STRINGS ATTACHED

Craigslist confessional: “That’s when I had my first affair.” Anonymous, 43

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Mark, 43

Everyone thinks that I’m a nice guy. But I’ve never been a nice guy. I am a coward and a jerk. I didn’t intend to be and it’s not who I want to be. But that’s who I am: a coward and a jerk.

I acted out a lot as a kid because I always felt that I had something to prove. I was the class clown, the jock, and the notorious flirt. I craved attention and affection from women because for me, it was the ultimate form of validation. Half of that is due simply to the fact that I love women. I respect them, I’m fascinated by them, and I get along better with them. But the other half is because throughout my whole life, I’ve been conflicted by a terrible fear of rejection.

I was born with a rare medical condition called phimosis. Essentially, this means that I’ve never been able to retract the foreskin past the head of my penis. My doctor told me that my condition wouldn’t affect the mechanics of sex, that it was purely an aesthetic issue, and gave me a few nonsurgical options—mostly steroid creams—that could partially reverse the issue. Unfortunately, nothing worked. The confirmation that something was “wrong,” though, was proof that the rest of the world would see what I saw when they looked at me.

I spent my teens in my parents’ basement, jerking off and avoiding sex at all costs. When I finally lost my virginity, it was totally awkward and unremarkable. More opportunities presented themselves but I refused to participate because I was just so mortified at the idea that someone would see me and laugh. When I finally met my wife in college, she seemed totally oblivious to my problem. I was so relieved that I completely threw myself at her, buying her love with any means possible.

After we got married, I noticed that my confidence had been restored. I mean, here I was: married to this gorgeous, intelligent, good woman who loved me and accepted me—and seemed not to care at all about something that I’d obsessed about as a deficiency for years. I started thinking about all those missed opportunities again—all of the women I could have had sex with, but didn’t. They seemed so much more exciting and salacious than the daily drone of married life. I started thinking that perhaps if I could just get one more person to accept my little issue, I would be happy.

That’s when I had my first affair. It was with a coworker and it lasted about a month. The first time it happened, I was so nervous and conflicted—imagine being trapped in a state of concurrent arousal and nausea. I felt literally sick to my stomach from what I was doing. But the sex with her was lustful and passionate.

Sex between my wife and me had dwindled significantly. The stress of kids and work didn’t help. Every time I tried to initiate it, she turned me down. It was exhausting and frustrating. My wife is also terrified of change so that every time an opportunity presented itself to do something fun and new, she would break down emotionally and retreat into her shell. I wanted more—I wanted excitement, to see the world, to feel alive. I felt that I was being held back. I also didn’t think it was fair that I had to give up my sexuality just because my wife had…

The excitement of doing something that felt dangerous and good mixed with the humiliation of having to sneak home and shower before my wife got near me was overwhelming. Ultimately, the only thing my coworker and I had in common was sex, and she wisely ended it when I started talking about leaving my wife and kids for her. I was devastated when the affair ended, but it gave me an opportunity to focus on my family, and I took it as a sign to keep working on my marriage.

But the distance between my wife and I had grown so much. I had bouts of depression that caused me to go through a career change, to revamp my whole wardrobe, to even look into circumcision in order to address my condition. And finally, I went back to my old ways: I met a girl online and we fooled around but I backed off before we had sex. Months later, I had sex with a married woman. But I felt nothing; I wasn’t excited by the sex, I didn’t get a rush, I didn’t feel temporarily relieved. I just felt like an asshole.

Looking back, I feel so ashamed of how crazy I acted. It was almost like I was having a mental break. I didn’t recognize myself. I did things that I used to deplore in other people. I acted in a way that makes me afraid of what I am capable of—I mean, I could have lost everything. I am lucky as hell that I didn’t. But I think the scariest part is that I feel those old feelings every once in a while. Passion, intimacy, sex, desire—they are completely lacking in my marriage. We have such a long way to go on the road to reigniting our spark. Some days, I feel that old need for validation. And right now, even if you told me that it could cost me my family, I don’t think I could guarantee that it would never happen again.

Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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