I had an affair and I feel like the worst person ever and I don’t know what to do. The guy is married with kids and says he’s basically living as roommates with his wife. I think she’s catching on and I want to end it because I feel like the worst person in the whole world.
He wants to ultimately be with me but I know that it’s because I’m an escape, not because he actually wants a life with me. The guilt keeps me up at night — I routinely have intense abdominal pain and I cry a lot.
What do I do??
Second-Guessing & Stressing
The Institute for Family Studies’ most recent General Social Survey reports that “20 percent of men and 13 percent of women have had an affair while in a committed relationship,” with the highest rates of infidelity going to men in the their 70s and 80s. Interestingly, a more recent article by the Atlantic, “Do Married Millennials Cheat on Each Other?”, discusses the downward trend in affairs amongst younger married folks in their 20s and early 30s, specifically sighting overall lower rates of marriage and divorce, and higher cultural acceptance of open relationships as some contributing factors to these dropping extramarital statistics.
A 2019 survey done by Health Testing Centers asked 441 self-identified cheaters about their extramarital experiences. Of those 441 people, confession times varied widely depending on the commitment level of the relationship: 52.4 percent of unmarried people confessed to the extramarital action within the first week while 47.9 percent of married folks waited six months or longer to cough it up. Overall, the biggest reason for confessing to an affair (at 47 percent) was guilt.
You’ve said it yourself: the guilt is keeping you up at night, eating up your poor insides, and soaking your pillow in tears. Studies are showing how much of a motivator guilt is to encouraging people to take the very scary risk that is telling their partners what they’ve been up to, knowing full well that it may change their relationship forever if it doesn’t end it first.
Guilt is a real effective termite in the foundation of the conscience.
So, what’s making all of this eating-you-alive guilt worth it? Something is, for sure. Because between the abdominal pain, crying jags, and all the paranoia it doesn’t sound like you’re having the best time ever.
Now-famous couples therapist Esther Perel does a lot of interesting work with infidelity. In particular, she’s got a great TEDTalk and an even more interesting book The State of Affairs all about this very predicament so many affair-having folks find themselves in: asking themselves “Why am I doing this??” as they just simply do not and/or feel like they cannot stop doing it.
Her model of digging into affairs asks people to examine not what’s wrong with their foundational relationship that’s “making them” cheat, but rather, to look at what, exactly, the affair is providing them with that’s so flippin’ affirming that it seems well-worth all the risk, guilt, and potential fall-out. Sometimes it’s a forgotten sense of self, the rewarding feeling of being desired or sexually free, or the power and autonomy that comes from holding such a valuable, precarious secret. Once these secondary rewards are identified, Perel’s clients are then more equipped to ask themselves: is this affair the only way I can get these personal rewards? Am I willing to find new ways to get these rewards? Am I willing to end the affair in order to do so?
So, I’d like to pose the same questions to you, Second-Guessing — what self-affirming rewards are you gaining from continuing to be this man’s affair partner? Are there other ways you can get these rewards? Are you willing to end the affair in order to do so? Also, do you want to continue to be this person’s escape from the uncomfortable truths he needs to come to terms with? Do you want to be present if/when these truths come to terms with him first?
And finally, are you the worst person ever? I mean, I can think of worse.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.