I’m a 30-year-old single male and I have been having an affair with a married woman, aged 32.
She said the life went out of her marriage a long time ago but she hasn’t left her husband. I don’t love her but it’s the best sex I’ve ever had. Is it her, or the illicitness of the situation? I think I’m addicted to it. My friends are settling down but I’m happy with this — is there something wrong with my attitude to love and sex?
At first glance this might not seem like an ideal situation, but if you enjoy the adrenaline rush of illicit sex and you don’t want the responsibility of a full-on relationship, it’s probably about as good as it gets. You have no financial obligations to this woman and there is no emotional connection, so you are not even going to get hurt if (actually, make that when) the relationship ends. Even the fact that she has been stringing you along for a year is a sexual plus. Studies have shown that dopamine, the neurotransmitter that motivates us to “want” sex, is stimulated by unpredictability, and because the neurological “wanting” system (dopamine) is so much more powerful than the “satiety” system (opioids), not knowing what will happen next only increases your anticipation and arousal.
I don’t know how you make your relationship choices, but I do know that many men and women genuinely believe that cheating is fine, as long as no one gets caught. But, contrary to received wisdom, we are becoming more, rather than less moralistic about infidelity. Figures from a 2012 study show that 63% of men and 70% of women disapprove of non-exclusivity in marriage. Ten years ago, those figures were 45%for men and 53% for women.
It is no coincidence that infidelity is practically a legacy in some families and it might be worth reflecting on whether your own sexual behaviour might be a case of history repeating itself. Most of what we do is learnt behaviour, but somehow it seems easier to consider questionable sexual practices as a pathology. In reality, sex addicts are very rare and they are all, without exception, burdened by a complete inability to control their sexual impulses. They certainly wouldn’t be satisfied by a single affair (which rules you out).
There is no doubt that some people are able to compartmentalise sex to a greater degree than others, but the desire to love, and to be loved in return, is such a basic human need that even people with alexithymia (an inability to identify, or discern emotion) strive to form committed relationships.
It puzzles me that you don’t seem to even question the absence of love or intimacy in your relationship, and it is only the fact that you are beginning to feel out of sync with your peer group that seems to indicate there might be something wrong with this arrangement.
It makes me wonder whether you might have trouble accessing your own emotions. After all, if you have difficulty sharing or understanding your feelings, a relationship based on a straightforward sexual transaction might feel much more manageable for you. Similarly, for a man who is not fully sensate, the physiological jolt of adrenaline and orgasm may feel even more profound. Profound, but unsustainable, because, ultimately, all lasting relationships require some degree of emotional connection. They also require mutual respect, honesty and love, qualities that are inevitably compromised in a union borne of infidelity.
Although love is notoriously difficult to define, positive psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson describes it as “a biological wave of good feeling and mutual care that rolls through two or more brains and bodies at once”. It’s a decent attempt to explain such an elusive sensation. Love does feel good, and fluid, and caring, and all encompassing. But “feeling” love can also be very, very, frightening because when you allow yourself to love someone, you are, at the same time, exposing yourself to the very real risk of being hurt, or rejected.
Ultimately it is a risk that most of us are prepared to take because we believe that we deserve to be loved.
You deserve to be loved too, but it’s clearly not going to happen in this relationship. In the long term, I think that you would really benefit from a course of therapy ) to help you to explore some of the underlying issues that might be preventing you from engaging in a relationship based on more than just sex. In the short term, I think you need to weigh up how you would feel if this woman that you don’t love turned up on your doorstep with a suitcase. Although you don’t seem to be remotely bothered by the fact that she is married, her husband may yet prove to be very bothered indeed.