I Cheated On My Wife Before We Got Married. Here's What Sex Rehab Taught Me About Love
I cheated on my girlfriend. Now we're happily married. Why?
Because in the depths of the pain, I thought: Why would I do that? How could I hurt the person I loved? Is sex so important to me that I’m willing to lie to and wound someone else to get it?
And so I didn’t just apologize and promise never to do it again. I set off on a journey, deep into my damaged heart and mind, to figure out Why? And to answer a few other questions along the way:
- What is love?
- What is intimacy?
- Is it natural to be faithful to one person for life?
- How can you keep passion and romance from fading over time?
- Will alternatives to monogamy lead to better relationships and greater happiness?
That journey, and the unexpected answers I discovered, are covered in a book that mindbodygreen readers helped me name earlier this year. That book was published by HarperCollins on Tuesday. And, in light of the story above, the title you all selected was perfect: The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.
The first stop on this journey was, deservedly, sex addiction rehab. If I betrayed my word, my values, my partner, and my soul for sex — then clearly I must have a problem with it. This excerpt from the book covers one of the lessons I learned there.
“If you think of intimacy as 'into me I see' and I share that with you — that’s intimacy,” Lorraine, a bird-like counselor with shaggy gray hair, tells us.
I’m sitting in a room with three sex addicts — two of them here for cheating on their wives, the other for seeing prostitutes.
“Intimacy problems come from a lack of self-love,” Lorraine continues. “Someone who fears intimacy thinks, subconsciously, If you knew who I really was, you’d leave me.”
“I always think that!” Calvin, the prostitute addict, says, raising his hand for a high-five. It goes unslapped.
“I’d classify all of you as intimacy avoidants,” she presses on. “The avoidant is very good at seducing, in the sense that he has an uncanny ability to find out what his partner needs and give it to her. Because he was usually enmeshed, he gets his worth and value from taking care of needy people.”
“Generally speaking, are guys love avoidants and women love addicts?” Calvin asks.
The theory he’s referring to states that love addicts tend to be people who are emotionally or physically neglected by a caregiver — of the same sex as the partners they’re attracted to — often feel anxious in relationships, and fear abandonment. Meanwhile, love avoidants who were enmeshed or engulfed by a parent can be distant or resentful in relationships because they fear being overwhelmed again.
“No, I’ve seen both. What happens in either case is that we choose partners who are at our age of emotional development and maturity, and whose issues are complementary to ours. Your wives may think they sent you here because you’re sick and they’re normal, but I’ve never worked with a couple where one of them had it all together and the other was a screw-up. They’ve got just as many issues as you do. Proof of this fact is that they’re still with you.”
“Can I please get you on the phone with my wife to tell her that?” asks Adam, who, after years in a sexless, romanceless marriage, decided it was okay to sneak around behind her back and have an affair.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” Lorraine responds. “That’s the overcontrolled child in you speaking. You should be in recovery for you, not for her. And that’s typical of your relationship as a whole. Because when a love avoidant and a love addict begin a relationship, a predictable pattern occurs: The avoidant gives and gives, sacrificing his own needs, but it’s never enough for the love addict. So the avoidant grows resentful and seeks an outlet outside of the relationship, but at the same time feels too guilty to stop taking care of the needy person.”
“By outlet, you mean an affair?” Adam interrupts.
“It can be,” Lorraine says. “But it can also be obsessive exercising or work or drugs or living on the edge or anything high-risk. He will also compartmentalize it because the secrecy helps kick that intensity up a notch. In the meantime, as the avoidant’s walls keep getting higher, the love addict uses denial to hold on to the fantasy and starts accepting unacceptable behavior.”
As she speaks, I think of one of the oldest myths of our civilization: The Odyssey. Odysseus cheats rampantly on his voyage home from the Trojan War, even shacking up with a nymph for seven years, knowing full well that his wife, Penelope, is waiting for him.
Meanwhile, Penelope stays pure for 20 years, even though she thinks he’s dead. Yet Odysseus is the hero of the tale and even slaughters all 108 of Penelope’s suitors for daring to court her. In here, they’d diagnose Odysseus as a love avoidant — off adventuring, warring, and intensity-seeking — and Penelope as a love addict, living in fantasy. This relationship is as old as time.
“But the avoidant’s behavior has consequences,” Lorraine continues, “and chief among them is something most of you are familiar with: getting caught. And that shatters the fantasy for the love addict, who experiences her biggest nightmare: abandonment, which replicates her original wound.”
One thing Odysseus did right is that he didn’t get caught. That’s because they didn’t have paparazzi, social networking, mobile phones, and the Internet back then. It was easier to compartmentalize.
“The pain and the fear are so intense for the love addict that she often develops her own secret life as well. Where the avoidant wants the highs, the addict goes for the lows. She wants benzodiazepines, alcohol, romance novels, shopping till she drops — whatever depresses the central nervous system. If she acts out sexually or has an emotional affair, it’s not for intensity, but to numb the pain and get away from the agonizing hurt. Soon, the relationship is no longer about love for either partner but about escaping from reality.”
Lorraine draws a diagram of the unhealthy relationship she’s been describing:
“Is everybody one or the other?” Calvin asks. “I feel like I’m both.”
It’s a good question: I’ve always seen myself as more ambivalent about love than avoidant, but perhaps doubt is just a form of avoidance because it prevents me from ever fully committing to anyone.
“Some people have elements of both or play different roles at different times,” Lorraine responds. She then draws a picture of a healthy relationship:
“A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.” She pauses to let it all sink in, then concludes, “Only when our love for someone exceeds our need for them do we have a shot at a genuine relationship together.”
Calvin starts crying.
For more insights, stories, and lessons learned, check out The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.