind myself that my married lover was a lying scumbag* and that I deserved someone better anyway. (If you’re cheating on someone too, this angle just won’t work as well.)
*Okay, so I am capable of a little judgment. But it was temporary.
11. Sigh … single or not, you’re not really innocent.
For most of my affair, I enjoyed my clear conscience. Whenever culpability crept up on me, I easily reminded myself that he was the liar, and sometimes would even blame his wife for choosing not to know. (Again, see No. 4.) But eventually I realized that despite being single, I wasn’t innocent. (Turning this philosophically more enlightened corner really sucked.) I clearly wasn’t as directly involved in betraying my lover’s family as he was, but I certainly played a part in the deceit. It’s not something I feel good about. But it’s something I have to live with. Forever.
12. You can probably never trust a cheater.
My lover and I frequently fantasized about the happy life we were meant to have together as two sexually, intellectually and spiritually compatible people. Yet, deep down, I knew if he ever did leave his life—during our affair or later—I could never trust him. Every business trip, every late night out with the boys, no matter what he told me, I’d wonder. (As a gut truster, I’d definitely bust his ass, too.) Maybe if he’d only cheated with me, I’d have felt differently, but I knew he had a history. And I’m pretty sure he’d still be seeing me now if I let him. That said, there are always exceptions. (See No. 9.) And for me, the most important one was my own. I ended my affair because I didn’t want to be a cheater anymore. And that was my greatest lesson.