Someone asked me this question recently. To answer it, I need to take a big step back. First, let’s talk about attraction in general. So, if you married the right person, you’ll never be tempted to stray, right?
Hardly. Attraction happens, and it happens especially at a time in life that most people refer to as the “mid life crisis.” It happens to men, and it happens to women. (By the way, Laura Munsen wrote a great essay about this recently called, “Those Aren’t Fighting Words Dear.”)
Attraction happens because your spouse can never be your everything. No one person possesses every single attractive quality. Your husband or wife is probably a lot of great things—supportive, smart, caring, successful, you name it—but there is probably something that he or she is not.
And when you meet someone who has that something, you are going to want it. And when that happens, it’s scary.
You’re especially vulnerable around midlife for a few reasons. These include:
1. You’ve been married for a while. The fireworks stage is over, and many of those things that you used to do to build one another up (honey, you look so hot in those pants!) have given way to the routine of marriage and parenting (honey, thanks for emptying the dishwasher. Appreciated.)
2. You feel old, as if the best of life is about to pass you by. You start to worry, “If my spouse is not my soul mate, I’d better find the real one quick, before I lose the ability to attract anyone.”
3. You crave validation. At midlife, when lines sprout every which way from our lips, we crave hearing someone say, “You’re so pretty. You’re so funny. You’re so smart.” If someone else does this and our spouse doesn’t? We’re going to crave hearing it from that someone else.
It doesn’t mean you don’t love your spouse if you are attracted to someone else. No, it just means that you are still alive. The love comes in practicing self-control, in saying, “Wow, that’s really tempting but, nah. My marriage is too important to take that risk.” That’s love.
So What Constitutes Cheating?
If attraction is normal, then where’s the line? That’s what people are really debating when they want to know whether or not it’s okay to friend an ex on Facebook. Let’s take a look at a couple of situations from my life. You can vote on whether or not you think they constitute cheating.
Situation #1: Many months ago, when most of the midlife adult world was discovering Facebook, a few of my ex-boyfriends sent me friend requests. I looked at the requests and thought about them. Then I asked my husband, “Is it okay if I let my ex-boyfriends friend me on Facebook?” He said he didn’t care. I accepted their friendship, knowing that I would unfriend them if things got flirty. They didn’t. In fact, to this day, we’ve not messaged one another. At all.
Situation #2: About a year ago, I was feeling this restless yearning that is very hard to describe. I kept going to bars alone. I had all sorts of justifications for what I was doing. I was bored. None of my friends were available. My husband went to bars alone and no one thought anything odd about that. When I was out at these bars, invariably men would hit on me. While that flattered me, I never acted on it. I just basked in their attention and then I went home to my husband. I kept not secrets. I told him about every single thing these men said.
Now that you’ve had your chance to vote, I’ll tell you what I think. Situation #1? Harmless. Situation #2? Absolutely dangerous.
And the difference isn’t in the actual details. The difference lies in my mindset. I’m one of those people who, when she’s done with a relationship, she’s done. I could sleep in the same bed with one of my ex-boyfriends and never once be tempted to touch him. Whatever we had together years ago was nice, but I don’t need to ever have it again. Been there. Done that. So done with that.
In the second situation, I was not attracted to any of the men who hit on me. They just weren’t my type. That said, I was tempting fate. Chances are that, had I continued these escapades, my type would have eventually sat next to me at the bar. More important, looking back on that time in my life, I can clearly see that I was an empty vessel that needed to be filled with another man’s admiration. I was starting to feel past my prime. I was desperate for others to confirm for me that I, indeed, wasn’t. That’s a very dangerous place to be in when it’s time to practice self-control.
The Self Control Litmus Test
Okay, so how do you figure out whether or not an attraction is harmless? In my opinion, the situation hardly matters. It’s the implication: what does it mean about your marriage? Why is it happening? Here’s my litmus test. It’s dangerous when:
1. You turn to someone else for comfort. If you find yourself revealing deep dark secrets to someone else and crying on someone else’s shoulder, you need to ask yourself, “Why am I not doing this with my spouse?”
2. You complain about your spouse to someone else. Big. Red. Flag.
3. You start keeping secrets. If the relationship is really harmless, why aren’t you telling your spouse about it?
4. You feel out of control.
How to Practice Self Control
Remind yourself that your spouse is Mr. or Mrs. Right. It’s really tempting, when you are attracted to someone else, to question your marriage and to tell yourself, “Crap I married the wrong person.” You didn’t. Trust me. If you left your spouse for this other person, the attraction would eventually wane and you’d eventually ask yourself, “What have I done?”
Remind yourself why you love your spouse. Keep all of these reasons front and center in your mind. Several times a day, think about your spouse, and remind yourself, “I’m so happy that she/he is still in my life.” Remind yourself that your spouse probably won’t be in your life any longer if you do not practice self-control.
Remind yourself that there are lots of things in life that you can’t have. Everything in life poses a trade off. If you want to lose weight, you can’t eat as much dessert as you’d like. If you want to save money for retirement, you can’t buy every single thing that you want. If you want to stay married to your spouse, you can’t sleep with someone else. Learn how to accept disappointment. It’s the fighting against it–the yearning and grasping and emotional temper tantrum (It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!)–that makes an attraction hard to resist. If you just relax and accept that you can’t have everything that you want, it loses a lot of its power.
Figure out what’s missing from your marriage. Your spouse may not be able to make an abrupt personality overhaul (for instance, if he’s not funny, he may never be funny), but he can probably give you many of the things that you find so attractive in that someone else.
Practice continual acts of validation and ask for them in return. Once I explained to my husband that I craved compliments, he started feeding them to me. Now that he gooses me whenever I bend over and whistles at me whenever I dress up, I’m much less needy for that kind of attention from others. He’s giving me what I need.
What do you think constitutes cheating? How do you affair-proof your relationship? Leave a comment.
Note: A big thank you to that person who will remain nameless (she knows who she is) for suggestion this blog topic.