Steven Lake explores how a lack of self-awareness leads to crippling choices in relationship.
By a lie, a man . . . annihilates his dignity as a man.
— Emmanuel Kant
N.B. All names are pseudonyms, characters are composites, and identifying information has been altered.
Shock. That was the feeling I had listening as Bob looked at me and shook his head in disbelief. He could not understand how he had spent the last four years having an affair. He loved his wife dearly yet “somehow” he had developed a relationship with another woman.
He suspected his wife knew what was going on but was looking the other way, putting up with the situation for the children, the marriage, and the dream.
The only reason he was talking to me was that his mistress had left him. Bob was torn up and not knowing what to do. Financially, he could leave the marriage, but he was feeling guilty about the effects such action would have on the kids.
What continues to surprise me when I hear these kinds of stories is that the men often state that they have high regard for their partners, are still physically attracted to them, and think they are “great” mothers. These men often continue to have sex with their partners.
In another conversation, Stu said that everyone at the office was having an affair – it came with the territory. There was this sense of entitlement that permeated the conversation. His fellow workers, all men, made a lot of money. They had the trophy wife, kids, home, and still they wanted more.
When talking to me, these men were confused about their mixed emotions. They were like boys who had gotten into the candy store and overindulged and were now feeling the effects of too much sugar.
For some, they were caught and in the middle of long-term divorce battles. Others were trying to figure themselves out and put the marriage back together again. Very few of them saw this as a moral issue. The problem was often framed as, “It just happened. I wasn’t looking for it.”
These men have spent much of their lives in pursuit of economic success at the expense of their own personal development. They are not bad men. They are educated, love their kids, contribute to the community, and work hard as hell. Yet, they were willing to risk everything.
They have reached the brass ring, and if their behavior is any indicator, have found it wanting. An affair most definitely puts juice and drama into their lives. These men are typically in their forties and fifties when they see me.
For some, they have had affairs on and off for decades and didn’t think it was problematic. For others, it is a one-time thing and they are as stunned by it as are their partners.
What gets me scratching my head is how fondly they talk about their partners. I keep thinking, if she is so great, what are you doing having an affair? This lack of self-knowledge or awareness I was talking about earlier, colors their everyday actions.
For example, when there is a sense of entitlement, these men believe that their superior efforts deserve superior rewards. This, of course, doesn’t mean that lesser achieving men don’t cheat. They too may be coming from the entitlement of just being a man. It’s what we do. It’s our instinct, our drive. God knows there are plenty of books (e.g., Sex at Dawn) and pundits to support this point of view.
When these men talk to me there is a sense that they are out of control, or at least unable to control their urges – much like an addict or a child. There is no sense of responsibility for their actions. They are confused, overwhelmed, indecisive, and often unwilling to admit the truth of what happened even when found out.
When in my office with their partners, they may agree to the basic facts but the details evaporate into thin air. Articulate men suddenly fumble for words, look around with fear and confusion, bite their lips, run their hands through their hair, and bounce their leg up and down incessantly all the while avoiding what’s really going on.
Sometimes the stress is too much and they break down and the tears flow. This can be a pivotal moment. They have given up withholding and no longer fear the truth, realizing, if they are to recover the relationship, it has to be based on the truth – as painful as it may be to all parties concerned.
On the other hand, the emotional outpouring may just be a release of pressure and the deceptions continue in earnest. They know their partners will be unhappy with their action, and yet they do it anyway.
We know they are not stupid, so what is it? Are they being cruel or just fearful of telling the truth and dealing with the consequences?
Looking at history (e.g., Nazi Germany) and psychology studies (e.g., the Milgram experiments on obedience) it becomes evident that normal everyday men can be induced to take deplorable actions. These men have an inner voice that makes their choices, in the moment, seem like the right choice.
Maybe, if these men had more self-understanding they would have been able to keep their Id in check until they had resolved their issues about self and relationship.
When faced with unexpected opportunity, or even seeking it out, part of their evaluative abilities becomes diminished. When strong emotions are involved, many men do not feel adept at managing their experience.
When conflicting emotions arise with their partners, some men find it difficult to communicate. Burying emotions is our training and taking action is much easier – even action that is detrimental to the relationship.
The only way I see out of this conundrum is through becoming self-aware. This is not something new and the ancient Greeks believed in this concept so strongly that it was inscribed in marble at the Temple of Delphi. It is just two words:
Knowing thyself is only the first step. The next is having the courage to act on this knowledge. Speaking to the people who will be affected by your actions, before making any decisions, moves you from being a victim and acting from a childlike state, to becoming a man responsible for his actions.
What kind of man to you want to be?