by Frank Pittman published in Psychology Today

Despite their destructiveness, affairs are not going out of style. Not all affairs are alike; some are even accidental.

Day after day in my office I see men and women who have been messing around. They lead secret lives, as they hide themselves from their marriages. They go through wrenching divorces, inflicting pain on their children and their children’s children. Or they make desperate, tearful, sweaty efforts at holding on to the shreds of a life they’ve betrayed.

They tell me they have gone through all of this for a quick thrill or a furtive moment of romance. Sometimes they tell me they don’t remember making the decision that tore apart their life: “It just happened.” Sometimes they don’t even know they are being unfaithful.

After almost 30 years of cleaning up the mess after other people’s affairs, I wrote a book describing everything about infidelity I’d seen in my practice. The book was Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy (Norton). I thought it might help. Even if the tragedy of AIDS and the humiliation of prominent politicians hadn’t stopped it, surely people could not continue screwing around after reading about the absurd destructiveness of it. As you know, people have not stopped having affairs. But many of them feel the need to write or call or drop by and talk to me about it. When I wrote Private Lies, I thought I knew everything there was to know about infidelity. But I know now that there is even more.

All affairs are not alike. The thousands of affairs I’ve seen seem to fall into four broad categories. Most first affairs are cases of unintended and uncharacteristic acts of carelessness that really did “just happen.” Someone will get drunk, will get caught up in the moment—will just be having a bad day. It can happen to anyone, though some people are more accident prone than others, and some situations are accident zones.

Many times a young man has started his career as a philanderer quite accidentally when he is traveling out of town on a new job with a philandering boss who chooses one of a pair of women and expects the young fellow to entertain the other. The most startling dynamic is misplaced politeness, the feeling that it would be rude to turn down a needy friend’s sexual advances. In the debonair gallantry of the moment, the brazen discourtesy to the marriage partner is overlooked altogether.

Both men and women can slip up and have accidental affairs, though the most accident-prone are those who drink, those who travel, those who don’t get asked much, those who don’t feel very tightly married, those whose running buddies screw around, and those who are afraid to run from a challenge. Most are men.

There is clearly the sense that one’s life and marriage have changed. The choices are:

  1. To decide that fooling around was a stupid thing to do, to confess it or not to do so, but to resolve to take better precautions in the future;
  2. To decide you wouldn’t have done such a thing unless your husband or wife had let you down, put the blame on your mate, and go home and pick your marriage to death;
  3. To notice that lightning did not strike you dead, decide this would be a safe and inexpensive hobby to take up, and do it some more;
  4. To decide that you would not have done such a thing if you were married to the right person, determine that this was meant to be, and declare yourself in love with the stranger in the bed.


Surely the craziest and most destructive form is the temporary insanity of falling in love. You do this, not when you meet somebody wonderful (wonderful people don’t screw around with married people) but when you are going through a crisis in your own life, can’t continue living your life, and aren’t quite ready for suicide yet. An affair with someone grossly inappropriate—someone decades younger or older, someone dependent or dominating, someone with problems even bigger than your own—is so crazily stimulating that it’s like a drug that can lift you out of your depression and enable you to feel things again. Of course, between moments of ecstasy, you are more depressed, increasingly alone and alienated in your life, and increasingly hooked on the affair partner. Ideal romance partners are damsels or “dumsels” in distress, people without a life but with a lot of problems, people with bad reality testing and little concern with understanding reality better.

Romantic affairs lead to a great many divorces, suicides, homicides, heart attacks, and strokes, but not to very many successful remarriages. No matter how many sacrifices you make to keep the love alive, no matter how many sacrifices your family and children make for this crazy relationship, it will gradually burn itself out when there is nothing more to sacrifice to it. Then you must face not only the wreckage of several lives, but the original depression from which the affair was an insane flight into escape.

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