People in relationships can be lonelier than single people.
I met "S" researching a book about online romances. S had been married for seventeen years and had been engaging in an online flirtation for several months. Her online paramour spent a lot of time explaining to her why their romance wasn't actually cheating.
He loved his wife. This was just fun. It didn't mean anything. He used to tell her if his wife found out, she'd forgive him, she'd understand it was just a little flirtation.
But it was often. Sometimes every night for weeks at a time. Staying up late. Messaging each other at work. At home. Stolen moments. Intensity. Heady stuff. The way S described it, well... I understood how she had gotten lost in it.
He had his parameters. He never told her he loved her. Although, she confided he'd told her he would love to kiss her. Love to wrap his arms around her. Love to wake up next to her. I thought it sounded pretty much the same.
They never met in person, but he'd tell her that he would likely come online tonight, maybe tomorrow, the day after at the latest. They'd chat then, he would say, if she were around. She made sure to be around.
She had a family. As we talked, she mingled stories of her husband and children interlaced with descriptions of him. She told me how alive she felt when she'd message with him. How young. How sexy. Something she hadn't felt in years of house cleaning, laundry, parenting.
It's tough to listen to a story like that. It rarely ends well. But she was telling me what had happened, past tense. And I was there simply to listen.
All they time they spent talking led to their own shorthand with each other. Phrases that were meaningful just to the two of them. Memories of nights where they'd bared their souls and sometimes more.
It ended a few months later. His wife didn't catch him. S intercepted a message he'd meant for another woman. It turned out there were several of those. Not surprising to me, but shocking to her.
All that affection she'd thought belonged to her? She came to find out that it was shared amongst women. Many women. And in his mind, he was still a good husband. An upstanding guy. To the end he insisted he loved his wife.
There are tons of articles online about the slippery slope between flirtation and an affair. And if you turn them around in your head and view them at just the right angle, you can explain away a lot of bad behavior.
S told me the sex between her and her husband vastly improved during those online months. Things between her and her husband heated up in the bedroom as she imagined him. And really, she asked, how different was that from envisioning Bradley Cooper or Brad Pitt? It wasn't just better in the bedroom. It was a lot more often.
After her online dalliance ended, the side benefits her husband had enjoyed dwindled to nothing. All the pent up heat just dissipated. She told me it was as though her desire pooled at her feet, like tears. But time passed. During her flirtation she'd compared her husband unfavorably to her amorous friend. But during her resurgence her husband's qualities blossomed.
Now, she says, more than a year after the affair, she and her husband are stronger than they were. She's never told him about that period when she almost fell into the abyss of romance. Her husband has his faults but cheating is not one of them. And she finds that incredibly sexy. Yes, the irony is lost on her.
I discussed online romances with a friend who is a licensed marriage and family counselor. She questioned what S had gained from the online affair. If it was the realization that her husband was a good, loyal man and she now finds those qualities more attractive, what stood in her way of seeing that before?
When I met S again and posed that question to her, she told me, "I read a study that said people in relationships can be lonelier than single people. And I convinced myself that was me."
What it finally came down to, she said, was, "When I thought about taking all that energy and putting all that flirtation into my relationship with my husband, I found it to be a turn-on. That's how I knew, for me, I hadn't crossed the line to an emotional affair. I've known women who flirted, but they couldn't translate any of that heat to their partners. To me, then it's cheating. Then it's trouble."
S is convinced her extra-curricular flirtation was good for her marriage — heating things up when they were cold and then shining a spotlight on what was strongest in her relationship. But as I listened to her, juxtaposing her comments with the counselor's, I wondered if what she'd fallen back in love with (her husband's character) would sustain her the next time someone bright and shiny came along.
Was a flirtation good for her marriage? I think it will take a few years for a definitive answer on that.