Men and Affairs

Edward Hopper, NIGHTHAWKS, 1942

HIM: In the April 6th edition of The New York Times, I read an impressive article by Karin Jones entitled What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity. First of all, simply writing the piece under her own name (The New York Times does not allow pseudonyms) required a rare level of bravery. Being the ‘other woman’ is no one’s idea of a heroic role, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary notwithstanding. Secondly, her thesis, although somewhat ambivalent, is that many men who have affairs are not the selfish bastards they’re usually made out to be. Instead, they are often individuals trapped in very difficult circumsances who feel they have few options. While I don’t agree with everything she has to say, hers is a voice not often heard that should be listened to carefully.Her message is not simply of academic interest to me. As a man who had two affairs during a long, unsatisfying marriage, mine is also a voice that’s not often listened to with any level of sympathy or understanding. Not that I’m whining, but if you’re interested in relations between the sexes, you’ll want as many perspectives as possible.

To facilitate that, we’re going to do things a little differently this week. Rather than conversing with my usual partner (Hey Sweetie!), I’m going to do a little swapping and engage in a kind of dialogue with Karin Jones, using selected quotes from her article. So here we go…

“What surprised me was that these husbands weren’t looking to have more sex. They were looking to have any sex.” (My emphasis)

It’s no surprise that lack of sex is a big motivator of affairs, but it’s rarely about slight differences between what these men want and what they’re getting. It’s about huge differences. As Karin states, many of these men are getting zero sex. I can’t speak for the women involved — and believe me, I’m not judging them — but there are very few men who will not go to outrageous lengths to make up that deficit. And this isn’t just about the physical act of sex. It’s about all the things that come with sex — being your unguarded, fully embodied, giving self with an empathetic and enthusiastic partner.

In my experience, it wasn’t that I was getting no sex, but the twice a month I did get was not even close to enough to satisfy my natural drives. In my current marriage we average about twenty times a month (see our article on The Quantified Sex Life) … and I’m ten years older now, with a presumably diminished sex drive. That 1,000% disparity between what my ex-wife needed and what I needed was clearly a recipe for marital disaster. It was also the cause of self doubt. I was not perfect, but I did cross out most of the reasons commonly listed for making women sexually unresponsive. I did lots of work around the house, was very involved with the kids, brought in a good income, never raised my voice, complimented her daily, and worked out consistently. And for all that effort, I got hardly any sexual affirmation. In fact, rather than appreciating how much I helped or how fit I was, those things just made my wife feel more inadequate. She sometimes saw my efforts as an indictment of her rather than something positive that I was bringing to the marriage. I didn’t know how to make her want me.

“What if you said to your wife, ‘Look, I love you and the kids but I need sex in my life. Can I just have the occasional fling or a casual affair?’ He sighed. “I don’t want to hurt her…if I asked her that kind of question, it would kill her.”

Jones captures nicely the moral reasoning of the kind of man usually assumed to be  completely immoral. Now, I am not trying to suggest that the typical philandering husband is a saint. In fact, the opposite is probably true. But all men are not the same, and I think Jones does a great job of letting people in on another side of the story. Sometimes decent men find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances that they did not foresee, and they struggle to take care of their needs with the least hurt possible.

My ex and I had dated since high school. Her strict religious beliefs and her repressed struggle with her sexual identity left her deeply conflicted about sex. She also had very strict boundaries around what was acceptable in the bedroom. No oral sex, to pick one example, and I was never allowed to see her come (this happened, I was told, only when she masturbated in private). If she wasn’t comfortable with these things, she certainly wouldn’t be open to giving me permission to have an affair or explore non-monogamy.

“…(women) are simply more complex sexual animals. Which is why men can get an erection from a pill but there’s no way to medically induce arousal and desire in women.”

This collection of words, unfortunately, is steeped in misunderstanding. First of all, assuming that women are more sexually complex than men plays into the lazy stereotype of the mono-syllabic, knuckle-dragging, simple-minded male. Anyone with open eyes knows that men are as much a bundle of emotional and physical contradictions as women. Second — and this is strictly a scientific matter — erectile dysfunction medications do not induce “arousal and desire” in men. Viagra (or Cialis, or Levitra) will make it physiologically easier for a man to have an erection, but if he isn’t already turned on his penis will not enlarge by even one percent from taking a pill. And it will do nothing to change his level of interest in sex.

I guess I react strongly to these statements because they are dismissive of the experiences of men, as if we are all the same. I remember, after the truth came out, my ex-wife once called me a ‘skirt-chaser’ at our daughter’s parent-teacher night, of all places, and in a shockingly loud voice. Of course, anyone who heard that outburst would immediately feel like they knew everything worth knowing about me. What they wouldn’t know about, however, were my efforts to conduct myself honourably in those two complex affairs with women I genuinely cared for. I was not the caricature of the drooling wolf on the prowl, grabbing every ass that walked by.

“What these husbands couldn’t do was have the difficult discussion with their wives that would force them to tackle the issues at the root of their cheating. They tried to convince me they were being kind by keeping their affairs secret. They seemed to have convinced themselves. But deception and lying are ultimately corrosive, not kind.”

Everyone is comfortable with choosing between good things and bad things in life, but sometimes the way forward is not so obvious. The “difficult discussion” Jones suggests is not a simple exchange of opinions. It involves saying things that cannot be taken back. While there is a chance that it could make things better, there is also a chance that it could make things worse.

How do I know? Because my ex-wife and I actually did have that conversation in couple’s therapy five years before our marriage ended. In the safety of the counsellor’s office, I had a chance to make it very clear that our sex life was not satisfying, and she vowed to try to give me more. Which she did, for a while, but it didn’t last very long. She just ended up feeling worse about herself. It turned out that understanding that her husband needed more sex was not enough to get her past whatever blocked her from actually having more sex.

So, the choice appeared to be between a deeply unsatisfying sex life and living a double life. There was no third option that I could see, because ending the marriage seemed like it would be a disaster for everybody, hurting my wife, my kids, my in-laws, and turning me into a part-time dad. On the other hand, putting up with a nearly platonic relationship for the rest of my life just was not acceptable either. After years of self-denial, sexual frustration, and feeling unwanted and unattractive, I concluded that having an affair was the only way for me to find fulfilment while keeping my family together. I’m not saying it was the perfect solution, but a perfect solution didn’t seem to be available.

“In the end, I had to wonder if what these men couldn’t face was something else altogether: hearing why their wives no longer wanted to have sex with them. It’s much easier, after all, to set up an account on Tinder.”

While it might be simple to fill out an online profile, nothing else about having an affair is easy. Anyone who has tried any kind of dating website knows that the process of searching and corresponding is incredibly time consuming. But that’s just the beginning. Once you find someone, now you’re into the cloak and dagger world of coordinating secret meetings in out of the way places, constructing unassailable alibis, paying for hotel rooms and hiding credit card records. Some might find this exciting, but I just found it stressful. Deceit doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m happy to report. I imagine all that effort is the reason men who are only mildly disappointed with their marriages don’t have affairs — they are way too difficult for the typically slender rewards.

And what did I get for all that effort? I would say, on average, I had sex two or three times more per month during those affairs, beyond the twice a month I had with my ex-wife. If it was all about sex, the pay-off wasn’t electrifying. But, of course, that wasn’t all there was. I got to feel lusted after. I had someone in my life I could freely discuss any sexual possibility with. Oh, and I was able to make a woman come, something that had never happened in my marriage. I got to be my most giving sexual self, which meant a lot to me. And besides all that, I got to know two exceptional women in deep, meaningful ways. In other words, a tiny dose of all the things I longed for, yet couldn’t find, in my marriage.

“…the…husbands I met would have preferred to be having sex with their wives. For whatever reason, that wasn’t happening.”

Yes. Exactly.

Thank you, Karin Jones.


  1. Tom Leykis says:

    Marriage is vastly overrated, financially risky and entirely unrewarding for men. ONLY women benefit from it. Excellent article.

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