When I Had My First Affair
It wasn't easy running a brand, being a wife, a "role model" and juggling my love life. But harder still was the childhood that lead to becoming that person.
When I got married at 26, I didn’t envision having affairs. But I also didn’t consciously consider not having them.
Growing up, there were always angry whispers and jabs between my parents that suggested infidelity on my dad’s part. It just felt like the elevator music to my childhood. I never actually processed it. Maybe I should have. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t have adopted the same soundtrack through osmosis.
I cheated on my boyfriends, long before I was married. Based on my own upbringing, fidelity, honestly, just seemed optional, so… I opted out. But as with everything in life, it’s more complicated than that.
I don’t even remember the first time I cheated on my college boyfriend, “J”. It was that natural. I just wasn’t faithful. But I sure remember the last time I cheated on him because it basically ended the relationship. I was out with my friends at our college bar, flirting with this cute friend of a friend all night and brought him back to my apartment. I wasn’t necessarily planning on having sex with him, but for sure he shouldn’t have been there. I had a long-term boyfriend. It was 2:30am. And just as we walked in, “J” buzzed from downstairs wanting to crash at my place after a night out with his own friends. Shit. I basically shoved the poor guy out of my apartment. They walked by each other in the narrow stairwell, one going up and the other coming down and, of course, “J” just knew this guy was coming from my apartment. I totally tried to gaslight him. But man, he was angry. We never really recovered from that. He knew it wasn’t the first time and maybe that’s why it was the last.
You would think I’d have learned my lesson. But no.
I want to unpack why infidelity felt so easy for me. Obviously, the incest played a big part in it, right? Secret sex was how I was indoctrinated. But it was more than that. When I was a child, my mom was not deeply connected to me emotionally. I mean, it makes sense. She was mothered by a child. My grandmother was 14 when she married my grandfather in an arranged marriage, and 16 when she had my mom. A 16-year-old is who she learned how to mother from. Like her own mother, my mom always made sure we had clothes, food, medical care and a nice place to live. But there wasn’t much talking or non-routine connection. Come down for dinner. Finish your food. Time to wake up. We’re going to the store. That sort of thing. There was no: Tell me about your friends. How was your day? Are you okay? What would you like to do this summer? No conversations like that existed. She had other things on her mind and so rather than meeting my more complicated emotional self, she saw the checklist and nailed it. Some of it was likely her own internal life and the stuff I described with my dad – and much of it was busting her ass providing for us so she could nail that check list, sometimes working two jobs. Btw - I credit her 100 percent for my strong work ethic.
But her limited capacity for emotional discomfort also had a darker side. Like, if I did something “wrong.” (Typical kid stuff, nothing nefarious.) She would often not speak to me for days. She wouldn’t even look at me. As a little kid – maybe age 6, 7 or 8 – it was really confusing and painful and no other grownup advocated for me because I suspect they didn’t want to get in her cross hairs either.
One scene I can’t erase from my memory: We were watching the old show Happy Days and I made some innocuous observation about what someone was wearing. My mother just walloped me in the face. I had a bloody nose. I remember sobbing to my older sister, “What does she think I said? What does she think I said?” And my sister sort of nervously laughed and asked my mom what she thought I had said. But tbh - I even sensed my sister sort of leaving her body. And in those moments of big tears and big emotions whether they were caused by my mom or not – there was no physical comforting. There was no falling into her arms crying. There was no hand rubbing my back while I heaved. There was just a very strong look with the message that I needed to get my shit together, fast. And trust me, I didn’t want to suffer another silent spell. So I kept my shit together tight. This helped me when I was working. I was cold as ice when intense stuff happened at work - including 9/11. But I was also cold as ice in relationship which made it easy to cheat. I was an equal opportunity Ice Queen. I don’t blame my mom at all, for real. I hold her with so much compassion because I can’t imagine what was happening in her internal life to have so little bandwidth for me to speak or feel anything at all.
These types of experiences and culture is what primed me to be molested. Think about it: No one asking how I was doing. The clear message that I shouldn’t share hard stuff. The need for physical and emotional comfort. The incest was a symptom of the greater issue for me: Emotional neglect. And that neglect left a mother-sized wound in my love tank.
So, you see, getting married didn’t change the fact that my love tank was broken and had to be filled constantly. And no matter how devoted and loving my husband was, and he really was very attentive, some would say overattentive: He would drive me to and from work every day. If I had to work late, he would bring me my beloved McDonalds or whatever I wanted. He bought me tons of gifts. But it wasn’t enough. I had emotional needs that were just not being met. In fact, I had married my mother in some ways. Someone who nailed the check list, but didn’t have the bandwidth for my emotional needs…which btw, I myself couldn’t even name. Perhaps if I had a better sense of what those needs were, I could have represented them in the relationship. Hindsight is 20/20. We do the best we can at the time, sister. We do the best we can.
My first extramarital affair was with a photographer who I really loved. But in retrospect, did I really love him? I realize that because of my hunger, I was a master at making men feel so seen that they fell in love quickly and were converted to an excellent source of fuel for my love tank. And it wasn’t just about sex: Although that did briefly scratch the itch of the physical comfort the younger me was still yearning for. More than that, I was servicing my maternal wounding. Period. I needed love and attention from a dear beloved…and all the better if in secret.
I finally forced myself to stop cheating when I left Seventeen – almost the way a smoker goes cold turkey – and like that smoker, I gained 50 pounds! Something had to feed my love tank. I settled on comfort food. That was not a good chapter for me either – tbd in another letter.
Luckily, getting divorced has gifted me the ability to take stock of what I need in and out of a relationship. I made this love map (below) to remind me of my emotional needs. I feel sort of like a Kindergartner who writes the rules of their classroom to internalize them. (We do not hit, etc.) And like that Kindergartner, I’m finally learning about my needs which under different childhood circumstances would have been hardwired into my psyche as an infant.
Am I done cheating? Is it just part of who I am? Can I ever be faithful? Is unconditional self-love enough to fill this hole inside me? I have no fucking idea.
Here’s the only thing I know for sure. In my next committed relationship, I will treat the urge to cheat as an alert: Are my emotional needs being met…or just my external needs? I don’t want to replicate the relationship with my mother again. Even the Bear was a replication of this relationship and his loss was a stand-in for the long-contained grief over my mother’s very conditional love. Hence the agonizing sorrow that followed the break-up.
Until then, I will keep filling my own love tank. I will keep giving myself love actively many times a day through the different inner child meditations we’ve discussed in the past few letters. I will do nice things for myself. I’m going to my beloved Shou Sugi Ban House for a few days next week and will surround myself with yoga, sound baths, and their incredible food. And I will stop calling myself a cheater. For so many years, I have sort of shit on and shamed myself for those choices because they hurt good people. But that shit and shame also made me stay in a marriage that was past its expiration date because I didn’t want to hurt him again. My newfound unconditional love for myself helps me realize that I am also a good person. I am a girl whose needs weren’t met as a child, who learned an unhealthy coping mechanism from my family of origin and continued to be in relationship with people who didn’t meet my needs because that’s the only way I knew how to be loved. My compass was not pointing to True North. But it can, sister. I know it can.
How about you? Any experience on either side of cheating? It’s all so much more complicated that we sometimes make it out to be and at the end of my story I hope you can find compassion for all the players. We all ultimately want the same thing: Love. Some of us just didn’t learn the right way to receive it. But if we take the shame out of the equation, we can shed some light on what’s really going on – and get to the root of the problem. At this point, I’m no expert. But shit…that’s why we call it Earth School. Still learning.
Expert or not, I’m here 24/7, as always at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The soundtrack of my 🤍🖤❤️ :