couples

"An affair is a symptom. It’s never the whole picture." When you're the one who cheated.

Imagine your relationship is a coal mine.

You and your partner have been slaving down there for a while now, cutting, blasting, and carting out coal daily.

It was fun at first. You were down there together. You liked using your body in a new way, of feeling the muscles ripple beneath your skin, cracking jokes and heaving stone together with your mate.

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But then the toil gets to you. It’s just the same day after day after day. Another day of this? You think as soon you pop open your eyes every morning, dress, and then take the lift down into the mine yet again. Your partner there beside you, barely able to smile themselves.

There’s a caged canary down there with you both, a little chirping spot of yellow you hear as you work. If it dies, it means you need to exit that mine immediately before the carbon monoxide or other dangerous gases that killed it kill you too.

An affair, whether you’re on the precipice of one or in one, is much like that canary in the mine. It’s a signal to you that something is not right with your relationship.

Imagine your relationship is a body.

It’s a healthy robust body because you and your partner nourish it continually. Every day, you do something necessary and kind for it.

Then imagine, one day, you or your partner forget to feed it anything with Vitamin C. And the next day, and the next. Soon this body that depended on you both is ill. Its gums are bleeding. Its wounds won’t heal. It’s exhausted and nauseous. You have it swill mouthwash. You buy it nausea medicine, but it wastes away to nearly nothing.

An affair is a symptom. It’s never the whole picture.

For years, the only solution to the problems within my marriage was to leave. I’d voiced my needs constantly, both to my husband individually and within couples therapy. We’d read books. We’d followed self-help advice.

I was young and had never had positive marital role models. I was also a coward and never wanted the brand of “divorce.” I thought the condition of our unhappy marriage was a condition of all marriages, one I would need to get used to. I tried to learn to accept the status quo.

But, day after day, my husband rarely touched me. Day after day, he turned down my sexual advances.

It sounds small, petty even, doesn’t it? I ended up having an affair because my husband didn’t touch me enough?

For years, I tried to convince myself that my needs could be ignored, beaten down, that eventually I’d no longer care whether my husband touched me or not.

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But babies can die from lack of touch. We have a nerve ending that exists solely to register any form of gentle touch. Even a hug or a handshake can reduce stress, blood pressure, and heart rate. It can stimulate the release of oxytocin, the natural antidepressant serotonin, and the pleasure chemical dopamine. Even the touch of a total stranger can soothe feelings of loneliness.

I felt overwhelmingly lonely and depressed in that marriage. The canary had been dead for ages, and I was still toiling in the mine, slowly suffocating. The body we’d cared for would blink to let us know it was still alive, but I was wasting away with it.

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People sensed my loneliness. Men and women. Some men seemed to even be attracted to me because of it, as if they had honed in on the beacon of a susceptible heart. Surely they had sussed out that I was weak, easy prey.

They had tried for years. They’d flirted with me in front of my husband. They’d called me hot. They’d hugged me and held on for a beat too long, placed their hands on my arms and shoulders, complimented my body, all while my husband was or wasn’t present. He’d never said a word.

I thought marriage was all uphill drudgery, that my unmet needs were normal and part of the institution that I’d entered into. I had boundaries for years that prevented anything from happening.

At my husband’s cousin’s wedding, the groom, meeting me for the first time, grasped my hand and said, “My God, you’re beautiful.”

I softened and even giggled. “Thank you!” I said. The groom turned to my husband, “Good job!”

My husband shook the groom’s hand, but didn’t smile or say a word.

“He told me I was beautiful!” I told him later.

“Yup,” he said.

“I wish you’d tell me that,” I said. I was constantly hopeful that things would change, and sometimes I would try to incite that by pointing out the positives of other men I wanted my husband to have.

“I do,” he replied.

“When?”

“I do,” he repeated.

We didn’t talk much the rest of the wedding. I was lost in wishing I’d married someone who would be struck enough by my appearance to blurt out a compliment, who hadn’t, just a week before, told me when I’d walked out wearing lingerie, “I don’t feel like it.”

It was only a matter of time before I did cheat. I simply needed to be so broken that the walls I’d constructed around myself and my marriage were wafer-thin. Then it was too easy to say “yes” to another man because it meant finally saying “no” to my marriage.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.

Tara Blair Ball is a freelance writer and author of the memoir, The Beginning of the End. Check out her website here or find her on Twitter: @taraincognito.

Feature image: Getty.

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