We crossed paths frequently in a small, shared gym in a sprawling office building.
His name was Tom. He was a handsome fellow with pronounced, proportional, masculine facial features. He stood just over six feet tall and had a thin but built frame, brought to form from his recurring triathlons.
We often rode recumbent bikes next to each other; that was where most of our interactions took place, half-winded conversations about our relative status quos.
Tom came across as calm and decisive, confident, and organized. With my limited information, I assumed he was good at his job.
He married young to his high school sweetheart. Both were only 19-years-old at the time. Now in their 30s, they had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. His stay-at-home-wife was raising both.
When it was just Tom and me in the gym, he frequently complained about his marriage. He complained bitterly about their lack of a sex life.
He said he felt like a passenger on a cruise ship. It’s a rather morbid relationship analogy: Cruise ships have the same exact schedule, same shows, same restaurants, over and over again. He was saying nothing was new. He had nothing to look forward to.
Tom said they bickered constantly about how to spend their time and money. His biggest complaint was her lack of desire to take care of her body. He said, “She doesn’t look anything like the person I married.”
And on some level — I understood his frustrations. If you put great effort into taking care of yourself, you probably want to see at least some effort from your other half. Reciprocity sits at the heart of any relationship.
But on another level — she was a stay-at-home mom, busy raising his children. Having and raising kids takes a tremendous toll on the body — something many husbands don’t appreciate or account for fairly.
His wife wasn’t the only one who had changed since entering this marriage. They disagreed on their faith. Since marrying, Tom had done a 180, going from practicing Christian to agnostic and a cynical of religion. His wife attended their local church every week.
I’m a divorced man. I knew well the struggle they faced. I did what I could to help, pitching ideas through my own experience, reflecting on mistakes I made and regretted. Being in a struggling marriage is awful. You hate seeing people stuck in that whirlpool.
I would lightly suggest, “Why not a compromise? You go to church with her and she goes to the gym with you?” I even suggested that they try a triathlon together.
Tom and I would go back and forth about it. I would typically leave the gym feeling grateful I was no longer married.
However, this is where things get dicey, where I truly got nervous about their marriage. Some days it was just Tom and me at the gym.
Other days — there were women too. And on those days, Tom was a different man.
He was flirty and strutting around, cracking jokes, ribbing the girls, having fun conversations with them. His energy was totally different. It was clear he enjoyed their company.
And I have to confess, Tom could conjure up an impressive charm. An aura seemed to glow around him. Between his charisma and his good looks, the women clearly didn’t mind his attention.
But again — Tom was married. None of these women knew that. He certainly wasn’t advertising it. And that’s usually how things seem to start.
A guy will test the waters with flirty behavior. He’ll feel a rush when a girl flirts back, that spark of that “aliveness” energy we frequently felt as teenagers, a spark that is painfully absent in his marriage.
The flirting continues. Eventually, a girl may drop hints of them hanging out. He’ll almost do it — then he will chicken out.
The flirting continues.
Then, over time, he keeps going a little deeper and a little deeper, and before you know it — he’s out having drinks with a female coworker under the guise of “working late” to his wife.
One year later
Somewhere along the way, Tom stopped showing up at the gym.
I bumped into one of his coworkers, a mutual friend, and worked in a question, “How has Tom been? I haven’t seen him in forever.”
He said Tom’s life had gone into full meltdown. Sure enough, his wife caught him having an affair. She was throwing the legal book at him — custody, alimony, child support.
Having spent time around him, Tom’s divorce wasn’t terribly surprising news. I’d seen similar plays before: life has a lot of cyclical storylines, tropes we get caught in. This was one.
His marital meltdown included some of the most common reasons people have affairs. He wasn’t happy. He and his wife had clearly grown in different directions. They probably got married too young. Their communication had broken down.
It all swirled together, creating a toxic environment and his own set of wandering eyes.
There are other reasons men have affairs: they are sleazes, they think they’ll get away with it, they don’t care, they think it will be a temporary band-aid to their problems.
The reasons are many and of course, none of them are justified. My own experience with marriage and our subsequent divorce taught me that marriage is as much work as people said it was going to be — and then some.
Sometimes people grow apart. Other times they were never meant to be together. And sometimes, people just aren’t willing to put in the work.
One thing I’ve learned from the men I’ve known who got caught having affairs: They actually generally understood how much pain they would inflict on loved ones if they were caught.
But they underestimated how much pain they would inflict on themselves.