While it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how many people cheat on their partner (data is scarce because, well, people who are unfaithful aren’t always the most forthcoming), it happens. A lot. In fact, the rate of infidelity, per social scientists, has risen steadily over the past decade. That it happens is not a surprise; the why, however, is always a bit more surprising.
Benjamin, not his real name, had never been faithful in a single relationship in his whole life. He was unfaithful to his now-wife before they were married. Although she caught him and he vowed to change, he continued to have affairs while married and hoped that being a husband would help him quit his habit. Unsurprisingly, committing harder to his relationship didn’t stop him from engaging in affairs. Eventually, his wife found out that he was cheating again. She told him to get help or get out. So he got help.
Here, Benjamin talks about his affairs, his recovery, why he’d rate his relationship a lower grade today than before, and why that’s actually a wonderful thing.
I never had fidelity figured out. I thought either something was wrong with me, or something was wrong with everybody, and no one talked about it. I can’t remember a relationship where I was faithful. I was a terrible boyfriend. You would have thought I was a great boyfriend to your face, but I cheated, I had online affairs, I had in-person affairs. I had multiple girlfriends at the same time. My wife, when we were dating, found multiple messages from multiple women. I swore up and down that it was a fluke, that I loved her and I wanted to make it work. Things got better, but nothing changed.
And now you’re married.
I remember thinking, Well, maybe getting married will fix it. Maybe the trick is to make that commitment to somebody. It’s not like I wanted to be that jerk. But I didn’t know how to stop. I’d go weeks, or a month, and I’d try to hold it in. Ultimately, about two years ago, I was found out again.
How did your wife react when she found out you were cheating?
Her reaction felt like it was coming from a place of love. I don’t know how my wife even managed to pull it together to make that moment about me, enough for me to see that I could get help and be better, but she did. What I needed was for someone to say: ‘You have a problem. I want to help you change it.’ Of course, she was upset, and there were tears and anxiety and distrust, but, she also made me fix what was wrong with me.
So how did you take measures to help yourself?
I spent 30 days in an intensive program. I actually checked into a halfway house, with a bunch of guys recovering from alcohol and drugs. At the time, it was scary. I didn’t really understand how it was going to help me. But in hindsight, it helped me a lot. A 12-step meeting is a 12-step meeting.
How do you feel now about your recovery?
I probably spent a year or more on eggshells. I had to do everything exactly perfect. I mean, some guys get rid of their phones forever. They have a dumb phone for the rest of their lives because that, for them, is the gateway into unhealthy activity. I could give things up for a while, but I need to eventually have a balance and a life. I had to learn how to use a phone like a responsible adult.
What’s an example of something you had to learn how to deal with when trying to attain sobriety?
If I get on public transportation and I sit down near a beautiful woman, I don’t know what a healthy person does in that situation. I know what tools I have to keep track of my compulsions. I use them.
So how did your wife deal with you talking to her about this stuff?
A lot of addicts have a problem with understanding the difference between secrets, lies, and privacy. I didn’t understand that difference at all. I had to find that balance between not having secrets from my wife, but having some understanding of the things that she needs to hear, and the stuff I can say to another person in my program.
There was a lot we didn’t talk about, in terms of what was going on in my head. And now that all of the secrets had a chance to come out, I think I had a better sense of what she needs to know about to feel comfortable and safe.
What do you mean, there was a lot you didn’t talk about?
I was afraid that she wouldn’t respond well. I was afraid she’d be upset with me. In addition to doing the thing that I did, I also lied, because I didn’t want her to be upset. That’s a small piece of it.
The big piece, it seems, is that I was cheating on her. But in a lot of the way that we interacted, I would still be worried about upsetting her, even though it wasn’t about acting out sexually.
What does that have to do with having affairs?
Today, I can go to my wife and say, “I had a really hard day. And I don’t feel great.” I never could have done that before recovery. I thought she was too fragile to handle it. I didn’t want to bring my hard day to her. I thought it would keep the relationship stronger to keep my problems away. As my worldview changed, I started to be able to come to her and say: I’m feeling angry about this thing that happened at work. Even if it’s uncomfortable, we can talk about it together.
But surely you did more than tell her about your day in terms of recovery.
I went to 12-step meetings. I started meeting with a religious men’s group every week. I see a therapist every Thursday of the week. And I talk about the stuff that’s hard to talk about — or at least it used to be.
Ultimately, the fact that I wasn’t a parent before this recovery started for me was a blessing because I knew I wasn’t ready. I knew that I could not possibly raise a healthy human being while I was doing what I did. Recovery made me look forward to being a father.
So how are you and your wife doing today?
Can I give our relationship a B+? Before I could face our problems, I would have said A+. I would have said it was the perfect marriage. And that’s because the only problem I saw in it was me. And now, we’ve got work to do — together. I feel like we’re done traumatizing each other. Maybe we can’t work through everything, and there will be times where she doesn’t feel safe because of things that I did. I can’t undo that. But I do feel like I’ve stopped making it worse.