One huge bonus of a year of lockdown and social distancing is that, for the first time in my relationship, I haven’t cheated on my partner for over a year. Women find me attractive and often flirt with me but I’ve never accepted an invitation to start an affair. Having been cheated on in the past I’m painfully aware of how the lies and deceit of an affair can make the betrayed person feel like they are going crazy, and the massive hurt that is caused when a long term affair is discovered.
Instead, when I get drunk at a party or night out, I start responding to these flirtatious behaviours and end up going home with a stranger, colleague or associate. It’s always a one-night stand and even if the other person wants it to continue I never do. Afterwards I feel terrible, give up drinking for a while and try strategies to prevent it happening again (eg mention my wife within one minute of conversation, don’t drink at festivals, impose a curfew on myself etc).
What’s so stupid is that I love my partner immensely; she’s a perfect companion, great sense of humour, intelligent, very beautiful, we have a satisfying sex life and I know if she found out I would lose it all. But during the eight years we’ve been together (excluding last year), I have these one-night stands three to four times a year and I’m worried that now things have opened up it will happen again.
How can I prevent this pattern of cheating from happening again? Never drink again? Avoid the types of events where people hook up? Are there some psychological strategies I can employ to train myself to automatically deflect flirtatious behaviour?
Eleanor says: I’ll start with the obvious: you’ll need more than my help to solve this. You’re enacting patterns that mystify you and imperil what you care about, you want to stop but you don’t know how: that combination is a hallmark of needing a therapist. The thought “my wife deserves better” seems to become motivationally inert for you when you’re drunk and being flattered, but you can use that thought in the daytime to make and keep appointments with a professional.
You asked me how you can stop doing this. You didn’t ask whether you should come clean, or whether to end things so your wife has a chance at a relationship that is only with her, so I won’t opine there. But deciding against those ways of doing right by her makes it even more important that you’re finally able to stop, and your own level of understanding here has proven it’s not enough. You already know this is deceptive; selfish; that it means 20-plus people know more about your marriage than your wife. No amount of booming “that’s wrong!” will tell you anything new.
So what don’t you know? I’m struck by how you describe yourself as second in this causal chain, after “flirtatious behaviour” you can either “respond to” or “deflect”. I wonder if you know that when flirtation is truly unwelcome, it doesn’t even feel flirtatious. It feels annoying, over familiar, grubby and embarrassing for the person doing it. The fact that you register this as temptation – ie as something worth resisting – tells you it isn’t wholly unwelcome. But as long as you stay at the level of shame and evaluation, you won’t be able to get close enough to the fact that this appeals to you to seriously wonder why it does.
Is it vanity, plain and simple – does it make you feel attractive or powerful in a way you don’t elsewhere? Is it self-sabotage – are you sufficiently afraid of having a good relationship that you’re working to ensure you don’t? Is it about sex free of responsibility – are these trivial unrepeated encounters a way to buy a moment without needing to provide, or care? These are absolute guesses – I don’t know.
But you need to know. You can keep trying input-output stuff like not drinking or staying away from festivals, but you say those have been unsuccessful many times before.
Until you understand this more deeply, the mystery is just going to replicate: you’ll break those rules, along with the rule to be faithful, and then have your fingerprints on two things you regret. Besides, even if you could do some teeth-gritting magic and make the rules stick, that wouldn’t be sufficient service to your wife. Nobody wants a husband so insecure in his devotion that he has to ground himself like a teenager. She wants a husband who does not see the alternatives to her as temptations.
You’re going to need something else, too: time. Make and keep appointments, schedule space to read and listen, keep an honest record with yourself of how long you spent thinking this through. Resolutions and intentions change nothing if they don’t show up somewhere in your week.
Stop grinding your wheels shouting at yourself to stop doing this – start asking why you do.
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