Infidelity and Feeling Alive, Part I
Adapted from “Playing with Fire”: Risk, Infidelity, and Intimacy in Contemporary Relationships (2011) by Katherine Frank
While discussing my research on monogamy at a dinner party, I was told a story about a wealthy man whose wife had discovered his affair. Facing a divorce settlement in the multi-millions, the man agreed to counseling. On the first visit, the counselor questioned him in front of his wife, trying to elicit a statement of grief and regret that might save the relationship. “Well,” the counselor asked, “was it worth it?”
The man answered yes. The marriage ended.
In my study of sexual exclusivity in married couples—those that considered themselves monogamous, those where one or both spouses secretly cheated, and those in various types of open relationships—a recurring phrase used to explain or justify a new sexual or romantic relationship was “feeling alive.” This idea also emerges in scores of books on extramarital sex and infidelity from at least the 1960s to the present. It was arguably during the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s that people’s expectations for marriage shifted towards the idea that spouses should “be soulmates, sources of deep personal fulfillment, and facilitators of personal growth” (see Amato 2004), and sexuality grew in importance as a source of self-expression, fulfillment, and relationship success.
But what exactly does it mean to “feel alive”?
The components of aliveness
Aliveness, as described by my interviewees and those of others who have written on infidelity, consists of multiple levels of experience: 1) new understandings of the self, 2) a sense of possibility and hope for the future, 3) a new sense of one’s surroundings and history, and 4) emotional intensity.
1) A new understanding of the self
Extramarital encounters, like other intimate relationships, can powerfully impact one’s sense of oneself. One of the men that I interviewed spoke about his affair: “One of the things I learned about myself during my extramarital affair … is how who I was with changed my behavior. I got a glimpse of how much who I think of myself as being is actually not who I am so much as it is a reflection of the people I am with.” Another interviewee said his affair “woke him up” to the man he really was and what he’d been missing in his life; still another explained that by seeing how “carefree” his mistress was, he could “see myself that way too.” In his classic book The Affair, one of Morton Hunt’s interviewees stated that his affair had plunged him into “a state of intense self-perception.” In his diary, he writes: “This is what it is like to undergo a conversion, to be born again, to see the light” (1969: 126). Another man discusses his decision to have an affair after meeting a woman he was extremely attracted to: “Anything that good has to be right. Allowing myself to think such thoughts and to feel my feelings was like suddenly coming back to life after being inert and dead” (1969: 174). A woman said of her affair: “I felt I had been made whole. That I had been made complete in some way” (Lawson 1988: 199). Another man says that he realized that with his mistress he was “a completely different and better person”: “this was what life was all about. It was an almost mystical experience. I felt alive, genuinely alive—on a different plane” (Hunt 1969: 125).
Partners may notice a spouse dressing differently, changing habits (starting or quitting smoking, for example) and expressing new interests. Both male and female interviewees also described renewed sexual desire or an interest in new sexual activities, such as SM or role-playing, after beginning affairs—changes put forth as “warning signs” of infidelity by many contemporary self-help books.
2) A sense of possibility and hope for the future
For some people, a sense of possibility means the ability to suddenly imagine life being different tomorrow, perhaps more exciting or less mundane; for others, who may have been daydreaming all along, it may mean realizing possibilities or making changes that once seemed overwhelming. One man described this feeling as simultaneously “growing and shrinking” (Lawson 1988: 202); another man described how he started working new hours, taking frivolous vacations, and spending money on his mistress that he would never spend on his wife; suddenly, doing “crazy, marvelous things” with his mistress seemed more “valuable” than anything in his previous existence (Hunt 1969: 182). After spending a weekend with a lover, a woman said: “I thought of myself in a completely new way. I almost hugged myself—and I almost cried for the years I had wasted thinking there wasn’t any more to be had and that it was all fairy-tales” (Hunt 1969: 124). A man describes how he cheated on his wife—a woman he believed he had a deep spiritual connection with—despite the pain of losing her: “It felt like a life or death situation. I wanted to feel alive again. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but that’s how it felt” (Ryan & Jetha 2010: 291).
3) A new sense of one’s surroundings and history
Some interviewees claimed a new sense of their surroundings and history: reporting that time seems “out of whack” or an experience of walking through their house, perhaps a house they have lived in for decades, and feeling “like a stranger,” “like none of it belongs to me—this is not my furniture, these are not my clothes.” Favorite foods may taste different. Many people also report profound feelings of freedom after a sudden realization (or reinterpretation) that they had been unhappy in the marriage. The sex with his girlfriend, one man said, was “fantastic,” but the affair also impacted his whole sense of the environment: “I hadn’t felt so alive in years… When I was with her, it was like everything with stronger, you know? Food tasted better, colors were richer, I had so much energy. I felt high all the time” (Ryan & Jetha 2010: 291). A man I interviewed said: “I realize now that many months before I became involved with this woman I was … having these mini love affairs in my mind with actresses that I would see on TV. And I didn’t think much of it at the time until it … finally culminated in this affair. And I realize—before it began, you know, when was I ever happy? When was I ever in love?” A woman claimed her affair was “my salvation”; her marriage, on the other hand, now made her “feel empty, dead, insignificant” (Praver 2006: 47). Feeling like a stranger to one’s surroundings and one’s life may also precipitate an extramarital liaison. A women enjoying a “fabulous” vacation in France with her husband, realizes: “I had been poor as a kid and the traveling was always like dreams come true. But that summer in France, while we were purchasing spices at an outdoor market, I remember looking up at the big full trees overhead and thinking with a monumental sense of dread, ‘This is all I’ve got. Everything I ever dreamed of. But it’s all I’m ever going to have. And it’s not enough.’” (Wolfe 1975: 138). The woman began an affair shortly afterwards. Similarly, a man described his marriage as like “having a noose tied around my neck”; he managed to “break out of it” with his affair (Strean 1976: 104). One of my interviewees spoke of his marriage as “an emotional death sentence.” He realized: “I would never in my life be allowed to have the emotional fulfillment that I had always wanted.” This realization accompanied an involvement with a co-worker.
4) Emotional intensity
Extreme emotional fluctuations are also experienced, often in opposition to the safety and comfort of the everyday marital relationship (now felt to be dull and confining). Such emotional intensity can be disconcerting as well as pleasurable. A woman described herself as oscillating between “bouts of ecstasy and happiness” and “collapse” (Lawson 1988: 215). A man describes his emotional and physical state after the beginning of his affair: “Every nerve ending was sensate, every feeling perceptible, every recollection of that day’s freedom a repudiation of my former self” (Hunt 1969: 126). As one of my interviewees said: “What has been “missing” from my sex with [my wife]—what I think has always been “missing”… is a sense of needing it. I needed sex with [my girlfriend] like a hungry man needs food. I couldn’t stay away from it. It felt like an addiction, something I knew was bad for me but I couldn’t resist.” Another interviewee said his mistress was “just an out of control obsession”; without her, life was “not worth living.” He was “thinking about her all the time” as if he were “addicted.” His wife agreed, calling him “a junkie with his drugs.”
continued in Part II