Confession: Infidelity has not been merely a mistake I have made once or twice in my life, it has been a powerful and consistent pattern throughout the entirety of my romantic adult life. I have *never* had, in my 27 years on this planet, a romantic relationship in which I was faithful.
This is the first time I am admitting that out loud. To others and to myself.
My infidelity is not a “bug”, it is a feature. And every second I spend denying that fact, or rationalizing away my behavior, or fooling myself into thinking that “everyone does it”, is another second I don’t spend being honest with myself and working to improve who I am as a human being. This essay will be an attempt to stop doing that. To stop rationalizing. To stop making excuses. This essay will be an attempt at analyzing myself and my behavior in as honest a way as possible in hopes that via relentless self-examination, and a methodical, probing approach to the causes of my compulsions, I can begin to finally grow up and shake off the shackles of what has proven to be my most despicable character trait: my infidelity.
First and foremost, though, I want to say that I will not offer anything in the way of excuses for my behavior. A necessary prerequisite for this essay is to state that I am 100% responsible for my actions. Nobody else, or nothing else, is at all to blame for what I have done. I have hurt the people closest to me repeatedly, and that is something that I have to live with; something that must haunt the corridors of my conscience as the faces of loved ones that I have caused to cry and suffer get ingrained into the walls, floors, and ceilings of my psyche.
When you see your 7 year old daughter, and the mother of your child, sitting on the floor of a now partially-empty apartment, sobbing uncontrollably because their lives, and their family, have been turned upside down because of your actions, its an absolute gut-wrenching experience which cannot help but produce toxic levels of shame and self-loathing. What sort of person does this? Am I a monster? Am I so radically selfish that I put my own petty, sexual, short term desires above the people who mean the absolute most to me in this world? How can I still fancy myself a good person when I peer into the tear-drenched, bright-red-cheeked faces of my family and know, without any doubt, that I alone caused that pain and suffering? Why am I like this?
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever done to anyone. I almost can’t look my own guilt in the eye… It’s overwhelming and makes me feel constantly anxious and sad and confused and shameful.” (A text from me to my fiance’)
Shame and humiliation are two closely related concepts, but not entirely interchangeable. In the wake of my latest act of infidelity, my fiance’, upon figuring out what had happened, wrote a scathing, public Facebook post summarizing the infidelity, who took part in it, and the sordid details of the whole affair. The humiliation I faced was externally-focused; meaning I was humiliated by all of our mutual friends and family members reading the post, and I could feel their collective judgement. Nobody likes to have the respect people have for them shattered, especially not in such a flamboyant and public way. But I viewed this, and still view it, as my just punishment. We are social apes, and we exist only within the context of social relations, and so dragging out my dirty laundry and airing it to the world is an almost tribal, and totally justified, way of punishing me for what amounts to my anti-social behavior. But shame, shame is internal. Shame is that white hot feeling of horror and disgust that one feels on the inside, and its not because others are harshly judging you, although they can play a role; instead its your own screaming, brooding conscience flooding your consciousness with thoughts of all the people you fucked over, all the bridges you burned, all the pain and suffering that you caused. Its the way we punish ourselves from the inside. Its an act of moral self-flagellation.
I am both ashamed and humiliated, and that is entirely my fault.
But if I admit that this is all my fault, which I do, that leads to another, deeper question: Why? Why do I do this? Is there anything in my childhood that I can explore which will give me better insight into why I seem to be compelled to cheat? To answer these questions is extremely difficult. Psychoanalyzing oneself is a virtually impossible task because we are, by definition, lost in an ocean of our own subjectivity and cannot be certain that we have come to an objective conclusion about such complex issues. People pay psychiatrists to be professionally objective tour guides through their tangled, messy, and opaque personalities and behaviors. So I am going to embark consciously on a fool’s errand by trying to parse out what in my development might have contributed to my virtually pathological compulsion to cheat. And I don’t use the phrase “pathological compulsion” lightly, either. After all, people generally agree that what really makes somebody an addict when it comes to, say, drugs or alcohol, is that they take their desire for that thing to such an extreme point that it negatively effects their lives: they lose their job, they lose their families, they hurt innocent people, etc. And in that way, my compulsion towards infidelity has met that standard. I did ruin my family, I hurt dozens of people, and my life is in a state of chaos and disarray because of it. Does that mean, then, that I am an addict? Maybe, in some way. Does that mean that I am a sex addict? No. Because it has never been about the sex for me. In my latest case of infidelity, sex did not even occur. And as I look back on all the times I’ve strayed from a committed relationship, perhaps less than half involved the actual act of physical sex. No, its deeper than the animalistic urge to have sex for me; its an ego thing, an existential anxiety. On the surface of things, I enjoy the newness of a fling or an affair. I do get bored in some ways, and so infidelity is a way to stoke the flames of excitement at times of relative dullness in my relationship. But its deeper than that. I have come to realize that I have an existential fear of making the “wrong choice”, of being stuck in a relationship forever, or never being able to experience another person for the first time. This fear is related, intimately, to my fear of death; my fear that I have one tiny, short, meaningless life and that I have to pack as much novel experience into that life as possible. I firmly believe that after I die, its lights out forever. I hold *no illusions* about my consciousness surviving my bodily death. The anxiety caused by that belief has been something I’ve struggled with mightily my entire life, and that fear, in my opinion, can be funneled, fuzzily, through the prism of monogamy and commitment, creating a sense of being closed in; of having my options perpetually dwindled down with the days. Its a Sartrean dilemma in some sense: of having to exercise my freedom in the form of making difficult decisions, and then always wondering what would have happened if I had chosen to go the other way. So instead of making a choice and committing myself to it, I make a choice and then question that choice over and over again while I am still living inside that choice’s parameters. When I am in a relationship, I wonder if I would be better outside of it; but then when my relationship falls apart because of my behavior, I wonder why I ever risked it in the first place, and then regret my choice to not be in a committed, faithful relationship. Its a grotesque merry-go-round of neuroticism and uncertainty.
Beyond those personal internal struggles, I grew up with a father who was married (and subsequently divorced) five times (and before I get into details here, I want to make it clear that my dad, although flawed in various ways like anyone else, is a great human being and a wonderful dad. He holds exactly ZERO fault for my actions, and the following is in no way an attempt to shift any of the blame onto him). Having said that, growing up with my dad we did have a constantly rotating cast of girlfriends, wives, and stepmoms around us at all times. This certainly had a huge influence on me, and perhaps to some extent it normalized that sort of relationship-chaos for me. But on a deeper level, as i grew into a teenager, I began to associate my dad’s approach to women as something that was “cool”, something to brag about. It became something that set me apart from many of my peers: I could get girls left and right, while peers and close friends struggled to find anyone at all. Friends would comment on it, call me a “ladies man”, and it felt good. In the way that all boys, if they have their fathers, admire them and seek to emulate them in various ways, I admired, and tried to emulate, my father’s ability to attract and have access to women. It became a thing of pride for me that I could get girls to like me so easily, and it certainly boosted my ego in a life-period of notorious insecurity. Being a teenager means to be truly and deeply insecure and unsure of yourself, no matter how much you pretend to everyone else that that isn’t the case. This intrinsic insecurity is something all humans have to wrestle with when we are that age. And because of that, I not-so-secretly delighted in the fact that I was able to have sexual relationships with so many different women, it validated me as someone worthy of love and it became a mainstay of my character in a lot of ways. And as a late-teenage boy, it wasn’t surprising that I felt that way. But as I grew into my twenties, and now into my late twenties, the “coolness” of that lifestyle started to turn over and reveal to me its unsavory underbelly. I started to feel how vacuous such a lifestyle was, how empty I felt, and how Sisyphus-like my romantic charades had become: finding a girl, winning her over, being with her romantically for a short period of time, then sabotaging it (whether consciously or subconsciously), and moving on to the next girl. The ethical and moral dimensions of this charade only began to really concern me as I grew older and developed a more robust conscience and sense of moral responsibility. I started to see how I hurt people, and still, I couldn’t stop. It developed a momentum all its own. Now, at age 27, with two children and on the verge of giving both of them their own special version of a broken home, I am having to come to terms with myself, my flaws, and the people I have hurt. I now feel like the guy who, after graduating high-school, still hung around at their parties for a few years, refusing to grow up. What started out as a source of pride, turned into a source of shame. What started out as an immature, ego-driven quirk has become a life-altering, monstrously destructive part of who I am, and I fucking hate it.
How do I change? How do I stop hurting people? How do I pin down and choke out my unethical compulsions? Am I built for monogamy, or am I destined to grow old alone? I do not know. But I do believe in the written word. I do believe that by sitting down and thinking very hard about oneself in an thoroughly and brutally honest away, and then crafting and shaping those thoughts into concrete sentences and paragraphs that we can reflect back to ourselves who we are in a clearer way, and thereby create the conditions by which we can begin to change ourselves for the better. At least that is my hope.
After this recent implosion and subsequent humiliation, I have been called, by more than one person I care about, “a bad person”. Its not, according to them, that I am a good person who makes bad choices, no. The accusation is stronger: I am not a good person. Period. I am a bad person who does bad things because I am bad. This hurts and wounds me. Badly. And although I am willing to accept the judgments and criticisms of everyone, this is one charge against me that I do not accept. That I cannot accept. I know, and everyone who knows me knows, that deep down I am a caring, emotional, empathetic, sensitive human being. I am a loving, engaged, conscious father. I am a loyal, trustworthy friend. I am an informed and active citizen. I am more than my mistakes. I am more than my flaws. But I have some proving to do; not only to my family and friends, but to myself and to the world in which I exist. I do not want to be another cause of suffering in this world; it has more than its fair share of that already. I do not want to add to the amount of tears sliding down faces and hitting floors in the world. I do not want to add to the overall pain of human beings on this planet. And so I have a lot of work to do.
“I am better than this. I have to be.”
I truly do not know whether I can put my family back together. I do not know whether my fiance’ will come back to me. Perhaps, and I could never blame her for this, she will realize that she cannot take the chance of being hurt like this again, and my abysmal record on this subject certainly justifies that conclusion, were she to come to it. After all, as I said at the beginning of this essay and will continue to say over and over again, to myself and to others, to ensure that it sinks in: I have *never* had a faithful relationship. Every single relationship I have ever been in in my entire life is a relationship that I have cheated in. Some found out, some didn’t. But I always knew, and I continue to know. I cannot even say for sure that I will never do it again, because I have made that promise before, and every single time, without fail, I have broken that promise. I have a 100% failure rate in this arena. Nobody should have to deal with that. Nobody should have mercy on me or feel sympathy for me; especially not the woman who gave me a child, a family, and a home, and who I, in return, gave only devastating heartbreak, pain, and cold betrayal to.
She owes me nothing. I owe her everything.
But maybe by being honest, and by telling the truth, to her, to others, and finally to myself, I can begin to be the man that I know I can be. Maybe I can take those good traits that I mentioned above and extend them into that one realm of my life that I have hitherto never been able to extend them into: my romantic relationships.
Yesterday my fiance’ asked me how I would feel if my daughter, when she grows up, was treated by her significant other in the same way I have treated my fiance’. That pointed question hit me squarely and powerfully and dug itself into the core of my being. I want to be the sort of person who I would want my daughter, or my son, to be with. That’s the standard I am going to set for myself, and that’s the central question around which my thoughts from here on out will orbit: can I be the sort of person that I would want my children to be with?
I hope so.