All it took was a photo.
One look and I was filled with feelings I didn’t know I had, for someone I wasn’t dating. It was more than attraction, and more than chemistry. He was smiling at me. The photo was for me, and it made me deeply happy in a way I hadn’t felt in more than a year.
Then came the question:
What do you do when you’re more than just attracted to someone else, and you’re already in a relationship?
The first answer you might give is nothing, but that’s not always the right answer. It’s just the safe one. That’s the answer that can get you in more trouble than you think.
Here’s how I almost cheated on the guy I was going to marry, but did something completely different instead:
Don't ignore your feelings.
My feelings snuck up on me.
I met a guy at a conference. We kept in touch. He sent me a couple of random emails, including a link to his blog. (He was a writer.) It was supposed to be professional connection. He was interesting. He was fun. He was a semi-pro athlete training for the Olympics.
One day he sent me a selfie from a track meet where he’d won a medal. I had to sit down. There was just something about him. I couldn’t stop looking. I texted him back something flirty.
He sent back three laughing emojis.
Be honest about what you're doing.
It was a Saturday, one of those weekends I stayed in town instead of driving across the state to see the guy I was going to marry. It was right after the comprehensive exams for my PhD.
I was exhausted.
I was going to drink some wine and watch a movie by myself.
Then Mr. Olympics called. He sounded a little tipsy. He said, “I just wanted to let you know that today’s my birthday.”
We talked for a while.
Then he said, “You should let me take you out to dinner, to celebrate your exams. What do you like to eat?”
I said I’d think about it.
Then I said, “I like Indian food.”
He said he couldn’t wait to hear from me.
I knew I shouldn’t be talking to him.
You don’t talk to strange new guys on the phone if everything’s going well in your relationship. It doesn’t matter how good looking they are, or how charming they sound.
It doesn’t matter how much you have in common. It doesn’t matter if it feels like some mad scientist poked around in your brain and the perfect man or woman for you in in a lab.
It doesn’t matter except…
…when it does.
Have a hard conversation with yourself.
It’s not completely unheard of to meet someone new, and then everything changes. Maybe you’re engaged. Maybe you’re married. Maybe you’re just in a serious, long term relationship.
You think you’re happy.
Then you meet someone new and you think, are you?
Are you really that happy?
That’s a valid emotion. That’s not cheating. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, shame and guilt can do a lot more harm than good. Shame and guilt can make you ignore what you’re feeling. It can make you decide to stay in a relationship you’re not happy in, just because you think you owe something to the person you’re with.
If you’re dating someone, you owe them honesty and respect. You don’t owe them a life of indentured emotional servitude.
If they’re a mature person, that’s not what they really want. Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine spending ten or twenty years with someone, then finding out they only hung around because they were too afraid to break up with you, or hurt your feelings.
How would you like that?
Bet you wouldn’t.
Ask your friends for advice.
It was still Saturday night. I was drinking my wine. Instead of reading my book, I was pacing around my apartment wondering what to do. So I did the natural thing and bothered my best friend.
She was out partying.
She broke away and talked from the alley.
You might say my best friend at the time wasn’t the nicest person in the world. She’d been caught cheating more than once. She was one of those people who’d finally realized, after hurting lots of people, that she wasn’t ever meant for monogamous relationships.
She had one piece of advice for me:
“Whatever you decide to do, don’t cheat on him.”
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. It was also exactly what I was looking for. I just had to think about it for a minute. In the end, there were a handful of right things to do. There was only one wrong thing to do, and that was hide what I was feeling. That’s also a kind of cheating.
Be honest with your partner.
It probably wasn’t the best idea to call him after two glasses of wine. Then again, I needed the liquid courage.
We probably should’ve done things face to face, but we were long distance at that point, and I couldn’t stand going another week agonizing over a decision that felt like it was making itself.
We argued for an hour. He kept telling me I was wrong. “We’re perfect for each other,” he kept saying.
So I finally told him:
“Look, I met someone else.”
He was quiet for a minute. “Did you sleep with him?”
“No,” I said. “But I want to.”
I started to cry.
His tone changed. He almost sounded happy. “Well, I can’t blame you. I’ve been thinking about seeing someone else too.”
“Yeah, I was thinking it was just jitters. Maybe it isn’t.”
So we decided to take a break. That break turned into a loose friendship, then we eventually went on our separate paths.
Start the new relationship off clean.
The path was clear. I was all set to meet my new friend for dinner, without a hint of guilt. I was excited. You know what that means.
It was a total disaster…
…and not just because he showed up in his track uniform. He looked good in it. He showed up with his friends.
We also downgraded from Indian food to Moe’s—not the most romantic venue. On top of all that, he pulled me aside about ten minutes into our “date,” to coach me on our meet cute.
He asked me to lie about how we met. I asked him, “What’s wrong with the way we actually met?”
He shrugged. “It’s just, you know…a little boring?”
I tried to play along, but in the end I just spat out the truth. That made things awkward, and it embarrassed him a little. The date ended with him telling me I should quit writing my dissertation, and travel the world with him. I told him that wasn’t going to happen.
So, now I was single.
Don't crawl back to your ex.
You might think I was tempted to go back to my ex after that tragic first date. I wasn’t, not even for a minute.
That relationship was over, and not just because I’d taken a chance that didn’t work out. The whole experience had shown me I wasn’t happy, and hadn’t been for months. I’d been lying to myself.
It was a good thing.
That’s what happens when you’re honest.
If I’d played it safe, then maybe I would’ve gotten married. Or maybe we would’ve broken up for a different reason. I never would’ve realized the truth about temptations to cheat: They’re not always a sign of emotional immaturity or commitment phobia.
Sometimes you want to cheat because you really do deserve something better, and it comes along, or you think it does.
That’s not an excuse to cheat.
It’s a reason to brave up and end the relationship.
Take time to explore yourself.
For a year, I didn’t date anyone. I worked on my dissertation. I traveled through Europe. I went for long runs along the Mediterranean sea. I hiked through mountains and spent hours of solitude in ancient palaces and fortresses. I found my first dream job.
Then I met the guy I was actually meant to marry.
I got engaged.
Now I have a family.
Imagine if I’d stayed in my old relationship and cheated. Imagine if I’d gotten away with it. I would’ve ruined two lives, maybe three.
Don’t ruin lives.
If you meet someone you want to sleep with, or be with, but you’re in a relationship, then be honest about it. Feeling a connection to someone else doesn’t make you a bad person.
It’s what you do that matters.
Do anything but push that feeling down. Do anything but cheat. If you do that, you’re doing more than hurting someone you love.
You’re eating a piece of your own soul.