(and why I stopped)
There are hundreds of reasons why men cheat. But there is really only one reason men keep cheating. Serial cheating is self-destructive. It costs us our wives, our families, even our children. Some of us keep doing it anyway. With destroyed relationships behind us, we start the cycle again, hurting new people, finding new partners to act out our fantasies with while our loved ones watch us destroy our lives. They might blame us, or themselves. They look for a reason, a piece of logic that will help them understand why. They ask us, and we don’t even know. If we did, maybe we could change it.
I was a serial cheater. I lied about who I was talking with. I lied about who I was having sex with. I lied about where I was. I lied about texts, phone calls, pictures, credit card charges. I lied about STDs and pregnancies and how many people I’d been with. I told a hundred little lies every day, all of them serving one big purpose. I needed to find my next partner, and telling the truth got in the way.
The answers seem oddly clear to me now. After two years, hundreds of hours of individual therapy, probably a thousand hours of sitting in groups with men whose stories sounded a lot like mine. I looked at a lot of skeletons in my closet I thought I couldn’t face. The journey so far has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and also the most rewarding.
Most cheating partners don’t just wake up one day and start cheating. For me, it started smaller, with fantasies about unavailable women, with kinky web searches, my mind wandering off from the stress of my “real life” for a weeklong vacation squeezed into a ten-second thought. Seeing an attractive woman on the bus was a trigger for a fantastic escape from what felt like an otherwise dull life. A bit of boredom at my computer was filled with web searches for images that would excite or arouse.
Before I started that search, I wouldn’t have told you I was stressed. I couldn’t have told you much about my feelings at all. I’d spent most of my life up to that point learning to tune them out, especially the “negative” ones. The self-pity, anger, shame, and loneliness made me uncomfortable. I used the skills I’d learned as a boy: ignore, deny, and repress your feelings. Don’t let others see them. I thought if I showed loneliness, or self-pity, it would only make me more lonely. I thought if I expressed my anger, it would scare away anyone from loving me. I thought if I shared my shame, people would never want to be my friend.
Emotional management was not in the curriculum of my boyhood. Instead, I learned how to avoid talking about my feelings. I wasn’t aware that they still came with me everywhere I went. I thought they just weren’t there. Sometimes, on particularly hard days, they were so large that they overpowered my ability to contain them. They were I monster I couldn’t even acknowledge.
I would have told you I was not an angry person. But somehow, I would still have fits of rage and shouting that caught me off guard. I was a permanent optimist, but struggled with existential dread and a feeling of meaninglessness every night. I blocked out shameful memories of my past, many of them normal childhood failings that I felt too ashamed to share with anyone. My mind was working constantly to keep my emotions behind a wall. It was the only way I knew how to operate. I assumed everyone “sane” lived the same way.
If I was overwhelmed, I could close the door to my room and for a short while, I didn’t have to feel any uncomfortable feelings. I began masturbating regularly before I even started grade school. I knew it felt good, and I knew my parents were ashamed to talk about it. So I was ashamed, too. Some people find alcohol to cope. Some people use drugs, or cut themselves, or eat too much. I used my sexuality. I escaped my life for a few minutes at a time. Then I felt bad about it. But not bad enough to stop. If anything, the bad feelings made me want to do it again. Embracing the distraction of sexual excitement to replace the guilt.
When we are young, our closest relationships are with our parents. The things we can’t talk about with our parents become impossible to talk about with anyone else. In my family, we didn’t talk about feelings. We also didn’t talk much about sexuality. I was left to find my own emotional coping strategies, and sexual exploration. Eventually, school would teach us a bit about sexuality and our bodies, but even there, we didn’t talk about how sex felt, or how emotional and physical intimacy were connected. It was a biological discussion that obviously made the adults uncomfortable. As students, we wanted to be out of that room even more than the teachers did.
I got so dangerously good at hiding my feelings, I hid them from myself. But you can’t swallow a lifetime of difficult emotions without some side effects. Masturbation by myself didn’t give me the rush that attention from women gave me. I got lost in sex and romance. It became an obsession. I wanted it more often, I wanted more partners. I wanted kinkier sex, riskier sex, anything to make it feel as exciting as the last time. Old relationships lost their excitement, but I clung to them out of insecurity. I feared being alone, and yet my actions kept real relationships at a distance. I assumed I was too imperfect to be loved. I put on a show of stoicism. Far better to be loved as someone I wasn’t, than rejected and alone for being myself.
The feeling of worthlessness was pervasive. There was always the chance that my partner would figure out I was as worthless as I thought I was. My insecurities drove me to what men today call the “side chick.” She was faithful, reliable, and waiting to catch me if my primary relationship fell apart. I needed this security blanket because the thought of being completely alone was terrifying. Going to bed alone meant being alone with my thoughts and feelings. It was easier to balance all the lies of my secret life, than face the emptiness of my public one.
Of course I tried to stop. At times, the guilt was indescribable. Living a life out of sync with my values was exhausting. I found myself using the shame of cheating to drive up the intensity of the act. Like a junkie looking for a better way to get high, I “chased skirts” like a professional. I had a system of online dating that kept my bed full every night. And when I found a woman worth marrying, I didn’t have the courage to shut my system down. The thought of losing that crutch was enough to terrify me.
I built a collection of justifications for what I did. “My wife won’t do things like this.” “Lots of men do it.” “I have more drive than other guys.” But they weren’t real reasons. The real reason was right there in front of me: my mountain of unresolved sadness, guilt, anger, shame, and resentment. I was terrified of my own feelings, and couldn’t admit it to myself. I was avoiding intimacy because I felt unlovable. I put my entire relationship at risk not because I didn’t love my wife, but because I was waiting for her to discover the “real” me: weak, sad, lonely, angry, and ashamed.
Like most people who cope in self-destructive ways, I wasn’t scared enough to ask for help until I was undeniably surrounded by the damage I had created. In 12-step circles, they call this bottoming out. Hitting bottom was the best thing that ever happened to me. Some people have the good fortune to bottom out sooner, and do less damage. Some of us, especially the ones that come from privilege, can continue to act out while the world covers for us. I’ve met men who bottomed out after being caught masturbating by their wife. I’ve met other men who bottomed out in prison. I’ve heard stories of lost jobs, lost fortunes, families torn apart. I’ve learned not to focus on the spectacle of tragedy. It’s only worth something if it motivates us to become better.
My bottoming out happened before my wife gave up on me. That’s not a testament to me, but rather to my wife, for seeing what was happening and understanding that it was disordered thinking. On some level, she was able to realize that my cheating had nothing to do with her. Our relationship was collateral damage to my coping mechanism. There was no wife for me that could have “made” me a faithful husband. The problem was, and always had been, me.
“I don’t like to discuss my marriage, but I will tell you something which may sound corny but which happens to be true. I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?”
― Paul Newman
In a way, I’m a more selfish person now. I put myself first, making time for a therapist and at least two meetings a week with men like myself. I spend money on these things, because even though insurance doesn’t cover them, it’s cheaper than living in my sickness.
I consider the men who join me at these meetings my friends and colleagues. We call our program a “recovery” and our problem an “addiction.” Lots of people, including medical professionals, are still uncomfortable with calling destructive sexual behavior a symptom of sex addiction. The DSM still doesn’t consider sex addiction a proper diagnosis. Nevertheless, I haven’t found a better word to explain the bad choices I made.
I have seen enough recovery to know that there are many paths it can take. Not every man in recovery can save his marriage, nor should he. There is no program that can undo the choices of our past. Not everyone who decides to get help can stick with it when the days are dark. But, I do believe there is a path toward progress for each of us, where we can live a life more in line with our own values.
If anyone, regardless of their gender, orientation, or how bad their bottoming out has been, sees themself in my story and is motivated to get help, please do. Find a CSAT-certified therapist and ask to be screened for sex addiction. Visit a 12-step meeting for sexual addiction recovery in your area. My preferred group is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, but there are other groups that are quite similar. Many churches and faith groups also have meetings. You’re not going to be met with judgement. These meetings are filled with people who are choosing to improve themselves and their relationships. And while not everyone who tries will have success at first, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” Get help. You’re worth it.