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Ask Polly: Why Am I Obsessed With Married Men?

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Dear Polly,

I’m in my late 40s, divorced, and have recently tried online dating. Overall, it’s been great. I’ve met some terrific men and have been seeing a couple of them regularly. I’m upfront about not wanting to be exclusive at this time, and they’re fine with keeping things light and casual, so that’s all good.

A bit of background: I was married for 17 years. When it went bad, it went very bad. I know “gaslighting” is the term du jour, but in my case, it’s accurate. When my (now) ex found someone else, he covered his ass with an assault on my sanity. “Crazy,” “imagining things,” “paranoid” were the words he used most frequently when he laid the blame for our problems at my feet and told me that despite my horrible flaws, he loved me and was committed to me and I should be grateful. This went on for years. He was very good and very convincing. I got to the point where I didn’t know what to believe because I just couldn’t figure out what was real. It damn near destroyed me and sent me running to a therapist to figure out what was wrong with me. With her help, I came to understand that I wasn’t crazy, this was abuse, and I kicked him out and saved myself. Now I feel strong, peaceful, and blessedly sane.

The issue I am facing now is a desire to respond to online ads from married men looking to cheat on their mean, awful partners. To be clear, I will never act on that desire. I work really hard to conduct my life with integrity, and I want to be as far from my ex’s brand of toxicity as possible. But … a part of me is drawn to the idea of being the other woman. Of getting to have the fun and pleasure while the wife sits at home. I find these feelings disturbing. I thought I was better than that. I thought I was more healed than that. I don’t know where this desire is coming from, what it’s trying to tell me, or how to make it go away. Do you have any perspective to give me?

Not Like That

Dear NLT,

Intimacy and monogamy frighten the hell out of you because you associate these things with powerlessness. You gave your heart to someone, and he took a sledgehammer to it, all the while rolling his eyes at your squeals of pain. “This isn’t a sledgehammer, this is a feather I’m tickling you with. Why are you so fucking crazy that you think I’m trying to hurt you?” he said, while your heart was breaking to pieces.

For years, you were obsessed with the idea of your ex with other women. He didn’t seem trustworthy. You knew in your gut that he wasn’t trustworthy. And who held the power all that time? Not your ex, who was, in his own fucked up way, needy and powerless. The power belonged to these imaginary other women. They got to be sexy where you were a shrew. They got to be carefree and fun and romantic where you were sad and dull and tired and angry and “crazy.”

Of course you’d wind up wanting to become them. You’re already avoiding long-term relationships in favor of no-strings-attached dalliances, because that feels nice and safe. But that’s not enough. In a strange way, the addition of a wife, waiting in the wings, adds to the sexual intrigue — and makes you even more safe from the threat of real intimacy. Now you really expect nothing from him. He’s married, you know that! He’s unavailable. And you will always be magical and important, compared to his wife, who is always around. Now you’re the sexy one. Now you’re the dangerous, carefree, fun one. You pull all of the focus. You chew up the scenery. You are the star, in control, powerful, alluring.

I’ve known people who grew tired of the vulnerability of having a real partner who’s available. They moved on to becoming a mistress because they could only be attracted to someone who wasn’t really there but who also seemed to NEED them in a much more visceral way. A married man needs you particularly when he’s being tortured by his Bad Wife. He is needier than a regular guy, presumably because he’s so neglected. (The irony is that the real way he’s needier is that he’s the epitome of a cheater: someone with a super-needy ego who can never be satisfied by one woman.)

I hear you when you say that you would never, ever, act on these fantasies, and I believe you. Fantasies are really just these weird, floating things that drift into our minds and then disappear. Sometimes if they work for us, they return. If they work really well, we return to them repeatedly. And look, sometimes guilt is part of what makes them work, perversely enough. We feel guilty that THIS is what does it for us. If we grew up with enough guilt and shame in our lives, there’s something in the mix that brings us back to the strange magic of being very young and very confused and a little bit awestruck about the world.

Personally, when I start trying to take a shortcut to that kind of magical, young, guilty, awestruck state, it tells me something. It tends to happen when I’m not really allowing myself to be vulnerable or to feel my feelings. I’m in a defensive stance, which is somehow fertile ground for magical thinking. The magical thinking can be fun, but it also offers up the illusion that strange, intense, fast-motion, forbidden interactions are somehow more real and more intense and more vibrant than the more simple, direct flowering of trust between two available people who show up, flaws and all, and get to know each other slowly. The fantasy appeals to me because it doesn’t require me to be a person in a room, thirsty, self-conscious, thoughtful, worried, real. I don’t have to meet anyone. I get to interact with ghosts and be a ghost.

My guess is that a lot of extramarital affairs play out on this kind of a stage. People might think they’re looking for true love or lust, but in part what they’re looking for is something that feels at once more truthful and less awkward and real and compromised than marriage. They’ve started to define their marriages as spaces in which they must lie to survive, and they’ve started to see the guilty corridors of an affair as inherently more electric and alive than a marriage could ever be.

And maybe an affair is more promising for some people. But in many cases, men who are looking for The Other Women are ruled by forces that make them not all that gratifying as sexual partners. The guilt that makes you, as The Other Woman, special to him at the outset will also heighten your perceived unsavory traits as time passes. The more his escapism and guilt make you special, in other words, the more these things will poison his view of you eventually. Men who have affairs often don’t really know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. They don’t know how loyal they are to their wives until they’re actually engaged in the affair, then suddenly they’re furious at themselves and mad at you by extension. I know you aren’t considering an affair with a married man, I just want to inject a little reality into your fantasy: Married men are not the tasty treats you think they are, and you’re not going to be the supernatural, aloof seductress that you want to be in that scenario.

I know you’ve been through a lot and you finally feel strong, peaceful, and sane. But I would challenge you to address your feelings around vulnerability and intimacy and safety. I say this not because I want to push you to try to fall in love with someone instead of having sexual dalliances. I think that’s entirely your choice, and it sounds like a reasonable choice as long as it makes you feel secure and good within yourself. I do want to push you to be more open and vulnerable with yourself, though, if that makes any sense, and to be more open to men who are open and vulnerable and not just needy or oppressed. I think your self-protective, tough state of mind has made you fear intimacy, and when you fear intimacy with others, you also fear truly knowing and accepting yourself for who you are, warts and all. The more you allow yourself space to be exactly who you are, the more connected you’re going to feel to yourself and to everyone around you, whether it’s close friends, family members, or the guys you’re dating.

It takes so long to recover from an abusive relationship. Your needs were treated as if they were offensive and disgusting. Your ideas and observations were treated like paranoid delusions. You made yourself invisible and convenient for his sake, and now you’re learning how to be a person again. I want you to see that in some ways, fantasizing about being The Other Woman is a way of being half-visible and highly convenient to a man all over again. Even though you’re valued as The Other Woman in a way that you weren’t valued as a cheating, abusive man’s wife, The Decider is still the man. You are still folding into someone else’s story. So even though you need to forgive yourself for having these feelings, which make perfect sense, take a closer look at the fucked-up foundation on which they’re built. Instead of feeling gorgeous and important to another woman’s husband, instead of being desired and admired by a series of online lovers, what if you could feel gorgeous and important to yourself first? Can you imagine daring to ask for exactly what you want from a man who isn’t on vacation from a wife, or who doesn’t find himself attracted to the promise of a no-strings-attached affair, who is actually interested in you as a human being who might never fuck him? Does it sound embarrassing for you to decide, in a vacuum of men, that you are worthy of adoration and love and affection, that you can be broken and afraid and even a little bedraggled and sad and you will STILL be worthy of love?

And what if you went online and said, “I only want friendships with men.” What if you promised nothing at all? What if you decided that you’re good enough and your needs matter enough that you can just traipse around town, getting to know men slowly, and maybe never fucking them at all?

I know the response to that ad might be nil in the age of Tinder. I’m mostly asking you to experiment with your concept of yourself and what you deserve. You’ve spent so long believing that you deserve so little. Being someone’s secret extramarital lover isn’t a way of deserving much, much more. It’s actually a way of going backward, of folding yourself up and taking less. The power of The Other Woman is an illusion, fleeting and empty. You can hold onto it if you want to, but at least recognize it for what it is. The real, sustained, electric rush that you’re longing for will come to you when you dare to show up and maybe sometimes be the one who holds back, the one who asks for what she wants, the one who decides, the one who is good enough to wait for, the one who doesn’t mind standing alone.

The powerful, mysterious woman that you’re fantasizing you could become isn’t a woman who’s sleeping with a married man. She’s a woman who has learned to let the world in without feeling crushed by it. She’s a woman who isn’t afraid to be seen clearly by someone who isn’t perfect, who isn’t injured, who doesn’t need her, but who wants her just the same.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: Why Am I Obsessed With Married Men?