I Stopped Cheating

Every time one of my friends starts thinking about cheating on her boyfriend or husband, she calls me. With good reason. I've been there, and I've done that. My friends know I'd never judge them.

But it's funny how predictable my advice has become. "I don't know what to do," they'll say. "I don't want to leave Matthew, but I'm really just going crazy thinking about Mark. What should I do?" I always say the same thing: End it with Mark, now.

No one listens. Ever! By the time they've admitted their illicit attraction to themselves, much less me, they're too far gone. When you're in an unhappy relationship, cheating is heroin. No one can stop after just one hit.

To continue with the heroin analogy, I guess you could say I'm in recovery. I was a cheater for more than a decade. And though I went cold turkey four years ago, I still wouldn't trust myself around a needle.

Can you see why I tell my friends that it's easier not to get started?

Me, I got into the stuff too early to know better. Blame too much partying, blame a weak moral fiber. For whatever reason, I never had much interest in dancing with the one that brung me.

I cheated on my college boyfriend by making out with a defensive lineman — in front of 60 of our closest friends. Later, in law school, I fell madly in love with a better match, then proceeded to run around on him with no fewer than five guys. He learned of my treachery again and again, and he'd scream and I'd weep and we'd ultimately end up holding each other, sobbing. I've always loved drama, but this was simply exhausting.

And so it ended in that most clichéd of ways. I got tired of being the bad guy; I moved on. And got engaged. And started cheating on my fiancé.

It took Frank to make me realize what a monster I'd become. Frank and I worked together in our first firm out of law school, right around the time I was planning to get married. And though I was mad about my fiancé, Frank was just about the sweetest guy I'd ever met. So silly, and smart — I loved the guy, but never thought of him as a potential lover.

But then something shifted. Suddenly, our goofing around didn't seem quite so innocent. I was feeling that familiar excitement.

One afternoon six months before my scheduled nuptials, we got out of court, flushed with some minor legal triumph that escapes me at the moment, and Frank suggested we go out for drinks. I knew that if I went, something was going to happen.

Dear reader, are you surprised to learn I went anyway?

It was lovely, of course. The problem is that I fell for Frank. This wasn't getting a little drunk and making out or a flirty long-distance fling. This was madness. I'd tell my fiancé I was going to get groceries and then frantically dial Frank from the parking lot, just to hear his voice. We e-mailed all day long — from across the same office. At happy hour, we'd leave our oblivious co-workers at the bar and slip into the alley to kiss.

Most reliable studies suggest that cheating is on the rise — and that women are increasingly doing just as much of it as men. This has certainly been true of my circle of professional, highly educated, 30-something friends. For most of us, our 20s were a nonstop blur of hookups and two-timed affairs. We cheated because we were bored. Or horny. Or because we could. We cheated to start up new relationships without the loneliness of ending old ones.

I suppose that's what I was doing with Frank. Only I didn't know it at the time, so we said it was love.

Ultimately, I broke off my engagement. But (eye on my newfound freedom), I told Frank I couldn't possibly commit.

I had a long series of reasons, and some actually sounded healthy. I was on the rebound! Our co-workers would assume Frank a homewrecker! I needed time to let my family adjust to the broken engagement before introducing a new guy!

In reality, once I was single, Frank didn't seem quite so hot.

We went out for wings to discuss it all. We were drinking giant glasses of beer, and I remember staring morosely into mine as Frank angrily told me I'd broken his heart.

He said I was the most selfish person he'd ever met. "Have you ever thought of anyone other than yourself?" he asked. He left by himself.

I was not used to being alone with my beer. Suddenly, I felt like the loneliest girl in the world. My ex-fiancé hated me, Frank hated me, I hated myself. It occurred to me that every time I cheated on someone, I was setting up everyone involved for misery.

And so I stopped, just like that.

It hasn't been easy. Today, I'm in a relationship, but I tend it as carefully as I would a rose garden. It sounds sick, but I don't have any male friends. Nor would I trust myself to plunk down on a barstool, one on one, with even my most tedious male colleague. When I get an e-mail from a long-ago ex-boyfriend, I invariably delete it without responding.

Old patterns die hard, and I don't want to be the girl I used to be. I've learned my lesson; I've opted for quiet contentment instead of that old ruinous excitement. But please don't test me on that.

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Anne Smith