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updated 5/3/2006 5:34:17 PM ET 2006-05-03T21:34:17

Q: I have been having an affair with a married man for a year. This is not my first affair, nor is it his. It is the typical affair, with the sex, love, being best friends and heartache. I love him and he loves me, but he won't leave his wife because of fear of hurting the kids. To be honest, I am not sure I want him to, which brings me to my question.

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What is wrong with me? Why do I look for relationships with married men? I know the end result — they never leave and I knew I would get hurt when we started this. Why can't I just find a decent, single man?

The married guy and I are not going anywhere. Sex is not that good and, honestly, when I am with him I want to hurry up and leave. So why do I crave being with him and then look for a way out when we do get together?

A: Your letter indicates you are greatly confused. You start by implying you are madly in love with this man, and then you say you don’t like being with him much.

Because of the ambivalence you express, I suspect you have enormous fears of commitment and discomfort with intimacy. You can’t find a decent, single man because you won’t let yourself. You are miserable not because you can’t have this particular man, but because you are longing for something you will not permit yourself to have.

If you pick someone clearly unavailable, you never have to struggle with real commitment and its risks and vulnerabilities.

You barely mention the love triangle that you’ve set up here. You are competing with someone’s wife. Some women become involved with married men because they are repeating a difficult relationship situation from the past.

Typically, they feel they were always vying with their mother for their father’s attention.

Freud would have called this an unresolved Oedipus complex. If the Oedipal situation is so intense and never resolved, then this girl — now grown up — may continue trying to find fathers to lure in and mothers to gain victory over.

If this is the case with you, you may be picking married men in order to beat the competition, even though you don’t want the prize. It is all about competing, not about reaching the finish line.

In fact, I have seen cases where the man plans to leave his wife for his mistress — and the mistress finds this the fastest turnoff ever! Suddenly, these women beat a quick retreat. If they can really, truly have him, they no longer want him.

Because you express no guilt or remorse about being the other woman, and you have a pattern of affairs with married men, I am concerned that this competitive drive applies to you.

It’s hard for you to acknowledge that this behavior is both psychologically unhealthy and morally wrong because it is so strongly driven by your unconscious agenda.

After all, having a decent, single man doesn’t feed into that competitive drive. You don’t triumph over anyone by winning him. Instead, you assume the risks of entering into true intimacy and commitment.

Sure, by the time you are in your 30s there are more married men than available ones, but this does not mean your sole option is an unavailable man. Suitable, unattached men do exist.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Unless you figure out why you are engaging in affairs with unavailable men, you will not have a fulfilling relationship with a man of your own.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts," which helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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