Why We Do What We Do Sometimes: Compartmentalization and Fantasy

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There are many reasons for infidelity, such as revenge, boredom, the thrill of sexual novelty, sexual addiction. But experts say that a large majority of the time, motivations differ by gender, with men searching for more sex or attention, and women looking to fill an emotional void…. Women tend to have an emotional connection with their lover and are more likely to have an affair because of loneliness.

I googled random words that popped into my head yesterday, only a few that I recall now that I have wandered far from my original search–crisis, conscience, fidelity, causes–and found the above webmd answer to the inquiry, “Why do women (and men) cheat?” Having researched infidelity endlessly in the last six months, I was pretty sure I knew the answers. Yet, as each new search yields slightly different results, I keep returning to the inexhaustible topic.

Paraphrasing here, despite feeling guilty and regardless of how “the other woman” compares to their wives, men cheat when emotionally dissatisfied, i.e., feeling under appreciated or unloved, according to Dr. Gary Newman’s study of 200 avowed strayers. The proposed solution: Wife, get out of yourself and pay attention.

The article teases out the commonplace and dresses it up with officialdom in a reader-friendly version of the study findings. There are few details of the subjects, questions or demographics. But do we need a study to come to the banal conclusion that marriage breeds contemptuous familiarity, human nature tends toward the unconscious and ungrateful, and daily presence and gratitude is the answer to so many of the questions?


How can I be kind to my husband and show him how much he means to me with the daily do’s grinding me into the ground: work, kids, parents and the myriad other balls I juggle to keep it all going, each taking huge chunks out of my time, patience and happiness on most days?

Simple, I remark to myself. Stop, breathe and re-set. Do the enormous work of superhuman strength to take ten minutes out of the day for a gratitude inventory: people who care deeply for my wellbeing, who would suffer horribly if I died or fell gravely ill, even if it doesn’t seem like that most days. So that when I mindlessly knee-jerk react to my husband’s insignificant screw up, I can at least apologize and salve the wound. And just maybe avoid the knife altogether next time. It takes practice.

So the next time he goes out to get 2% milk and gets nonfat instead without an inkling that his kids would never drink that, I refrain from laying into him, complaining how clueless and checked out he is. No one wants to feel dumb. No one reacts well to unkindness. I marvel at how I give strangers on the street more kindness than I give my people sometimes. Just unjust.

But kindness is not a panacea and presence is not easy. Some cheat even if they feel good about and are well-treated by their spouses–to what degree I have no idea, but articles abound with studies attesting to infidelity even among avowed happy homers. People stray for as many reasons as there are people, my weak math brain speculates, as each individual comes to a relationship with his or her own nature and nurture.


The human mind copes with conflict in unseen ways. Mindfulness–a condition for catching self-deception in action–is tricky when it comes to danger triggers and survival mechanisms. I have observed that clandestine relationships survive largely on compartmentalization, which is only one tool in the human arsenal of coping skills.

We parcelize ourselves in order to make sense of what we do. For instance, I have been known to be an overly conscientious mother and daughter but a neglectful wife, at times, and I rationalize that deficit by focusing on the surplus.

Likewise, a man in a strained or dying marriage may justify an affair by weighing his acclaimed superior fathering and provider skills against the undeniably less superior husband skills attested to by his wife and his own admission. But since he is a good father and provider, he believes he compensates for the few failings as his wife’s lover, friend or supporter. She gets her due, so he should get his.

That is just one example of guilt-alleviating separation that keeps folks moving along through their days and in their marriages until either or both terminate. But it’s not just for cheaters. Many sites I consulted on the subject such as Psychology Today and Webmd, cite professions that necessitate compartmentalization. Soldiers, for example, seal up the killing to survive the mental anguish.

Compartmentalization is often survival, no doubt, especially for those with high powered jobs widely responsible for others’ safety like police officers, doctors and lawyers. A doctor could not work without burying the constant threat of lives lost at her hands.

To a lesser or greater extent, we survive emotional infidelity by splitting ourselves into bad and good, justified and unjustified. This disassociation answers the question of how she could fuck her lover each afternoon and then spoon her husband to sleep each night. But is she aware of the division?


We all come to situations as we are. No kidding. Some of us are, and I do include myself, if not outright addicted then highly reliant upon fantasy to prop us up through hard times or as the go-to coping mechanism. I know I dealt with teenage loneliness in fantasy. It gave me the endorphin boost I was later addicted to in distance running.

If I imagined that someone to whom I was attracted also found me attractive as THE object of desire, I smoked those elaborate imagined scenarios with that special someone who found me irresistibly witty and charming, and so, so deep. I would inject the role of lover in love songs, succumbing to the bitter-sweet surrender of being someone else, somewhere else for a while. It was release.

Some people use love to obtain that high even into adulthood. While life sped up for me so much that I lost the luxury of hours mulling in my imagination–school, work, real relationships that were not so ideal and took a lot of rolled-up-sleeves ugly work–I still had spells of disappointment or a generalized ennui that was relieved by lapsing into fantasy.

Specifically, when I found myself in a restricted relationship by borders of time, emotional commitment and opportunity–mistressing, for example–fantasy played a huge part for me and my partner. It sustained the relationship and certainly heightened the sex.


There is an interesting thing about daydreaming and fantasy: Sometimes it works to manifest what you want in life, and other times it keeps you stuck in your life. What makes the difference?

The difference has to do with your intent. Are you consciously imagining what you want from a place of inner connection and joy, or are you using daydreaming and fantasy to avoid your feelings and avoid reality?

When you consciously and joyously imagine what you want, you are participating in creating what you want. However, when you use fantasy and daydreaming as a way of avoiding your feelings and avoiding the reality of a situation, you are using them addictively.

So says Margaret Paul, PhD in “Addiction to Fantasy and Daydreaming.” I agree. Intention is everything–almost. Fantasy spans the poles of medicine to poison.

When abseiling the steep slopes of rocky terrain–deep, existential loneliness or disappointed dissatisfaction in a life partner choice–unhealed lovers or spouses find respite in the life-supporting ropes of daydreams or fantasies of another’s possible meaning or potential in some improbable space and time of the imagination.

This human tendency, whether for avoidance or enhancement, as addiction or inspiration, no matter how dilatory to healing a relationship or the self, was certainly pronounced in those who made me mistress. That is one of the things all lovers had in common: being in love with feeling love and their projected ideal–in me. And I did the same for them.

My illicit loves were all drenched in rich fantasy, which has made each relationship both an irresistible draw and a resounding alarm. While I heard all I desired, all the tailored words and acts calculated to keep me–or my image–I placed a padded, porous cotton circle of safety around my heart.

Because in time I knew that I knew. Looking at myself from the outside as if in a metafictional moment, an actor slow turning away from the scene to wink at the unseen, unknown audience, I broke the fourth wall. I toggled the strutting and fretting between falling in and out of my heart’s desire in dangerous liaisons, which accounted for my enjoyment and sanity within them.

Of course, there is living in the moment and then there is all the rest. When I was with my lover–in that room or car or restaurant–looking into the eyes of the object of my reciprocated desire at that precise moment, there was only the thickness of amniotic warmth, need and desire in perfect balance.

And the other pole–fear, longing, insecurity, conscience, dissatisfaction–drifted in and out of the majority of hours spent without my lover, sometimes striking me with a punch and other times with contemplative concern.

Most times, however, I just went through my days attending to what was directly in sight. I still do. And hope that sleep, my most beloved and ardent lover of all, returns a new day with answers, insight, solution or simply more of the same as all the other yesterdays–practice.

Presence, intention and study are disciplines that enable me to dip into the copiousness of heart pumping inflow and outpouring. Some days it is easier than others to see myself and others with incisive clarity. Others, I fog over.

However, the intention is always there. Struggling with the practice, sweating the line of possibility and decency, creation and destruction, I awaken each day resolved to do the best I can even as I want to do better than that. And so I get up, falter in a slight sway, and get on with the business of another first step to somewhere.