A lot of folks keep wanting an answer to “why would I risk the life I had built?” or “how did I end up in an affair?” as if somehow that would make things easier to understand. People come back to “was there something missing in your marriage?” In fact, I’ve been asked “how did you get there?” often enough (as well as it being a question I’ve wrestled with for quite some time) that I’ve decided to go ahead and blog about it.

A friend shared with me that there is a song called, “Slow Fade.” It is all about how we don’t set out to have an affair, the decisions are small at first, and like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill, it gets out of control before you know it. I should probably begin by admitting that I don’t do relationships well. I’ve freely admitted to the train wreck that was my dating life and it’s not like things got magically better when I got married. The thing that’s going to draw me to a person, the thing that makes me notice them, is their intellect. Whenever I can have an intellectual give and take with someone, there is an automatic spark I’m going to have with them. And that’s how things started.

The lie began in benign ways. “The other woman” seemed to just get me without trying. Not just that, she affirmed me. She liked me, looked up to me, and was like a personal cheerleader. And I did the same for her. It’s as addictive an effect as it is intoxicating. You start thinking why couldn’t all relationships be like this, so easy, to have someone unconditionally in your corner, having your back. Or how we really connect and make a great team. We made time and to see each other, just wanting to spend time with each other because we so enjoyed each other’s company. Ministry opportunities became an excuse. Choosing classes to allow for tutoring time or learning more about a shared perspective. Reading and writing were a shared passion and point of connection. Even spending time as a part of my family’s life (which makes it doubly fun navigating those conversations with your children why someone who was such an integral part of your life is no longer in the picture).

In short, we became best friends, sharing the details of our days with each other. Sharing time, space, and heart space. Within a couple years, we’d racked up 2100+ pages of online chat (I don’t delete anything, even the stuff I say I delete, and one time I put it all into a Word document to see how much we talked. And this doesn’t include the last two years or so of conversations). As anyone who has done any online chatting knows, that’s a lot of time spent and intimacy robbed from my wife and children. It’s not like that fact was lost on either of us. Yet we were perfectly comfortable describing ourselves and believing that we were just friends.

A strictly physical affair would be easier to get over. As crass as this sounds, one person nailed the point as “you gave her your heart, not your penis”, telling yourself that if you don’t cross a certain physical line, that things weren’t so bad. Instead you find yourself vowing to be the best friend possible, to never leave or abandon; to be there for her no matter the cost; because you want to be that guy, that special someone, the one who never fails. It all sounds so very romantic, even noble. And it wasn’t real.

Having watched one too many Hollywood love story or romance, you can create all sorts of stories in your head. A person or an unattainable relationship becomes romanticized into a Muse. The tale of star crossed lovers, tragically kept apart by circumstances they can’t control; or the tale of best friends whose love can triumph over any adversity. Easy to do when you have an idealized relationship. You don’t have to do the hard work of making a life together, the fitting together of two lives. The hardest part was the preoccupation of my thoughts and heart as they constantly drifted to her; the prioritization, in time, deed, and thought, of her over everything else. Looking back, that’s probably the hardest part: half the time, you don’t even know if the feelings—as intense as they were—were even real so find yourself sifting through to see if any of it was true.

Part of the healing process has been the willingness to give her (even the idea of her) up. I know that part of me will always be haunted by her, that’s just reality. You give away a piece of yourself, your heart, you don’t get it back. But I’m committing myself wholly to the relationship with my wife, the one I want to know and be known by, rather than cherish old memories of a relationship that may or may not have even been real. Still, I pray for forgiveness for misusing my position of authority and how this might have damaged a young life. These are some of the sins I have to own for myself (though, yes, I’m perfectly aware that she made her own decisions).

For all of the idealization and romanticizing of everything, she was an illusion. It’s easy to fall for the illusion of a relationship when the reality of a real relationship proves too “hard.” It’s the same kind of illusion of a relationship a writer can have with their fans, which this is quite analogous to (in fact, this may have been a case of): we have a different and complicated relationship with our audience, opening ourselves to them, laying our souls bare for their consumption, and thus making a connection point with them. They are inclined to be (unconditionally) supportive and it’s easy to get caught up in the constant validation. The relationship is inherently unequal and that can potentially be exploited, even subconsciously.

Real friendships, real relationships are harder to forge and harder to maintain. It’s harder to face and talk to people who aren’t caught up in being a constant ego boost. That’s not what good friends do. It’s certainly not what good spouses do. Good friends/spouses see you for who you are, the entirety of your sinfulness, and love you anyway. They aren’t there to stroke your ego, they’re there to share and carve out a life with you. It’s the only way to build a real relationship and a real life. A life built from the coming together of equals.

I’d love to be able to point to a rough patch in our marriage—somehow that would make it easier to justify—but there wasn’t one. Ultimately, if there was something missing from my marriage it was me not valuing my wife’s friendship. To put it simply, I have an inability to make my wife my best friend. As much as I go on about communication, there’s often something about marriage that strains people’s ability to talk to one another. Walls simply build up over time if the relationship is not checked, cleaned, and maintained.

A lot of my relationships are one way: I give (outward) to them. I don’t let folks in enough to let them be friends to me. I keep people at a distance, including my wife. It’s easier, no, it’s safer for me. There’s less risk, less chance of being hurt. I’m not good at letting folks in, my wife included, contenting myself to live within the walls I’ve erected around my heart and life. Believing, in the quiet corners of my heart, that maybe I was meant to be alone (and others might be better off if I were). Better to be guarded than risk the pain of living in a fallen world, with its broken relationships and propensity to cause hurt. But ultimately, that’s no way to live. To shut out the pain means to shut out the potential joys, the love of friends, family, and a spouse.

I’m not going to claim that me and my wife are perfect. I don’t think there is a “perfect” counterpart to, well, me. As quirky and temperamental as our personalities are, we mostly work. One of the things I hate most about all of this is not only how bad I’ve hurt my wife, but how she has to walk through the aftermath with me. She gets to be judged as too
trusting, if not foolish, for remaining with me. She gets to hear “how did you not see this?” from herself, much less from others piling on.

Emotional affairs are tricky to navigate. The betrayal of an affair is about the shared connectedness which is meant to be reserved between husband and wife being shared with another. But while you can’t help who you fall in love with, you can choose what to do and how to act upon it. I loved two women, neither particularly well, and both to their detriment. Not only can I not afford to wallow in the “what if” game, I also can’t afford to live in regret. I don’t have to carry the shame, internalize it and let it define me. What I have to do is be a better man, a better husband, and a better child of the living God. That’s the journey I’m focusing on now.

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Full Disclosure:

Secret Lives, Secret Shame

Walking Through My Failings

Double Lives

For the Record …

On the Idea of Confessing

Emotional Affairs (aka No Longer “Just Friends”)

Good Days, Bad Days (On Despair)

Prayer of Repentance

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