Why Do Women Cheat? These Stories Will Make You Rethink Every Assumption You Had

No one will admit this, but affairs can happen just as easily within happy relationships as they can in unhappy ones, writes Farrah Storr.

The Affair still

by Farrah Storr |

A version of this piece was originally published in Things Worth Knowing with Farrah Storr, where you can read the extended copy

Here’s a confession: I have been cheated on, as well as, I have cheated.

The first time I cheated, it was swift. A kiss in a nightclub with a man I had met on holiday. It was immaterial really, based on my own teenage narcissism. I wanted to feel desired by a man other than the one I loved back home. It was that simple. I wanted to feel pain and guilt and all the associated tropes of infidelity after the act, but I did not. Instead I felt only sadness.

The second time was more complex. It was with a man I had known for many years. I was in a long termish relationship at that point, though it is true, the flame was burning out. The infidelity lasted only a week- a passionate, euphoric 7 days that was as emotionally messy as it was carnally simple. I felt numb to any wrong doing as it was happening, but floored by the guilt and consequent pain later.

Discovering I had been cheated on was a different story. At the time I felt as though the pain was all mine, but now, with the hindsight of many years, I understand that even the ‘deceiver’ can shoulder their own complicated burden. Of course, it was difficult to swallow- the deception yes, but also the pride that there was another woman he could desire more than me. The relationship was too brittle to withstand a blow as big as infidelity and so we parted ways some time after.

When I worked in magazines we explored affairs in the single-minded way one is taught to approach them. That there is a victim and there is a perpetrator. We should have sympathy for the victim and contempt for the enactor. The standard questions I was taught to ask, being:  Did you feel guilty? Did you regret what you did? Questions that felt mired in quasi-religious reckoning. These questions rarely allowed the interviewee to give a full, more nuanced story- though they often tried. (When you’ve only got 700 words or less to play with, nuance doesn’t stand a chance.) And so the bits I always felt needed reading were those that ended up on the cutting room floor. These were the bits that admitted affairs can happen just as easily within happy relationships as they can in unhappy ones. That you can love a partner even as you betray them. That affairs are rarely for one reason alone. And to judge them by gender is as simplistic as to see all all ‘cheaters’ as guilty and all victims as innocent.

And so I did a call out some weeks ago to ask women who had strayed to tell their complete story. I expected few to answer my call, but was amazed by the sheer number who did. Here are their stories... and I hope, as ever, everyone can read their stories without judgement.

‘My affair changed every fibre of me’

{:target=_blank :rel=noreferrer noopener}My affair began on Boxing Day, 2018 and ended before the year was through. I had been married for five years at that point, to a man I had met when I was 19. We got married in Central Park in front of a handful of people, and though we were very different people, I was unconscious to the notion of us ever not being together.

I was not looking for an affair. I don’t think anyone goes looking for one, but it’s true that there were fault lines in my marriage. My husband and I led lives that felt very remote from one another. He would eat dinner with his parents, I would go to the gym. I was concerned about our lack of a sex life, he saw no issue. ‘We’ll sort it once we start trying for children,’ he used to say. But we never did. I repeatedly told him I was lonely. He heard it but he didn’t do anything, not because he didn’t want to fix it but because he didn’t know how. I think the truth is, I was evolving as a person without him long before P walked into my life.

P was in a local band which had found some success and so he was relatively well known in the small town in which I lived. He walked through the door of the small shop I ran and we started to talk. I have never believed in visceral chemistry before, but I had it with him. I became flushed and my heart started to race. When he left my hands were shaking.

‘Are you okay?’ asked my colleague.  I wasn’t sure.

We bumped into one another at a party a few months later and after that he followed me on social media. He commented on my stories and sent me long, flirtatious messages. I loved the attention but was adamant nothing would happen.  When he suggested meeting up I would always say the same thing: ‘My husband is a good man. I don’t want to hurt him.’ But the truth was, I was mad about P. I thought about him all the time but it still felt like a fictitious part of my life. I was married. He was married with three kids, so it felt safe in its own way.

Then six months after we first met I booked a trip to New York with my mother for Christmas. I posted a picture of the two of us on social media. By the time I landed at JFK, I had a message. P was on a flight out to see me.

I was excited but also terrified. Here was this man moving heaven and earth to be with me, when my own husband wouldn’t come to the end of the road with me if there was something more pressing to be done. P’s actions spoke to every part of my soul that needed something. It was as though he knew what to give me without me having even articulated or identified it to myself.

After that we stole time together whenever we could. Both of our jobs involved travelling so we would coordinate to meet in towns across the UK, the names of which I cant even remember anymore. It was a mixture of euphoria and terror and abhorrence; like being on a rollercoaster you can’t get off. Of course, I knew what I was doing was wrong and wasn’t in keeping with who I felt I was. I felt guilt and shame but I was able to compartmentalise it. It was like watching someone else’s affair from the side lines wondering how it would all pan out.

Over time there were signs P was not perhaps the man I thought he was - he had a violent temper and could be incredibly cruel. Still, I told myself I had to make a go of it because I had compromised so much of myself. If I could make it work I could somehow justify what happened. And then I fell pregnant. It was a terribly sad and traumatic time. We decided to have a termination and after that, I could tell it had changed for him. That killed me. Emotionally I was dismantled and the wheels came off one by one. A month later I told my husband. And then, in a fit of anger, I told P’s wife.

'It was like watching someone else’s affair from the side lines..and wondering how it would pan out'

It broke my husband in pieces.  He ended up on medication and had constant panic attacks. He told everyone we knew what had happened. I don’t blame him - it was, I suppose, his way of coping. ‘It’s like being at my own wake,’ he told me. ‘All everyone keeps saying is, "I’m so sorry this happened to you."' For me, there was an odd freedom in everyone knowing. The lies were finally over.

P’s wife only wanted to know two things: had it been a physical relationship and had we been to New York together? I knew she had always wanted to go to New York but had never been. I said no to both questions. I guess I wanted to protect her, having seen the devastation it had caused my husband. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do in the long run.

My husband wanted to reconcile, P’s wife turned a blind eye. For me I could never go back. So I packed up my life and I moved to another city. A place where I knew no one. I turned the lock in my old front door, left the car in the driveway and walked away. Life began again. I got a job. I made new friends. That life was never the life I should have had. It never suited me and I never suited it.

I don’t do self pity but I do feel sorry for the version of me that I used to be. I got myself into a situation that I should never had got into and I wish dearly that my actions didn’t have to make anyone else live with that pain.

P was wrong and flawed in so many ways, but had I never met him I might still be living a life I didn’t want. In darker moments, I think the guilt and shame I’m left with is a life sentence. In brighter ones, I remind myself that time heals. There are few things in life that change the fibre of you. Marriage didn’t change me, divorce didn’t change me, but the affair did.

‘You can love two people- and those loves can live in parallel’

I have been having an affair with a man we shall call R, for the last fifteen years. It is an affair that has been by turns both passionate and all-consuming, as well as purely emotional. Our relationship ebbs and flows over time. We can spend years apart or every weekend together. He knows more about me than the father of my child, and certainly more than the man I currently live with and who I love dearly. That sounds strange, I know. And probably hard to comprehend.

I first met R at a training session with a mental health charity back in 2007.  I was 25 and single; he was 27 and in a long-term relationship of 10 years. We started spending time together and very quickly confessed our feelings. I suppose you could say I pursued him to start with, but he was in a complicated relationship and I honestly believed that we would be together. I spent the best part of my twenties living this way- weekends away with him, stolen moments here and there. I waited until I couldn’t any longer and when he couldn’t give me the commitment I wanted, I walked away. But we never lost touch. R understood me in ways I didn’t even understand myself back then, and letting go of that was too painful. I wanted him to remain my secret; my safe person. He eventually separated from his partner and I met someone else, but he often dominated my thoughts and I would yearn for the safety of our connection.

Then, almost ten years after we first met, I fell pregnant with a man who I had only been seeing for 9 months. It was very unexpected and not something I had factored into my life. I couldn’t share my fear with the man I was with, for fear of denting his excitement at being a father. Only R knew how troubled I was by the thought of motherhood.

I went ahead with the pregnancy and tried to start a new life as a mother while trying to take on a big new job. It was a time of huge transition for me and for a short while I tried to bury myself beneath the identity of being a mother. But it didn’t work, and so we started the affair again. In between the carefully coordinated schedule of drops offs and picks ups and bedtime stories. I went back to him, I thought, because the relationship with my daughter’s father was not established and was, in any case, based on friendship and logistics. But as the years have gone on and I have reflected on the topic in a way I was too afraid to before, I think I went back because of my fear at settling into my role as a mother.

The affair wasn’t about escapism or heightened desire, nice hotels or stolen weekends. It was so tightly bound up with my identity and fear of commitment and, I have since learned, my fascination with living a life within a life. That’s where the energy is for me. I knew (and know) that I love and adore my daughter more than I ever thought possible. But it was a deep shock to move from one pace of life to another and I don’t think I ever gave myself time to process it. You can have a sort of amnesia when you become a mother. You can sit there and think, ‘I can’t remember what music I like anymore.’ Motherhood doesn’t leave much left for you.  R then felt like something that was completely mine and mine only. An escape of sorts.

'My fascination is with living a life within a life..that’s where the energy is for me'

Someone once described motherhood as feeling feel like a house where the doors to its rooms have been shut for some time. But the doors need opening and the lights need switching on to remind the house of what it once was. R knew me before I as a mother. And so, in a way, I suppose he was able to open those doors very quickly.

I have been in a relationship with R for almost half of my life now.  He knows everything about me- even the parts I don’t want to acknowledge myself. I think, in a funny way, this is why I could never be in an official relationship with him. It’s too vulnerable a place to spend all my time. What’s more, I’m very happy in my current relationship. We understand one another in different ways to the way R and I understand one another.

People might think I return to R time and again because there’s a lack in my partner but I think it’s more that there’s a lack in me. When I’ve gone through big transformational shifts throughout my life, R’s been there. He’s always believed in me when I perhaps didn’t believe in myself.

Last year I lost a very close friend and it was R I turned to, not my partner. R isn’t married. He doesn’t have children. He travels a lot and is very committed to his job. He’s a couple of years older than me and we don’t really discuss partners. I couldn’t tell you if he’s in a relationship or not. All I know is that when there are unsteady parts of my life we come back together. A big part of me thinks he ultimately wants us to be together, but he also knows it’s too complicated.

We haven’t physically seen each other for a few years now, but we are in constant contact. The affair, if you can call it that, for it feels too flippant a word for what we have, is based far more on emotion now, than any sort of physicality. He will message me to see how I am. Sometimes I will reply, sometimes I will not. He understands the complexities of my life and how much I can give at any particular point. Ours is no longer a relationship about longing or sexual desire, but it is a need. There’s been so much change in my life that he is this constant, secure thread that runs throughout it all. If he wanted to end things I think it would be very hard for me to deal with. And yet, as arrogant as it might sound, part of me knows that the depth of his feelings for me means he would never do that.

I first came to understand the complexities of an affair when I was 15. My mother, who was in a very unhappy relationship with my step-father,  sat me down and told me she was in love with someone else. The relationship had ended and she was still very much in love with this other man, as well as devastated that it had not worked out as she had hoped.  In that moment I didn’t judge her; she was finally experiencing the kind of love she'd always wanted for herself. Instead I understood how affairs are nuanced and messy places to be and only those within them can really understand what they mean and what they are for.

I do believe you can love two people and that those loves can live in parallel. I love my partner deeply and in my own confused way, I love R too. You don’t have to give up on a relationship if it doesn’t give you anything. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything lacking in either too. Ive always thought it’s a lot of pressure to have one partner perform everything for someone. I think ultimately you have to come to understand what you need from a life. Identifying a need and then finding a way to service that need is often seen as selfish. But perhaps it should feel deserved instead.

Will I ever give up R? I’m not sure I can.  But I am sure we will never be together in the conventional sense. Our relationship is more about the waves and the journey. There’s no final destination for us and I don’t think either of us ever wants there to be. There’s very little terms and conditions attached to what we have which gives it a certain freedom. It speaks to the part of us that don’t want to be contained and so we drift, suspended somehow in time, probably forever.

‘My affair was a moment of enlightenment’

{:target=_blank :rel=noreferrer noopener}I’m married with 2 children now, but I often think about the man I had the affair with, as well as the man whose heart I broke when I left him.

It was a long time ago now, almost nine years ago in fact, but it still feels fresh in my mind. It was a complex time and when I look back now, I try not to judge myself too harshly. I was in a long term relationship that I didn’t know how to escape from. Having the affair was the impetus I needed to get out.

I had been in a relationship for 6 years when I met the man I was to have the affair with. My partner and I had been living together for 5 of those years and on paper he was perfect. But for some reason I wasn’t happy and I could never pin point why exactly . So one day I took myself off to America on a three-week acting course. That’s where I met the man I was to have the affair with. We were introduced by mutual friends and though I don’t believe in love at first sight, the chemistry was unlike anything I have ever felt before, or since.

The affair lasted only three weeks. He was American, and though I hoped he would come to see me in the UK, that never happened. I think it dawned on me when I got back home and examined my life that there was no real place for him in it. He was a free spirit. I needed security. But the point of our relationship was never, I think, to have an end point. It was about helping me move on from where I was, as selfish as that might sound.

On the plane home I was eaten up with guilt and confessed everything to the woman sat next to me - the only person I confided in for many years.  ‘I don’t envy you and what’s about to happen to your life,’ she said.

And my life was difficult after that. Though I didn’t tell my partner about the affair, splitting up with him felt like a divorce. He was a man who deserved so much love and commitment and I knew ultimately I couldn’t give him that. He put me on a pedestal and the truth is, I took advantage of that. I saw myself becoming a different person when I was with him, and not a better one. That worried me about our future. I wanted him to push back on who I was becoming, but he never did. That’s when I knew he was never going to exit the relationship.

I always thought I was a loyal person (I’d never cheated before or since), so to have an affair felt like a sign something was deeply wrong. I kept the affair a secret from everyone for many years. Still, most people don’t know. And certainly not the man I left behind. I felt, selfishly really, that it made me look like a bad person and I didn’t want that judgement from the people who were closest to me. I had done what I had done and I had to deal with it. I couldn’t take any extra judgement.

‘I always thought I was a loyal person, so to have an affair felt like a sign something was wrong.’

Funnily enough I bumped into my ex partner a few years later. I was in London with my mother when I heard a familiar voice behind me. ‘Hello ladies…’  I turned around and there he was. We talked. He had a fiance and a little boy. He seemed happy. I want to say that I was happy for him, but seeing him caught me by surprise. It was hard. It still is. Sometimes I find myself getting upset when I think of him. Not because it wasn’t the right thing to have ended it - it was. But it brings a lot back. A more innocent time, perhaps. We did so much together. We saw so much of the world together. I think it was a reminder of what could have been and what wasn’t.

Ultimately I think the affair was a moment of enlightenment. It gave me a space to reflect on my behaviour. And if you stray, I think the best thing you can do is examine why you strayed. If you are willing to risk so much, there must be reasons, that you are perhaps unaware of, that are hidden within that risk.

‘I grieved for all of us- my partner, my lover and me’

I met Will* in June 2019, at a party through a mutual friend. I was 26 and lived in London; he was in his 40s and lived on the other side of the country. Despite the fact there was a strong gravitational pull between us that evening, an affair never crossed my mind. I was in a relationship with a man I’d known since I was 16, who, for the sake of this article, we shall call Simon. Simon and I had grown up together, and gone through all of life’s biggest milestones by one another’s side-  A Level results, driving tests, graduating, first jobs. But a shared history is not a substitute for love, and as we approached our 30s, it became clear our paths no longer aligned. I was career-driven and loved spending time with my family. He liked going to football and playing Xbox with his friends. He told me to stop mothering him. I told him to grow up. We stayed together, simply because we did not know adult life without one another.

A few months before I met Will, Simon has been away on work trip to Ibiza. He arrived home having not slept for 24 hours, still buzzing from the drugs he had taken.  I was hurt. Out of everything, taking drugs was something I never wanted him to do, largely through fear of something awful happening to him. (It transpired he had been secretly dabbling in drugs for some time). I think in many ways, that was the moment I gave up on ‘us’.

Some months later I remember standing in the shower and thinking to myself, ‘I am going to walk out of the bathroom and I am going to break up with him.’ But I didn’t know how. I was terrified. I had never been “alone” in my entire adult life. Our families were so intertwined, we shared a home – I honestly couldn’t see how life would work without him.

Around the same time Will had DM’d me on Instagram. We didn’t exchange numbers or anything like that, we simply chatted back and forth. But relatively quickly Instagram moved to Whatsapp, and the messages became more flirtatious and sexual. On those nights that Simon was out, I would be on the phone to Will for hours. In fact, in our small one-bed flat, whilst  Simon was playing FIFA, I was able to have phone conversations with Will next door and Simon never wondered…

A few weeks later, Will was out with friends in London and asked me to meet him for a drink. I did and that’s when the affair started. I remember the first time we slept together - we both wanted it so badly, but the next day we both felt sick with guilt. Me, because I had a partner back home; Will because I was another man’s girlfriend. I remember having a terrible panic attack on the train home, and then crying on the phone to Will saying I couldn’t do it anymore . And yet the affair continued for a further two months.

I went through all the stages of emotion throughout that time. From the high, euphoric, excited emotions of “newly dating” someone, to feelings of guilt, and almost grief. I grieved Simon and everything we had built together when I was with Will, and I grieved Will when I was at home with Simon. I also grieved for myself and all the years I’d been unhappy, accepting that unhappiness was the card life had dealt me and that that was just the way I’d feel for the rest of my life. Then when I met Will, it was like the fuzz started to clear. I felt seen at last.

‘I grieved for myself and all the years I’d been unhappy…accepting that was the card life had dealt me’

For a short while I behaved erratically, trying to set Will up with other people- my cousin, one of my friends. In my head I kept thinking, how can I keep this man in my life without creating turbulence in my own life?  I couldn’t imagine life without Will, but felt I could never end things with Simon.

The turning point came when I went away for a few days with Will and introduced him to a friend. She said she’d not seen me that happy in a long time. It was also the night Will and I told one another we loved each other.

I never outright said I’d found someone else, but Simon isn’t stupid, and I believe he knew, deep down. I walked back into our flat and for the first time in a long time he looked up and said: “I’ve missed you.” I broke down. I stood there in my coat and said, ‘It’s over.’ I’ll never forget him getting in his car and driving away and looking up at our flat window where I was looking out .

Fast forward to today and Will and I are getting married next year. We share a home, a dog, a life that feels solidly ‘’us’ where we’re both on the same path.

There are always three people in an affair and it’s easier to look at it as victim and perpetrator. But there’s also a third person- in this case Will.  I was perhaps blind to his feelings of  hurt and frustration throughout the affair. I was so consumed with Simon and me, that I didn’t think about the man whose life was also in limbo as I moved between Simon and Will. He told me how hurt he felt, and how on numerous occasions he was never sure if he would ever see me again.

Affairs are complex, and there are many different shades to them. Black and white rarely sums it up. Infidelity happens for multiple reasons, and the trope of forbidden sex often clouds the very deep emotional reasons many people stray. I often think if I had the confidence to end my unhappy relationship long before, then perhaps I wouldn’t have embarked on the affair. But then perhaps, I’d never have met Will.

*All names have been changed

A version of this piece was originally published in Things Worth Knowing with Farrah Storr, where you can read the extended copy

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