A few weeks after my husband confessed to having an affair with a much younger woman, we were watching a special on television. I don’t even remember what show it was, but what I do remember was that a therapist was interviewing couples about marriage.
One of the couples was trying to work through an affair, and the therapist began talking about why people cheat on their spouses.
I wanted to get up and change the channel. This subject was a tender spot, and I was still feeling raw and emotional, and the woman on my television screen was pushing all of my buttons.
So, even though I was in the middle of painting the front door, with hands covered in paint, I put down my brush and rushed over to change the channel. My then-husband was lying on the sofa, unmotivated to change the channel because he seemingly wanted to hear all about cheating and affairs, apparently, which annoyed the hell out of me.
“I can’t watch this,” I said. “I just want to move past this and I can’t even stand the sound of her voice.”
Obviously, my husband’s infidelity wasn’t the woman on TV’s fault. She didn’t sit on his shoulder and whisper in his ear that he needed to fuck the 20-something woman in our family car while I was home with our three kids who were running wild all day. She didn’t convince him to lie to me and tell me he was all of a sudden going out with his friends a few nights a week, and of course, I believed him because I trusted him. I wasn’t able to see anything clearly for weeks, and that had nothing to do with this TV therapist, but still, her voice felt like sandpaper on my skin.
“I think we need to watch it,” he said.
And, deep down, I knew he was right.
My attitude about not wanting to discuss his reasons for stepping out on our marriage wasn’t helping us. I couldn’t keep pretending everything was fine. My anger and resentment were building, and he certainly wasn’t opening up to me about his feelings, even though I could tell he wanted to.
My ex is a man of few words. He doesn’t talk about his feelings much and wasn’t able to communicate his needs. Not before his affair, not after.
He went with the flow and never told me how lonely he was in our marriage. So when the topic of cheating came on the TV, I knew that I still loved him and wanted to understand why he did something like this to us, to the life that we’d built together and to our family.
If he couldn’t tell me on his own, which he was trying but struggling with every time it came up, maybe I would get some answers from him via the marriage therapist on the television.
And I did.
She said people cheat because of the way the other person makes them feel. Then she went on to say some other things that I missed because as soon as that sentence came out of her mouth, my husband looked at me and I saw the tears welling in his eyes.
“Is that what it was? Because she made you feel a certain way? A way that I don’t make you feel any more?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Yes. I’ve been missing that spark, that newness, that passion. You don’t see me the way you used to. She reminded me of that.”
He went on to say he was conflicted. He didn’t love this woman and he wasn’t even sure that he liked her. But she desired him. She was persistent. She listened to him.
It was hard for me to not throw things at my husband that night. I really wanted to lash out in that manner. After all, I’d carried his three children, kept our home in order, made him his favorite meals, took care of our social calendar, and made it so he didn’t have to do much with the kids’ schedules.
He never noticed that though. He never complimented me, my parenting, or any of the other work I put in day after day. He didn’t see me. And I sure as shit didn’t feel very desired myself.
But I didn’t say a word despite the fact that I wanted to vomit, and tell him he sounded like an immature asshole who didn’t deserve to be married to me. I wanted him to finish since it wasn’t often he opened up. Even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, I needed to hear what he had to say. I needed to know, so I could decided how (and if) we would ever move forward.
We’d been married for 10 years and together for 13. I wanted to finally hear his side, and he was going deeper than his usual “It just happened and I’m sick about it.”
I wanted to save us and so, I kept my mouth shut so I could try and understand.
“I never, ever thought about leaving you for her. I wanted hot sex, I wanted someone to listen to me. And it was nice to not talk about shitty diapers, and to not have her say she was too tired to have sex.”
And that was when I’d heard all I needed to hear. Did I understand where he was coming from?
I myself have dreamt of a man coming to my door and screwing my brains out against the living room wall and not asking me to wash his underwear or check the bubbling zit on his back. I, too, missed the excitement, the lusty nights, the spontaneous dates and the effort he used to put into our relationship. I had those feelings just like he did — but I never acted on them.
After he’d confessed to me about his affair, I went to stay at a friend’s house after I’d put the kids to bed– the thought of staying there and being alone with him without our kids as a distraction was too much for me to handle.
The first night I arrived at her house and we were talking it all out on her living room floor, she said something that was incredibly healing, and I’m still not sure why: “Diana, there have been times in my marriage that I’ve felt so lonely, I shudder to think what I might do if someone came on to me and made me feel seen and special. Maybe this is just a blip. Maybe you can get past it.”
Her being real and honest with me made me face something I didn’t want to face: My husband felt alone in our marriage, and I knew it even though he’d never said it.
We hadn’t had sex for months. He’d wanted to go out on dates to connect, and I was too tired to put the effort in and told him so.
These are not excuses for what he did, but I knew I had to take some responsibility for shutting him out in a sense and thinking my needs and desires for relaxing, sleep, and being told I was a good mom were more important.
The truth is, I thought we’d make it thorough without any “blips.”
That’s where I was wrong. There was no way our relationship could sustain itself in the place we were in.
But he went wrong too. Very wrong. He thought he could use another woman as a band-aid to fix himself so he could be a better husband, and the consequences were disastrous and heartbreaking.
Since our divorce, I’ve talked openly to a few other men and women about my ex’s affair. Some of them have had the same experience and said, “Oh yes, the way that person made me feel was amazing. It was enough to shove the guilt away and try and get more and more of that feeling. It was about me.”
I’ve talked to happily married people who have been tempted and never acted on it, even if they were going through a rough patch, because they didn’t believe the consequences would ever help their circumstances. They knew then, and they know now, that if they wanted their marriage to last, they needed to stay in the game and give it their all.
And I just talked with a couple who made it through after infidelity, and the wife said her affair was one of the best things that happened in their marriage because she and her husband finally got the counseling they needed. She too felt unseen, undesired, and was propositioned by an old lover. She was starving for connection and affection, but really wanted it from her husband and had no intention of leaving him for her lover. Her lover was a band-aid too.
I’m not justifying affairs — it was one of the most painful things my ex-husband and I ever had to work through. And even though we aren’t together anymore, having a better understanding — beyond thinking people who cheat are selfish, reckless, dickheads who never deserve forgiveness — helped me to move on.
I chose to move on without my husband, and if you have been cheated on, that decision sits on your lap, and your lap alone. It took me a long time, and we did try to make our marriage work, but the best decision for our family was to split up and co-parent amicably.
Before you go blaming yourself and thinking you could have done this, that, or the other, I think it’s important to realize your partner is probably having the affair because of the way it makes them feel. They aren’t thinking about the long-term consequences. They are centering themselves. I know it hurts like hell, but you need to know this, because it’s not your fault or your burden to carry.
And when all is said and done, it is up to you to figure out if you can continue your marriage after the damage has been done.