Long Reads

“What cheating on my partner taught me about love”

Posted by
Helen Fear

Writer Helen Fear vowed she would never follow in her father’s footsteps by cheating on a partner. So no one was more surprised than her when she embarked on a secret affair…

I hate cheats. Or at least I thought I did, until I became one.

Growing up in a household where my father’s affairs hung like a stink in every room, I told myself I could never – and would never – behave like that. I could never hurt the person I’d vowed to love. Being unfaithful was the ultimate betrayal. Why be with someone at all, if you couldn’t be loyal?

I remember the moment my sister confessed she had fallen in love with a married man. I was incredulous: after everything we’d seen our dad put our mum through? How could she?! Of course, she believed he was going to leave his wife for her, he loved her, he was just choosing the perfect moment to tell the mother of his children that he was breaking up their family (he never did, and my sister’s heart was broken).

I was disgusted with my sister, as I always have been with my dad. To me, it was black and white. Wrong and right. I was better than that, and I had unshakable morals.

But then, somehow, I wasn’t better than that.

“I would love to say I tried to stop the affair, but it felt so easy.”

I had been with my boyfriend for several years. He was ‘The One’, or so I thought at the time. He made me happy and we laughed constantly. The thought of him cheating on me was devastating and I believed I wasn’t capable of doing it to him. We had survived three years of being separated while I studied at university and our relationship felt strong.

But then I was thrilled to be accepted onto a journalism post-graduate course, which was even further away and not so easy for weekend visits. Within weeks of starting the course, I began to have feelings for one of the students: at first as a friend, but then as something more.

On one of our many nights out, we ended up kissing, and then in bed together. I would love to say I tried to stop it, but it felt so easy. Plus, the sex was great. My boyfriend was a long way away and he would never find out.

The one-night-stand became a regular thing. It was obvious we had feelings for each other. Meanwhile, my boyfriend still visited, during which times my lover would stay away. In hindsight, I can’t believe I was able to talk myself into living such a double life. Looking back, I am ashamed at my behaviour: I didn’t like the person that I’d become, and I felt I was no better than my philandering father. At the time, though, I enjoyed the attention and had genuine feelings for two different men.

I vividly recall the thrill of the secrecy. Only a few people on the course knew about the affair, and there is something deeply erotic about being in a room with someone you are intimate with, when no one else knows. With time, more and more people suspected. But that only seemed to add to the allure.

Psychologists and relationship experts have spent years studying the science of infidelity. While many factors seem to contribute – income, age and even genetics – it’s now evident that women are just as likely to cheat as men.

A 2011 study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, found that about 23% of men and 19% of women in heterosexual relationships have cheated on their partner.

Researchers have also identified that those with “less conscientious personalities” are more likely to cheat. It’s true: I wasn’t such a nice person back then.

Embarking on an affair is exciting and it leaves you feeling desired. But I remember there were crushing lows, too. I felt horribly dirty if my faithful, loyal boyfriend called when I was with my lover – once when we were even in bed. I cringe with shame thinking about it now.

“Women are just as likely to cheat as men.”

The affair lasted as long as the course. After our exams, I discovered I was pregnant. The baby wasn’t my boyfriend’s. The realisation of what I had been doing came crashing down on me. I had an abortion, ended my relationship with both men and threw myself into my new working life. It took a near miss and a few broken hearts along the way to make me really grow up.

Unsurprisingly, research shows the question of whether you’d cheat depends on how happy you are in your relationship. The reasons people stray are varied, but one of the most common is when a couple have drifted apart and have stopped communicating. Self-esteem issues, self-sabotage and even extreme cases like sex addiction all play a part, too.

Couples therapist Esther Perel and author of The State of Affairs, says: “There are many motives for why people stray that have to do with the discontents of a relationship: loneliness, neglect, rejection, complacency, sexlessness.

“But then there is also the motivation that often has nothing to do with the partner, and that has to do with a form of self-seeking. Many times, people who stray are also hoping to reconnect with lost parts of themselves, with the lives un-lived, with the sense that life is short and there are certain experiences … that they are longing for.” 

In my case, I was away from home, battling with low self-esteem and evidently not with the right man for me.

I’d like to think I am a better person than my dad, who had multiple affairs which he didn’t attempt to hide. But I have learnt that infidelity isn’t black and white. Love, emotions, desire – it’s a big grey area. Although grey isn’t the right colour – it’s raw, vibrant, red, the colour of tears and knotted stomachs.

I am now happily married to a man I would never cheat on. The thought of hurting him is unimaginable. We’ve discussed it. He knows my backstory. And he is also from a marriage which ended in infidelity. This made us more determined never to marry unless we knew it was real. What’s the point? We’ve both seen how toxic unhappy marriages are. And cheating really is a mug’s game.

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