The stones are not to be too small as death will not ensue; nor must they be too large as death may come too soon.” – Sharia Law
I have made it no secret that I was once involved with a married man (hey if Oprah and Barbara can admit to it …) but I do however stumble on exactly which terminology to use. If I was not the married party, is it correct to say I had an affair? Was my married man the one who had an affair and I was instead … what? A mistress? The other woman? A home-wrecker? In a more brutal moment – a whore? In any story of an affair – fiction or otherwise – it would seem the terms used rely exclusively on the perspective of the storyteller.
In my case I do tend to avoid all doubt by saying (deep breath!): “I had an affair with a married man”. Cue clapping AA style, as if I have just admitted to an addiction and am ready to confront it. But of course I did not admit this for years; with the exception of my tightest group of friends, I followed the cardinal rule of an illicit relationship – the only one required to ensure it survives in fact. I kept it a secret.
Friends, family, colleagues – they no doubt wondered at my swings in mood across the years. Every red-eyed return from the bathroom. Every dizzy-giddy moment that seemed to come out of nowhere. The way 24 short hours in my life could so regularly appear to change everything. Not to mention the perfected red herring of overt flirtation with other men. If I look interested no-one will catch on. Desperate? They never knew the half of it.
I don’t think you get closure from writing about something. Closure suggests an open the door – shut the door experience of life and of feelings. In reality the door swings on its hinges most of the time. What you get then, when both sides of your situation are revealed, is perspective. A sort of sense added to your sensibility as you consider the facts. And of course the fiction.
This is how it has been writing and researching body, remember. My first efforts here were little more than a howl of anguish as I tried to express the pain of a deeply flawed relationship that still hurt with the switch flicked to off. But I quickly realised just how much I would need to embellish in order to write a good love story. Upon review it was soon clear that my own story was … well … a little less engaging when I stuck to the facts.
The truth is my lover was neither as invested nor as committed as I’d want a character to be if I were reading about an affair. This realisation was startling, embarrassing – and ultimately liberating (my three step process for curing an affliction!). I came to see that my reflections on our relationship were essentially a literary version of killing kittens – though I was writing about my ex-lover, he was in fact no longer part of the process. I was doing this all on my own.
It is interesting to me how many people here on WordPress are brave enough to share their direct experiences. In their most vulnerable moments they open themselves up to not only support but also to criticism and outright hostility. Because let’s face it, affairs are polarising. They may be understood by those who have them, but they are loathed by those who don’t. Especially the partners on the other side – the wounded, the betrayed, the cuckolded (there are myriad terms for all parties in this). Infidelity can even arouse deadly censure – as my opening quote suggests. Religious institutions in particular consider it an abomination.
I once read an article on a religious-oriented website that suggested women would rather be raped than cheated on. I found the comparison insulting in the extreme, but I did take pause to consider that in our society affairs really are that reviled. Researching my book (and researching my life over the years) I have come across endless commentary regarding affairs, and I will admit that most of it baffles me in its rigid approach to relationships and love.
Take the articles and websites dedicated to saving a marriage (Recover from an AFFAIR!!!) where I nearly always encounter a version of the following:
[During your affair] you will feel more alive. You will feel more yourself. You will feel the most engaged of your entire existence and you will discover the sex and intimacy you have been craving and missing for so long. It is not real. This is not real life and this is not real love. And you must never, ever think it is.
It is not the directive to give up an affair that makes me feel funny when I read this kind of advice. Affairs really are about cheating, lying and living a double life – they offer no foundation for healthy living. What strikes me every time is the implicit suggestion that one’s primary relationship does not support the positive feelings mentioned above. And that this is okay.
Because it isn’t okay. Your reality should not require alternatives or an escape hatch. Yes I acknowledge the pressures that come with marriage-mortgage-kids, and I also know that some affairs are simply about sex and more of it. But there is no denying that a large percentage of affairs are earth-shattering for the people involved. It is like a Pandora’s box of want is opened – with so much forced into hiding, desire practically explodes when it is exposed to air.
So why do people seek out primary relationships that require them to seal up these hopes, these dreams – these essential parts of their identity? Hell, isn’t marriage-mortgage-kids THE dream? The holy trinity is certainly entered into with gusto by most. So what happens next?
It is too easy to default to tinpot psychology when considering the why and who of affairs. Men are the narcissists, or the sex-addicts. Women are insecure, have no self-respect, or are, again in a brutal moment – sluts. The relationship cannot be separated out from the devious behaviour required to sustain it. Fair enough. And yet. It suggests something. This relationship. This alternative. This escaping yourself which might actually be finding yourself – completely outside of a structure you were too unthinking or too lazy to question at a different age. No doubt the deception is wrong. But not all lies are so obvious.
Estimates of infidelity within relationships range anywhere from 20% to 70%. Either way you look at it, a large percentage of people do not cheat on their partners. I don’t believe they are the ones living lives of quiet desperation. I like to think these are the couples dancing barefoot in the kitchen (cue my parents). The couples for whom sex equates to intimacy (or perhaps the other way around), so that a health-check is performed if or when desire wanes. The couples who still get a kick out of each other even when they actually want to kick each other (cue my parents again). To dream of escaping – well I only have to look at my mother when my father nearly died to know that not all marriages are considered an institution.
So back to the issue of an affair, and the social imperative to SAVE YOUR MARRIAGE (sorry, it always seems like a command not an option). As much as I would preface this with don’t lie and hurt others to solve your issues, I also feel odd about this concept of working at your marriage. Laura Kipnis says it so perfectly in her (insanely good) book “Against Love“. It should be read by anyone on any side of an affair. It sort of smacks you over the head, so sudden and inescapable are her arguments against love as labour.
To quote Kipnis, “- the work ethic has managed to brown-nose its way in to all spheres of human existence. No more play – or playing around – even when off the clock.”
She makes the connection to labour explicit when she goes on to say, “- when desire is organised contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labour from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery – is this really what we mean by a “good relationship”?”
(Tell Laura I love her. Really. I mean it. I’ve known what she means in my very bones since the days my barbies never got married. I only ever wanted love to be my best thing).
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips sums it up when he says, “In our erotic life … it is no more possible to work at a relationship that it is to will an erection or arrange to have a dream. In fact when you are working at it you know it has gone wrong, that something is already missing.”
I would add that people do in fact try – literally or otherwise – to will an erection. They take pills, they read god-awful books like “50 Shades of Grey” (which to me suggests a staggeringly low bar for female desire), they plan date nights like there is some magic waiting outside of the home that all those singles are tapping into.
Which we’re not of course. We’re at home drinking red and writing stories, and feeling completely and utterly free (as terrifying as that is). And occasionally dreaming of dancing barefoot in the kitchen – some days at least.
Which is why we don’t throw stones at glass houses. We know the cracks are all over.
Why didn’t we run away from all the noise?
Why didn’t you grab my hand?
You were too scared to ignore the voices
That tell you what to do
(I’ll understand some day)
– YOU MADE ME SEE IT, Room Eleven
Image by Joanne Piechota.