My friend Katherine had two of the most polite parents. The year before she and her mother moved away to Boston, everything was okay. Everything was okay until her father, the Doctor, admitted he was having an affair with a woman he met. He wouldn’t say who she was, or how he met her, or how long these secret meetings had gone on for. But he did say, in the calmest, most polite voice: I am having an affair. I’m sorry. I love you still. But I can’t stay anymore.
And with that, he left. He had already packed his bags, and he disappeared.
Katherine’s mother had one thing to say before he left: I’ve been having an affair too. I still love you. I’m sorry.
I haven’t seen the Doctor since. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, but I think a quiet exit was exactly what he wanted. Two months later Katherine and her mother moved to Boston to be with family.
How many of these people were like the Doctor? Auburn Hair, 40, cheating on her husband with her daughter’s friend’s father. Gray Tie, 25, cheating on his girlfriend with a girl he met at his first office job. Gray Hair, 50, screwing the 23 year old intern. Tight Tank Top, 19, screwing her ex-boyfriend in her boyfriend’s apartment. I was nervous too. I took out my notebook and looked over my notes (blank pages).
“Hi.” It was Auburn Hair. “Mackenzie?”
And that was how I met my first cheater.
I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write when I first set out to write about cheating. I had this vague idea in my head that I would try to write a short fiction account of someone cheating on their partner. So I did research. Having never cheated on any of my girlfriends, I didn’t know what it felt like, and I hate to say it, but that was that. I was incapable of writing about that one exact moment. The moment that you know you’re cheating. That moment when your lips are on someone else’s, and you know it’s wrong but you don’t care, and you’re not sure. And I became obsessed with it. I became completely obsessed with infidelity, short of cheating on my own girlfriend. I became a rover of obscure internet forums. I combed Quora and I Googled and I Wikipedia’d and I read first-hand accounts of what it felt like to be cheated on, and what it felt like when a marriage was broken up because of an affair, but what I couldn’t find were first hand accounts of what it was like for someone to cheat on their partner. These people seemed simply to not exist.
So I set out to find them.
Searching for statistics on infidelity yields few (if any) credible results. A Google search will find you a couple different results. Unfortunately, the websites these pieces of research come from are not the most credible websites in the world. Further prodding reveals that all of these websites have information from the same sources (which is, for the most part, not linked on their websites). This information all comes from books and studies done past the last 20 years. So then where is all the modern information on infidelity? The only modern source I could find was a survey done by Esquire in their recent ‘Sex and the American Man’ Issue. The results of this survey said that 34% of men in committed relationships had cheated on their current partners. Believing this survey as a correct sample of all North American men assumes that one in three men who are in committed relationships have cheated on their partners. That means that everyone one of you with two uncles (statistically speaking) has a cheater in your family. That means looking around you wherever you’re reading this there are, statistically speaking, cheaters among you. And of course, to be fair, that number can’t be the most accurate because surveys of that sort rarely represent a proper sample, and examining Esquire’s demographic reveals a certain kind of man, but considering the amount of information there is on the subject, this survey seems to represent the most current and accurate information there is.
When I became starved and desperate for information to finish my story I had the idea that I would talk to people who had cheated on their partners and interview them, and maybe then I would begin to understand what it feels like to cheat on your partner. The problem was actually finding people who wanted to talk. I came to the conclusion early on that I wouldn’t be able to talk to people I know, because they wouldn’t tell me what I really wanted: the truth. There is a certain stereotype that surrounds cheaters. It goes something like this: cheaters are terrible monsters who are selfish and only care about themselves. Regardless of whether this is true or not, this stereotype is what prevented me from connecting with the people that I’m closest to, for the most part. I realized I wouldn’t be able to talk to my friends and my family because they wouldn’t be inclined to tell me the truth, out of fear of being branded with the black mark our society so abhors: cheater.
My first idea was to post ads on Craigslist advertising for who I was looking for. Wanting them to be seen by the people I thought I was trying to attract, I posted four very similar ads in two different sections. I posted one Man for Woman and one Woman for Man ad under Dating (Relationships), for people who were looking for other people to date, and I posted one Man for Woman and one Woman for Man ad under Casual Encounters, for people who were looking for casual sex.
Within the next 24 hours I had gotten 30 replies. Although both my ads seeking men from women were flagged and removed within the first two hours of being posted (maybe this says something about the men who use Craigslist), I received emails from people who were interested in helping me. People gave me their cell phone numbers, and sent me emails using their own emails asking what it was exactly I wanted to know. I received one email from someone who had made up an email account to asking me about the nature of my research and if they could correspond with me via email so I would never find out who they were, which was fine with me. A bit overwhelmed by the amount of responses I received, I began to contact these people.
The vast majority of the people who emailed me, numbering around 100 by the time I began to write this, never replied to me beyond their initial foray in my own inquisitive dimension. I contacted every single person who had sent me a message, and the majority of them decided not to reply. Whether it was because of my age, or because they didn’t trust I would keep their information secure, or because they became uninterested, I didn’t get a chance to talk to a number of people who were interested enough in what I was writing about to reply to my ads. But those who did reply to me had a lot to say.
I hate to say it, but we’re obsessed with cheating. There is something about the subject that captivates people. Whether it worries them or empowers them or something else, people are interested in infidelity. You’re hardly reading this article because you’re interested in me. For all I know, you’ll have forgotten my name by the end of this. You’re reading this because you’re interested in cheating. More specifically, by this point, you’re interested in the people who cheat. And of those, there are many.
The afternoon I met Auburn Hair was fresh, warm, and sunny. When she sat down in front of me and shakily asked my name, glancing down at the two blank pages I had been pretending to stare at, I think we both came to the conclusion that neither of us knew what to expect.
“Hi.” I offered.
And then she ordered a coffee and told me her story.
Gradually, while we talked and became less nervous around each other she began to open up more to me, and what I thought would be a awkward, broken sort of one-way conversation turned into a thoughtful and emotional one. Auburn Hair is 40. She’s been with her husband for 15 years, but for the past 10 she’s been sleeping with the father of one of her daughter’s friends.
Why do you do it, I ask.
She and her husband just stopped having good sex one day. And then after a year of him gradually losing interest in sex, and her feeling neglected and unwanted, Auburn Hair began seeing another man.
I was so captivated by her story, my coffee was cool by the time I remembered it.
What did it feel like the moment you know you were cheating on your husband?
“I couldn’t tell you. It was magical. And I felt guilty, but everything felt so good that I couldn’t stop. I was happy. For the first time in a long time.”
And that was it. Captured in one singular moment, what I was looking for.
Over the years, Auburn Hair fell in love again. In hotel rooms and on fake business trips, Auburn Hair found someone who she loved as much as her husband, if a comparison like that is fair.
“I’ve never slept with him in our bed, though,” she told me. That was the one spot that isn’t allowed to be touched. The same goes for her lover’s bed he shares with his wife. “The worst part of all of this is how much I love my husband. He’s my best friend, and he’s a great dad too. I can’t stand myself for it. For what I’m doing to him. I want to tell him about everything but I can’t. It’s the one secret I keep from him. I want to tell him but if I do I know it will be the end of us. It would kill him. I don’t deserve him. I can’t have that.”
When I ask her what I end up asking everyone, “why did you come to meet with me?”, she couldn’t give me an answer. In the 10 years she’s been unfaithful to her husband, I am the only person she’s told the whole story to.
“I wish the three of us could live together,” she told me as we were both getting up to leave. “But he has a wife and my husband would hate me for all of this. But I would be happy.”
And with that we parted and disappeared from each other’s lives, back into our own worlds. I never learned Auburn Hair’s name.
Soon after my first meeting with a cheater, while I was still trying to find a word to use that is less blunt than ‘cheater’ (I still haven’t), I posted a question on Quora. Quora’s community has a reputation for providing honest information from credible sources. Quora functions similarly to Yahoo Answers, but since your account has to be linked to your Facebook account, people’s reputations are directly affected by the answers they post. There are some truly gut-wrenching answers as to why people cheat on their partners. Quora’s community reminded me about technology’s rising role in how we communicate, and I began to wonder what role technology has in infidelity today. Maybe more than we think says Ian Kerner of CNN. I realized that the demographic I was reaching, both in corresponding with people over email on Craigslist, and by asking people on Quora, was one that is ‘connected,’ so to speak, with the digital age. It’s easier now than ever to foster a relationship outside of your own while giving off the illusion that you’re just sending work another email, or checking your Facebook, or reading tweets. But the ease that technology allows people to cheat on their partners lulls people into a false sense of security.
“Yeah, I forgot to log out of my Facebook on her laptop and before I even got home she called me and screamed at me through the phone.”
I met the Auto Worker for lunch at a Jack Astor’s. His last relationship ended quickly when his girlfriend found evidence of his wandering eyes (and hands) on Facebook.
“I cheat all the time!” he told me. “There was only one girl who I’ve dated who I haven’t cheated on. She was my first.”
The whole time we talked I couldn’t tell if the Auto Worker was bragging to me. Just a couple years older than me, he was very confident about his infidelity. A youthful sort of confidence. The Auto Worker had his conquests, and he let me know about them.
What does it feel like, in that exact moment you know you’re cheating?
“To be honest, I don’t even feel it anymore. The first time it ever happened, it felt great. It was my best friend’s girlfriend. I never told him and I don’t think he ever found out.”
The Auto Worker proceeded to tell him about all the times he’s cheated that he could remember.
Why did you come to meet with me?
“Because your idea is cool. People think I’m a bad guy, but I’m not.”
In March, Lisa Taddeo wrote an article for Esquire entitled ‘Why We Cheat.’ A first hand account of why she finds herself sleeping with married men, and the state of infidelity today, Taddeo’s article touches on accounts of infidelity, both her own and others. Taddeo’s article was met with a lot of criticism. Many critics attacked her piece, accusing her of using it to justify her own illicit behavior.
Just more than a year prior, also in Esquire, an anonymous contributor wrote an article describing his own indiscretions. His thoughts are summed up in the last line where he tell us what he tells his lover why he doesn’t say ‘I love you’: “Then I gave her my reason, my three magic words. ‘I need you.’” And it’s here that his article intersects with Taddeo’s. Taddeo points out an interesting question toward the end of her article, when a man asks her why she’s writing her article about cheating instead of just writing an argument against monogamy. It’s here that both of them touch on an important question as to why people cheat. How important is love to infidelity? Maybe not so much, if even at all. Auburn Hair cheats on her husband but still loves him. To understand people’s motivations is one of the reasons why infidelity fascinates people as much as it does. It seems no matter how much someone loves someone else, it doesn’t make their relationship immune to cheating. Monogamy and infidelity are two separate entities that need to be treated as such. The anonymous contributor knows cheating isn’t about love for him. It’s about the physicality of it. He needs his lover, but doesn’t love her. In short, in spite of monogamy, people will still cheat.
I met Cold Eyes on a beautiful Sunday for lunch. He was oddly punctual, sliding into our lunch booth at what must have been exactly two p.m. to the second. “Hi, Mackenzie,” he said, before I had a chance to introduce myself.
Cold Eyes was probably hovering just around 30.
“Hello, how are you?” I didn’t ask for his name, I learned early on that all the people I talked to, for the most part, liked the idea of staying anonymous.
When I took out my notebook he stared at me for a second with those emotionless eyes of his and said very calmly that he would prefer if I didn’t take notes. That was okay with me. And so I sat staring into his dark grey eyes while we talked.
Cold Eyes has just started a family. He told me about his son who’s eight months old and even showed me pictures of him, a cute, dark-haired boy with eyes lighter than his father’s. Cold Eyes has been cheating on his wife for six months now simply because he likes to get everything he wants.
What did it feel like the moment you knew you were cheating on your wife?
“It felt perfect because I knew I was getting exactly what I want.”
I asked him if it was about the sex, but it’s not, he said bluntly. He and his wife have great sex. Cold Eyes was hard to talk to. There was something strange about him. He wasn’t like anyone else I had talked to. He was completely closed off. He was cold but confident and intelligent. He was a taker.
As we talked I began to get the feeling that Cold Eyes was the Hannibal Lecter of cheating. I couldn’t tell if he was a hedonistic monster obsessed with his own intellect, or just someone who simply didn’t care about anything.
Soon enough it was 2:45. Cold Eyes told me he had an appointment at 3 and paid for our lunch. As he got up I asked him what I had been dying to ask him since he first opened his mouth.
Why did you come to talk to me?
With this, he froze, if only for a portion of a second. His cold eyes, which were focused and intense for the duration of our meeting, glossed over, and for what seemed like minutes but what must have been maybe two seconds, he stared off over my shoulder, as if trying to comprehend some unrealized idea, lost in himself. “I don’t know.” With that he composed himself again, staring back at me, as closed off as ever.
“It was nice to meet you.” He shook my hand and left.
When I eventually ended up talking to my girlfriend about what I was writing, she gave me some insight that I don’t think I ever expected to hear. “Cheating is a method to think critically,” she said. She told me that when people cheat they realize what it is that they really want. “If you really love a person you feel guilty, but eventually you forget.”
I avoided talking to her about what I was writing for so long because I think I was afraid of what she was going to tell me. I was afraid to imagine her cheating on me. And as much as I have to disagree with her, she might be onto something. When you cheat on someone, you know exactly how you feel about them. As terrible as it sounds, I have to wonder, is infidelity an accurate measure of how much we love someone?
“I cheated on my wife, and then I realized how much I loved her,” one man told me via email. “When I told her, she couldn’t forgive me, but I love her more than ever. I wish I had known and never done it.”
I hate to say, but I think I came out of all of this with more questions than I began with.
I still don’t know why all these people who didn’t know me wanted to talk with me at all. But whether it was because they simply needed to tell someone, or because they really wanted to help me write this, people poured their hearts out to me, a stranger.
I don’t want to say that cheaters are bad people. When I began my research, I had this image in my head that cheaters were these terrible monsters who had no regard for anyone but themselves, and while this was true in some cases, the majority of the people I talked to weren’t monsters at all. They were real people. These people were mothers, boyfriends, brothers, and daughters. “Everyone you love has cheated or will cheat.” These people, who seem to not exist, were everywhere. And I’m not sure if that worries me or if it’s just a truth that I have to accept. No one likes to be cheated on. And I hate to say it, but it will happen.
Maybe if you’re lucky it will only happen once. But it will happen. It doesn’t make it right, but it will happen. And maybe you’ll be the cheater. Your parents have cheated, your teachers have cheated, your boss has cheated, your best friend has cheated, your girlfriend has cheated. And that’s that.
“And then we moved on,” I was told by a couple in a phone call. “[He] cheated on me, and I was furious. But then I met her, and she was gorgeous. And then we all decided to live together. We’re happier than we’ve ever been.”
That exact, illusive moment that I wanted to capture: When people know that they’re cheating, had unraveled right in front of me. There is no consistent exact moment, because we’re human.
Auburn Hair emailed me last week:
“I decided to tell my husband. We’re still in love. We’re still best friends. I think we’re going to be okay. I will tell you how it goes.”
And I’ll be here, waiting anxiously.
I hope it goes okay.