Thursday, August 12, 2010

What it's like to be cheated on

Reading this again on March 7, 2011, the whole thing strikes me as narcissistic. This strikes me as the way a man who is upset because being cheated on upset his image of himself than anything else. I'm going to leave it up anyway but I must say the whole thing seems suspect to me now. Being cheated on doesn't say anything at all about you. It only says something about the person who did the cheating.

I have been thinking about this subject a lot lately. I'm not sure why but I have been thinking about the subject and I thought I'd put some of it down here. I'm going to write as a man describing a male experience. Some of this may apply to women and, then again, it may not. I don't think you can simply reverse the pronouns and have it all make the same sense.

It did happen to me once a long time ago in a relationship that is no more. It may be because it is a long time ago that I can now think of it without it troubling my pride too much. One of the things about being cheated upon is that it forces you to face the fact that you are the sort of person this could happen to. There is so much fiction and humour about infidelity but we always imagine that happening to others not us. Having to face the blunt reality of it happening to you changes the way you see yourself by taking a major chunk out of your pride.

I know, it doesn't seem like much to read that but trust me it matters.

And that is probably why the first thing I think we really need to know about being cheated on is that we won't have a clue that it is happening. Part of the reason for this is that people who cheat tend to be sneaky about it. But most of us aid and abet that sneakiness with a strong sense of denial. It's like having a heart attack in that you know damn well something is wrong but your every instinct will compel you to deny the possibility of it being an affair.

One of the reasons evidence of an affair is so easy to deny is the rat problem. When people see a rat, they assume that there is only one and they might even be right. But the problem is that rats are nocturnal so you hardly ever see them. Seeing a single rat is reason to worry about a community of rats but we'd prefer to think there was only one so we convince ourselves that there is no reason to worry. Even after yoususpect that your partner has probably been unfaithful, you will initially minimize the evidence and tell yourself that this probably only happened once if at all.

I'd also note that not all sexual infidelity can be called an affair and it has to be an affair to be really painful. If it's just a slip you will probably never know and even if you do find out you'll probably be able to forgive. How easily will depend on who you are and the circumstances. 

What is a slip up? It's sex your partner or spouse never intended to have. Deborah was on a business trip, she met an old boyfriend at the airport, they agreed to have dinner and after a  few glasses of wine they both loosened up a little too much.That is not an affair. An affair is something that was thought about and entered into or, and this is worse, it is a habit the other person has allowed to develop. Once is a slip up, slip ups that keep happening are affairs.

I don't mean to justify or rationalize slip ups here. My point is just that it's a very different sort of experience for the person being cheated on. One way to think about the difference is to consider that it's easier to forgive a slip the more and longer you have loved the person who made the slip but much harder to forgive an affair the more and longer you have loved the person.

An affair is much more painful. When it happened to Evelyn Waugh he wrote to a friend that he didn't think it was possible to feel this much pain and still live.

Part of this pain stems from the fact that an affair is a violation of trust more than just an impure act. I mean by that that we no longer live in a world where most people expect to marry virgins. We come prepared to live with our lovers and spouses having had sexual lives before us and that lowered expectation changes the way we feel about these things. Most of us don't expect purity in others or ourselves anymore and, if we're honest about it, we prefer it that way.

Anyway, the violation of trust is all the more clear because, as I said above, you have no idea it's going on. You sense that something is wrong, that you are not being treated as you should be, but you effectively deny the possibility that the person you love is carrying on planned or habitual sexual relationships with other people.

One of the often-cited psychological differences between men and women is that men tend to resent  the sex and women the love. I think that is deceptive, however, because for men any regular sex is a form of love. We simply do not believe women or other men when they say that an extended sexual relationship was only about the sex and, at the risk of causing offense, we're right.

I think that for men the violation of trust comes out in three ways.

First, you are aware of being denied something. This something may not be sex because affairs often raise the sex drive of the person having the affair. She may actually give you more sex during the affair or even get more excited during sex with you but you will sense that she is holding something back. You will get the feeling that when she closes her eyes you just disappear and that you may as well be a vibrator for all the difference it is making to her.

The denial will encompass far more than sex however. She shortchanges you on all sorts of special experiences. She won't help you create those little romantic moments and shared jokes that mean so much to you. She will also devalue the special shared things you already have.

Second, she will show greater loyalty to him. This is inevitable because he will know about you and you will not know about him. Because he knows of a  rival, she will feel pressure to show him that he is special to her and she will give into that pressure. And those acts and words or reassurance create a bond between them that excludes you from her life.

Finally, she will show a lack of respect to and for you. She will say and do hurtful things to and about you. Some of these you will find out about at the time and others will come trickling out years later. Some acts of disrespect will just seem odd at the time and it is only later when you have all the facts that the brutal truth will dawn on you. And this will hurt a lot even if the relationship is long over and you have moved into another happier one.

One of the ways she will definitely show a lack of respect lies in what she will allow others to think about you. It is impossible to have an extended affair without third parties knowing. Which is not to mention the most obvious third party—the guy or guys she has the affair or affairs with. He will soon be joined by others as some of your friends and even family learn of it. And she will know that they know and once she has ascertained that they will not tell you, she will get used to it. She will get used to the idea that you have been diminished in their eyes.

Now, you may be thinking, "But surely these third parties might condemn her and tell you what is happening". Don't count on it. There are lots of jokes about infidelity for a reason. There are few other situations where we so easily blame the victim as with sexual infidelity. People will rationalize it–even your best friends—and they will quietly diminish the way they see you as a moral being as they do so. Some will outright blame you or tell themselves that it is good for her to have this adventure.

And that last point may even be true. It may well be good for her to have this little adventure. It may be, as painful as this is to consider, that this little adventure may make her a better lover and may even make her subsequent life better in some ways. It's not the sex that is the problem, it's the betrayal.

All that is left now is to talk about the bomb that goes off when this slow-burning fuse she has lit reaches its destination. Suddenly you know and the denial that caused you pain is now crushing. You will realize that you never really knew the meaning of the expression "adding insult to injury" until now. You will lose your ability to trust and will see betrayal everywhere. You will be a diminished human being in your eyes and in others.

The cliché is that your eyes are opened and you can see and the cliché is true. You will look back on things she told you and that you accepted as true and suddenly see that they are lies. You will see that the evidence of the affair was right before you all the time and you didn't see it.

How long it takes to get over will depend on how much you have invested in the relationship. Just in case the point isn't obvious, it will not depend on how much she has invested. Her investment, it will now be obvious to you, was less, perhaps even far less, than you thought it was.

My initial feeling, and it was very strong, was that life owed me compensatory experiences, so screw everyone (literally). And there in lies the biggest risk to you. The best revenge is living well but your strongest temptation will be to not live well. Your strongest temptation will be to reduce yourself to her level.

Eventually I got over it. Not everyone does though. I know men and women who have lived in anger and pain for years afterward and may, if they don't change soon, go to their graves that way.

1 comment:

  1. Everything you say here is true. I too have experienced the pain of betrayal that you describe and I don't think I know anyone who has not. People deal with it in different ways, some go on a ****a-thon for a time as you allude to, others withdraw and go to their graves angry and bitter, and others reach out for help, which is the wisest course as I see it. It changes us, but I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing. The point is that the genuine "affair" is a symptom of something wrong in the marriage, and as you say most people are in denial about that. Few people go for marriage or couples counseling, and if they do its usually too late to salvage anything. The lesson I learned and tell others is that while I can't control what happened I can control how I deal with and react to it. And hopefully learn so that I don't get into the same situation again.