Chapter 3.Relationships: Affairs


How To Handle the Desire for Affairs?

In a better world, affairs wouldn’t continuously threaten those with monogamous aspirations. Couples would quickly recognise when emotional disconnection was building up between them; they would take direct, timely steps to articulate their hurts and so avoid ever slipping into an affair-ready state. Or, if ever infidelity did occur, the sexual dimension would be interpreted first and foremost as a symptom of emotional distance, which would then be corrected through candid discussion. Couples wouldn’t be tormented by fear and guilt on the one hand and anger and a sense of betrayal on the other.

But there are entrenched features of human nature and of our social arrangements that work powerfully against this utopian vision. Moments of emotional disconnection are, to a greater or lesser extent, almost inevitable and often unfold without our being entirely aware of them: we don’t tend to realise early enough the degree to which we are upsetting one another, and fail to acknowledge even to ourselves how distressed we have grown. Furthermore, we lack a native talent for explaining our resentments or for the focused calm required to work through our troubles in the flux of daily life.

The desire for an affair will – therefore – never entirely or spontaneously disappear. What options do we possess for at least attenuating it? A number of moves, habits of mind and practices suggest themselves:

i. Relationship Therapy

Long-term relationships are impossible to imagine without areas of friction and disappointment; there will be misunderstandings and miscommunications: there will be varying levels of resentment on both sides.

In response, our modern Romantic culture tends to suggest that we should spend more time together and ‘talk more’. It assumes that the healing of problems can be a spontaneous and instinctive process, that all we need to do is to create more opportunities for quiet dinners or country walks. It’s a pleasing idea but one that, in reality, is unlikely to work. Once a sufficient degree of resentment has built up, it grows hard for two people to accurately and effectively discuss their troubles. They’re more likely to flare up or get hurt – or fall into sullen silence and vicious circles of accusations.  

©Flickr/mbtrama

Relationship Therapy operates with a very different view. It assumes from the start that constructive communication around resentment is enormously difficult – and that we therefore require a lot of structure and guidance if we’re ever going successfully to unpick what’s bothering us. We’re going to need the presence of a third-party who has spent years studying what can go badly or well around communication. They will need to ask questions in a systematic way to discover the true sources of our suppressed rage; they will have to listen for what’s not being directly said but only hinted at; they will have to extract an important essence from a lot of exaggerated or angry remarks; they will need to remain unpanicked by their clients’ conflicts  because they have encountered such things so many times before. They will take the conversation into less expected, but more helpful, places, discussing moments that may have happened long before the couple met but which have continued to shape their engagement.

The goal of therapy is not a perfect relationship: it is to make some level of disconnection bearable to both parties. It is to reduce resentment and move the couple away from an affair-ready state. It is to advance a notion that a relationship can be good enough even though it is not precisely what either person would, in fantasy, have liked it to be.

Relationship Therapy looks like something that we could be interested in only when a relationship was failing; in fact, it may be the single greatest tool that can help to prevent it from doing so.

ii. Erotic Friendship

Romantic culture demands that our partner be everything to us; a far kinder approach is to recognise that friends should be allowed to supplement our partner, without this being viewed as a sin or a betrayal.

At some point we might meet another person with whom we feel a lot of sexual sympathy. Maybe at a party they say something about their desires that clicks with us; they laugh in a lovely responsive way when a particular erotic topic is touched on in a general discussion. We sense from their tone of voice, from the way they dress or move, from little things they say, that they would understand us erotically to a precise degree.

There might, in such circumstances, be no question at all of having an actual affair. We may not wish to endanger our primary relationship in any way. However, when we spend time with this friend, we feel our sexuality understood and liked; they are fascinated when we tell them about the stranger recesses of our desires; they let us into their more secret passions; we discuss longings and difficulties and hang-ups and things we find intriguing or exciting. We have a consoling and entertaining time with them and experience a marked reduction in our feelings of shame.

We’re not lovers, just friends, but by talking to them, we end up critically reassured: things we thought were very odd about ourselves are, in their eyes, revealed as beguiling and interesting. Parts of ourselves that felt lonely discover a longed-for companion.

©Flickr/Beatrice Murch

Finding another person who is interested in meeting us in this way takes a crucial amount of pressure off our main relationship. We don’t have to look to our long-term partner for everything. We can accept a little more graciously the fact that at points they are bored or put off by some of our thoughts.

And because there’s no sex – and no plan for sex – this kind of friendship can be accepted with grace by our long-term partner. One of the best guarantees of long-term love is not to insist that our partner be everything whatsoever for us.

iii. A Better Kind of Prostitution

Prostitution is a natural target for immense hostility, in part because modern sensibilities are so upset by the idea of physical sex occuring outside of stable loving relationships.

But we can imagine a revised form of prostitution that would have a very different focus. The service provided by this utopian version would be much more like a kind of erotic friendship than a sexual outlet. We would be accessing a skilled professional who offered not intercourse but affection and understanding. For a fee, we would pass an hour or two with someone adept at making us feel liked and heard; they would give us warm and well-judged compliments; they would tease out the complex workings of our sexual imaginations; they would make us feel acceptable and desirable – and send us back out into the world better able to negotiate the tensions of ordinary relationships. Physical sex would not need to be anywhere on the agenda. But these revised brothels would be meeting the very psychological needs that often drive people into destructive and ill-judged affairs.

A central source of inspiration would come from the Japanese tradition of the geisha. In medieval Japan, geishas were available for hire but didn’t offer a directly sexual service. Instead they were concerned with gifting visitors a more general erotic connection. Geishas might be playful and teasing, they might make suggestive remarks or create an atmosphere of acceptance and sympathy. But there was understood to be no need for sex itself.

©Flickr/Nicholas Cole

The figure of the geisha might have been connected to very specific features of Japanese culture but the underlying idea they bear is universal. At its most objective, prostitution could be described as a service targeting erotic demands that are not met within marriage or long-term relationships. We are still at the dawn of discovering what such a service might really be in its dignified form and how much it might help couples without, for that matter, either humiliating its providers or degrading its users.

iv. Masturbation

Masturbation is founded upon a crucial philosophical distinction between imagination and action. There are many things it is exciting to think about that it would be far from a good idea actually to initiate. We readily recognise this around novels. We might love reading a story set in St Petersburg in 1918, though we’d viscerally hate to have had to live through the chaos and violence of the Russian Revolution.

Equally we can enjoy imagining having sex with someone we recently met through our work or at a garden party with friends – even though we recognise immediately that in reality, the act would be a disaster.

Imagination carefully edits out very real difficulties: in the literary imagination, we can join a character in prison – we can hear the sound of the guard’s footsteps outside and the shouts of someone being interrogated in the next cell – while we ourselves are comfortably lying on a sofa, working through a bowl of pistachio nuts.

©Flickr/Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Likewise, in the privacy, of our own heads, we can write central sections of an erotic novel of an affair without having to set in motion anything in reality and without all the awkward and distressing emotions this would surely entail.

It is one of the wonders of the human constitution, and one that lies at the heart of our masturbatory talents, that we are far from needing to do everything that it can be so pleasant to think about. Whatever can be beautifully dreamt of no longer so urgently needs to be acted out.

v. Secrets far away

Romanticism equates love with total honesty. But this sets up in our minds – and in our collective culture – a powerful and potentially very problematic ideal: the notion that if two people properly love one another, then they must always tell each other the truth about everything.

Yet over the long term there are always things we may do that have a power to hurt and deeply offend those we love. This brings us up against a fundamental paradox within the modern understanding of love. Keeping secrets seems like a betrayal of a relationship. At the same time, the complete truth can, if shared, place a union in mortal danger.

We are perhaps so conscious of the bad reasons for hiding things that we haven’t paid enough attention to the noble reasons why, from time to time, true loyalty may lead one to say very much less than the whole truth. We are so impressed by honesty, we forget the virtues of selective secrecy, which doesn’t have to mean a cynical withholding of important information but a dedication to not rubbing someone up against the full and more hurtful aspects of one’s nature.

What makes falsehoods at points necessary is our proclivity for making unfortunate associations. It is, in theory, of course entirely possible to love someone deeply and at the same time to spend a night with someone else. But in every betrayed person’s mind, the tryst becomes synonymous with the rejection of their entire being. This forces any half decent person to lie. It is because the betrayed person is in the grip of what is in essence a falsehood (‘if you express any sexual interest in someone else, you can’t like me’) that one has to offer a dose of untruth (‘I went to bed early’) by which we can make sure that a big truth (‘I love you deeply’) remains safe.

©Flickr/PROJoris Louwes

Suppose a married person goes away to a conference. One night, after a lovely conversation in the bar, she gets carried away and slips into bed with an international colleague. They rub their lips together and entwine their legs. They will almost certainly never see one another again, it wasn’t an attempt to start a long-term relationship and it meant very little. When the woman gets home, her partner asks how her evening was. She says she watched CNN and ordered a club sandwich in her room on her own.

She lies because she knows her partner well and can predict how he would respond to the truth. He would be wounded to the core, would be convinced that his wife didn’t love him and would conclude that divorce was the only option. But this assessment of the truth would not be true. In reality, it is of course possible to love someone deeply and every so often go to bed with another person. And yet, kind people understand the entrenched and socially-endorsed associations between infidelity and callousness. For almost all of us, the news ‘I spent a night with a colleague from the Singapore office’ (which is true) has to end up meaning ‘I don’t love you anymore’ (which is not true at all). And so we have to say ‘I didn’t sleep with anyone’ (which is untrue) in the name of securing the greater idea: ‘I still love you’ (which is overwhelmingly true).

However much they love the truth, good people have an even greater commitment to something else: being kind towards others. They grasp (and make allowances for) the ease with which a truth can produce desperately unhelpful convictions in the minds of others and are therefore not proudly over-committed to accuracy at every turn. Their loyalty is reserved for something they take to be far more important than literal narration: the sanity and well-being of their audiences. Telling the truth, they understand, isn’t a matter of the sentence by sentence veracity of one’s words, it’s a matter of ensuring that, after one has spoken, the other person can be left with a true picture of reality.

It is ultimately no great sign of kindness to insist on showing someone our entire selves at all times. Repression, a certain degree of restraint and a dedication to editing one’s pronouncements belong to love as much as a capacity for explicit confession. The person who cannot tolerate secrets, who in the name of ‘being honest’, always has to share information so wounding it cannot be forgotten, is no friend of love.

Furthermore, if we suspect (and we should, rather regularly, if the relationship is a good one) that our partner might be lying a bit too (about what they are thinking about, about who they are messaging, or about where they were last night…), it is perhaps best not lay into them like a sharp inquisitor, however intensely we yearn to do just that. It may be kinder, wiser and perhaps more in the true spirit of love, to pretend we simply haven’t noticed anything.

vi. The Fetish of Cuckoldry

Being a cuckold – the husband of an adulterous wife – is, traditionally, viewed as one of the most degraded of all situations. However, in recent times, cuckoldry has more interestingly emerged as a powerful sexual fetish, celebrated in pornography and promoted in clubs and societies. In certain couples, males but also females are invited to witness their partner’s sexual excitement at the hands of somebody else, and far from this being framed as a betrayal, it is enjoyed as an act that reminds one partner of the value and appeal of their companion in a way that will help the couple themselves to reconnect with their own erotic powers.

The demand that our partner can’t ever have sex with anyone else may appear to be a sign of closeness but – ironically – it can function as a remarkably punitive, even cruel injunction that may produce pervasive feelings of oppression and resentment. Our sense of ownership over the other diminishes their self-confidence in their eyes and their allure and value in our own.

©Flickr/Rachael Shapiro

The operative principle within sexualised cuckoldry can be observed in many other areas of life, for example, home ownership. We might have grown rather bored of where we live. We may chiefly be preoccupied by poor ventilation in the bedroom, by a shower door that doesn’t close properly and by some unfortunate marks on the hallway wall. But when a friend comes around and is openly appreciative of the view from the sitting room window and of the elegant layout of the downstairs rooms, we realise, thanks to their enthusiasm, how much there is to value about where we live. Similarly the sexual interest of a third person can reignite our capacity to admire our partner when we are alone. Far from humiliating us, the newcomer is doing us the immense favour of reminding us of why we devoted ourselves to our spouse in the first place.

Cuckoldry is an extreme-sounding but in fact possibly sensible attempt to do something important: re-acquaint ourselves with the idea of our partner as a free and independent individual capable of generating desire in many people – and yet to do so in an atmosphere of trust and openness.

When our partner is excited by another person, we’re very dramatically reminded that they don’t belong to us and have a power, which should ultimately flatter us as well, over others. These facts are normally encountered only with considerable horror when an affair is uncovered. But they might be introduced more gently, and with far greater erotic and psychological benefit, when all parties subscribe openly to a fetishistic game of cuckoldry. The potential cruelty of an affair for the ‘betrayed’ one can thereby be turned into joy at witnessing how much delight a stranger can derive from undressing a lover they had for too long forgotten how to desire.

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