We both have young kids, nice homes, successful careers, packed social calendars. But beneath the shiny veneer, something had withered away over the years: not only sex, but intimacy with our spouses. We had come to feel like we were just sharing parenting duties and a home with someone who could best be described as an old, comfortable friend.
A recent investigation in the U.K.’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper found that the country is in the midst of an “infidelity epidemic,” claiming that more than half of Britain’s married women have had an extramarital fling. On this continent, one survey reports that 12 percent of people combing dating websites admit to being married, and social researchers peg the number of us who stray at between 10 and 25 percent. That means many of you – or your husbands – will be unfaithful, likely out of frustration or boredom or both.
That was me. For years I tried hard to fight the torpor from setting in. But conversations about it turned into finger-pointing fights, and couples therapy was futile.
Eventually I sank into a mournful acceptance: My husband was uninterested in me sexually. That was Adam’s situation too; he told me about all of his attempts to rekindle something between himself and his wife, and his frustration when they failed.
It was two summers ago that we both checked out a website that seemed custom-made for our situations, designed to connect people seeking partners in adultery – one of at least a dozen such sites out there today. We had the same unbreachable parameters: The fling would be on the side and there would be no question of it ever coming to the forefront of our lives. The point was to discreetly vent some of the sexual pressure that was building up inside us and threatening to blow our families apart. Yes, it was premeditated, first-degree adultery, but calculated to avoid hurting the innocent, as accidental, sloppy affairs often do. The problem is, no matter how unsentimental and pragmatic you plan to be, in an intimate affair, life doesn’t always obey.
Adam and I connected online within days of creating our profiles. The dumb luck of finding each other still astounds us. He was one of the first men who contacted me and we were soon emailing daily, trying to suss out what the other was really after. What if this guy was looking for a way out of his marriage? Was he even married? What if he was someone I knew? I remember in one of his emails he said, in passing, “My family is very important to me (stop laughing).” I laughed, and felt sure that I’d like him when we met.
We set up a date at a busy bar away from our usual haunts, both of us looking forward to it intensely and fearing disappointment. The spark was instant. We quickly got past the initial nerves, and over the course of four hours of dinner, drinks and non-stop talking, we revealed more and more to each other. He was funny, smart, self-deprecating. He got my lame jokes and didn’t agree with everything I said. His social circle included some of the same people as mine – so many, in fact, that it was possible we’d already brushed shoulders. That felt both too close for comfort (he could infiltrate my life!) and comforting (people I knew knew and liked him, plus it confirmed that his family story checked out).
At first, the former emotion was winning out in my mind, and as it grew later, I told him I wasn’t sure I could proceed. At that moment he took my hand and the sexual tension almost made me gasp. As we walked to my car, I turned and kissed him. We ended up making out wildly, passion interspersed with giggling at the absurdity of what we were doing. When I got home, I had an email from him with the subject line “Wow.”
Things progressed fast, emails pinging back and forth several times a day. We decided to go to a hotel the following week. I was terrified; I doubted I’d go through with it, but at the same time I was thrilled at the prospect of adventure. Our emails were getting more suggestive and, after years of celibacy, it felt so indescribably good to be wanted. The hotel room: He checked in before me. I arrived with wine and food. I was so nervous I could barely look at him when he opened the door, I was so conscious of why I was there. I kissed him, hoping to break the ice. It didn’t work.
I practically gulped down my first glass of wine, and as we talked, half sitting, half lying on the bed, I kept thinking, Will I actually go through with this? I did. Well after 1 a.m., when we had showered and I was driving him home, he put his hand on my thigh – a bit of casual intimacy. We kissed for a while and said goodnight, and as I drove on, I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. I don’t know why, but I think it was from relief.
We quickly figured out the logistics of adultery: setting up secret email accounts and talking by phone only to finalize tryst details. I started cultivating new routines and dropping names of colleagues to my husband in passing that I’d later refer to when describing a work outing I had to attend. The lying grew easier, except when one of my kids would ask, “Where are you going, Mommy?” I’d try to be vague, but it wasn’t always enough.
Guilt is a complex emotion. Before this began, I had few scruples about the prospect of cheating on my husband. The need for sex is a basic drive, like hunger, I thought resentfully, and I’m entitled to satisfy it. But it wasn’t being unfaithful that made me feel rotten; it was the amount of time I spent thinking about Adam. So I put every effort into being the best mom and wife, cavorting with the kids in the backyard until I was out of breath, trying to be more affectionate with my husband, biting back nagging comments. I wanted my family to have no reason to suspect that I wasn’t as focused on them as I should be. To my amazement, it worked, yet somehow their very obliviousness felt like a rebuke.
In mid-September, about six weeks after our affair began, I tried to break it off. In retrospect the reason seems ridiculous – he’d failed to email me over three days (he says two) and he had a decent explanation, but in my state of angst and anticipation it felt, as I wrote to him later, “like I’d been having a very intense, intimate conversation with someone who suddenly walked away mid-sentence.” What can I say? In three subsequent email exchanges he talked me out of it, and we agreed to meet to clear the air. The restaurant was busy and when I arrived I found him sitting at the table, dressed in a suit, looking poised and almost painfully attractive. I, on the other hand, was jittery, knocking cutlery and menus off the table. After some chit-chat, I told him I didn’t think I could trust him anymore. He seemed surprised, and – as I looked at him – I wasn’t sure I believed it myself. “I really missed you,” he said, with the tense, crooked smile I’d come to dub his “mischievous-lover look.” I stretched my foot under the table and put it beside him on his chair, and he stroked my ankle. We stared at each other for a long time. As I drove him home afterwards, I stopped on a side street and we kissed in the car. “Be good to me, Adam,” I said. And by the way he touched my face and hair and held me, I realized for the first time that he was falling for me. It was terrifying and wonderful. Mainly terrifying, because I realized I might be falling for him, too.
As fall turned to winter, Adam grew increasingly distressed about his marriage. Some of their issues had a bitter ring of familiarity, and I tried to be helpful, offering suggestions from my own experience. Though we talked mainly about his situation, I found myself thinking harder about mine. Was I willing to settle for a sexless relationship? Was it really beyond repair? Adam encouraged me to not accept the status quo. The irony of what we were doing – illicit lovers engaging in mutual marriage counselling – was obvious to us both. But one night I took his advice and confronted my husband about our problems. I told him I couldn’t understand how he could bear our marriage. Something sank in. The emotions were raw on both sides and I was struck by how much he loved me. He said he’d try harder, and I wanted to believe him.
Did I end it with Adam then? I’m not that big a person; I wasn’t willing to give up what he and I had just yet. But as Adam struggled to keep his family together, our get-togethers grew more infrequent. Worse, he started cancelling. The evenings we did spend together would end in melancholy, with us both starting to miss each other before we’d even said goodbye. In early January, when Adam cancelled yet another date, I finally pulled the plug. There were many reasons behind my decision: sexual frustration, anger, the belief that I was interfering with his efforts on the home front. But there was also one powerful incentive. Recently, my husband and I had sex for the first time in years, but I couldn’t keep from thinking of Adam. It was clear to me that I wasn’t capable of sleeping with two men I loved at the same time. I sent Adam an email saying I needed to take a break; we had lived so much of our relationship online that this wasn’t as impersonal as it sounds. He didn’t try to talk me out of it.
We agreed to meet one more time in a hotel. It started just like any other evening together: I brought food and wine, he greeted me in the room, we had dinner together, then made love. We spent six hours there, wanting to extend the evening as long as possible. It passed in a wink.
We still hope we can turn this into a friendship; whatever else we are, we are certainly friends. “I can’t stand the idea of not seeing you for a long time,” he wrote shortly after our last night together. A couple of weeks later, feeling forlorn and missing Adam, I logged into the website where we met, found his first email to me and forwarded it to him. “Isn’t it weird to read that now?” I wrote. “Like some kind of message in a bottle that’s landed years after being sent. What the heck did I see in that mild little introduction to make me respond to you?”
I still don’t really know, but I’m so glad I did. Our affair lasted six months. It was wonderful, and painful; it made me feel fully alive again. I can’t bear to think it’s over. A small, secret part of me hopes it’s not.