When Good People Have Affairs

Inside the Hearts & Minds of People in Two Relationships

Mira Kirshenbaum

St. Martin's Press

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NO REGRETS

AFFAIRS COVER A LOT OF TERRITORY

Here’s how Jessica, 37, put it: "In a million years I never wanted to be in a situation like this. To be in a committed relationship and then find myself having an affair—this just isn’t me. But it is me. I’ve done this. And now I’m scared. All I wanted was to find some love, and now this whole thing could blow up, and I could lose everyone I care about."

People like Jessica, like most people having an affair, feel very much alone. But they’re not. In fact, they’ve got plenty of company. As actress Sienna Miller said in a 2007 Esquire interview, commenting on her breakup from her boyfriend Jude Law following his affair with his kids’ nanny, "Every single person I know has experienced infidelity. It’s not the first time it’s happened to me, and it probably won’t be the last."

The research backs this up. (If you’re a starry-eyed newlywed, get ready for a shock.) Based on all available surveys, in a near-majority of couples of all kinds (straight or gay) one or both partners will have an affair at some point. For example, 47 percent of married men are likely to get involved, emotionally and/or sexually, with someone else, as are 35 percent of married women (according to a 2007 Beta Research poll involving a representative sample of 1,738 randomly selected men and women ages twenty-one to forty-nine).

According to other surveys, more than half of single straight men ages twenty-five to fifty-five, and up to a third of single straight women ages twenty-five to forty-five, are involved with more than one person at the same time.

While there aren’t yet good numbers on the size of this problem among gay men and lesbians, people in these communities typically say that it’s just as big a problem for them.

Some are in their twenties, some—I assure you—are still lusty senior citizens, and the rest are somewhere in between. And it’s not just that there are a lot of people involved; there’s also a lot of variety in what goes on. Some people know for sure that they don’t want to be with their partner but are paralyzed with fear that the breakup might hurt their kids. Some are utterly torn about who they really want to be with.

Sometimes the primary relationship is thoroughly awful, and sometimes there’s just one piece missing.

So many people, so many messes. At some point, most good people having an affair wonder how they got into such a situation. They certainly didn’t plan to be where they are.

How does an affair happen?

PORTRAIT OF AN AFFAIR

Let me paint a group portrait of the development of an affair. The details vary from person to person, of course. But, surprisingly, the same issues, events, and feelings keep coming up over and over, regardless of people’s ages and backgrounds. Here is the general pattern.

It starts innocently. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s usually true. When people say "I never meant for this to happen," they’re being honest.

Typically they are in a committed relationship, but they aren’t perfectly happy. No one who is perfectly happy in their primary relationship gets into a second. Maybe they’re a lot unhappy, maybe just a little. Still, they have no plans to cheat.

And then "the other person" somehow floats onto their radar screen. It might be someone they work with every day. Or someone they’ve never met before whom they get into a conversation with while walking the dog or cooling down after yoga class.

Why they’re attracted to this new person also varies. Sometimes it’s just about the other person being good-looking. But much more often it’s about how something that’s been missing in their primary relationship, something they’ve been hungry for, suddenly seems possible with this new person. They’re like someone who’s been wandering around with a couple of empty wineglasses who suddenly meets someone with a bottle of wine.

IT STARTS.They only want a little taste. It might just be about sex. But my own research shows that even for men it’s as likely to be about some other way of connecting. Usually it just feels good to talk to this person. Whatever it’s about, part of them is attracted. But part of them is scared. Part of them says never.

Still, next thing they know . . . well, at this point there are a thousand and one scenarios.

Maybe, before they know it, before they even think about it, the two of them find themselves in bed making mad, passionate love.

Or maybe they very, very slowly get to know each other. Maybe they have long conversations about where the two of them are heading. Maybe they just play it by ear. Maybe they start out as friends and stay that way for quite a while.

However it happens, eventually they realize that they’ve crossed some sort of emotional or sexual line—after they’ve crossed it. And it feels wonderful, because, let’s face it, it was a line they were hungry to cross. But it also feels terrible, because they know it’s cheating, and they know that they never wanted to be a cheater.

But they are hungry and weak and confused, and so they keep going deeper into that new relationship.

KEEPING IT GOING.Now let’s tell the truth. When they find themselves involved in two relationships, there is a point (it might last for just a minute, or it might last for months) when it looks as though this three-way state of affairs could work. Keeping the affair from their spouse seems doable. The guilt seems manageable.

They’re not yet looking too closely at the future. They walk down the street feeling blessed by having a special secret, the key to a hidden wealth of happiness—sexual, emotional, whatever. They’ve somehow fallen into an eternal now that feels like a blessing, and seems to solve all their problems.

Unfortunately, as people always find out, that brief moment never lasts. It can’t. Being in two relationships is inherently unsustainable. It’s like a house of cards—the longer it keeps going, the more likely it is to come crashing down.

THE PRESSURE MOUNTS.Here’s what good people at this stage of an affair do. As much as they can, they try to neither think about what’s going on nor deal with it. They manage their life like a sleepwalker in traffic. This works until something crashes through and forces them to pay attention. And something always crashes through.

With every day, the risk of their spouse finding out grows. There are e-mail trails ("My partner just came across an e-mail that made him suspicious!"), unexplainable credit card receipts, stories made up that just don’t hold water ("I told him we had a planning meeting at the office after work, but he came by to bring me something and found out that there was nobody there, and I had to explain that we’d all moved the meeting to a nearby restaurant").

Or maybe they’ve already been found out. This is a moment of great danger. A person has a better chance of surviving a heart attack than love has of surviving unscathed a discovery of infidelity. But then again, a lot of people survive heart attacks these days.

Still, it’s very risky. There’s a world of hurt and anger and mistrust to deal with. Certainly, having a spouse and a family puts enormous pressure on a person to end the affair.

Then again, maybe it’s the lover who’s applying intense pressure on someone to end their marriage. ("My lover wants me to spend some time over Christmas with her!") And why not? Weren’t they always talking about how unhappy they were with their spouse? Didn’t they tell their lover how wonderful it would be if the two of them could be together always?

And so the pressure mounts from both ends. As does the confusion about what’s best to do. They feel troubled, lonely, and guilt-ridden. They feel like they’re sitting on a powder keg that can blow their life to smithereens.

In fact, their emotions are all over the place.

CONFUSION.On the one hand, maybe they feel very hopeful about spending the rest of their life with their lover.

On the other hand, maybe it’s starting to hit them how expensive getting a divorce will be. And not just financially. Emotionally and socially, as well.

And on the third hand, every time they think of getting back with their spouse, something happens and that relationship deteriorates, and they wonder, why bother?

On the fourth hand, every time they think about their kids— if they have kids—they start feeling guilty about what a divorce will do to those young and fragile psyches. And both men and women start being afraid that if they are not in their kids’ lives as much, they’ll lose their love. Their kids will think of them as the bad parent. And if their kids forget that for a moment, their ex will remind them.

And so the pressure and confusion deepen.

Feeling overwhelmed the way they do, maybe things aren’t as great with their lover as they’d been, and they start wondering what’s the point of staying in this new relationship. Or maybe they go the other way and feel much more pressure to end the marriage and so end the stress.

And if their spouse finds out, very soon a harrowing struggle gets going.

A THREE-WAY TUG-OF-WAR.There’s so much suspicion and anger once an affair is revealed that it quickly becomes a three-way tug-of-war.

Let’s say Alan is married to Betty (with whom he has two children) and is having an affair with Carol. Carol is going to push as hard as she can to get Alan to leave Betty, while trying not to push so hard that she pisses Alan off.

Betty is scared, and she is going to try to scare the crap out of Alan. She’ll often push by threatening the most punitive divorce settlement she can think of. Either this will scare Alan into coming back to her, she thinks, or she will end up being well taken care of if he leaves her.

And Alan . . . well, Alan is genuinely confused about what’s best to do, particularly because there are kids in the picture. And that makes him want to slow things down. But it’s also in his interest to slow things down, because for the time being at least he’s holding onto two relationships with two people, and he faces serious hurt if he loses or lets go of either one.

This is a recipe for a lot of stress and struggle, and it’s also a recipe for things to stay up in the air for a surprisingly long time. Even though people want nothing more than to get things sorted out fast, the dynamics are in play for everyone to become paralyzed.

FEELING STUCK.No wonder so many people get into a curl-up-in-a-ball period, when they just don’t know what’s best to do. Things aren’t wonderful in either relationship, and they can’t figure out if it’s them or the other person or the damned situation.

But still they hang in there, because they don’t know what else to do, and they’re afraid that whatever they do will just make things worse.

Of course, people often talk to a friend or a family member. These people may genuinely care, but they’re rarely as helpful as hoped for. Friends and family are usually biased one way or another. What’s more, people usually can’t bring themselves to tell friends or family 100 percent of the story. Important considerations always get left out. And friends and family are rarely the best advisers.

IT ALL BLOWS UP.So people hang in there for as long as they can, until they get a big old wake-up call. Maybe it’s an ulcer. Maybe it’s a series of anxiety attacks, or even a heart attack. Maybe one of their kids starts acting out in school.

Maybe their boss reads them the riot act because he can tell that they’re just not performing up to par. It’s hard to concentrate at work, and for most people in this situation, job performance falls off, sometimes severely, putting their career at risk.

After all, carrying around a stressful problem like an affair takes a big toll. People get depressed. They lose sleep. Being in two relationships drains emotional energy, so they find it hard to give to the people they care about, and all their relationships suffer. Most people say that it’s a heart-wrenching, confusing nightmare. It’s like trying to juggle chainsaws when you don’t know how to juggle.

Eventually they realize that the cost of what they’re doing is unbearable.

Through it all, they’re haunted by the most important question: "What do I want? What do I really, really want?"

"I JUST WANT WHAT’S BEST FOR EVERYONE"

The first answer that comes to mind for them is a heartfelt vision of personal happiness.

For one person it could be "If only we could heal the hurts from the past, and if only we could stop making each other mad the way we’ve done for so long now, and if only I could be forgiven for this affair, I’d want to go back to my partner."

For another person it could be "If only it wouldn’t have a devastating effect on my kids, and if only it wouldn’t take me away from my kids, and if only it wouldn’t send me to the poorhouse, and if only I didn’t feel so damned guilty, I’d want to divorce my spouse and be with my lover."

The choice would be a lot easier if it weren’t for those damned "if onlys." But they’re so real. And so confusing.

That’s why, in the end, when people ask themselves what they really want, they find themselves saying that they don’t want anyone to get hurt. They’d like everyone to get their needs met. They just want what’s best for everyone. And they mean it.

But then what? Besides "what’s best for everyone," what do people really want? Who do they want to be with? How do they want to make it happen? How do they find their way past the "if onlys," not dismissing them, but not being overwhelmed by them, either?

CHOOSE IT OR LOSE IT

One harmful way people deal with these questions grows out of feeling guilty. Because they feel guilty they feel they deserve to be punished. Because they feel they deserve to be punished they make bad decisions and do stupid things, and really do end up getting punished. Unfortunately, in the process they’re not the only ones whose lives are ruined.

Another harmful way people deal with these questions is by doing nothing. In so many ways, doing nothing seems like the easiest, most attractive alternative. Hey, it’s what they’ve been doing so far anyway. And it’s been working.

But they’re not stupid. The stress and anxiety they experience come from a good, commonsense place inside of them. They know that they’re skating on thin ice, and that at any minute they could crash through. They’re one errant e-mail, one untimely phone call, one careless credit card receipt away from disaster.

And so they know that the slogan "choose it or lose it" applies to them. Right now they have more freedom, more options, than they may ever have again. If they don’t figure things out soon and start making the tough choices, then they may very well lose all the options they’ve been counting on. Spouse, lover, even children may stop wanting to have anything to do with them.

Here’s a cautionary tale if there ever was one.

JOSH’S STORY

Josh, 40, had been married to Michelle, 38, for five years. They’d been pressured into getting married by Michelle’s father, Dan, who owned the business Josh was working for. Josh convinced himself that he loved Michelle, and she was flattered that this really handsome, dynamic guy wanted her.

But now their marriage had become a disappointment to both of them. It wasn’t throwing dishes bad. Just blah. It was so clear that so much was missing that a couple of times they’d mentioned getting a divorce. Instead, Michelle got pregnant. All her hope and energy went into the coming baby. Josh felt even more deflated.

Josh had been part of a running club and had often found himself running next to Stacy, 29. They clearly liked each other. One day just the two of them showed up for a cross-country run. At one point Stacy twisted her ankle, and they sat in the woods and talked. A physical chemistry that had long been smoldering came roaring to life. They ended up making out like teenagers. It was more passion than Josh had felt in his entire relationship with Michelle.

RIDING THE TIGER.Within two weeks Josh and Stacy were having a full-blown affair. Motel rooms. New, hopefully secret e-mail accounts. A profound sense of yearning and romance.

For Josh it was awful. He was consumed by guilt and fear. If he got a divorce, especially if it was found out that he’d been cheating, his bright future with his father-in-law’s business would be over. His dreams of a happy family with his new child would be over. At the same time, the thought of losing Stacy was horrible.

But it was also a relief. He had his nice little family life with Michelle. In fact, things there were better than ever. Michelle had been wondering at the miracle of how Josh suddenly managed to stop acting disappointed in her. She glowed in what looked like his sudden appreciation of her. And so she was more loving to him.

Excerpted from When Good People Have Affairs by Mira Kirshenbaum.
Copyright 2008 by Mira Kirshenbaum.
Published in August 2009 by St. Martin’S Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.