Welcome to part two of my three-part exploration of infidelity and polyamory.
Before I begin, I want to reiterate how unscientific this process has been. I placed an ad on Craigslist—my go-to website for all things odd—asking men who have been unfaithful to their partners to share their stories with me. Amazingly, men responded. My similar (and belated) attempt to find some women to do so hasn’t garnered any responses yet. Funny, that. Should some women eventually reply to my request, I will post on this topic again.
After all was said and done, three men allowed me to ask them all kinds of potentially embarrassing and difficult questions and I am immensely grateful for their honesty. Seriously guys, you’re wonderful.
Geoffrey is in his forties and is presently in a long term relationship, but not married. He has been married before, but that ended some time ago. The first time Geoffrey cheated on a partner he was 15 or 16 years old and it was motivated, mostly, by loneliness. There was the girl he had at home and the girl he had at school. But in the times that he’s been unfaithful since then, at 19, 24 and 40, there has been a recurring theme: the inability to communicate with his partners regarding significant issues in their relationship.
With his girlfriend at 19, it became clear early on in the relationship that she was basically a snob who looked down her nose at him. But he found it too difficult to talk to her about her attitude and too difficult to break up. So when a co-worker made it clear that she was looking for a little something, he obliged. At 24, Geoffrey was in a marriage in which the intimacy stopped cold after the wedding night. Once again, finding it too difficult to communicate with his spouse about the issue, he looked for intimacy with a co-worker.
(Can I just interject here and say that that there is no one in my office that I can actually imagine sleeping with? I don’t know where Geoffrey’s been working but clearly the general hotness level in his work places has been higher than that of mine.)
While in his present relationship, Geoffrey has spent some time on massage tables and chatting with people online. Though he hasn’t begun a secondary relationship with anyone else, the communication issue continues to plague him.
Geoffrey remarked that he perhaps just doesn’t have the genes for fidelity, though he was quick to point out that he doesn’t see this as a justification for his actions. He does feel like what he’s doing is wrong. However, I don’t get the impression that Geoffrey is necessarily losing sleep over this either. He seems to have found a way to compartmentalize this so that his life doesn’t spin terribly out of control; he’s never been caught by a partner, so he’s managing this somehow. When we chatted, we talked about this overall communication issue and the fear Geoffrey has around it. As a lifelong conflict avoider, I can relate to a degree. Sometimes the fear of what might happen in a conflict becomes so overblown in my head that it turns into a mountain—when the actual conflict is much more of a molehill. It also seemed to me like Geoffrey keeps ending up in relationships that lack a basic level of overall compatibility. This was not the case, though, with Sam.
Sam is 27, engaged to be married and has been with his fiancée for about five years. In this time he’s been unfaithful twice. The first time didn’t last very long but the second time, with an ex-girlfriend of his, lasted about a year. He has never been found out. Now that he’s moved in with his fiancée he’s pledged not to stray again. When he was answering questions about his motivation to cheat, however, it came to light that while he and his fiancée are great together in a lot of ways, they do not seem to be sexually compatible. Relentless beotch that I am, I wouldn’t let this issue go. So we had a little chat on msn.
Speaking of his ex, Sam said “she’s one of those woman [sic] that when you kiss its [sic] like your souls are kissing…”
Given that kind of connection, which he says he just doesn’t have with his fiancée, I wondered why he wasn’t going after a relationship with his ex at this point. I assumed that they just didn’t get along well enough. But I was wrong. Sort of. They get along now (they didn’t before) but they are in different spaces socially and financially and Sam now feels too invested in his present relationship to leave. He recognizes that he and his fiancée are sexually incompatible—he likes to try new things, his fiancée does not—but in his own words: “I feel like my fiancé [sic] is the woman I want to be with for the rest of my life, when and if I get married. I will still have [the desire to have my sexual needs met] but… I won’t act on it because marriage is special to me. Especially, eventually when I have kids. I want to set a good example.”
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Sam made an interesting comment—actually it was a piece of advice. Something that seems pretty basic but clearly isn’t: that we should make sure our partners have everything we want before we get too involved or we’ll be tempted to look elsewhere. I know you’re thinking “duh” right now, but Paul, my third interviewee, articulated this superbly when I asked him about his situation:
“Before I got married, I had a very real sense that the sex wasn’t what I needed it to be, but I felt like it was childish to think that was important when everything else was fine. In retrospect, that was stupid. It was a legitimate priority, you know?”
When I read that I wanted to scream “bingo” from the rooftops. It’s a completely legitimate priority but in our culture it tends to get poo-pooed when we’re looking for life partners. And that’s hard social programming to get past. I’ve nearly embarked on two relationships in which there was at least the potential for sexual incompatibility and I just let it slide both times. I was lucky to get dumped early on in both situations. I’m crossing my fingers that I won’t let that happen when I do come across someone who looks a lot like Mr. Right, but I understand the difficulty.
When I thought about writing this post I really was hoping to talk to people who felt zero ambivalence about their infidelity; people who embodied the adage of “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her” or its male corollary. But I’m starting to think those people don’t actually exist. One man I had hoped to interview—someone who referred to ideas around fidelity as “Hallmark social mores”—seemed to be spurred into thinking more about his actions when I sent him my basic interview questions for this topic. He decided he needed to answer these questions for himself before he did so for anyone else. That’s completely reasonable, but I just figured that if he was so sure of the silliness of the social mores surrounding fidelity he’d already have answered some of these questions for himself. Another man I had hoped to interview once asked me if I was “disappointed” in him for cheating. He had always struck me as so certain that what he was doing wasn’t a big deal that I was surprised by the question. Another man’s insistence on attacking my character because I wasn’t calm, cool and collected about turning down his offer of sex, suggests he has a real need for someone to affirm his reality. He certainly doesn’t come across as a man who is absolutely sure that he’s doing the right thing.
Paul is the only person I found who comes close to appearing to truly believe that what his wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her; and he doesn’t even quite fit the expression because I’m 99% certain his wife knows full well that he’s cheated. However he is as close to “okay” with his actions as I’ve come across. Paul is 39 and has had cheated more than once but there’s one significant relationship that he’s had outside of his marriage for about the last two years. I have been known to call his mistress a monster who feeds on drama rather than food, but this is actually part of the draw for him. Paul was not only bored in his marriage, but he is married to a woman who is utterly disinterested in sex. He has made it clear to her several times over a five year period that this is important to him, but she continues to go on for unholy year-long stretches without doing the deed. Obviously, I only get Paul’s side of the story, but he feels that on this and other issues he has made every effort to get his marriage back on track. And so, having had an affair fall squarely in his lap, at a relatively unlikely place to meet any woman besides a booth bimbo—a gun show—he doesn’t really feel any guilt about it.
In terms of his own head space, he says “It’s hard not to feel at least somewhat strange about it. It’s definitely an odd thing when you have to regularly segregate your mind when speaking to people because you have to remember (a) the lies you had to tell about where you were and what you were doing and (b) among friends, who is aware of the relationship and who isn’t. That’s strange. It feels like you don’t own your own life, and I guess you don’t when you’re married. That bifurcation is strange. It’s also strange when things of some consequence happen and the person you most want to be there can’t be. I’m thinking of when my father died. That was a hard time, and I would have liked Janice to have been there. She was as supportive as she could have been, but she obviously couldn’t have just shown up at the funeral.”
So yes, it’s strange. But guilt—not so much. (In fact, all three of the men in this post have had little to say about how their infidelity affects them emotionally or psychologically which, I guess, flies in the face of my argument that lying a lot probably does something bad to a body.)
Paul also feels like he’s found about as close as one gets to a soul mate in Janice. She’s married though and has no intention of leaving her marriage, so Paul feels no great inclination to leave his own. Paul’s wife very likely knows about the affair (though if questioned, she’d probably deny it), and she hasn’t asked him to pack his things, so there appears to be some strange functional thing happening here. Something I wouldn’t have thought of as functional.
If I seem somewhat restrained in my writing of this post there’s a reason for that. Given my biases I wanted to make sure that I told the stories that were shared with me with as little personal intrusion as possible. Which is hard. But the men who responded to my call for stories made it somewhat easier. I thought I’d have a really hard time having people tell me about their infidelity without wanting to jump all over them. However, the honesty and humility shown by the people I questioned made it really easy to just be interested and curious rather than enraged. Given their honesty, their reasons for infidelity made some sense to me; sense in a way that I think almost all of us can understand. We don’t have to agree with it, but in many ways it’s ceased to be this incomprehensible black hole for me. Will I feel interested and curious the next time a married man propositions me? Likely not. But for this space and time I feel like I kinda get it. Hopefully, you kinda do too.