Reflections on what I’ve learned and what I wish I’d known twenty years ago.
by Tim Tedder
I remember one particular afternoon in college when, for some reason, I became deeply contemplative during a walk from class to my dorm room. My considerations turned to future expectations, imagining what path my life would take. What would I be doing in the decades to come? How successful would I be? What would my wife look like? How many children would we have? What would it feel like to live the life of my choosing? I tried to imagine it all.
I stopped in front of Pickett Hall and thought, “I’m going to always remember this moment.” I wanted that day’s thoughts of hope to be a measure against whatever realities would eventually come in years ahead.
What my life became was not too far off that measure. I was married to a beautiful woman and we had five children together. (Okay, maybe there were only two kids in my original imaginations, but she easily persuaded me to expand my vision.) I was respected and successful in my career with invitations to new opportunities. So far, so good.
Then came The Fall. I had an affair. My life took a turn never considered during that college walk. It twisted into something nearly unrecognizable.
The details of my affair are really no different from thousands of other similar stories. The short version is this: I was frustrated in my marriage. I felt irresistibly drawn to another woman. I wanted nothing more than to experience every pleasure of being with her. I lost my job. I lost my marriage. I broke the hearts of my children. I went through several years of darkness before healing began.
After healing, friends encouraged me to build on my past counseling experienced (I had counseled families for many years) by becoming a licensed counselor. I returned to school, completed my masters degree, and began practicing in the Midwest. In 2008, I moved to Orlando where I continue to help couples in crisis through my counseling services.
I deal with affairs every day. The stories that come into my office often remind me of my own, sometimes in very powerful ways. I use to avoid that pain, but whenever it shows up now, I sit with it for a while. Good lessons are often learned in those moments.
But I wish I’d learned these things before the pain; before the regret. Most of all, I wish I’d learned these four lessons.
Lesson One: Affairs start before you do anything
I didn’t cross the line between fidelity and infidelity when I first kissed, said I love you, or had sex with the other woman. I crossed it long before that. Here are two “beginning steps” in my affair that started before a single inappropriate word or touch was made.
The First Step: A pattern of compromising friendships with women.
Years before I met my affair partner, I eagerly engaged in friendships with various women who were attractive to me in different ways. My wife almost always recognized these friendships and felt threatened by them, but I dismissed her concerns. I never admitted to anything inappropriate, but the truth was I did become emotionally attached to these women.
There were no romantic conversations, no romantic gestures. But these relationships started to feel a little bit like romance, even though I wouldn’t have called it that. Time spent with them became more exciting than time spent with my wife. I created opportunities to be with them, anticipated those moments, and occasionally fantasized about more intimate interactions.
I’m not suggesting that heterosexual men and women can’t have healthy, wholesome friendships, but it can be complicated. In my case, at least, this unhealthy pattern became so normal that the step into an affair was a relatively easy one.
I should have been more honest to myself and to my wife. I should have set better boundaries. I should have talked to a counselor! It’s very likely that if I had done those things, my affair would have been avoided.
The Second Step: Fantasizing about the affair before it happened.
My affair started as the kind of compromising friendship described above, but it quickly evolved into more persistent fantasies. Even while I still convinced myself that I would never actually have an affair, I started thinking more and more about her and what it would be like to be in a romantic relationship with her. I compared this fantasy to my marriage, and the fantasy won every time. I started wondering what it would be like to experience sex with her. And all the while, I kept convincing myself that these private pleasures were safe; I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
One morning, a good friend came into my office to chat. He was someone who cared about me and always encouraged me in my marriage. As he was leaving, he asked about my secretary, an attractive woman with a lively personality. “Tim, is she ever a temptation? Could that ever be a problem for you?”
I smiled and said, “Honestly, no.” But what I wanted to say in that moment was, “No, not her. But if maybe I should tell you about someone else…” I considered saying that, but I didn’t. I still believed I could keep things under control.
These private, secret thoughts became the subtle steps that led me to the door of the affair and then held my hand as I knocked. I was already in before the door was opened.
Lesson Two: Some consequences are permanent
In the middle of my affair, I was lucid enough to realize there would be consequences to my choices, but I did not want to acknowledge the permanent damage being done. I convinced myself that everything would stabilize over time.
These mental games were especially necessary when considering my children. There is no way I could continue the affair if I believed I was causing deep damage to them, so I softened my guilt with these arguments:
- They are young. They’ll mature and the negative effects won’t be permanent.
- This period of pain (and I cringe as I write this) might even make them stronger. I know plenty of people who have survived broken homes and seem to be doing quite well!
- I’ll be a better father if I’m living a passionate life instead of settling for something that doesn’t excite me anymore.
You don’t know my children, but all five of them are beautiful, unique, gifted individuals. If anyone is capable of surviving a broken home, they are. So you need to hear me when I say that none of my children survived without being broken in some way.
Yes, they are strong. Yes, they have learned from the pains they endured and are making positive impacts in their world. Yes, I am so proud of every one of them. But I am very aware, too, that each of them carries a wound that has not completely healed.
Their wounds will always matter to me. They love me and forgive me. I have accepted their forgiveness, but my deepest regret will always be over the cost they paid for my choices.
Additionally, these affair consequences were also permanent:
- Lost Friendships: I know there were good people who were just too hurt and confused to maintain a friendship with me anymore, especially as the affair continued. I tried to pretend like I didn’t care, but I did.
- Damaged Reputation: No matter how much I heal… no matter how much I work to repair what I’ve broken… no matter how much I embrace grace and hope in my own life, many people consider me differently than they did before.
- Financial Instability: I lost my job because of the affair. I floundered for many, many years. I still am paying off debts incurred.
Lesson Three: I’m not an exception to the rule
If you had come to me two months before my affair started and said, “Tim, you’re going to cheat on your wife,” I would have laughed, “No way!” My response would have been sincere.
Affairs were for people who were idiots or sex-crazed, or maybe sex-crazed idiots, but not for me. I knew better. I’d seen the story play out too many times in other marriages and knew what the outcome of that choice would be.
Somehow, though, I eventually convinced myself that my affair was the exception. I believed the relationship I had with my affair partner was special and enduring. The emotional and sexual connection we experienced felt too real. The evidence seemed compelling: our experience was more substantial than the temporary fling that characterizes most affairs.
Ours was different because:
- Conversation flowed easily.
- We shared many common interests.
- We shared similar life views and desires for the future.
- Our emotional connection was deep and growing.
- Laughter was effortless.
- Sex was mutually (and frequently) desired and enjoyed.
- We experienced a quick, natural bond. Even though I knew it was cliche, I believed we were soul mates.
I hear this same conviction expressed every week by the clients who talk to me. Different characters, different circumstances… same story, same arguments.
Recently, one client, struggling in the beginning of his affair, sent me an email:
Sometimes I think of a life with [the other woman] as the adventure… [she] is mysterious and uncertain, but the connection is SO POWERFUL. I feel helplessly drawn to her… Everyone says this is infatuation but it seems so much more to me. I’ve been thinking about this for the past few weeks and it seems like the only reason why I want to stay in my marriage is because [it’s the thing I’m suppose to do]. Sometimes I honestly think [the other woman] is the person I’m meant to be with. My head feels so clear when I think about this…
Here’s another point and this is SO CRAZY, but it’s almost like [she] meets me where we both need to be in conversation. It’s like we are always moving toward each other in conversation. I realize that we haven’t had what’s considered a true relationship but we’ve had some pretty serious conversations and I can honestly say that we are always [connecting]. It’s uncanny the stuff that comes out of her mouth is almost verbatim the stuff that comes out of mine. I mean I know I’m talking crazy talk right now, but I’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED SOMETHING LIKE THIS BEFORE!
Every time I have conversation, I learn something new that just connects me ever closer to her. One would say WELL STOP TALKING TO HER, but it’s like my soul is thirsting for more. It’s my soul and my heart. This isn’t just some high school crush. I feel love, deep deep love for someone, a love that I never thought I would ever feel… Even at our highest peak, I’ve never felt anything like this for [my wife].
I know I know I know I know I know, life with [the other woman] would have hardships, but this relationship feels so pure… I learned the other day that her views of sex go hand in hand with mine.
WHERE THE HELL WAS THIS PERSON 10 YEARS AGO? WHY NOW?!
He’s convinced that his affair is special; it’s the kind of relationship that will last. But you know what? One day he’ll realize that this was no exception. Mine wasn’t, either. (And I can’t help but wonder how many people will read this and still come up with a dozen reasons why their affair is unique.)
Lesson Four: I could have changed my marriage
One common question I get: If you could go back in time, knowing everything you know now, do you think you would be content going back to your marriage?
If I could go back, it wouldn’t be to the same marriage. You know what would be different? ME!
How do I know that’s true? Because the way I love in my current marriage (to a woman who was previously married to a cheater, but that’s another story) is the way I should have loved my first wife. I use to blame her for my discontent but failed to take responsibility for my part in building a strong connection in our marriage.
It was too easy for me to just shut down when I was unhappy. But now I want to love better than that. I’m learning to move toward my wife, lovingly and honestly, even when hurt or disappointment gets between us.
Of course, I’ll never know what that change might have looked like in my first marriage, but knowing my ex-wife, I suspect we would have been surprised at what our marriage could become. And our children, of course, would have a much different story to tell.
Bonus Lesson: Grace is the remedy for shame
My affair introduced me to a new companion: shame. It followed me everywhere. Sometimes it came up from behind and clung to me like a sick man too weary to walk, forcing me drag its dead weight around. I was exhausted, depressed. I sometimes wondered if not living was better than living like this.
Then another friend started showing up: grace. I’d known this friend before, but not well; not like she wanted to be known. It was grace that eventually lifted shame off my back and reminded me what it feels like to be free.
Grace is the act of giving blessing even when it’s not deserved. It tells us, “You can stop trying to be good enough. You don’t have to undo your failures. I choose to love you anyway.”
Grace has healed me. Maybe it would be more honest to say that grace continues to heal me. This happens in many ways, but let me give you the most profound examples of grace in my life.
- My children have forgiven me and love me. They don’t constantly show me their scars to remind me of the wounds I inflicted. They choose to honor me instead. (But, oh, I wish I could take away those scars.)
- My ex-wife joined me in filming our story for a show appearing on Oprah’s network. Despite the fact that the producers edited the story in such a way as to make it nearly a work of fiction, she had joined me with the intent of presenting a message of grace and forgiveness.
- Knowing my story (all of it) my current wife, Sharon, risked trusting me even though she had once been married to a man who repeatedly cheated. She swore she would never date a man who had ever been unfaithful, but she gave me grace. I love her for it.
- I am a counselor today because of grace. I never intended to be a therapist, but I’m in just the right place. All the things I’ve learned about change and growth and healing (in my life and in the life of my clients) have come because of my failures, not despite them. Grace made something good out of something bad, and I find joy in that.
- God is the author of grace. My spiritual story is long and complicated, but it comes down to a simple truth: Grace is a gift from God, not something we have to earn (Ephesians 2:8-9). I remember a scene in the book Pilgrim’s Progress where Pilgrim struggled up a steep hill with the heavy bundle of guilt and shame strapped to his back. He reached the top to find the cross there. When he knelt, the straps broke and his burden rolled away. That’s grace.
Tim Tedder, LMHC, NCC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Nationally Certified Counselor with a passion for helping couples in crisis. He also offers several courses for healing, change and renewal that you can find here: Courses to Heal and Renew