The stories we tell about infidelity
(Photo by Masha Raymers from Pexel.com)
So much of our thinking about our lives seems to concern self-vindication. When it comes to conflict, we tend to tell stories that put us on the side of right and the other party on the side of wrong. Unambiguously.
We don’t lie to ourselves, exactly, but we carefully filter the truth for the facts that support our version of events. We effortlessly craft good guy/bad guy narratives, and guess who usually ends up wearing the white hat?
You know those stories: the Saint versus the Sociopath. Apparently one side did nothing wrong, while the other side did everything wrong. When I hear this kind of story, I automatically start to wonder how the other person involved would describe what happened. No doubt, the roles would be reversed.
This kind of narrative construct is typical in any sort of break-up, and especially where infidelity is involved. The emotions are so intense that it’s understandable why a psychological barrier is erected. The story we tell about a break-up is a fortress built to protect an injured ego.
But let’s face it: an affair is often judged by a partner who isn’t tempted by the idea of having an affair. They’ll say something like ‘You had everything you could ever want, why would you choose to throw it all away?’ What they are really saying is ‘You had everything that I could ever want’.
Feeling tempted simply makes no sense to the untempted.
In those instances, the criteria of the two people are misaligned. One person values security above all, and can’t relate to a deep desire for adventure. One person thinks sex is relatively unimportant, and can’t imagine risking anything to get more. Neither side is wrong, but they make a major mistake when they project their priorities onto their partner. It’s like they want to make universal truths out of their own idiosyncrasies.
Let me illustrate with an example. I am a natural teetotaler. I think all alcohol tastes terrible, and resisting its allure requires zero effort on my part. Would it be intelligent of me to dismiss all alcoholics as self-destructive weaklings? Not at all.
I understand intuitively the powerful wave of desire that overtakes the alcoholic when they take a single sip. I feel empathy towards them, and gratitude that I don’t experience the same desperate cravings.
Avoiding what you don’t desire yourself is not proof of moral superiority.
It was only after my first marriage ended that my ex-wife discovered I had engaged in two significant affairs while we were together. She was devastated. And very, very angry. That was completely understandable.
At one point during our many conversations, however, I asked her if remaining faithful — if not having an affair — was the hardest thing she had ever done. “Of course not!”, she exclaimed, confident that her answer was evidence of her superior character.
But really, her answer was evidence of something else. We were very different people who wanted very different things from life. As a matter of fact, not having an affair would have been the hardest thing I had ever done. Not because I was besieged by offers (believe me, I wasn’t), but because the things I desired most in life could only be found in an intimate relationship with someone who wanted what I did. Someone who wanted what my ex-wife did not.
Here are just four of the many qualities I longed to find in someone else that weren’t available in my marriage:
Sexual Enthusiasm — I dreamed of a partner committed to experiencing as many erotic sensations as two bodies (and minds) were capable of. As often as possible. That didn’t mean I was seeking a woman who would say yes to everything I wanted, just as I might not say yes to everything she wanted. But it did mean we would approach each opportunity for intimacy from a position of openness. Sex would be a priority rather than an afterthought.
Even Temper — Unpredictable swings from happiness to unhappiness make for a volatile relationship. My ex-wife was emotionally mercurial, and fighting was not uncommon in our marriage. I am agreeable by nature, and find conflict incredibly stressful. I didn’t need a partner who agreed with me on every issue — which is not only impossible, but undesirable — but I needed to know that our differences could be worked through calmly and logically.
Self-Confidence — It should go without saying that everyone feels badly about themselves at some point. However, some people find ways to move forward in spite of their insecurities, while others allow them to dominate their lives. As an ambitious person, I wanted to know what it was like to support and celebrate the victories of my partner, rather than playing the role of comforter to someone who continuously doubted her own worth.
Investment in Appearance — This may sound superficial, but it isn’t. It’s about equality. I wasn’t looking for a partner who was genetically gifted with a perfect face and figure. That would be shallow. Rather, I wanted to be with someone who made the most of what they had through the three avenues open to everyone: dress and grooming and exercise. It’s dispiriting to put a lot of effort into these areas when your partner does not.
Resigning myself to never knowing these satisfactions would have been extremely difficult for me. I suppose some people find it easy to accept disappointment, but that’s not me. Not if I can do something about it.
As it turned out, I was able to experience in my two affairs most of what had been lacking in my marriage. Even though that kind of relationship is less-than-ideal in almost every other way, I learned that what I had longed for was possible. I was able to see up close the things I had been missing, and I decided I truly could not live without them.
I had jumped to the other side of the fence only to find that the grass was even greener than I had imagined!
When my first marriage ended, however, I determined that I would not turn my ex-wife’s mere differences into moral failures. She was not an evil person. In fact, she was a compassionate person, trying to do her best in every situation. Her priorities were just not compatible with mine.
Let me say this clearly: it was never my ex-wife’s job to be everything I wanted. Villainizing her for that would be a dead-end proposition, an excuse to stop thinking through what had actually transpired.
Ultimately, I found a woman who embodied all the things I had been looking for. My sexual appetite, calm nature, self-confidence and attention to appearances were transformed from points of contention to points of connection. My current wife and I have been together for nine years now, and everything is so much easier. The temptation to have an affair is non-existent.
If I try to explain why, I think it’s because I learned to focus on compatibilities. My affairs were awkward, imperfect experiments on the path to a healthier kind of connection.
As a result, I focused on what I needed in my next relationship rather than worrying about who to blame in the last one.
The saying ‘Those who fail to study the past are doomed to repeat it’ is especially useful in the realm of relationships. If you are hoping to make better choices in the future, you have to identify exactly how your previous decisions failed you. You want to concentrate on fact-finding rather than fault-finding.
What won’t help at all is casting yourself as a Saint, and your ex-partner as a Sociopath, in a movie we’ve all seen too many times.