“I Didn’t Mean to Have An Affair, It Just Happened.”

Having been a therapist for a very long time has afforded me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life with varied opinions, personalities, strengths and idiosyncratic quirks. I’m never bored, rarely shocked and almost never angered. But take note, the operative word here is “almost.”

I have lost count of the number of times when a spouse who’s been unfaithful says, “I wasn’t looking for an affair, it just happened.” It’s as if these people were simply going about their day, minding their own business and alas, they suddenly find themselves stark naked in hotel rooms having breathless, passionate sex as if there’s no tomorrow. It just happens? Uh, I don’t think so.

Affairs aren’t spontaneous; they require careful planning and decision-making. Often, the choices people make that pave the way for an affair- dinner with a co-worker, meeting an old boyfriend or girlfriend for a drink after work just to catch up, having lunch with an attractive, single neighbor on a regular basis or sending a lengthy Christmas update to a long lost heart throb- can seem relatively innocent. But one dinner date or late night conversation often leads to another and another and another. The talk becomes more personal. Confessions of marital dissatisfaction bubble to the surface prompting empathy and support. People tell themselves, “I just needed someone to talk to. I wanted input from someone of the opposite sex.” But you don’t need a degree in psychology to know that the implicit message in these conversations is, “I’m unhappily married. Want to fool around?” You can tell yourself that you’re not doing anything wrong, but the truth is, it’s a sheer, slippery slope.

Then there is alcohol, the inhibition-buster that “made me do it.” And while it’s true that many a bad decision has been made while under the influence, unless like teenagers in Cancun on spring break, people’s mouths are forced open and alcohol poured down their throats, having a drink is a decision. Having two drinks is two decisions. You can do the math on the rest of the story.

What about bad marriages? Don’t they justify being unfaithful? After all, life is short. We only have one go around, right? What’s always amazed me is how differently people react to similar circumstances. I’ve met people whose spouses refused to have sex for years and although that made them miserable, they simply could not cheat. I’ve met other people who, when their relationships hit predictable bumps in the road, rather than work things out, they sought comfort in the arms of strangers. Unhappy marriages don’t cause infidelity. Being unfaithful causes infidelity.

Nevertheless, life is short and feeling lonely in marriage is no way to live. But dulling one’s pain through the instant gratification of hot sex or emotional closeness with someone who doesn’t argue with you about bills, children or the in-laws isn’t an effective or lasting way to fix what’s wrong. In fact, infidelity complicates life enormously for everyone involved, a fact that should not be minimized when planning the next “just friends” Starbucks break.

People who say their affairs just happened aren’t necessarily intentionally trying to cover their asses or justify their behavior; they often truly believe what they’re saying. They simply lack insight or awareness of the ways in which their actions, however subtle, have created their current predicaments. But in the same way that affairs don’t just happen, neither does healing from betrayal. Unless those who have strayed look inward and take personal responsible for the paths their lives have taken, they will not be able to get back on track when they’ve gotten derailed. In my view, being unconscious just doesn’t cut it.

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3 responses to ““I Didn’t Mean to Have An Affair, It Just Happened.”

  1. Great advice. Some of the couples I have interviewed for a marriage book have said the same thing, the slippery slope from having lunch alone to sharing marital dissatisfaction led to the affair. Married people need to be careful of the situations in which they put themselves. Your views are right on. These marriages can indeed be healed if each person takes responsibility.

  2. Thank you for writing what I am thinking – I got the excuse – “it just happened” – it defies logic and only makes me more sick and angry.

  3. Recovering Wayward

    I think when a wayward spouse says “it just happened”, what that means is that few of us set out to have an affair. It’s not that it just happened, but it wasn’t the goal. But it gets built, brick by brick, day by day, and you get addicted to it slowly. And it grows. And you get caught in the fog of it all.
    You start out with just talking with someone, sharing things with someone and soon, one by one, they are meeting all of your emotional needs that aren’t being met at home (and in my case, for many years).

    It took 6 months to unfold – for a friendship from a distance over the phone and by email to become physical. Then a love affair. Then it became a HUGE affair and I found myself trapped by my circumstances and experiencing the worst year of my life.

    To say “I didn’t mean it to happen” is not an evasion of responsibility. I took 100% responsibility for every bad decision I made — but it IS a statement that for many of us was absolutely true. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t looking for it. But I followed it. I made the small and large compromises every day until, boom, there I was. If I could turn back the clock, I would’ve never started it. It wasn’t worth it. but that’s in hindsight.

    that’s what we mean.

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