I don’t know why all women cheat. But I know why I did. And it had nothing to do with my husband, and everything to do with me.
Here are the reasons:
1. I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did.
I was a teenage mother, and sometimes I think that when I got pregnant at 17 I pressed pause on every other part of my brain. I think that I was on some kind of autopilot through the studying and the parenting and the first years of being married. Not that I wasn’t present, not that I didn’t enjoy my life, not that I wasn’t aware of its privilege and of my own good fortune. Just that I had so little time really to think.
This is, I know, common to all parents, but in my case I hadn’t had a life to know or miss before my identity as a mother took over. I went into adulthood blind and when I finally had any time to sit back and look at who I was, I was already ten years older than my brain felt I should be.
I met my husband when I was 21, and I already had a toddler. So my husband and I, we didn’t get to have dates, or weekends away, or lazy lie-ins with newspapers and croissants. We went straight into a full-throttle family life and pretty soon, we had a couple more babies. It was a chaotic, skint, lovely time, but I didn’t have any time to think about anything beyond the day to day. I definitely didn't have any time to think about who I was as a person.
2. I couldn’t find my groove.
I kept trying on activities and personas for size as the years went by, trying to identify the type of adult I might have been if a different life had given me a clear, uninterrupted run at it. I felt like I didn’t know my own personality. I knew its bones — I knew I was cynical, sarcastic, insatiably curious and socially awkward. I was aware I was not instantly likeable or interesting. I knew I hated small talk and that I was bad at it. But I felt like I didn’t have a core self.
3. I couldn’t live in the moment.
I kept looking at my growing children, and comparing my age to the age of their friends’ parents. The thought of my empty nest and of a less intense life began to trouble me as I reached my 30s. Everything was suddenly becoming easier than it had ever been — my children were older and needed less supervision, they were spending more time with friends or doing activities without me.
My husband and I could, and did, go out regularly — we went to the cinema or for drinks or supper with friends, enjoying doing all the things we’d rarely had the chance to do when actually dating and that we’d always promised ourselves. We had weekends away.
At the same time, I was forming ever stronger friendships with the wonderful women who still shore me up daily — I had people to talk about my new overthinking and anxiety with, but it didn’t seem to help. I just felt too young, again, for the life stage I was in. A step ahead of everyone I knew, whilst in reality a step behind.
4. I didn’t notice it beginning.
I was 35 years old and had been intermittently feeling out of sync with my life for some time when a previously barely-noticed, married male acquaintance of mine from my running group began watching my Instagram stories assiduously, commenting acerbically on my Facebook photos, striking up conversations when we saw each other at the gym or in the street, adding entertaining snippets to the previously businesslike emails we regularly shared about the group’s running arrangements. It seemed harmless. I was clueless.
He and I batted this sort of shallow exchange back and forth for at least a year. I knew clearly from the way he spoke to people that he wasn’t kind or nice, but I didn’t think that these traits particularly mattered in someone who would simply be an entertaining new friend to me. I thought that he was fun. I thought that he was different. We were both married, after all, and neither of us ever flirted with the other, so it didn’t seem risky.
I really didn't have a clue.
5. I didn’t know how naive I was.
Anyone who isn't as stupid as I was will have read between the lines by now. Of COURSE I wasn’t just making a fun new friend. Of COURSE, my "new friend" and I were going to have an affair. It was so pathetically obvious, it now seems, to everyone but me. Certainly it was obvious to him — he always said he knew it was going to happen.
I thought I knew better, but really I was letting myself fall into a situation that I couldn't get out of. And enjoying the descent.
6. I was arrogant. I believed I wasn’t the type.
In my whole life, I had never even looked at another man outside of a relationship I was in. Not during the years I spent with my eldest daughter’s father, even though he was very cruel to me and what I felt for him was in the end not love but fear. Not at any point during my marriage to that point.
I had male friends, but not close ones; we had plenty of couples as friends, but always when socialising we tended to pair off neatly by gender, with no messy blurred lines, no suspicious looks or meaningful hugs.
If I gave it any thought at all I thought that marital cheats were all of a lazy, selfish type, a type far beneath me, a shortsighted unthinking type unable to see that the potential thrill of an illicit encounter can never be worth the pain it risks causing to others, or the knowledge of its own tawdriness. I was entirely dismissive of adultery as a concept. I gave it zero headspace.
7. I allowed it to escalate.
The texts were what did it, in the end. Fatal, that apparently inevitable move from discrete weekday emails in my office inbox to the intrusive thrill of the little green box swooping onto a phone screen — in the evening, in the early morning, at weekends. Such a teenage and basic cliche.
They were well-written paragraphs of apparently intelligent discourse, threaded with intent. It was like a game, the back-and-forth, and I was so good at it. He was so good at it. I was addicted. I was arrogant. I told myself that words on an iPhone screen didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, when I still fell asleep holding my husband’s hand and woke up and made us both breakfast and snuggled in his lap while we read the papers. The texts were just a game, a hobby really, it was the sort of thing everyone did probably, it was fine. It was fine.
Of course it wasn't fine.
8. I let it go too far.
By the time I recognised what I was doing I was sunk. I was lost. I felt dizzy and suffused with a fizzing panic, all the time. It was sticky and dark but it was so compelling. I couldn’t sleep properly. I lost weight in a jagged burst, so that people commented on it. I snapped at my colleagues, my children. I was distracted and detached as a friend. I became a far worse version of me.
But the excitement, and the fear of the emptiness I would create in my life if I took this new excitement away, it kept me there. Kept me texting and watching my phone and waiting and wondering.
9. I lied to myself.
The man I cheated with compared us to a pair of coins pushed into the slot at the side of one of those charity collection tubs in a supermarket foyer, the sort where coins chase each other down a wide whirling vortex and tip into a funneled dark hole at the bottom. We were about to fall into the void, he told me, and once we were in that void our existing lives would never again be recognisable.
He told me that we should relish this part. That there was no going back once we tipped over the edge. I did not question how he already knew the choreography to this dance. I just thought that he was poetic and clever and wise. We had each been in our respective marriages for close to two decades and his marriage, he told me, was as solid and happy as mine seemed to be.
We loved our spouses, didn’t we? But we had found each other, that connection was there, and if we could have fun together, and if no one got hurt, then where really was the harm? I recoiled at his logic but I did not run away from it. I let it sit in my brain and sift down. It was an embarrassingly short time before it started to feel like a sensible way to think.
10. I let it go on and on.
I gave myself up to the affair once it had started. Nothing changed in my outward life, so I sank into the wrongness of what I was doing, like sinking under the bubbles of a bath. I let the secret envelop me. I couldn’t tell where the lies ended and I began. I started to feel a vague and horrible pride in my ability to deceive everyone, an exhilaration with every sustained lie.
X told me that I was beautiful and special and unique and that he was falling in love with me and I thought: is that what this is? Is this treacly obsession what love feels like? Have I had it wrong, all these years? I had no bedrock any more. I was unravelling.
I probably wouldn’t have listened to anyone. But I wish I had.
By the time I was deeply into the affair I longed, daily, for someone to confide in about it. I wish that I had read, earlier, something like this article, and recognised from the outset that no good could come of the selfish pain I would inevitably inflict on everyone around me.
Some time after the agony and mess of the affair’s ending, I read Brene Brown’s seminal blog post “The Midlife Unraveling”, and it spoke to me.
The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control.
I was in my thirties and I did not consider myself, when I had an affair, to be at “midlife”. But certainly, the way I felt in the run-up to breaking my vows could fall into the category of “quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control”.
It’s human nature and brain biology to do whatever it takes to resolve cognitive dissonance — lie, cheat, rationalize, justify, ignore.
And that, in a nutshell, is — I believe — the main reason that I cheated on my good husband, on our good life. I was selfish. I lied and cheated and rationalised and justified my choices to myself, but it wasn’t from nothing. It was from a perfect storm of an unravelling I wish I’d had the good sense to anticipate.