by Amy Alkon
Q: I had an affair with a married man, and we fell madly in love, and he left his wife for me. We’ve been happily married for many years, but recently, I found out that he’s still in contact with his ex-wife. I got suspicious, bought a voice-activated recorder and tapped our landline. Lo and behold, they’re having hot phone sex while I’m visiting my elderly mother on Sundays! I can’t believe he would disrespect me like this! Especially after all we’ve done (like moving across the country to get away from his psycho ex). I really love him, so I’m wondering whether I should confront him or just seethe in silence (because I know he won’t go back to her). And honestly, I’m not even sure phone sex is really cheating.—Shocked
A: OK then. You’ll just be having a nice big scoop of “What Comes Around Goes Around.” Cup or cone? Nuts? Sprinkles?
As for your shock at his behavior—“I can’t believe he would disrespect me like this!”—it’s not like you two met while working at the ethics factory. People who cheat with you are cheaters, meaning that they can probably be counted on to cheat on you. We all know this. Yet there you are, not only suspending disbelief but driving it out to the desert and burying it in a shallow grave.
You’re doing this not because you’re dumb but because you’re succumbing to a mental shortcut called “optimism bias”—a belief, fueled by ego and wishful thinking, that bad things likely to happen to other people will pass over you like a flock of birds, not leaving so much as a souvenir dropping in your hair. Optimism bias is maintained with denial—like your questioning whether phone sex is “really cheating.” Um, if some behavior by your partner, done openly, is likely to cause you to burst into heaving sobs, chances are he’s crossing the line: “Be right there, dear! Just talking dirty to my ex-wife.”
As for your notion that you could just seethe in silence, wonderful idea—except for how, as resentment builds, “head in the sand” starts to feel like “head in the blender.” To stop giving in to optimism bias, give yourself a crack upside the head with how things actually are. Yes, you need to admit that your husband is cheating on you. Once you have your meet-and-greet with reality, let him know that you’re onto him and then sit down together to see what you have and whether it’s fixable (and not just by making your elderly mom take the bus to your house so you can stand guard by the phone).
To figure things out, spend 12 hours straight in a hotel room together. Yes, really. No books, TV, phone calls, naps or walks outside. You can sit silently—or talk about anything regarding one or both of you. The late therapist Nathaniel Branden, who came up with this idea, called it an “experiment in intimacy.” Branden explained that when all avenues of escape are closed off, a couple can experience real breakthroughs in communication. As opposed to what you’ve been experiencing—real breakthroughs in communication devices: “Yeah, we have a very happy relationsh- … hold on, Katrina … sorry; that was just the tracking thingie telling me my husband’s going south on Oak.”
Q: I’m dating this guy. We aren’t committed, but I’d like us to be. Recently, he’s been mentioning chicks who want to sleep with him whom he shut down. I appreciate his honesty, but I guess I’m wondering why he’s telling me this stuff at all.—Earful
A: There’s being open and honest, and then there’s bragging about your sexual options, which is the mark of a man-toddler: “Mommy, Mommy, look at the sex fort I’m making!”
The guy’s spirit animal appears to be the trash can with the swinging lip. He either wants you to like him more or he is warning you that you like him too much. Time will tell. Meanwhile, just sitting there blinking as he rattles on about his harem-in-waiting doesn’t make you seem cool and easygoing; it makes you seem cool with disrespect.
In other words, you actually need to say no to knowing. This doesn’t take some long, icky speech. Just a slightly singsongy “Overshare!” And if he doesn’t quite get it, maybe add, “Fascinating … but unless I’ll be needing a penicillin nightcap, TMI.” Assuming he listens and stops and is generally attentive to your feelings, you probably shouldn’t fixate on this. Even the sweetest guy may say things he doesn’t quite think through—to the point where a girl’s sometimes got to ask for tech support: “Hi … sorry, but I couldn’t find this in your FAQs. How do I log out of your penis’s news ticker?”