What If I Have An Affair?

Originally published on The Huffington Post

If you’re a thoughtful, sensitive, analytical person, there are host of questions that will likely run across the screen of your mind during your engagement. The most common that I see in my practice are:

  • What if we get divorced?
  • What if I don’t love him/her enough or in the “right” way?
  • What if I’m not following God’s will?
  • What if I’m not always attracted to my partner?
  • What if I have an affair?

The root of all of these questions is the same: the fear of losing the marriage. We enter marriage aware of the 50% divorce rate. We enter knowing that we’re taking an immense risk. We fly off the cliff of the wedding day and pray with a heavy dose of faith that the parachute opens and we land safely in the fields of the first year. We leap knowing that many before us were caught on the craggy cliffs of romantic fantasies and unrealistic expectations about what marriage is supposed to provide. We jump past our personal histories of divorce or unhappy marriages. We hold hands, look each other in the eyes, and hope for the best.

For those who find their way to me, this is far from a blind leap of faith. As I said, my clients and e-course members are among the most intelligent, emotionally aware, and conscientious people I’ve had the privilege of meeting. They have avoided falling prey to the culturally encouraged quest to plan the perfect wedding and have instead spent the months leading to their sacred day doing the proper emotional work that will lay a healthy foundation on which to begin their marriage. This isn’t easy work. It’s a lot more fun (in an addictive and denial-laden sort of way) to search for the exact right shade of napkins to match the exact right shade of tablecloths. But for my clients the real work of the engagement is to examine their relationship under a microscope to make sure it’s marriage-worthy, then dive in to the courageous work of attending to their own grief of letting go of being single, letting go of their primary attachment to their family of origin, grieving paths not taken and doors unopened (no more first dates, no more first kisses), and facing their fears of the unknown and the uncertainty of the enormous commitment they are about to make.

I’ve addressed many of the bulleted fears above in other articles, but the fear of having an affair has received less attention. Sure, the fear of one’s partner having an affair also arises, but, interestingly, the bigger fear of the people I counsel is that he or she will have an affair. What is this really about?

The surface layer is a cognitive distortion that many people carry that says, “If I find someone else attractive, does that mean I’ll inevitably cheat on my partner?” Since we’re not properly educated about love, romance, attraction, and marriage, we often carry a host of erroneous beliefs about the nature of attraction. If you’re a thoughtful person and you’re aware of the statistics, you’re likely in a hyper-vigilent state regarding any issue connected to attraction. It’s astonishing, but many people simply don’t understand that just because you get married that doesn’t mean you cease to be a living, breathing human being that notices other living, breathing human beings. In other words, finding someone else attractive doesn’t mean you’re going to have an affair!

But I rarely leave an analysis at the surface layer. My work is characterized by digging deep into the human psyche to reveal the root cause of fears, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts. Digging into the inner core of the fear of having an affair ultimately reveals the fear of losing control. It’s indicative of that the person doesn’t have a solid adult at the helm of their psyche and instead believes that forces greater than themselves will “force” them to make choice that they don’t want to make.

Affairs don’t just happen to you. If you have an affair, it’s because you let it happen. There was an opening in your heart or a hole in your marriage and instead of addressing it directly and responsibly, you put yourself in a position to be available to an affair. You allowed yourself to spend extra time in the coffee room with an attractive colleague who clearly had the hots for you. You sent a signal of receptivity that said, “Notice me. See me. Desire me.” Again, this doesn’t happen to you by some invisible, powerful force. You allow an affair to happen when you’re not taking full responsibility for your actions.

Or… you don’t allow it. If you decide that your marriage is an impenetrable door, you send a clear signal to the world that says, “Not available.” You don’t flirt. You don’t spend unnecessary extra time in the coffee room with colleagues who clearly have the hots for you. Does this mean that you won’t find other people attractive? Of course not! As I said above, if you’re a warm-blooded human being, it’s natural and healthy to notice attractiveness. But there’s a bit difference between noticing attraction and acting on attraction. And none of this means that your marriage has to be perfect in order to be affair-proof. There’s no such thing as a perfect marriage. But if your commitment is to honesty and to continually working on yourself and the issues that you bring to the table of your marriage, you will take responsibility for your relationship and commit to addressing the holes as they arise.

Bottom line: There are many things we can’t control when we take the risk of getting married. You can’t control if your partner contracts a difficult illness. You can’t control if life throws you a curve ball that threatens the foundation of your marriage, like losing a child. You can’t control the unknown and uncertain factors of how the two of you will weather the storms of life’s normal transitions: becoming parents, job loss and career changes, caring for aging parents, your own aging process. But you can control whether or not you have an affair. And it’s really as simple as this: If you don’t want to have an affair, don’t have one!

22 comments to What If I Have An Affair?

  • E

    This hit home for me in an incredible way. Recently we found out that my FIL had an affair a few years ago and it’s just now coming to light. My husband is devastated by this news and it, sadly, has caused my anxiety to spike.

    I find myself deep in thought about, “What if I cheat on my husband?” and it terrifies me. I see how hurt he is by what his father did, and I can’t do anything to ease his pain. I never want to make him feel that way (obviously), but I have an irrational fear of “losing control” and it happening. I realize that so much of my anxiety is stemming from a fear of losing him.

    But, once again, you are absolutely right: affairs don’t just happen. My FIL didn’t get trapped by an affair, he made the choice to cheat. He then made the choice to lie about it for several years. I have the power to choose to stay faithful to my husband. It’s not just going to happen to me.

  • Lyndell B

    Sheryl,
    This article helped me so much. I am nowhere near wedding bells, and, in fact, often prematurely worry about whether I will ever get to hear them ringing for me. I am 24. I graduated from college, am in my third year of teaching, and am in the process of making a major career shift. I have always been a bit ahead of the curve, in terms of what my peers are doing, and this has often caused me to feel like I never really have a good reference point of comparison. As I’m typing this, I realize that I probably shouldn’t be comparing myself to anyone else at all.
    I feel like I’m digressing a bit, but the point I’m attenping to make is that I go back and forth between feeling like I want to focus on my career and worry about getting married closer to 30, and feeling like this tactic could find me growing older alone. I use the issues in my parent’s marriage (including affairs) as ammo to justify why marriage is a hopeless Fairytale. I’ve never really seen an example of a healthy marriage- not one that has sustained. There have been spurts, but they lack consistent happiness, health, and love. I felt like not seeing a healthy marriage meant that there was no such thing, but this is a cop out, one the you made plan wih your statement along the lines of, “If you don’t want to have an affair, then don’t.” Simply put, much harder to achieve, but certainly possible. Thank you- his article helped me realize that I’ve been using much of what I’ve seen in the relationships between the generations before me as a crutch or some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of what I will never have. When, in fact, I can have whatever I believe I can and am willing to put in the work to achieve.
    I want to be happy, so I will. It will take work- defeating my own thoughts that prevent it, first and foremost- but I will be happy because I believe I can, I believe I deserve to be, and I will work to make it so.

  • dontworrybehappy

    Thank you so much for this article!!! I know I posted a lot of things on the forum about that! This is an article I will read over and over! By the way! Happy new year!!

  • Joey

    Hi Sheryl,
    This was amazing! I’ve been married just under 2 years &
    I’ve had this fear very early into our marriage.
    I thought something was terribly wrong with me!
    This article plucked the fear eight out of my heart &
    Gave me huge encouragement. Thank you!
    This was several breaths of fresh air!!

  • VivianB

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thanks for this great post. I am one of those “thoughtful, sensitive, analytical” people you are writing for (although I have much meaner descriptors for myself, :) ) and I find comfort in knowing that I am not alone like I thought I was. Your posts are so helpful, but I wonder if you might be able to point me to one (or a piece of writing by a colleague if you haven’t written about this) about the following that I think is related deeply to this fear of having an affair—
    I’m not so much worried about having an affair in terms of literally taking that action— I’m pretty controlled and can’t see myself ever actually doing that. However, I do worry very deeply about whether I will one day run into a man who is more ________ (I’ll leave this blank because the word changes for me— intellectual, handsome, impressive, compatible, etc.— just as I know it does for your other readers) than my boyfriend (who will soon be my fiancee.) I know deep down how lucky I am to have this man in my life who is so kind, smart, good looking, stable, funny, respectful, loving, etc. but I also find myself picking at ways in which he isn’t _______ enough and scared that one day someone might come into my life at work, church, walking the dog, etc. that is. It scares me so much that sometimes I avoid social situations without my bf present so that I won’t potentially run into “that” person. I know it sounds silly, but I would imagine (and hope, for the sake of solidarity) that you have heard of this before. I don’t know that if I did meet him I would have an affair, but I do worry that I would become emotionally detached from a wonderful, wonderful man… and worry that I am already in some ways detached because I wonder about this when I know he doesn’t. Ultimately, I think it all comes down to a “fear of forever” in many ways… I don’t have a ton of dating experience in my life and that also causes me worry. I panic at the thought of him having the ring in his possession because I worry I’m a horrible person for even wondering if we should be together while at the same time know that I don’t want to spend a day without him and feel a sense of ease when he is around me.
    I’d love to hear your (or anyone on this forum’s) thoughts and suggestions for further reading if you know of an article/book that addresses some of the issues I raised. Thanks so much!

    Viv

    • It’s guaranteed that you will eventually meet a man who is more __________! The question isn’t so much about whether or not you’ll come across this person but knowing that it’s normal to feel attracted to different aspects of different people. So what if you meet a man who is more well-read? (or whatever the desired quality). That’s one quality that you’ve parsed apart from the whole of the person, forgetting that your partner is a complete human being with more desirable and less desirable traits. As you learn more about real love and you keep your inner adult at the helm of your ship, you’ll be able to address these situations as they arise with equanimity and ultimately be able to respond to the question, “What if I meet someone who’s more ____________?” with “So what if I do?” And yes, it’s a very common topic on my site and on my e-course forum.

    • Ann

      Hi Vivian and Sheryl,
      First to Vivian, I would like to say that you are not alone with this type of thinking. And similar to what Sheryl said, perhaps you will meet a person who is more_____ but just because he may be let’s say more attractive or smarter than your significant other, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are better off with them. I, also am not yet married/ or engaged but am in a committed relationship with a wonderful man for the past 6 years. I think that similar to what Sheryl suggests about what understanding love truly is-is certainly a part of the equation that will solve this ‘problem’ you are having. There is a quote that I am paraphrasing but it goes something like ‘you don’t love a woman because she is beautiful but she is beautiful because you love her.’ I can’t say that my boyfriend is attractive to me 24/7 or that I feel he actually is perfect but he is, over time, becoming that way. I am not sure about you but I love all of the imperfect aspects of my boyfriend because, well I love him and am deeply in love with him. Hope this insight helps. Thanks and be well! :)

    • Kat

      Vivian B,

      Right this actually happened to me last year. I actually met a guy, who I was working with and who I will be working with again, who was more ‘creative’ than my fiance.

      My fiance and I don’t always see the world the same way because I am very creative and he is very logical. When I met this guy I was like ‘WOW! we are like identical brain twins!’ And I have to say it really really turned my head because we had such a strong and instant connection.

      However, it is now several months down the line and this guy and I are now great friends and I absolutely love the similar interests that we share. But he is not my fiance and I very quickly realised that the differences in how my fiance and I see the world are what keeps our relationship interesting. Even after 5 years I still don’t have him figured out and I like that. Also I can now see the flaws in the other guy and let me tell you, great as a friend, terrible to his girlfriends. lol.

      Basically what I am trying to say from experience is when you meet some one who is more (blank) than your fella it is so so easy to create a massive fantasy around that person that makes you question the reality of what you actually have with your guy. Make no mistake, that new guy isn’t perfect either and if you were with him for x amount of time you’d meet someone else who is more (blank).

      Also I realised that I had become caught in the trap of thinking that my fiance had to fulfill every social need that I might have. This can’t be possible for one person to be everything you need. My mother laughed when I said ‘But I don’t think he gives me everything I need!’ She said ‘He’s a man!’ and continued to chuckle away to herself. You need your man, your family, your friends (male and female) to make a life.

      Much love. God bless you.xxx

      • Rina

        Kat,
        I really needed to hear this. I haven’t dated much and is having a hard time understanding men. Recently, I met a man whom I really like and i think we are a good fit but I keep focusing on his flaws and become extremely disappointed when we get into disagreements or I discover that he doesn’t share the same passions to the point of wanting to break up with him. As a result I’ve become confused and frustrated. I thought I was alone because none of my girlfriends have experience what I am going through. I am deeply grateful for the wisdom and stories that Sheryl and others like you share here. Thank you, thank you!

  • VivianB

    Thank you so much, Sheryl, Ann, and Kat! Your words have definitely helped as I continue my “up and down” journey.
    I have unfortunately been doing too much projecting both in my head and in the form of “nitpicking” my boyfriend. I worry that he isn’t _____ enough and things about him that I used to love (i.e. his southern accent, which makes him sound less intelligent despite him being a very smart person— never bothered me before we moved out of the south and now it stands out!) now bother me to the point that I get distracted from our relationship. I know that most of this is in my own head but sometimes switching off the projection is tough because that “fear of forever” is present. I think I worry about this in part because I met my boyfriend when I was fairly young (end of college) and I have not really had many other dating experiences so I sometimes get caught in the “mind trap” of thinking that I am just settling down too early and that I might be more intellectually, physically, emotionally, etc. suited for someone else but I will never know because I didn’t try it. This definitely feeds into my worry about the “what ifs” and will I find someone more/less____________ that I am actually better suited for. Any advice with this issue? I feel like a huge jerk and I hate it that this is causing me to enjoy my time less with a great guy and to wonder if this great relationship that I have is actually all that great– whether I really love him and whether we will be a strong couple in the future.

    • First Time Poster

      Hi Vivian!

      I am writing with a bit of my experience which I hope will help a little to calm your fears. Most importantly, it really doesn’t matter how young or old you were when you met your SO or how much dating experience you have. I know two very happy marriages in which one of the partners was 19 when they met. Both of those people have told me that marrying their spouses was the best decision they ever made, and they both seem genuinely happy together whenever I see them. They have had their anxieties and quarrels, but the point is that one’s level of experience is not necessarily a predictor for the happiness of a marriage. In other cases, I’ve known couples who married very young and realized that their differences were just too great to overcome. But those cases are quite clear–there is a fundamental lack of understanding primarily when it comes to values and life trajectory (i.e. the two just can’t seem to move in the same direction no matter how hard they try).

      Couples who meet much later, and with much more dating experience, than the people I referenced above still tend to have the same anxieties about “But did I really consider all my options? Am I making this decision too fast?” I met my SO much later that did the people I mentioned above, and it was clear to me from the beginning that we were totally right for each other (like two puzzle pieces, I like to say :) and that I loved him more than I had ever loved anyone else. We were both ready to seriously commit very early. We had both knew ourselves well enough to know what our values and priorities were and that they aligned without a hitch. But I had terrible anxieties arise just a few months into the relationship precisely about “What if I meet someone else who is more X than him someday? What if he meets someone who is more X than me someday?” Ultimately, after talking about it, we agreed that we certainly would meet people like that, but that our love has nothing to do with cherry-picking qualities and that ultimately it is a Mystery. This, I think, is real love. If you can measure your love for your SO based on a catalog of character traits and are ready to trade him/her in as soon as you find someone with more of X trait, then it’s not really love but a trophy hunt, or an obsessive search for particular experiences (like doing various kinds of drugs to compare the kinds of highs you can get off of them). And while that’s what our culture promotes, I don’t think that is actually what is going on for people who have these anxieties. My experience reading these boards has shown me people who are opening precisely to that “can’t-be-defined” kind of love which resists cataloging. That doesn’t mean that no rationality has gone into the process of choosing our partners (we do have standards and we pick people who are similar to ourselves and different from ourselves in ways that we need), just that ultimately the decision is not a rational one and that these kinds of comparisons fundamentally misunderstand love.

      I was furious when I saw previews for the movie Take This Waltz at my independent movie theater, because it promotes precisely this narrative about adultery as something that “just happens to you”. A happily married young woman meets her very sexy soulmate after she has been married for five years and embarks upon an affair, ultimately leaving her husband (who really loves her) for her new man because she’s no longer satisfied with the “comfortable domesticity” she has developed with her husband. Her attraction for the new man (who is, predictably, an artist and lovably quirky off-the-grid rickshaw driver) is portrayed as this cosmic force that simply cannot be denied. They have great sex. The narrative is, of course, one of “liberation.” The title itself implies that the new relationship is a “dance” that must be taken in order for the main character to be fulfilled. These kinds of movies are nothing but fantasies that legitimate people’s fears of commitment to a lifelong love and imply that such a lifelong love should just effortlessly “happen”. The alternative is between being bored/unfulfilled, settling for “the hole in your life,” and going out there and getting what you really want–as if those are real alternatives. It is a completely unrealistic portrayal of affairs and the heartbreak and damage they inflict upon both the perpetrator and the victim. It also showcases the childlike lack of willingness to grow up that is endemic in media messages and parts of our culture–many people need to see marriage as “no big deal,” as a meaningless social convention in which we can still be kids, if we want. No wonder, with narratives like that being portrayed in “intellectually sophisticated” venues like independent movie theaters, that people in this culture have so many fears about cosmic forces conspiring against their relationships.

      No, we have power here. We have the power to love for real. And all we have to do to prove it is to do it. :)

      • What a beautifully written and deeply insightful response. Thank you!

      • Elle

        This movie angers me, because she threw away her happiness with both hands. The thing is, at the very end she regretted it. She goes back to her (now ex) husband in the last scene and asks him if he’s seeing anybody, and she begins to ask him a question, to which he gives a vehement “no” before she asks. He explains that “some things you do in life, they stick.” It’s always been my assumption that she was asking if they could be together again. One of the more amazing lines in the movie comes from (surprisingly) Sarah Silvermans character. “Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don’t go try filling it up like some lunatic.”

        The movie never struck me as “a cosmic whirlwind romance” in which the woman meets her “soulmate”. She’s deeply unfullfilled and unhappy within herself, and seeks comfort out of her new infatuation. After that infatuation high dies down, she misses her husband and her secure marriage. She’s not happy, and she’s still unfulfilled, because she wasn’t filling up the right cup to begin with.

        I think a lot of what Sheryl, and many other wise people have said about marriage, love and attraction is actually exemplified in that movie. The thing is, she ended up listening to her wounded self and lost.

  • MM

    Hi everyone,

    I got engaged over the holiday to the most wonderful woman I have ever met. I’ve dealt with anxiety and ocd and have just started to feel better. We set the date for July, and thought everything was set. We come to find out my eldest brother cannot come as be teaches English in Korea. My family is very mad/upset that we didn’t ask him first. We thought he would be able to come, but regardless, he said he will never speak to him again. My fiancé and I feel awful, a d I feel like a terrible brother. I want to get on with my life, start a family, and whatnot. Am I am awful/bad person because I didn’t hold off until 2014?

  • MM

    I just want to add that this has put a huge strain on our engagement. Any help from Sheryl or anyone is much appreciated.

  • Of course you’re not an awful or bad person for not waiting. Weddings tend to bring up deep-seated issues in families, and my guess is that conflict would have arisen one way or another. I suggest you read “The Conscious Bride” as I address the typical conflict that can ensue and how to understand them from a broader perspective than the one our culture offers.

  • Missy

    I have been married for 20 years and my husband and I have had our share of problems..but I never doubted loving him. I have extreme anxiety over everything it all started when my brother died I would obsess over my health. About 14 months ago I had an emotional affair on line that my husband knows about and our relationship has actually gotten better. I hate hate hate that it happened and its mad me severely depressed. Now I obsess over loving him…it feels like my health anxiety because things trigger me just like my health anxiety did. I am so scared all the time and don’t know if these thoughts are true :( . I cant imagine life without him but these obsessive thoughts are killing me!

  • Missy

    Sheryl,
    It would be wonderful if you could write a blog post on all aspects of mid life transition.

  • Isabella

    A part of my anxiety was knowing that before my boyfriend I had only been with two other boys. They didn’t last long and even when I got with my boyfriend I always wondered if I should have dated around. My aunt had always said she thinks people should date around before settling down, so it always stuck in my heAD. I would say well I love my boyfriend, so the thought really doesn’t matter and it would leave. Once my anxiety hit, that thought also hit. It scared me because I knew that I don’t want anyone else but my boyfriend. It still comes back time to time and I just want it away, because I know I can never blend with someone the way I blend with my boyfriend.

  • Rebecca

    This struck a nerve for me-I’ve cheated in the past at ages 18 and 21. I am now 29 and have worked through a great deal of things and do feel confident (when the anxiety isn’t there!) that I will not cheat on my husband. I am having to re-learn about flirtation. For a long time I’ve wrapped my worth into the attention I get from guys, and flirting has been a way of life. Now it just makes me feel icky and guilty, but it’s a habit and a hard one to break. I’m trying to ensure I don’t leave holes in my marriage or send signals of “notice me! Desire me!” as Sheryl says above…but the trouble is, I do!

  • Ali

    Thanks for all the encouraging comments. I have been dating my boyfriend for 8 months and we are planning on going to my church’s premarital class in a few months. I have struggled with relationship anxiety for a majority of our relationship and have been so encouraged by this blog! I also have had a childhood fear of cheating on my significant other which was made worse by my mother cheating on my dad a couple years ago. So that fear of cheating has been the main cause of stress in my relationship with my boyfriend. Recently, an boy I used to like in college contacted me. I don’t like him anymore and am perfectly happy my boyfriend but I have been plagued with negative thoughts ever since. Thoughts like, “You were supposed to be with him” or “You’ll cheat on your boyfriend/spouse”. I can’t seem to shake them. I have been doing the Inner Bonding techniques trying to understand the root of my anxiety and I think its a combination of the fear of losing control and the fear of making the wrong choice. Now that I know what the root to my anxiety I have started to feel better but I still can’t stop thinking about that college guy. Its like I am obsessing over why he triggered these thoughts and maybe that means I still have feelings for him and should leave my current relationship, which I DO NOT want to do. Advice?