When I was young and naïve—OK, maybe not all that young—I had an affair with a married man. I'm not proud of it. Lasting all of 15 months from blissful beginning to agonizing end, it was, in fact, my worst moment. But I chose not to let it define me. I moved past it, learned from it, and have allowed the lessons I took away from that experience to make me a better friend, a better therapist, and a better partner. Painful situations, after all, tend to teach us the lessons we remember best.
Remember that in every choice you make, no matter what or whom it involves, you are always accountable to yourself. Live in such a way that you can be proud of who you are. And that doesn't mean not making mistakes. It means failing, learning from those failures, and failing better next time. It means allowing your pain to teach you rather than define you. I hope learning from my experience will save you from some future pain yourself. Here's what I learned:
1. There is no feeling that renders values irrelevant.
My mama raised a good girl. In my family, that didn’t mean shame or dishonor, just good old-fashioned common sense and living by the Golden Rule. But I was raised in another era—when the telephone was a household appliance with an extension for every family member, an era long before the time of all-night texting, an era when divorce rates were one-half what they are today. The truth is, I was unprepared for anything like what the year 2016 had to offer. By the time I got savvy, what I’d learned was that my values matter to me, and I knew they mattered, because if and when I acted against them, I suffered. Not only were the consequences of my actions painful in themselves, but my self-worth took a major hit. And, over time, I realized that nothing is worth that.
2. Passion isn't some elusive, magical substance. It can be stoked or extinguished at will.
When I met the married man, he certainly did everything he could to stoke the fire. Admiring glances, encoded compliments, accidentally bumping into me in the coffee shop, several times. When I began to realize I was developing a crush on him, I could have extinguished my feelings with a few sticky notes placed around my home, in my car, and in my office, reminding me of his marital status. But instead of extinguishing my feelings, I let myself lean into those feelings. I started fantasizing. Big mistake. I imagined that he was unloved, misunderstood, and, most importantly, looking around for the perfect woman. Yup, it’s true. I replayed every scene, every glance, and every subtle compliment, until I fooled my psyche and my conscience into believing he was in love—and believing that love mattered more than integrity, personal accountability, or commitment.
3. It is much harder to get over a relationship that happened than a relationship that didn't.
It’s not easy to get rid of memories. As a psychologist, I knew well that it just takes time. But I tried to bury them anyway. And instead of staying buried, they did what memories do when you try to bury them—they grew into flowers whose beauty made me sad. I tried to destroy the flowers, but I couldn't. That's when I finally got it—I mean, on a personal level. I started to practice what I preach in therapy sessions every day. I stopped trying to kill the memories and started to just noticed them instead. I let them float by. Slowly, they started to subside until there was nothing left to notice at all.
4. People show you who they are from day one. It saves you a lot of pain and confusion if you simply believe them.
This one is obvious. If my paramour lied to his wife to be with me, he would (and almost certainly did) lie to me, too. The same is true for cheating. You are almost definitely not the exception to the rule of fidelity. Cheating is not a one-off; it's a way of life. Anyone who can cheat on the person they have vowed to love, honor, and protect, is probably going to cheat a few other people along the way.
5. The kind of person who would cheat on their spouse is not the kind of partner you want.
When I realized this, I stopped being jealous of his wife and started to realize that I don’t ever want to be in her position.
6. The most painful relationships often serve as the most effective catalysts for uncovering our true wants and needs.
When I was with the married man, I convinced myself that I didn’t want to remarry anyway. It turns out, that wasn't just denial. It was true. But I also learned what manifestations of commitment are important to me. I want a man who is committed to me in at least a few ways—these include exclusive sex, regular date nights, and handholding in public.
7. Friends are very important when everything goes pear-shaped.
When the dust settled, and I was alone again, my friends were there for me. This is huge! Women who date married men tend to isolate themselves from friends and family. Maybe they want to protect him or maybe they just don’t want to hear what their friends have to say on the subject of married men. Whatever their reasons, isolation is never good and can be dangerous in an emotional firestorm.
That’s what I learned from having an affair with a married man. I wouldn’t give up what I’ve learned, and I definitely won’t forget it.
Want more insight into your relationships? Find out the five things couples who stay together do every day and the ways your sex life can show you what's wrong in your relationship.