I may be happily married but I’ve learnt that doesn’t inoculate me to the lure of an affair. No matter how besotted we are with our partners or how great we think we are at monogamy, there comes a time when we’re tempted. I call this time the flabby middle of a relationship. It’s when the dopamine hit of new love fades, the thrill of planning a life together ebbs and we’re left with an excitement plateau, or worse, an excitement slump.
Apparently, the most common time to cheat a marriage is in years five to seven when we feel like we’ve achieved the goals of getting together, getting a place to live, having kids – so what’s next? The second biggest predictor of infidelity comes after the first child is born and a change sets in. Bingo – we’re five years into marriage and have a two-year-old son.
I met The Other Guy at a literary event in November. The conversation was electric. I felt like forever might not be long enough for all the things we had to say to each other. He was so tall I had to look directly skywards to make eye contact and he looked dreamily off to the side as if contemplating all of life before he said anything. I held off mentioning my husband, perhaps to make it more interesting. But I began to speak effusively about my son. He looked at me dismayed, “Does this boy have a father?”
There’s an inherent double standard in how we view infidelity – it’s expected of men, supported by theories of evolution that back up their need to explore. We think women who cheat are lonely but men are pleasure-seekers, searching out their next big thrill. And yet men and women are at it in almost equal numbers. Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel in her taboo-busting TED talk Rethinking Infidelity tells us estimates of adultery are anywhere between 26-75 per cent. The desire to cheat is almost universal. And yet we have this assumption that when we find the perfect partner our happy union will act as a prophylactic against wanderlust.
On top of the two above risk factors: I’ve changed. Marriage, I’ve learnt, is not a constant between two unchanging people. After the euphoria of attraction and the ease of coming together, we have to support each other along the rocky road of personal reinvention. For most of our relationship we worked for two major rival newspapers. On my first day I was hauled into the director’s office and told I was not, under any circumstances, to repeat anything I heard in the office to my partner. We felt like star-crossed lovers, one another’s honey trap, not allowed to trade company secrets but sharing a bed every night. This added to the mystery – a major fuel source for the love drug dopamine. Then one day I announced I was jacking it all in to do an MA in creative writing. I’m a writer, I insisted.
Marriage, I’ve learnt, is not a constant between two unchanging people. After the euphoria of attraction and the ease of coming together, we have to support each other along the rocky road of personal reinvention
I woke up the morning after the literary event and told my husband I felt guilty, that I might have been flirting. “Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything wrong, but if you want my advice – though you don’t have to take it – cool it so it doesn’t get complicated.” I managed to avoid The Other Guy for the rest of the term of college. But, after Christmas, once I thought we were sufficiently cooled, I agreed to meet him at literary talks we were both going to – we exchanged our writing, gave one another feedback. What seemed innocent at first, soon became a near-constant WhatsApp dialogue under the guise of discussing our work.
Talk of hitting the flabby middle of a relationship and wanting an affair is no stranger to the therapy couch. A great friend of mine is a consultant psychiatrist at The Blue Tree Clinic and he sees plenty of clients in this situation. “They’ll be married in their thirties and forties and they’ll feel like they missed out on the world of dating apps. So they put up a profile just to see if they’re still attractive. Their dopamine spikes when they get a message from a good-looking stranger. Suddenly they’ve bought a second phone with a lock on it and are having an affair. Trouble!”
One morning over breakfast I said to my husband, “Last night I dreamt...” He stopped me in my tracks. “Babe, are you really about to tell me your dream? I’m late for work, I’ve got a million and one things to do, our child is peeing on the floor.” Later that day when the house was quiet I messaged The Other Guy: “I had a dream, there was a disembodied voice coming through the clouds saying over and over: ‘The problem with your writing is you haven’t read enough Calvino’.” The response came instantly: “I laughed so hard I spat out my coffee.” It’s not even funny, it’s barely a joke, but somehow a new person is willing to pretend it is more than someone you’ve been in a relationship with for eight years. Was I, like my friend suggests, trying to gauge whether I was still attractive/funny/interesting?
One night my husband and I had an argument – the kind that sent us sulking to opposite ends of the house. We made up sitting on the floorboards in the kitchen, pouring glass after glass of wine, our lips blackening. I told him about how The Other Guy had got under my skin, how I felt like I was having an unconsummated affair. For hours we talked about the way our love was and the way we wanted it to be. It may have been the best conversation we’d had since we married, or at least since our son was born. If the dopamine rush of an affair is fuelled by secrecy, nothing can suck the wind from its sails as swiftly as coming clean.
The next time I saw The Other Guy there was none of the intensity and oneness of before. We drifted through the event talking to other people and when we did speak, our conversation was as stilted and awkward as if we were strangers. Which, in fact, we were.
This article is part of our Past Perfect series exploring the idea of perfection and the unrealistic perceptions that often surround it.