Chapter 3.Relationships: Affairs


The Role of Sex in Affairs

When an affair is discovered, it is common to describe the person who strayed as despicably sexually uncontained. They are lustful, wanton, dog-like. They have ceded control to their animal selves.

But we get a more nuanced view of the role of sex in affairs by asking a deliberately obtuse, philosophical-sounding question: why is sex so nice?

One possible answer, which can sound a little odd, is: because we have advanced tendencies to hate ourselves and find ourselves unacceptable, feelings which sex with a new person has an exceptional capacity to reduce.

A long-term relationship can only too easily enforce a sense that we are neither very admirable nor worthy. Management of family life, of cleaning rotas, of finances and of relations with friends and inlaws can contribute to an impression that one is fundamentally troublesome and undeserving of sustained notice. The mood around us is fractious and ungrateful. ‘Not you again’ may be the implicit message one receives upon entering any room.

©Flickr/Jerome Naselli

Physically, we have strict instructions to keep ourselves to ourselves. There is one person on the planet we are meant to be naked in front of, and this figure is unlikely to be particularly impressed or even vaguely cognisant of our appearance. With everyone else, we are a cautious, swaddled beings. We would not dare to come more than 30 centimeters near to most of humanity.

And then, suddenly, in the context of an affair, everything changes. We can be enlaced and carefree. Our tongue, normally carefully shielded and used to form vowel sounds and break down toast or the morning cereal, is given permission to enter another person’s mouth. We are no longer just the person who makes problems around the in-laws and doesn’t lift their weight around the house or the finances: we are someone whose very essence has, via the flesh, been witnessed and endorsed.

What we may be doing is slipping off another’s top or inviting them to release our trousers, but what all this means is that another human has – exceptionally – chosen to find us worthy.

For so-called cheats (who will most likely have to pay a very heavy price indeed for going to bed with another person), sex can have remarkably little to do with ‘sex’. It is an activity continuous with a range of non-physical needs for tenderness, acceptance, care and companionship. It is an attempt, negotiated through the body but focused on the satisfactions of the psyche, to make up for a long-standing painfully-severed emotional connection with a primary partner.

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