I feel awful about my affair

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

It was stupid, cruel and unsatisfying, and now I’m miserable


Dear Cary,

I really need you to tell me how to forgive myself, and how to carry on after I had an affair. I’m sorry if this ends up really long and please edit however you need to. Basically, I have been married for 15 years to a man who really is a fundamentally excellent person. We were married quite young for a couple in our socioeconomic bracket, and have been together since college. Like any couple that goes the distance, we have been to (relative) hell and back, most of which was the byproduct of trying to make our careers fit together, dealing with each other’s families, family money issues, etc. Totally run-of-the-mill problems. I have had my doubts, at times over the years, whether we were “meant for each other,” which we have discussed openly and honestly several times throughout our relationship.  We always come to the conclusion that we just do not want to break up. We love each other and we love most things about the life we’ve built.

Two years ago I entered an extremely challenging graduate program, which also wreaked havoc on our lives, and therefore, our relationship. Though I knew that all last summer and fall was an especially low point in our communication and in our overall happiness with each other, I’m still shocked and gutted whenever I “remember” that I cheated. Which is several times a day.

There was this other man, I’ll call him X, whom I had been acquainted with for several months. One night, while out with a group of 10 or so other friends (my husband went home early that night, the rest of us were celebrating exams being over), he paid special attention to me. At the end of the evening I acknowledged to myself that X was maybe more interesting and intelligent of a person that I’d formerly noticed. Still, I was extremely surprised later that night to receive a borderline flirtatious text from him.

I kind of hate myself for returning the attention. Looking back, I realize that I was just so flattered. No one tells you when you get married that you become invisible to other men, and it’s not that I think I’ve been out there looking for inappropriate attention …  but I found it surprisingly welcome when it came. And that’s how it all began. I’m so ashamed that it took so little, so very, very little, to tempt me into cheating on my husband.

Looking back at last year, I know now that there was something really wrong with me, for awhile. I was at least depressed, and actually I have begun to wonder if I even might have had a manic episode.  I suddenly was drinking often, and a lot (which I no longer am). I know that the pressure of my schoolwork has been affecting me in all sorts of ways that I don’t seem able to recognize in myself until that “phase” is over and I’m in the next one. However, even though I know this is a factor, I just don’t think any amount of stress is an excuse for what I did. Though my husband and I were having trouble connecting last year, and we were seriously considering a trial separation, that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

Because my husband and I are really open-minded people, each with friends from both genders, and neither of us prone to jealousy, I never even told one lie. There were a couple of lies of omission, but I think I was able to live in a little bit of denial for awhile just because I really never had to be sneaky, or make up stories. I just kind of detached from him, for a few weeks. Since I’ve been living in the library and so preoccupied with school the last couple of years, he didn’t notice.

The affair really only lasted a month and was much more of an emotional affair than a physical one, although the relationship was consummated, once. I have not confided any of this experience to anyone.  After sleeping with X (it makes me nauseated just to type this), even during, I knew that I really wasn’t attracted to him at all, and I just immediately realized what a mistake it all was. I got myself out of there, and began the process of ending it. Which is when I of course finally realized that X’s own mental and emotional stability was, well, compromised.

I just can’t believe how stupid I was, from the beginning. It’s hard to believe I deserve any credibility, but please know that I am usually a very perceptive, very self-aware and intentional person. How was I able to just take leave of my senses, for weeks? It is legitimately scary.

When I broke things off with X, firmly, he actually tried to physically keep me from leaving his house. Of course, nothing could have convinced me further that I wanted nothing to do with him EVER again.

Even though it all ended months ago now, there are still some things that keep me up at night. First of all, the clarity that comes with the regret of doing such a despicable thing is kind of a gift. I was able to wholeheartedly throw myself into my marriage again, and this year, 2012, my husband and I have felt closer than maybe ever. But of course, he doesn’t “know.”  We had actually discussed adultery a couple of times over the years, when we’ve seen friends or friends’ parents go through it, and we decided, each of us, that we did not want to ever know if the other had cheated on them! I know now that neither of us ever believed it would actually happen, but just by having those talks, I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t want to know.

In the beginning, I wanted to confess. Now I really don’t, and instead live in fear that he’ll hear it through the grapevine. As I hinted, X has done some things that made me realize, way later than I should have, that he is manipulative, needy and self-centered. Since he still asks me to meet him out socially on occasion, and often expresses his disapproval when I decline, I know he is not as “over” me as I pray for him to be. He can be a bit delusional. I am afraid that he will someday find justification for spilling the story to one of our common friends. I don’t know for sure that this hasn’t happened already.

What is worse is that he has a number of really incriminating and embarrassing texts from me on his phone, that he could show to anyone, at any time he felt like it. Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid when I play this scenario out in my mind, but at the same time, this is a man who pursued a married woman, the husband of whom he professes to like and respect, ensured she got drunk any time he was around her, and balked when she ended it after a few weeks. He is no saint.

Here are the issues that might be slowly killing me. How can I live with myself? My husband really is a great person, and the love of my life, and just because we were going through some doubts and hard times, I did something that would absolutely break his heart into a thousand pieces. One of the things that also stops me from confessing to him is that, if telling him destroyed our relationship, I’m scared it would also prevent him from ever trusting anyone else. I know he thinks I’m this great moral person and if I were able to betray him like that, then there’s no one who wouldn’t.

And it’s not just that I cheated on him that is so disturbing, it’s that I didn’t even choose someone, for lack of a better term, more worthy. X is just not a person I would even date, if I were single. I just feel pathetic. How can I call him needy, when I was so taken with the first person to pay me a compliment?

Sometimes I struggle with all of this even being real. Even though I might not have earned any credibility here, please believe me that this is very out-of-character for me. Now that the fog has lifted, so to speak, my memories from this affair seem like a movie that I watched, instead of a time that I lived through. There is another time in my life that feels that way, when my mother almost died after a terrible accident, and was in the hospital for months. So I know that in a way, it’s kind of a protective mechanism, but how do I make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Right now, nothing repulses me more than the thought of doing something like this again, but . . . I know now that I’m capable of really terrible things. I never knew that before.

Mostly, I’m just sick that I can’t undo this. I’ll always know. I’ll always know that I “ruined” our marriage, even though my husband (hopefully) won’t ever have an inkling. There was just this pure thing, this devotion, that we had, that we had promised to each other, and I was so ready to throw it away. And he never would. I don’t deserve him.  Living with this regret is just so unbelievably harsh. I’m pretty sure time is making it worse. It’s like the longer I “get away with it” the worse I feel. Is my whole experience just a total cliché anyway? Does everyone who cheats on their partner end up feeling this way?

I’m realizing that it’s taken me this long to even write this letter, to reach out to someone, because deep down, I still need to punish myself, and prolonging the bad feelings is the worst punishment I can inflict, that doesn’t also hurt my husband.

What do I do? How do I try to let this go? I’ve never, ever had such a low opinion of myself.

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

It will take time for you to forgive yourself. It will take time for you to sort out what kinds of unhappiness led you to make this mistake.

But that’s fine. You have time. You have a pretty good life in most ways. There is just some unhappiness in your life that you have tried to ignore. This affair was the result. Once you begin looking at your unhappiness, things will start to make sense, and you will find some compassion for yourself and will begin to forgive yourself.

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

If you do nothing, it’s likely that over time the severity of this event’s impact on your emotional life will lessen. But your marriage will probably end badly.

It will end badly because as you withhold your emotions the marriage will offer less and less satisfaction until it is practically worthless as a life-supporting partnership. It will become just another burden to maintain, just another life-sucking routine.

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

Your main hurdle may be in shedding your current frame of reference long enough to begin to look at what actually happened. For instance, you express amazement that this happened, and yet empirical evidence is that it happens a lot. So, in rational terms, your error was in excluding yourself from the set of people capable of having an affair. Every married person is capable of having an affair. There was really no basis for excluding yourself. You are human like everyone else. The intensity of your desire to stay true to your husband is obviously not a guarantee of success. It is only a wish. You just made a common human error in thinking: With no basis for doing so, you excluded yourself from the set of people capable of having affairs. Similarly, I excluded myself from the set of people capable of having cancer until I got cancer. It’s a common mental error. If you go back and examine your life to find the basis for your belief that you would not cheat on your husband, you will probably find the same kinds of baseless beliefs that millions of other people have also had. So I suggest you bring some academic rigor to your examination of your own life. But don’t try that on your own. It’s too painful and destabilizing. Do this only under the care of a therapist. Because you may make a second mistake: You may blame yourself. You have to do the opposite of blaming yourself. You need to forgive yourself. That may take some time. You haven’t been taught how to forgive yourself. You will have to learn. A therapist can help you with that.

This is not a puzzle or theorem but a wound. You can put off the actual work of recovering for quite some time. But eventually, you will have to begin.

Why not begin now, while you are still in fresh pain, while you are still motivated, while you still feel that it is an intolerable moral burden to live with? Emotional pain is a great motivator.

This can be fixed. Your marriage can survive. You can forgive yourself. But you need to begin.