Why do we fall?: Why I cheated
This post was originally published on the blog Though Catalog on 5/31. It is the most personal and painful and cathartic thing I've ever written, and it was shared about 10k times, which was nice. To read that post, just follow this link. There, it was titled I’m Not Superman: Some Reasons Why I Cheated. I like my title better, but editors didn't. This version has a few changes in word choices. Meaning it's better.
On my bedroom wall, there is an image of Superman, as drawn by Frank Quitely. It’s beautifully detailed and as he sits on a cloud Superman’s face offers a glimpse of what the word peaceful might look like on a human being. When I wake up in the morning, it reminds me that people are, at heart, decent. It’s an image that, even before I fell in love with the character of Superman, I tried to emulate. In a real-world-I-bleed sort of way, I’ve always tried to be that hero: I care for, and take care of, those close to me as well as strangers whenever I can; I’m slow to anger; empathy is generally my first reaction when someone is being hurtful; through personal interactions, and on a larger scale through activist work over the last fifteen years, I’ve tried to make the world a better place. I want to be a good person and viewed myself like that for a long time. That changed last year when I had an affair.
Me and my former girlfriend were together for two years. I loved her, and at many points near the beginning of our relationship we talked about children. It was quite serious, and though the details of the how and why I cheated can be saved for another day, I thought it was important to realize why I failed. It’s something I think about daily, during large chunks of time in which I remember the look on her face when she found out what I had done by reading old text messages on my phone—a scene that I masochistically replay to remind me of my guilt. Why I failed to be the Superman that I always strived to be—for myself and for her—has forced me to a newer understanding, but the reason isn’t complicated: I was afraid. I was a coward.
How do you tell the person you love that they’re making you unhappy? How do you say that when you lay in bed with them every night you try to think through solutions to what exactly is wrong and come up with nothing. The obvious response—talk to them—had escaped me; I couldn’t deal with the thought of hurting her with the truth that things were not working out. As grown up as I knew she was, I was afraid she would shatter if I said that I wasn’t sure if we were right for each other. I was afraid of the aftermath of the truth. Afraid of the conflict. Afraid of disturbing things as they were. And so my mind went through a strange bifurcation. On the one side I was with her, and within a committed relationship that I valued because in her I saw someone that had opened themselves up to me and let me in her heart, as I had done with her. The other side of me would have sex with someone else, seeing it as a minor indulgence that hurt no one because no one knew and because it made me happy (like buying a shirt you know is made in a sweatshop). That half didn’t think about the moral and emotional consequences of violating the trust that my other half valued so much.
Okay, here’s one detail: I was spending time with a woman who laughed with me, and it felt good to connect with someone by just being me. Months before I had gotten a new credit card to transfer and consolidate some debt. I never planned to actually purchase anything with it, so when the Amex representative asked if I wanted a prefix to my name on the card, "a mister, or a doctor, or something like that?" I said, "Okay. Yeah, I wanna be a doctor." The card came, and sure enough, I was "Dr. Al Claremont," last name misspelled and all. The woman and I thought it was both silly and hilarious. After a few belly laughs I mentioned that my girlfriend thought it was silly in a bad way, and also immature of me.
I paused and looked down with an ironic smile, thinking over the many attempts at playfulness or general joviality that regularly fell flat with my love—always leaving me feeling a little sadder and a little more disconnected from her. It was a concern that Superman would have brought up in conversation and talked through with his partner. Maybe he and Lois Lane would work it out, maybe they wouldn’t, and they’d go their separate ways. Either way, everything would have been honest. I was scared and did the opposite; I later slept with that woman.
That really is the point. A character that can’t be hurt, in this case physically, doesn’t have to be afraid. He’s not forced to make choices on the spectrum of fear to love, but can always decide what to do based on what is understood as right. Superman will forever do what’s right because he has no reason not to. I thought that was me for the most part, but it wasn’t. A fear based on emotional turmoil can be just as harmful to the decision-making process as fearing some physical threat. There’s not much that frightens me, but I was scared of coming home and confronting my girlfriend.
What I did was not only hurtful but easy, in a cheap way. We had had conversations about our issues, but what if I had more clearly stated what I felt was wrong? If we had even gone to a therapist, as she suggested, those issues could have been worked out, and I wouldn't have felt so alone while living with someone who I cared about so deeply? I dismissed these ideas in my mind as wishful thinking. How could these problems work themselves out? I had been thinking about them for the last year we were together, but couldn’t think of a solution as we went to dinners with minimal interaction, or took long train rides to the beach in a silence that she was comfortable in—but which just depressed me. But really, I never gave our relationship the chance to rise to the challenge. If I was stronger, we could have worked out our problems and both come out better, more loving people for it, but I gave up. I just wasn’t strong enough.
There were a lot of things between us that weren’t right, from our different approaches to life’s curveballs, to our short list of shared interests (she wouldn’t know what this blog title is in reference to). Things may have been doomed from the start, but I didn’t think so, and I still don’t. By cheating though, I never pushed us beyond these hurdles.
I was introduced to comic books when I was about ten-years-old by my older brother Joesly, who passed away some years ago. I got into superhero stories because the wild adventures, fantastic art, and outlandish characters were entertaining. It wasn’t until eight or nine years ago when I realized what they were to me, or at least what they could be. The image of Superman on my wall is an ideal. He and the other costumed characters I read about throughout my young adult and early adult years represent what we’d like to see ourselves become. The whole premise of my brother’s favorite character, Spider-man, is his realization that those who have power must exercise that power to help others—"With great power comes great responsibility."
Those comic book quotes and ethics became a sizable part of my moral fabric and having disregarded them so flagrantly has made me take stock of who I am. Sometimes when I think about what I did—how I broke someone who was so precious to me—I begin to tear. If I’m standing, I have to sit down as my heart flutters, and my jaw drops a little. It’s what I imagine being a party to murder feels like. It’s a feeling that reminds me that I’m not there yet. I’m not the person I want to be, but I do want to get there.
Before the relationship that ended last year, I was dating someone who found out that I was still active on a dating app and asked me why. We talked about why and she ended it with a hug before I walked out of her apartment forever. It was the first time I had ever been unfaithful. Before that I was in an unhappy marriage with someone I had been dating, on and off, for seven years. That itself was part of a short run of long-term relationships where I did what I said I’d do. Relationships where I was honest... That’s all to say that my history has been on a downward trajectory. I’m trying my best to right it now so that if I ever do find someone special again, I’ll be a person she can look at and be proud of. Not because of what I’ve shown her, but because I’ve shown her everything.
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I was recently in a short relationship that didn’t work out. It was a wonderful few months with a woman who I fell hard for, but we wanted different things in life. I told her, in detail, what happened in my recent past. I was clear with how I saw things for my future and explained what I was looking for in the warmest, but clearest way possible. It wasn’t new to me, but something I needed more practice in. When we broke up she told me that I gave her faith that good guys existed. Much of her dating experience consisted of one-off dates and short relationships with liars and creeps, but she saw me as an exception. Though I’ve been called that before, it’s something that I’ll be sure to make true this time—to be not necessarily a Superman, but a good man.
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