The Pleasures of Affairs
Given the pain infidelity may cause, it can feel callous to explore the charms and attractions of affairs; it’s a move that our Romantic age can be extremely censorious about. But it is difficult to make any sense of our escapades unless we can first understand what may be so powerfully compelling about them. We cannot secure the understanding of relationships we need so long as we remain willingly blind to the more thrilling facets of ‘straying’.
There are several important ways in which an affair can feel urgent and important, despite all the complications and dramas it may embroil us in:
Foregrounding neglected parts of who we are
A central peril of long-term relationships is their corruption of our sense of identity, their habit of caricaturing us in unhelpful directions. At home, over the years, we become simply ‘the bossy one’, ‘the intellectual one’, ‘the organizer’, ‘the lazy one’ or ‘the one who frets stupidly about money…’ The description may not be wholly untrue, but it is – crucially – woefully limited.
However, with our lover, we have the chance to start the story of ourselves anew. Whatever we may feel about them, it is how they make us feel about ourselves that can be at the core of their appeal. In their company, we can present facets of who we are that had been sidelined in our main relationship. We discover a more carefree side of ourselves – or emerge as the one who takes the lead in making decisions. We are not boxed in by assumptions that might have been mostly true a decade before. They declare us to be, much to our surprise but also to our relief, remarkably funny, relaxed or serious – things we might have struggled to feel in the face of the prejudices of our partners, who tell us with authority what we are ‘really’ like.
In long-term love, we are the prisoners of history. Nothing has been forgotten: the time in Venice when we shouted; the Christmas when we forgot the present; the anxious period after the sacking when we ruined a whole summer. We don’t wish to lie about who we are; we want a chance to be properly forgiven, which may in practical terms mean that someone should simply not know the whole of our story.
One of the great perils of an established relationship is that it cuts us off from our longing to be kind. We are so often left fighting for our basic rights within the couple that we have no opportunity to give expression to our appetite for generosity and sweetness. We have to persuade the partner to let us have an allotted amount of time to ourselves. We have to point out that we have already compromised on a given issue. We have to put our foot down about certain domestic chores. We have to remind the partner on many occasions to do something they had solemnly agreed to but are reneging on. We have to take issue with a cutting comment levelled in our direction. For much of the time, it feels as if we might be fighting for our lives.
We can grow very resentful. Our capacity to be kind becomes hampered by our memory of the other’s unkindness to us. We would like to prepare them breakfast and surprise them with a present, but we can’t forget the way they mocked us at the party or were ungrateful about the help we had given their sibling.
Yet, within an affair, we can throw off the watchful and suspicious stance we had adopted. The delight isn’t just that the lover is nice to us, it is that we can be so nice to them, the way we always longed to be and knew we were when we first began to dream of love in adolescence. They have not hurt us (yet) nor given us grounds for vigilance. In the hotel room, we can give untrammelled expression to a passionate wish to be helpful, to listen, to be generous, to do little things to make them comfortable, to be attentive to their needs, to show them special signs of respect and to pay them compliments. We are reminded that being emotionally stingy was only ever a response to upset.
The Simplicity of the Task
We are normally trying to do so much: be a co-parent, a domestic manager, a sexual companion, a friend. Unsurprisingly, we fail at most of the tasks. But affairs are mercifully simple propositions. We are not trying to do laundry and fathom someone’s intimate history. We are not juggling a homework schedule and attempting a sexual scenario. We don’t have to manage their mother and their soul. We have a rare chance to do one thing well.
Our faith in human nature is renewed
We learn, in established love, to be cautious in our hopes for what another human can be like. We know that people don’t generally change very much. We’ve grown to accept that most attempts to persuade our companions of anything will fail. We accept how much intransigence we will meet with. We understand that luck seldom comes our way.
But an affair is a rare break. Despite everything we have become, another member of our species has opted to give us a chance. They have looked at us with new eyes and, for once, not found us wanting. They have chosen to glance past our flaws – and it is as if we are reborn through their original, creative gaze.
We regain a little faith in the whole human project. We receive an uplift which spreads across all areas of life. One very special person gives us energy to look anew at the whole species. For the first time in many years, we smile benignly and open-heartedly at existence.
An end to shame
We grow used to being burdened by a sense that a lot of what we are deep down is unacceptable. Sex becomes the fulcrum of the censorship. The other doesn’t want to know our more intimate fantasies. They roll their eyes when we describe a passing daydream we had about a colleague or someone on a train. We are acutely aware of how disgusting some of what we want can feel to them after an exhausting day with the children. But no such taboos are in place with a new love. They welcome our extreme sides as evidence of trust and intimacy. They too long to do things that respectable people might shudder at. Our union is a conspiracy against judgement. We do so-called disgusting things as a way of proving our degree of inner purity and commitment.
The world is bigger than we’d thought
The world had, without our really noticing it, grown predictable and stale. Our expectations were fixed. Our knowledge seemed established. But they are showing us that life is so much richer than we had dared to think. The vastness of the cosmos comes through in little details. They have a completely different idea of what a bathroom or a kitchen can be like. They read an alternative newspaper and spent years in places we’d hardly thought of. With them, we go to shops we’d never have entered, we watch films we’d never have seen, we hear about books and ideas that would never normally come our way. They spread their jam in an original manner; they give certain words a new intonation; their shoes come from a manufacturer we had never heard of. Their original sides lend us an opportunity to try out a different vision of existence.
The Pleasures of Secrecy
Being known is, at one level, our greatest longing. But being badly known is a prison. ‘I know you,’ can be both a gift and a threatening way of asserting unwanted authority. Our established partners claim to know us deeply, but in the process, they have often missed so much. An affair is a rebellion against this assumed, unfair knowledge. ‘You don’t know me at all’ is the implicit message behind the raft of lies we are telling. They thought that they knew what was passing through our minds; but they have not the slightest clue about what is really happening in our lives right now. They may tell our friends what we are ‘like’, but they have no inkling of the itineraries we have devised to meet our lover in Rome or what we have written to our passionate new companion in the app hidden in the recesses of our phone. Our secret affair is a rebellion against the perils of being badly ‘known’.
We might not dare to put it this way, but there is a degree of delightful revenge in all this. They assumed that no one else would care about us; they arrogantly believed that no one would look our way. They took our presence for granted. They couldn’t bear to hear us to the end of our sentences. They disagreed with us relentlessly when they could so easily have given way. We are, through our lover, finding recompense for the many times when so much of what we cared for was trampled upon.
The majority position on affairs is, of course, that they are abhorrent. But they wouldn’t be as widely practiced as they are were there not another side to the story that we don’t typically dare to mention. It’s by investigating the pleasures of affairs that we gain a sense of what can be so difficult about long-term love. Our affairs give us a measure of how much, how blindly, and how badly, we have hurt one another over the years.