How do I stop wanting gorgeous woman who aren't my wife?
July 25, 2011 7:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm a mid-thirties man, committed relationship, wonderful kids, good job, great life, but I can not stop chasing attractive women. And it is wreaking havoc. How can I stop this, and why don't I want to?

I've been in a "committed" relationship for 8 years. I have great kids and I love my life. I love my wife although there are some issues between us but nothing that I think most in long-term relationships don't face (she nags, or that kind of thing.)

I am basically obsessed with "cracking the code" of women I find attractive. I cycle from one woman to the next, usually not more than one at a time, who I am basically courting secretly, via email/text. It always starts out very innocently, just acquaintances talking, but I always try to get a spark going. It's not about sex, I've never had intercourse with more than a couple of the 20-30 women who I've interacted with in this way. I just love the experience of getting to know these women, and of charming them, and making them feel attractive and loved and "valued" - though never valued enough for me to love them in the open or to leave my family for them - which I make clear from the very beginning.

This was not a problem (well, not as much of one) when it remained a secret, but now my wife knows. We're in therapy, and trying to make it work. I was devastated when it came out, and I do not believe this kind of behavior is worth the loss of my life with my family. I have stopped the behavior for that reason. However, I miss it like hell. It is exciting, challenging, fun and ego-rewarding for me, and when I see a woman who seems accessible to me, interesting and beautiful, I still imagine ways that I might be able to get to know her enough to begin this flirtatious seduction of her.

I was a "late bloomer" as a teen, and looked like a total dweeb/nerd/dork until I was about 14, when I changed my appearance a bit and some women seem to think I'm quite attractive. I think that I have some pretty serious insecurity, and that this behavior is a desperate search to prove to myself that gorgeous, smart, funny and engaging women find me irresistible. The therapy has actually helped me quite a bit in understanding the root of the behavior.

Yet I still find myself longing for this interaction with women. Do all men feel this way? It seems obvious to me that all men would want remarkable women to want them. How does a man take this hardwired desire for the most desirable women and incorporate it into a life that includes an aging wife, children, and the desire for a stable home life that does not include divorce or secrets and deception? I want to be on the no-affair wagon, and that is what I am doing, but what do I do with all of this longing for the chase, the chess game, the ego-stroking, the intellectual and libido stimulation? Is anyone out there fighting this fight and not losing?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (68 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

How does a man take this hardwired desire for the most desirable women and incorporate it into a life that includes an aging wife, children, and the desire for a stable home life that does not include divorce or secrets and deception?

The men and women I know who feel this way manage it by not getting involved in monogamous relationships.
posted by Jairus at 8:00 AM on July 25, 2011 [25 favorites]

How open is your wife to letting you do this, as long as there are no secrets nor deception?

i.e. You are allowed to engage in the behavior. Your wife gets to see everything. She sets the rules on who, when, how often and how far each relationship goes.
posted by chiefthe at 8:05 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do all men feel this way?

The answer to this question, no matter what the subject, is going to be "no."

But, just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you don't look at the menu now and then. From what I can tell your responsible choices are:
1) Develop a trusting relationship with a partner where you can talk about crushes and set appropriate limits.
2) Develop a non-monogamous relationship with appropriate relationships.
3) Learn to nip inappropriate crushes in the bud before they become problems.
4) Break up for a relationship that's more to your liking.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with Jairus, it sounds like you would be very happy in one primary, open relationship, which would leave you free to engage in the pursuit of other women without the deceit, but also give you a happy, stable home life.

Of course, if your wife is not okay with the idea of an open relationship, you may need to seriously think about whether you two are compatible.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:08 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you have any hobbies? Maybe you should get one. Something "exciting, challenging, fun and ego-rewarding" - join a team contact sport, take up flying airplanes or climbing mountains. You need to remind yourself that there are other ways you can feel accomplished beyond conquering women.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:12 AM on July 25, 2011 [38 favorites]

"I am basically obsessed with "cracking the code" of women I find attractive... what do I do with all of this longing for the chase, the chess game, the ego-stroking, the intellectual and libido stimulation?"

It sounds like you need to "crack the code" of your wife. Consider this a set of chess games that never end.
posted by pwb503 at 8:13 AM on July 25, 2011 [42 favorites]

How can I stop this, and why don't I want to?

Not wanting to will probably interfere with stopping.

It seems obvious to me that all men would want remarkable women to want them.

No, there's wanting/seeking it and being flattered by it and they're different. I think most people, men or women, are flattered by someone being interested. But I think a lot of men are pretty secure in themselves and don't want it in the way I think you're describing, which seems more like seeking external validation and instant gratification.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:13 AM on July 25, 2011 [30 favorites]

The biggest challenge here is going to be "not wanting to". Is there another exciting challenge that you could transfer your efforts to? Like becoming a triathlete or doing dad/kid physical challenges?

Realize that wanting to change is your next big challenge.
posted by ldthomps at 8:14 AM on July 25, 2011

You can get everything other than the libido stimulation from an enormous variety of activities. For heaven's sake, you can get it all at Toastmasters. Separate your thrill seeking and problem solving desires from the need for sex.
posted by SMPA at 8:16 AM on July 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I agree with A Terrible Llama. This is definitely an ego thing. You look to others to validate you through romantic desire. That ego stroking by these women is your confirmation that you're a worthy person. The question is, why don't you feel worthy? What kind of self esteem issues are you dealing with, and how to do go about finding that confidence from within?

Once you're secure within yourself you'll be much less likely to seek this validation from others.
posted by Falwless at 8:17 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm a married woman with the same urges, but have never acted on it. I deal with this by finding ways to quietly disparage the men I'm attracted to in my head, while being polite as I try to be with everyone. It may not be healthy, but it works for me.
posted by waterandrock at 8:28 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try thinking about how you might be making others feel, not just yourself.
posted by tel3path at 8:35 AM on July 25, 2011 [30 favorites]

"I miss it like hell. It is exciting, challenging, fun and ego-rewarding for me,"

I'm not a psychologist, but I think the answer lies there. Can you find something else that is "exciting, challenging, fun and ego-rewarding"? I'd bet that you can. Once you have those needs met by some other activity, it wouldn't surprise me to see your lust for new women wain significantly.
posted by oddman at 8:35 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is all about your ego and getting validation from others (as has been said previously).

If you do not stop this behavior, this will likely not end well for you. Divorce does not solve problems so much as it creates new and different (often more difficult) problems.

Get individual therapy for yourself.
posted by PsuDab93 at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would say that most heterosexual men in monogomous relationships feel this way to a certain degree, but not everyone to the point of it being disruptive.

I do agree that compulsive chasing/sex can (though not always) be an attempt at self-validation. Chasing women can be exciting. Ruining your family life is not exciting and ego-stroking. For some people that is the equation that keeps their behaviour in line with their big-picture choices.
posted by beau jackson at 8:42 AM on July 25, 2011

I will take a stand against the grain because I believe I also have actual research (Stanley/Markman, Gottman, Glass, and the Smartmarriages movement) to back me up. Real studies support me when I say making it work long term is the best best for your long term happiness. Of course, that's true for populations and you're an individual, but still...

Seems like this is about temporary gratifications (which have a basis in brain chemistry) versus long term good. For many men staying faithful is just a matter "manning up."

You are the boss of you. Of course all men stay attracted to other women. But many regular guys just push it aside after one or two looks and go back to building what they have with that one woman they have set their minds and hearts on. The one they build their real lives with.

Unless you are unable to be the boss of you. For some, the choice is not just a matter of deciding. People get addicted to those early relationship neurochemicals and ego boosts. There are 12 step programs that treat the kind of behavior you describe and regard it as an addiction just like alcohol and drugs.

I guess it will take some self-examination to figure out whether "manning up" or "12 step" is the right remedy for you. Either way, you can make your job easier by getting some guys around you for mutual support and accountability. It's tough to maintain countercultural values when you feel like you're alone in the fight. Make friends with other couples similarly committed. Basically, dive into the relationship culture and give yourself less time for "alternative monitoring" behaviors (which is the relationship researchers term for what you describe.)

Another surefire way to decrease "alternative monitoring" behaviors is to build a strong vision of a common future with your current partner. Invest all that charm and wit in her. From your post, it seems like you have all the skills you need to build an amazing relationship with her. All you need to do is go deep instead of broad.

Envision the life you want to achieve when the kids are grown and you have each other and your disposable income to yourselves. Get a dog. Whatever. Something that invests in your common life together. Research shows that investment in a common future reduces "alternative monitoring" behaviors in men. (Read: "The Power of Commitment" by Scott Stanley. Run , don't walk).

Of course all this hinges on how badly you want to make this work. I'm sure there is a small but significant sliver of the population out there that thrives on "broad" and not "deep" relationships. Maybe you're one of those guys. Or maybe you can find one of those women. In my work with folks who come to us seeking some kind of comfort (I work in a pastoral ministry situation) I don't see those guys. I see guys who kick themselves for missing out on opportunities to have built something "real" with someone. Before they are in their fifties.

Via con dios, guy. I hope you succeed in building something real.
posted by cross_impact at 8:42 AM on July 25, 2011 [30 favorites]

What TPS said -- research "sensation seeking" take up sky diving maybe you could channel the energy and drive into something like starting a business.
posted by mlis at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2011

Adulthood means that sometimes you don't do everything you have an impulse to do. Which I'm not saying to be patronizing because you already do this constantly, every day. You get up and go to work even through you have the impulse to hit snooze. You don't pull in to every fast food restaurant you pass. This is not so different. It's totally normal to have this impulse. It's something most people eventually choose not to act on because they don't really *want* to do it.

You mention being a late bloomer, in which case, coming a little late to this is probably not to be unexpected. It'll feel more natural over time. The usual thing is to take that desire for a challenge and an ego boost and apply it to more complex tasks. Your career. Your hobbies. The payoff is slower but bigger. Self-denial can only get you so far. You do have to do it a little bit, but you're not having to deny yourself much. Sex is already an available thing. (If it's not, that's an issue to deal with in your marriage.) Everybody needs a challenge, everybody needs to feel awesome sometimes. It's not really a huge sacrifice once you're used to it, the same way getting up in the morning isn't a huge sacrifice once you're used to it. The first little bit is a rough adjustment, but eventually it just feels normal.
posted by gracedissolved at 8:44 AM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

Take up rock-climbing. It is exciting, challenging, fun and hugely-ego rewarding.

Save up money and give your wife self-pampering gifts: a weekend at a spa, a shopping trip with a friend, etc. Be the mother and "housewife" for the entire time your wife is gone.

Teach your wife chess and play with her.

If this is at all possible with two kids in the house, and if your wife is not entirely disinclined, role-play with your wife. She could base herself, for an hour or two, a day or two (or more) on a novel or film heroine. It is up to you to figure her out, without knowing who she went for. If you guess who it was, bonus points for you. Maybe try to figure out how it felt for her to role-play like that (did she really identify with Madame Bovary? did she dream about being a tragic figure like Anna Karenina when she was a kid? Would she love to solve mysteries like - I was gonna say Miss Marple, but that would probably be counterproductive).
posted by miorita at 8:44 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

In terms of your ego, let me tell your ego that these women may or may not want you as much as you think they do.

Yeah, this was my immediate thought too. There's this thing about being a woman, it's often quite to our advantage and also easy to allow a given man to believe he's much more charming than he actually is. I know personally a lot of women take advantage of needy, show-offy men not because they're actually impressed, but because those men scream "I'll do anything you tell me in order to feel like a man." Sad, but true. It may be just as much an act as what you're doing. I think you may be under many delusions about what's actually going on in these "quality" women's heads. Their temporary approval is so much dust in the wind.
posted by Nixy at 8:45 AM on July 25, 2011 [40 favorites]

Wow. You're just so out of touch with reality here, I almost don't know where to begin.

Having been courted by a few married men in my time, I can tell you that you've hurt the women you've pursued, even with the disclaimers. This is serious. And seriously vile of you. I know you don't see it, which makes it worse.

At first you don't admit you are married. Then you disclose all of the problems in the marriage are on her, that she is a nag. (you kinda skip thecyears of deceit and infidelity as a problem, yet with all the energy you were expending on the pursuit of other women over the years, FOR SURE your marriage got short changed. by definition, your marital problems are not typical or easily handled, and I think your wife would agree with me here.) Then, you refer to your wife as aging, in a pejorative sense. I mean, does aging somehow look different on her than it does on you? You are aging, too, but you seem to feel on a women aging is exceptionally unpalatable.

How does your father treat women? I'm kinda wondering where you picked up these one-sided ideals.

Lastly, your desire not to break up with your wife seems more about avoiding negative consequences rather than actively choosing your wife because she holds great value in your heart.

I'm not sure you can overcome your urges because your perspective on what it means to be in relationships is lopsided. I'm sure your kids have missed out too. Surely if they find out about your true nature (vs. the role of Happy Father you've been playing at all their lives) they will be devastated. I just don't see how you can fix this without getting a grip on reality.

You seem out of touch with the true nature and consequences of your actions, especially where others are concerned. If you want to change, start there.
posted by jbenben at 8:47 AM on July 25, 2011 [129 favorites]

In many relationships, flirting with women online is not the same as cheating. This is all about the boundaries of your relationship. I don't think you should feel bad about looking at other women, as that's how we're hardwired. The issue here is negotiating the boundaries of your relationship.

Then you go on to say "I've never had intercourse with more than a couple of the 20-30 women who I've interacted with in this way." This is cheating.

She is understandably upset because you violated the implicit boundaries of your existing relationship, and you will need to deal with whatever repercussions of your infidelity happen, up to and including the loss of your family.

That being said, there may be an opportunity to have a discussion about setting some new boundaries for each other (not just you). This is where "communication is key".

It doesn't sound like you're one of those people who wants out of your relationship and is trying to blow it up. It sounds more like pure 100% monogamy (a relatively recent social construct) is not something that works for you. As said more eloquently above, maybe an agreement can be reached, and maybe her expectations are of 100% monogamy, and you are incompatible in that way. But you wont know if you dont bring it up as an option.
posted by softlord at 8:51 AM on July 25, 2011

I used to be all about chasing sex not because I was celebrating debauchery and making the world a better, sexier place and refusing to live inside the dominant culture's bounds. But when I got really good at scoring and had exhausted all avenues of exploration that I was interested in exploring, I was eventually continuing to do it to make the late bloomer inside of me feel better about himself -- and I was doing it at the expense of other people's feelings. (For example, note the above use of the word "scoring" -- that's not an accidental word choice.) When I realized that was the motivation for what I was doing, it made me feel pathetic and like I was letting those who had bullied or stymied me before I had bloomed ultimately win. The way to stop doing it is to realize you aren't doing anything new or exciting or interesting, no matter how your much your pulse races.

If you want to do it for the fun of it, fine, go ahead. But if you're doing it and racked with guilt and screwing up the lives of everybody else around you, you're a cliche.

Pathetic. Cliche. Apologies for the harsh words that might not apply in your case. But if they do, focusing on that is what would work for me.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

You're actually lucky to still have a marriage and family. Until you understand that, I'm not sure about your chances of being able to change.
posted by davidjohnfox at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2011 [20 favorites]

OP, sorry for the typo's. I'm typing on my phone...

I hope you understand I was't out to pile on with my answer. I found your question worded so breezily, as if your actions were so justifiable and emotionally benign. I don't see how you can get control of your urges until you face the reality of what you've done and how you have hurt others. I think your salvation lies in being unerringly truthful with yourself.

Good luck to you and your family.
posted by jbenben at 8:57 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your problem seems to be that you've lost touch with the fact that the people around you are not objects to make you feel good about themselves. They're people with their own hopes and dreams and fears and egos. All of those women are people. Your wife is a person. Your kids are people.

I hate using arguments like this, but since you seem to have some interest in your children it's worth a try. When you start hatching another plan to use another woman as an object that makes you feel good about yourself, force yourself to think about your kids for a minute instead:

-In 20 years, would you want them to be married to someone like you?
-Would you want them to work/go to church/go bowling/wherever it is that you pursue your affairs with someone like you?
-Would you want them to be treated as objects to stroke the ego of someone like you?
-Would you want your kids to be like you, treating other people and their spouses the way you do?
posted by hydropsyche at 9:02 AM on July 25, 2011 [41 favorites]

You may want to check out They have a section where wayward spouses post and discuss exactly these types of questions.
posted by Maisie at 9:13 AM on July 25, 2011

You sound like a very bad candidate for non-monogamy to me. It isn't an easy out for people who struggle with infidelity. It is actually harder and requires more and better-developed tools of self-awareness and communication, which are clearly tools you do not have or you would not be in this boat.

This is essentially a maturity issue. I understand that you want, want, want these women but that does not mean you should be making the choice to have them. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

All adults experience attraction to others. You are not a special snowflake with special needs in that regard. The difference is that adults with their heads on straight make their primary relationships a priority, and never, ever do anything that jeopardises that relationship. You, however, have repeatedly gambled with your family as the stakes in your personal game.

The desire for "the chase, the chess game, the ego-stroking, the intellectual and libido stimulation" is actually all about the gaping need of your terrified, needy, ragingly insecure ego. You badly need to be in individual therapy. Go direct some of that energy to doing hard work on yourself.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:15 AM on July 25, 2011 [29 favorites]

As long as you see this as only a problem because your wife found out, you are not going to be able to resolve it. Until you internalize that you were grievously hurting your wife (and possibly some of the women you pursued), I don't see how you will be able to overcome. Do you want to hurt your wife, or do you want to have affairs?
posted by yarly at 9:21 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

And geez, there is not one word here about how your wife feels - just that it was "devastating to you" when you got caught! I honestly don't think you value your marriage, and you should probably just leave it. You might then learn to value it more, once you lose the benefits. Or maybe you will be perfectly happy being free, but you can do it with a clean conscience and stop hurting people.
posted by yarly at 9:25 AM on July 25, 2011 [22 favorites]

I disagree with those who say "not wanting to stop interferes with stopping." To me, this sounds closer to an addiction than ... a hobby. It is only by stopping that you'll begin to redevelop a taste for subtler pleasures, and find less destructive ways to get this ego gratification.

To help you stop, and I know it is very unlikely that you'll actually do this, but spend awhile pondering the damage you've done to your wife and family so that you no longer view those impulses as fun but as a danger to those you love. That pondering may cause you to feel bad, so you need to pair it with doing some sort of kindnesses or penance that you can feel good about doing -- maybe getting ahead on the tasks so you just do what needs done before being nagged?
posted by salvia at 9:27 AM on July 25, 2011

Not that I have a whole lot of sympathy for women who pursue married men, but that's why you approach them under the guise of friendship, isn't it? And then encourage them to develop feelings for you knowing they can never act on them. Even if that part of your plan isn't working as well as you think, eventually there comes a point when these women discover that their friend is not their friend. The least bad they're going to feel at that point is creeped out.

When a woman engages in this sort of thing, she is labelled a tease, at least in polite company. It is universally agreed that she is engaging in cruel, provocative behaviour with no excuse. Are you sure you are doing this to make the women feel attractive, loved, and valued? You are probably not succeeding as often as you think.

In any case, if your wife is deteriorating, it is probably because your behaviour makes her feel unattractive, unloved and not "valued".

I hope you are right that only a few people know about this, because I've known one or two guys who did this sort of thing quite openly, in the belief that it made them look great, when in reality, it made them look foolish at best.
posted by tel3path at 9:36 AM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

Many of the commenters in this thread seem to think that this is the kind of problem that can be solved by an open relationship. It seems to me that what we're talking about here is sex addiction. It's compulsive, addictive, and, by the OP's own admission, seems to be an attempt to satisfy a neurotic need. That doesn't sound like a kink to me, that's an addiction, and you should seek therapy that focuses on that aspect of it.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:56 AM on July 25, 2011 [13 favorites]

On reflection, see also: SA. I'm unconvinced about your sexual addiction, but entirely convinced by your need for sexual sobriety, so there may be something of value for you there.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:00 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of this question seems like you're looking for justification: it wasn't so bad, right? You only slept with two of them, after all, and you were doing them a favor by making them feel attractive, and your wife was fine before she found out, and besides your brain is wired this way, so give a guy a break? Unfortunately, no. It was a serious breach of trust in your marriage, and you've been unconsciously teaching your children some damaging attitudes about relationships and women, and the women you flirted with probably did not come away better than they were before they met you - though they might now be wiser about married men and empty promises.

That said, it's understandable that you miss it and still feel the pull. That doesn't make it healthy or right for you. I sometimes still miss smoking, and my brain is hardwired to crave sugar and fat by the bucket. Kicking this will be the same: you'll have to decide whether you want instant gratification, or whether you want to do right by your family and yourself. And choosing to do the healthy thing is hard, and you will have to choose it again and again and again. It does eventually get less hard. But there's not an instant and easy way to turn this part of your brain off. If you're looking for that, you're out of luck. And if you're looking for validation to follow your impulses, no luck there either.

Stick with the therapy, work on developing empathy for others and recognizing the consequences of your actions, thank your lucky stars that your wife hasn't tossed you out on the curb, learn to view attractive women as regular people and not sexy crossword puzzles or shiny Pokemon, and just keep at it, one step at a time. The sooner and more consistently you put in the effort now, the sooner it'll stop feeling so difficult.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2011 [14 favorites]

It's hard to change behaviour. But you really need to figure out if this is behaviour that you want to change.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Consider something: Do you genuinely love your wife? And your family? For me (and please don't take this as me passing judgment—I'm merely expressing how I think I would feel if I were in your wife's place), it's incomprehensible that some one who genuinely loves, respects, and prioritizes his/her spouse and family could act in this manner… but that's not to say that it's impossible, just that it's behind my emotional and intellectual comprehension (if you do, then I hope for your sake that it's not beyond your wife's and that you two can work this out).

Essentially, you need to determine what your priorities are, what really fulfills you and brings you happiness, and why—as well as what compromises and sacrifices you would be willing to make to have these things—and then you need to determine how to acquire and hold onto them, whether it boils down to divorce, your complete fidelity, or an open marriage. The real problem here isn't so much your treatment of other women (whether it's respectful or deceitful is something of a separate issue for the purposes of my answer, although it is perhaps not unrelated to your treatment of your wife) as it is the fact that you have done these things while betrayed your wife's trust. For this to work, you must now regain it.
posted by divisjm at 10:09 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a mid-thirties man, committed relationship

You are not in a committed relationship. The only thing that you seem to be committed to is your ego stroking. This is all about how you feel, and your insecurities, and your need to be validated. You don't seem to have any regard for how the women you are chasing & occasionally sleeping, and no regard for your wife and the mother of your children as well. You need to figure out why you need this validation outside your marriage and then work from there. Right now, this could end up teaching your children that this is an OK way to treat yourself, your wife & other women.
posted by kellyblah at 10:11 AM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I want to be on the no-affair wagon, and that is what I am doing, but what do I do with all of this longing for the chase, the chess game, the ego-stroking, the intellectual and libido stimulation?

I think above is sort of the crux of the question, but you'll probably get a lot of stick for what you wrote above it by way of intro... so let me focus just on the crux.

What do you with all that "longing" is two-fold -- 1) accept at as part of biological nature, though while always remembering that you have a conscious mind that allows you to reflect upon and override your base instincts/desires. 2) speak honestly with your wife about the stimulation you need (and no doubt, that she needs too), and work together to resolve it.

Ultimately, you must accept that you cannot have your cake and eat it too -- you can't want all the benefits and comforts of an honest long-term monogamous relationship without accepting that brings certain trade-offs. It's no different than having children -- yes, having children is hard, tiring, stressful, expensive, infuriating, etc.. but in the long run, most people decide it is "worth it".

This is what adults do -- prioritize what they need and want out of life, understanding that they cannot have everything. This separates us from toddlers, who do not have the ability to reflect upon and prioritize "wants" in the same way. So you have to ask yourself -- are you an adult, or are you a toddler?
posted by modernnomad at 10:12 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

You know, I think maybe you do deserve a little more sympathy here than you are getting. I am not a man, but I understand that the male sex drive and need for female attention can be fierce. So you do have a hard road ahead of you. But what is so ... off ... about how you express yourself here is that you seem to be looking only for sympathy for yourself, rather than being realistic about it. I think you need to accept that you have a serious moral challenge ahead of you, which is partly your fault and partly not. The question is, how are you going to face it? how do sinners redeem themselves? I don't know, but the answer is probably not to view yourself helplessly in thrall to a male imperative. nstead, you need to decide what you think is the right thing to do, and try to do it.
posted by yarly at 10:12 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, targeted therapy would be your best course of action. I also think it would be helpful for you to realize some of the ego-centric thinking that's helping lead you astray (assuming that you do indeed feel you're going astray, since that's the subject of your question – if what you want is in fact an open relationship, well, ideally you should have addressed that with your wife before you started hitting on other women and sleeping with them).

As others have mentioned, you talk about your feelings and how this affects you but not your family.

I love my wife although there are some issues between us but nothing that I think most in long-term relationships don't face (she nags, or that kind of thing.)

What does your wife nag you about? Not being home often enough? Not paying her enough attention? Needing to show more dedication to your kids?

I am basically obsessed with "cracking the code" of women I find attractive. I cycle from one woman to the next, usually not more than one at a time, who I am basically courting secretly, via email/text.

Here, I'll crack it for you: they're human beings, and human beings like being liked.

It always starts out very innocently, just acquaintances talking, but I always try to get a spark going.

Then it's not really innocent, is it, if your plan is to "get a spark going."

It's not about sex, I've never had intercourse with more than a couple of the 20-30 women who I've interacted with in this way.

*raised eyebrow* Others have spoken to the disingenuousness of this remark, and I agree with them.

I just love the experience of getting to know these women, and of charming them, and making them feel attractive and loved and "valued" - though never valued enough for me to love them in the open or to leave my family for them - which I make clear from the very beginning.

Indeed. They must feel sooooo valued... by someone who doesn't love them. And you get your cake and it eat too: "they knew all along I'm married! Ha! I can break it off and completely ignore their hurt feelings, they were aware of it." You get to flirt, charm, feel valued yourself, and not have to deal with any messy feelings. You do not care about these women. Hell, I'd even be willing to bet you can't remember all of their names.

This was not a problem (well, not as much of one) when it remained a secret,

Yeah. Not a problem since you were not having to deal with any actual responsibility for your actions.

... but now my wife knows.

How did she find out? Did you tell her? If you told her, you could score points for finally having been honest and facing the fact that you were hurting her.

I was devastated when it came out, and I do not believe this kind of behavior is worth the loss of my life with my family.

Oh. It "came out."

However, I miss it like hell. It is exciting, challenging, fun and ego-rewarding for me, and when I see a woman who seems accessible to me, interesting and beautiful, I still imagine ways that I might be able to get to know her enough to begin this flirtatious seduction of her.

Because you're completely off the hook for any and all negative repercussions. You get everything you want, and get to disregard their feelings.

It seems obvious to me that all men would want remarkable women to want them.

By that logic, it would seem obvious that all women would want remarkable men to want them. Has your wife cheated on you? How would you feel if she had, and gave the same justifications you have?

How does a man take this hardwired desire for the most desirable women and incorporate it into a life that includes an aging wife, children, and the desire for a stable home life that does not include divorce or secrets and deception?

Ask your wife how she gets over the hardwired desire to snag fit, intelligent, humorous men and incorporates it into her life that includes an aging, cheating husband who's broken her trust, children, and the desire for a stable home life.

You found your quality woman. You're married to her.
posted by fraula at 10:14 AM on July 25, 2011 [46 favorites]

...if you can manage to interpret my answer despite my apparent inability to write clearly today, congratulations. Clarification: behind = beyond, betrayed = betraying. And as a disclaimer/corollary to my response, since it might have come off as more of an attack than I intended, let me add that I could not personally handle an open relationship.

Other people's comments about this being something of an addiction are also worth considering carefully.
posted by divisjm at 10:16 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need to figure out what you actually want in this life.

How do you stop being attracted to other women, or wanting other women to be attracted to you? You don't. This happens, and it's no big deal. We're grown ups, we've all been around long enough to know that it happens, and recognize when it's happening.

The real question you're asking is what should you do about it? That's something you need to decide for yourself. At the moment, you're dithering. I agree that you're not paying as much attention to the wake you're casting as you should, but for just yourself, you need to decide what kind of person you're going to be.

After you do that hard work, grow a pair and work harder to become that person. I guarantee the person you want to be in your mind's eye won't be a mediocre husband, a mediocre father, and a mediocre lothario all at the same time. Be true to yourself first, and broadcast that self clearly. People make choices on who to include/exclude in their lives based on that message. Don't bury the lede.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

You need a how, not a what.

Focus on the moments when you do have that feeling. Acknowledge it. Say "Yes I have that feeling of wanting to chase women, but I do not have to act on it." Say it under your breath, to yourself. I actually mean say it.

Do not run from the feeling of wanting these strange women. But do not act on it. Acknowledge "yes I'm having this feeling," while informing yourself you do not have to act on it.

It is a simple, focus on what is going on in front of you technique.

As you get to know the feeling better, you will have insights about that feeling. Learn about the feeling.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:44 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, as much as I can't emotionally disagree with the comments before mine, I would say two things: 1. it's good that you're at least ambivalent about this. You say you don't want to change, but I suspect a part of you does. 2. Seek addiction counseling. This is an addiction.
posted by namesarehard at 11:09 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I keep wanting to respond. I'd say this stuff to my unfriend if he asked, because if he asked it would mean there was a chance he was still alive in there, you know? It probably seems like I'm trying to pile on, but I really do want you to understand this.

The nature of addictions is that they divert needed resources. This is in contrast to a hobby which gives back at least as much as it takes.

My unfriend seemed to derive a hell of a lot of identity from the woman he was with, or could get. For example, at one point ALL of his social media avatars were of him and his GF. Until she got a bad haircut. Then he started to publicly express embarrassment at being associated with her, started complaining about her "nagging" through social media, and started pursuing other women (also done publicly and through social media). All of them noticeably "remarkable" in observably similar ways. He could appear to have interests, but if you looked closely you could see that he was tailoring his interests to mirror his targets. How much real interest he had in those things, it is hard to say.

He hadn't been single since his teens, so it looks to me as though he had gone a long way down the road of investing in relationships rather than in himself. If the genders were reversed it would be easier to see this for what it was, I think.

But if you were not pouring all your creativity into seduction games, who would you be?
posted by tel3path at 11:17 AM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think this sort of activity is an overcompensation for insecurities you felt in the past, before you believed yourself capable or worthy of holding a woman's interest. Overcoming those anxieties was a huge deal and probably very liberating, and now you seek to recreate that high over and over again with new women. You are constantly acting out in response to constraints that no longer exist, proving (to yourself, since no one else really cares) how charming and amazing you are -- and you are doing so in a way that actively undermines the successes of your life which (at some point) felt unattainable.

Do you see the vicious cycle there? You broke out of your teenage prison of loneliness and won the big prize -- a marriage, a family -- but the echo of those painful times is causing you to act out in ways that will ultimately rob you of that prize.
posted by hermitosis at 11:21 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I thought about it in the shower. Here's a technique from addiction counseling:
Imagine someone sitting in front of you, and saying to you, "you know, OP, maybe you shouldn't change. All I'm hearing is about how this was ultimately a positive thing in your life - it gave you energy, it drove you, it was exciting. You probably got to practice ancient male drives. And hey, we all know monogamy's unnatural anyway. Maybe this was even good for your marriage - you were probably more relaxed, maybe more attentive, less resentful..."

What would you say to this person?
posted by namesarehard at 11:22 AM on July 25, 2011

Maybe look at this another way. You like to charm people. (For the sake of argument, I'm gonna say "people" here and not "women.") You like putting them at ease, making them feel valued, earning their trust. Reading between the lines, too, it sounds like you prefer to be in control of the interaction, like you enjoy the feeling of having someone in the palm of your hand. And it sounds like you've gotten pretty good at all that.

Well, that's a valuable skill in a lot of arenas other than seduction. It sounds to me like you'd make a fantastic salesman, for instance — and it sounds like you'd really enjoy sales. Depending on what else you're good at, you might have just as much fun as a radio or TV interviewer, a police detective, a preacher or a stage magician. In my own life, I've got two acquaintances who sound a lot like you. One's a waiter at a Michelin-starred restaurant. One's a VIP tech support guy — when celebrities or multi-million-dollar corporate customers call his company, he's the one entrusted with the call. Both excel at what they do precisely because they feel the same compulsion that you feel — they just love to get inside someone else's head and make that person feel good about the interaction.

Of course, the thrill of metaphorically seducing a customer nay not be quite the same as the thrill of literally seducing a woman. Maybe it's a weaker thrill. But here's the thing — if you were getting that thrill from your job as a salesman (or whatever), you wouldn't have to hide it. You could go home to your wife and say "Man, I had the best day at work. I had this room full of rich and powerful men and women eating out of the palm of my hand." — and she'd be able to say "I'm so proud of you" rather than "Oh you evil philandering shithead." Might be worth considering.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:27 AM on July 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

This might sound a little odd but maybe you could get your wife involved with your fantasy. Tell her you enjoy the trill of it and ask her to embrace some sort of role play. You might be surprised to find that (if she is willing to play along) your wife could fulfill many of the desires you have -- feeling wanted, feeling sexy, feeling empowered.

Maybe this might not be able to happen right now, since I'm sure it is an awkward (perhaps painful) subject. But it is something you could consider.

Your imagination is a very powerful thing. It's actually what's got you in this situation in the first place, right?
posted by LZel at 11:34 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wanted to add here that I share the already-expressed concern for your ability and willingness to treat anyone outside of yourself, but especially all the women whose heads you've been messing with (including your wife) as people rather than sources of amusement, comfort, and satisfaction for yourself. This might not be sexual addiction, but it is pretty deeply screwed up. Nthing lots of hard work in individual therapy (I still think you need a challenging hobby, though.)
posted by SMPA at 11:43 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it would help if you were honest with yourself and stopped telling yourself a positive story about what you're doing here.
I just love the experience of getting to know these women, and of charming them, and making them feel attractive and loved and "valued" - though never valued enough for me to love them in the open or to leave my family for them - which I make clear from the very beginning.
You're not doing these women any fucking favors. No woman is so desperate for your affection that being "valued ... never valued enough for me to love them in open" is a POSITIVE influence on her life.

You make it seem like you're engaging in some kind of exciting charity work that happens to annoy your partner. What you're actually doing is sadistic, and maybe if you realized that you're hurting everyone, not "just" your partner, it would be easier for you to stop.

And if I sound angry, it's because you aren't unique, and most of the women close to me have been through this with a guy like you. So it's hard to restrain myself.
posted by telegraph at 11:45 AM on July 25, 2011 [63 favorites]

making them feel attractive and loved and "valued"

Something to keep in mind is that you are not providing a service or good deed to these women--you are harming them or helping them to harm themselves. I see two possible scenarios.

1. You meet a woman who is emotionally healthy and doesn't seek relationships with men who are in committed, monogamous relationships. You flirt with her, flatter her, and gradually convince her to be as charmed by you as you are attracted to her. She begins to want a relationship with you, or at least to enjoy your attention. You make it clear that you'll never leave your family for her. She walks away from her emotional involvement with you knowing that she fell for someone who used her to gratify his appetite for attention. I've had this experience and I can tell you it feels awful. I have no doubt that the person in my situation found me attractive and "valued" me in some way. It doesn't matter. I still feel embarrassed, creeped out, and just generally disgusted by the situation. I'm disgusted by how he acted and disgusted that I fell for it.

2. You meet a woman whose emotional issues--self-esteem, bad relationships, whatever--have warped her understanding of healthy relationships, so that she seeks relationships with men who are in committed, monogamous relationships. You flirt with her, flatter her, and win her over easily. She wants you. She's so happy to be the object of your attention. You tell her you'll never leave your family for her. She tells herself that that's ok, or that it's only a matter of time, or that it will work out somehow. She fantasizes about having a real relationship with you. You move on to another target. She is heartbroken and wonders what she did to lose you.

I mention this not to shame you, but to give you another incentive to stop. You think that you're bringing happiness to these women you pursue. You're not. In addition to the damage your actions cause your marriage, you're also hurting the women you pursue.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:51 AM on July 25, 2011 [34 favorites]

The following mindset may be somewhat useful to you: you are in a museum. There are myriad and multiform works of art there that you can appreciate and admire. They may inspire you to live a more creative, thoughtful, exciting life. You can look at these works of art all you like. But you cannot touch them, and you cannot take them home with you.

I don't mean to sound like I am advocating the objectification of women, but since they already appear to be objects given your description of your situation, it may be something you can modify in the short term while you work this out.

It's good that you are looking for a way to stop acting in the way that you are acting. This is a difficult place to ask the question that you asked, but it is a good start.
posted by Graygorey at 11:51 AM on July 25, 2011

Many people would only admit this in public with a healthy dose of self-flagellation and fake-wallowing in what they have done to elicit sympathy. It's a good sign that you aren't playing this game, and are just presenting the facts.

Focusing on the damage that has been caused or could be caused by your desire for beautiful women might be counterproductive. Often there's a fascination, a feeling of being drawn in or captured by her. The pull is irresistible, somehow it overrides any logical or moral considerations. Like the story of Ulysses and the Sirens, there is a fatal attraction - even though you know following your desires may very well destroy you, this only makes it more appealing because it implies that reaching the object of your desire will feel so satisfying that it's worth risking everything to get it.

Part of the thrill is courting destruction. It's possible that you unconsciously allowed your wife to know what you're doing because simply doing it in secret was no longer satisfying, you had to raise the stakes and potentially threaten your whole life in order to continue believing in the sublime beauty of the women you pursue. In this sense, the revelation to your wife is the opposite of what it appears, a way to continue with your obsession rather than end it.

I agree with you that it is not primarily sexual. But it isn't primarily about self-esteem or ego either. It's the promise that by "cracking the code" and gaining access to a beautiful woman, you will be made complete and achieve total satisfaction. The root of your problem is that you don't understand what could be wrong with wanting to feel whole. Like most people, you believe that it's good to follow your desires until you find the thing that truly makes you happy. On the contrary, the belief in total happiness consigns you to endless wandering and self-destruction. You should give up on that belief, even though the promise of wholeness constantly calls to you.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:51 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just want to add one more thing- and it will sound harsh, and it is harsh, but I have similar tendencies (as we all do) and that's how I know. I hope it helps.

You're getting a lot of shaming feedback, a lot of feedback telling you to pay attention to the damage you're doing to other people- and that's all well and good, except I don't think you're the type of person to respond well to that. I think you like the shame. You also like feeling powerful. You want to feel like you've crushed women's hearts and made them cry. To you, that's winning because it means you've really had an effect.

You strike me as extremely dramatic. You even use language like "fighting this fight" to refer to stopping your affairs. You probably like attention, you probably even like that you've shocked metafilter and touched a nerve.

So, I think the best approach to take with yourself, knowing your faults, is one of "who cares." You're not evil. You're not an "irresistible" man-god either. You are a "cliche" as someone said earlier. You are a normal, fairly uninteresting person. This story, this drama, no one cares about it except you. Your wife probably cares because you're embarrassing her and harming your children more than she cares because she's passionately in love with your manly self. If there's one thing that can get you to stop, it's not realizing you're a bad person-you know you're acting like a bad person, that's part of the thrill- it's realizing that you're embarrassing yourself.

Seriously, you are embarrassing yourself. You're embarrassing yourself in front of these women, in front of your wife, and in front of society. Your children will not respect you. You will look far more pathetic to most people than you will look brave, or like a victim of natural impulses. You are the hero of your own life story, but to everyone else, you're a secondary character, and you are writing yourself as foppish and satirical. If you want to have a real effect on people, if you want real respect and admiration, you must act with dignity.
posted by Nixy at 1:56 PM on July 25, 2011 [61 favorites]

It sounds like all you want is the thrill of the chase. I bet after the women succumb, you get bored with them, want to quit, and then cite that you'll never leave your wife. Right? As Nixy just pointed out, you like the drama. And that's a sign of your having bad character.

If you actually want to stop this, I'd say go into therapy, and take up some kind of hobbies that involve conquest and drama (mountain climbing? I'd say taking up acting, but you'd probably try to pitch woo to your female costars there too) to get that buzz on elsewhere. But I kind of wonder if you do. Real life settled down couplings don't tend to have that much superdrama, if they're done right. Maybe you are just not cut out to be married. At least when you play "catch and release" when you're single you're just hurting yourself and the temporary girlfriend of the minute, not a wife and kids who aren't involved in your drama.

Btw, "committed" should not be in quotes when you are married with children.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:03 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a newly married man, I think you're trying to have your cake and eat it to. It seems that you love your wife and your kids. But it also seems like you love having relationships with multiple women or at least new women once you've completed your conquest of the current "it" girl. Certainly everyone has the right to live their lives as they wish. And if you don't wanna be in a monogamous relationship, you don't have to be. But then I don't think you should have gotten married. I'm surprised your wife is still with you. You weren't meant to be married. As for other guys and whether or not they have the same feelings? Well...any married guy who tells you they've never been attracted to another women or even had thoughts of sleeping with another women is more then likely lying. If a beautiful woman walks past a guy(any guy) he will mostly take a look and have a quick image of her in his mind doing the deed. But that being said, most men don't actually follow through on their instincts. They can look, and maybe see some images in their mind, but beyond that they don't go any further. Another words they don't actually pursue other women in ANY way. When you got married you made the commitment to be with one woman for the rest of your life. If you don't want that, get a divorce. Unless your wife is willing to allow you to continue with this behavior(doesn't seem like she is) your marriage will never work.
posted by ljs30 at 2:10 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live next door to someone who, about five months ago, I found out struggled with very similar stuff that you are talking about; married, kids, house, etc. Constantly needed to be a part of emotional "affairs" outside of his relationship, some of which turned into, well, real affairs (which isn't to say that there is a difference, I'm just saying it in a way that we all know what I mean). It was, to put it mildly, a large part of his life, and his happiness.

He goes to Sexaholics Anonymous, and aside from the silly-sounding name, he loves it. Some of the greatest people he knows are the ones he met through the program, and he makes it sound like the best club in the world (even despite the, err, membership requirements). It makes me wish I could just drop in sometimes, which both sounds weird and is totally true.

He's been sober for, I think, three years. Which, wow.

So, nth-ing all of the addiction, SA, go-get-help comments here. "I don't want to do this thing I want to do" is ur-addition talk, so regardless of the labels you are or are not comfortable applying to yourself, it sounds like you'd find like-minded folk in a 12-step group.

P.S. Disappointed about the "you're an asshole" talk in some of these comments. Maybe you are, I dunno. But verbally punishing and condemning someone who opens an AskMi looking for help is pretty classless. Go find another asshole to tell you that, one who accepts your problem because he knows it, knows it because he live(s)(d) it, and knows the way out.

P.P.S. And good luck!
posted by Poppa Bear at 2:26 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, screw all the "you weren't meant to be married, have you tried divorce/breaking up/being in an open relationship/getting in a time machine and picking a different life" comments as well. That's not helping, that's not getting it, and it's demonizing someone who wants to change in order to love the people in his life.

That's awesome, and it doesn't merit your ridicule or free love Dan Savage bullshit.

Go get 'em guy.
posted by Poppa Bear at 2:28 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, the OP is using words like "obsession," writing about wanting to stop but not being able to, craving something that he knows isn't good for him, etc. It sounds like addiction to me. But I also understand why people are calling him an asshole; his question shows a real lack of insight into the damage that he's doing or concern about anybody other than himself.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:50 PM on July 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

You're not addicted to the chase, you just want to be loved.

The problem, though, is that in your head sex and acceptance are the same thing. You have forged a link between these two things that doesn't need to be there. A link that, if left unbroken, will destroy your spirit, your family, or both.

Desiring love, attention, friendship, support: this is perfectly natural. We all want those things, and we all deserve them. There's no reason at all for you to feel ashamed of pursuing emotional intimacy from people who aren't your wife.

Except for the fact that you pursue it in secret from attractive women in a pseudo-sexual manner. You need to separate acceptance from sex. Unpack your thoughts and figure out why you think "acceptance" means "a state in which a beautiful woman is willing to fuck me." Does intimacy have to equal sexual availability? Why? What it is that you're really seeking? Why are you seeking it a manner that is threatening everything you care about? What the hell does sex have to do with anything? Who the hell are you to think your silly married-man flattery is healing these women?

If you're not in denial when you say that you wish to preserve and maintain your family, then you must figure out how to have deep, satisfying, interesting friendships that don't endanger your family. Channel your hero complex into being a good father, and quit thinking your flirtatious married-man compliments are "valuing" these women.

In other words, learn how to fall in love without lust. Trust me: it can be done. Seek friends, not lovers. You already have a lover.
posted by goblinbox at 3:28 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was a "late bloomer" as a teen, and looked like a total dweeb/nerd/dork until I was about 14, when I changed my appearance a bit and some women seem to think I'm quite attractive.

I was really struck by this comment. (I was struck by other parts of your post as well, but they’ve been well gone over above.) Coming into your own at 14 is not a late bloom; it’s ordinary development. The reason I raise this is to highlight, as I think you are already aware, that something very deeply rooted is going on for you. It sounds like you’ve been acting out the same script for twenty years; you keep asking the same question, “Am I attractive?” But the answer – you are capable of attracting women – never sinks in. You point to this formative experience of being a “late bloomer”, even though by your own account you were getting attention from the other sex by the time you were a freshman in high school – when many boys don’t really come into their own until 16 or 18 or later.

What this suggests to me is that the message “you are not attractive, you are insufficient, you are unlovable and never will be” got a hold of your psyche very early, and you are still in thrall to it. You believe that other people have something you don’t have, that they’re having fun you’re not having, that they have a sense of sufficiency you don’t have. You counter this by trying to believe that “all men” have this sense of emptiness and longing for the chase, but it’s just not true.

I wonder where you got that message, so early in your sexual formation, that you were behind, just trying to catch up. Was there some other kind of attention you needed and weren’t getting?
posted by endless_forms at 3:42 PM on July 25, 2011 [14 favorites]

You need to find a way to love yourself without hurting more people along the way. You are hurting, now your wife is hurting, you're hurting your children, and I tell you from experience that you're hurting at least some of the women you're flirting/sleeping with.

This learning to love yourself thing does not involve shagging other women.
posted by mleigh at 3:47 PM on July 25, 2011

I didn't mean that to be as harsh as that sounded. What I meant is that this doesn't just effect you and that you can't drag other people into your search for internal happiness - you have to find the tools to be happy with you within you and without using other people to do it. Any external validation will always be fleeting.
posted by mleigh at 3:49 PM on July 25, 2011

Despite writing this AskMe, you really are in denial. You've convinced yourself that you've "only" slept with a few of the women you've courted, and that it shouldn't change your life forever. You see everyone else as over-reacting, when really you just never thought about how what you were doing was hurting other people. Maybe I can help with that.

Ask yourself this: what if the tables were turned?

Think about your wife, actively seeking out strange men. Imagine her flirting and laughing and making assignations with these nameless men behind your back. She is thrilled by the attention, she's excited and intellectually stimulated by what they bring to the table. They make her feel wanted and attractive and valued in a way you don't.

Imagine you see her growing more distant with you, and this becoming a pattern, to the point where you wonder what's happened between you. You confront your wife and she turns it back on you, saying everything is fine and you're just being silly, these guys are just her friends.

So now you feel guilty for suspecting her, too, but it still feels wrong, and all that guilt and doubt is just eating you up inside.

And all the while she is just blithely going along with her life.

Until one day something happens, and suddenly all the pieces come together and it's crystal clear that she's been cheating on you all this time. Twenty, maybe thirty men. You're devastated.

And then, picture her, now that you've caught her dead to rights, insisting that it all meant nothing and that she doesn't think she should have to lose you or the kids or your lives together over these men, especially since she only actually slept with a few of them!

Imagine her agreeing to go to therapy and going through the motions, all the while chafing at the bit because you wanted her to live up to her commitment to a monogamous relationship with you.

It hurts, doesn't it? The betrayal.

Don't feel that because your wife hasn't cheated on you, she hasn't ever been tempted, hasn't ever had the opportunity. She may want affirmation too, she may miss the thrill of the chase. She just didn't act on those feelings.

You are not a special snowflake who feels something no man (or woman) on earth has ever felt before.

Each one of us makes a choice, when we enter into a monogamous relationship, to not pursue anyone else romantically, not because we are asexual beings who never get tempted to stray, but out of respect for the commitment we have made to our partners. We commit to share the everyday mundanity and the thrills and the sexytimes.

If you weren't ready to make that commitment when you did, that's on you, not on your wife. She is not blowing this out of proportion. You are the one that changed the terms of your marriage.

Start over with her by setting up boundaries you can both agree on. Know where the line is, and don't cross it. Have friendships, not romances.

Be honest and unflinching in your assessment of your relationships with other women. Be either professional and civil, or friendly and open, no more (a good exercise, if you start to slip with any of them, is to imagine your wife were right there with you).

If you start to feel weak with any particular woman, call your wife and set up a date with her instead of your latest crush.

Make friends with other couples and families. Don't go to singles hangouts.

Your wife can also help by giving you that praise and affirmation you are seeking with these other women in the first place. Sometimes, when couples have children, we take our partners for granted. Realistically, your kids are going to take up much of your time, but they shouldn't become so much a focus that you forget you were a couple first. Bring back date night.

Put in the hard work, and you can get through this. But don't kid yourself--what you've done has irreparably damaged the life you used to have, and now you are making up for that.
posted by misha at 4:20 PM on July 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

First of all, I totally disagree with people who are using this thread to load you up with guilt or shame as if you were a stand-in for the people who hurt them. You're in the driver's seat, and thus in the best position to observe whether you've been genuine, and whether you've hurt people or made them happy.

Anyway, guilt and shame are only going to make you withdraw from confronting the real issues that are leading you to this conflict, so it is stupid to try to hammer you back with them. It doesn't work for Bible thumpers, nor for overprotective parents. Their guilting and shaming is probably a reaction to their own insecurity about the whole behavioural pattern.

I agree with your approach of personal reflection and direct confrontation, so I want to share with you something I was reading yesterday that directly answers your question. I'll quote the beginning with some unmarked elisions:
Let us look at marriage, but not theoretically or as an ideal. What actually takes place? When one is young, the biological, sexual urge is very strong, and in order to limit it, you have the institution of marriage. You tie yourself to someone for the rest of your life, and in doing so you have a permanent source of pleasure, a guaranteed security, with the result that you live in a cycle of habit, and habit is disintegration.

It is only for the very, very few who love that the married relationship has significance, and then it is unbreakable, then it is not mere habit or convenience, nor is it based on biological, sexual need. In that love which is unconditional the identities are fused, and in such a relationship there is a remedy, there is hope. To fuse the separate identities, you have to know yourself, and she has to know herself. That means to love. Love is fresh, new, not mere gratification, not mere habit. It is unconditional.

You don't treat your husband or wife that way, do you? You live in your isolation, and she lives in her isolation, and you have established your habits of assured sexual pleasure. What happens to a man who has an assured income? Surely, he deteriorates. Watch a man who has an assured income and you will soon see how rapidly his mind is withering away. He may have a big position, a reputation for cunning, but the full joy of life is gone out of him.

Similarly, you have a marriage in which you have a permanent source of pleasure, a habit without understanding, without love, and you are forced to live in that state. Are you not both isolated, each pursuing his or her own interests, ambitions and needs, each seeking from the other gratification, economic or psychological security? Such a relationship is not a relationship at all: it is a mutually self-enclosing process of psychological, biological and economic necessity, and the obvious result is conflict, misery, nagging, possessive fear, jealousy, and so on. Do you think such a relationship is productive of anything except ugly babies and an ugly civilization?

Therefore, the important thing is to see the whole process, not as something ugly, but as an actual fact which is taking place under your very nose; and realizing that you cannot just leave it at that; but because you do not want to look into it, you take to drink, to politics, to a lady around the corner, to anything that takes you away from the house and from that nagging wife or husband — and you think you have solved the problem.
You asked, "is anyone out there…" and if you identify with this, maybe you will feel less alone in your struggle, which I think was the point of your question.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 10:12 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know a lot of married couples who are truly in love and have a vibrant relationship.

OP, folks who stay in the kind of marriages esprit de l'escalier's extract refers to.... Yeah, I know those people well.... They stay on in their marriages and engage in affairs or other secrecy, and the excuse/justification is that they need it.... But really, if they did the right things (relating fully to their partner or breaking up and developing a fully formed relationship with someone more compatible) than continuing to engage in deceptive-yet-thrilling behavior would not be necessary for their personal satisfaction.

In short...

Yes, OP. Other people surely do feel as you do, but all the philosophizing propping up the vice and deception falls flat in the face of emotional maturity. Secret affairs can not abide in an environment of emotional maturity. Period.

This thread wasn't a pile on, I've seen those here on the green.

Folks have been trying to reach you. It is possible to be head over heels for your partner forever. I know a bunch of couples who have been together happily and fully engaged (emotionally, sexually, and intellectually) throughout the entirety of their decades long marriages.

It takes emotional maturity. If you don't have this trait, cultivate it.
posted by jbenben at 9:07 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

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