When you are in a relationship, cheating is one of the worst things that can happen. First the rage sets in, then self-doubt, more rage, then the hurt. You find yourself questioning every little thing, and even eventually, you may begin to blame yourself. The reasons people cheat tend to be pretty broad, but take it from someone who has been on both sides of the cheating fence: it feels awful no matter what end of it you are on.
In graduate school while finishing my thesis, I found myself in a pretty lonely position. I loved the topic I was researching, but socially my life had become pretty isolated. It was all about getting edits to my adviser, research, and what my next professional steps would be, which didn’t leave much time for dating.
It was also around this time I began to work pretty regularly at a bar near campus. The coffee was pretty decent, happy hour was all day, and I could work there and still feel like I was getting human contact. I worked in that same bar for months, until finally, one day, I felt a tap on my shoulder. An older man introduced himself, asked if I came there often. In the same conversation, he also casually mentioned he was a professor at the same university I attended.
I thought nothing of it at the time, but over the next month, I kept running into him. Eventually he offered to buy me a drink and asked me more about my research. Although we were in different fields, it was nice to have someone take an interest in my work besides my thesis adviser. These kinds of casual conversations went on for a few months, until he started to invite me out with his other graduate students.
It seemed like a fun opportunity and something I should take advantage of. But little did I know, this much older professor was angling for more than my research. The drinks with his graduate students eventually turned into late-night texting with him. I knew better than to flirt with a much older, married, tenured professor but thought it was flattering to have his attention (he was 52 at the time and I was 29). We kept hanging out socially, and beyond a few racy text exchanges, nothing had crossed a physical line. It was when he started to confide in me about the problems he was having with his wife that I began to realize the magnitude of what was happening.
I tried my best to offer suggestions, but I found myself more and more confused by the late-night conversations and what the boundaries were with this new relationship. I tried to navigate a more personal friendship, which was something I had done with other professors in the past, but this seemed different. While there was an attraction, I tried to respect his marriage and set clear boundaries with what I was and was not comfortable discussing with him. Although I tried to be clear about my parameters, he didn’t take no for an answer, and eventually his advances wore me down. I wanted to discuss the power dynamics of what we were entering into — him being a tenured professor and me still a graduate student, even if I wasn’t in his department. However, those conversations never seemed to take place. The spirited text conversations turned into full-blown sexting, and that Summer, our emotional affair began.
It wasn’t until that following Fall when our relationship became physical. He was still married, and while I was attracted to him, I wasn’t looking to change his situation or to cause trouble. The social drinking with his graduate students continued, but it was now followed by trips to his office before or after. He’d pay for my drinks, and there was an occasional lunch or dinner. Sometimes he’d buy me a book, tote bag, and even an occasional piece of lingerie or sex toy. It was sexy, and no one seemed to know, but things came to a head that November when he wanted to go to a hotel.
I apprehensively went along with it, but that night, something shifted. I knew I wasn’t in a place I actually wanted to be in with him emotionally or otherwise. It ended just as quickly as it began, but over the course of having an affair, he had taken something from me. He had taken little pieces of my emotional vulnerability and had not respected my boundaries. It made me want to take back control and get those things back. Our relationship made me take stock of my life, what had occurred, and I became very reflective about it.
It took me months to shake the embarrassment and shame, but over time, and with a good therapist, I was able to start healing from the situation. It made me become more solid in who I am and clearer about what my boundaries are, and it also taught me to forgive myself. While it may not have been the best relationship for me to enter into at the time, and there certainly was pressure from that person, with a lot of hard work after it, I grew as a person. I don’t think I would make the same mistake today, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.