When Does An Affair Begin?
Once an affair has been uncovered, we often ask – in the position of the betrayed, pained party – when it began. Pinpointing the precise moment promises to shed light on its motivations and on possible ways to prevent any further such disasters in the future.
There is understandably a hunt for the exact time when the two straying individuals met and physical contact began. We think of how two people had a drink after a business dinner or met online or flirted at a party and agreed to meet up a few days later. We concentrate on exact details: when their knees touched under the table, when one of them lightly put their arm round the other’s waist, and when they first lied about where they were going or to whom they were sending a message.
This kind of detective work feels obvious, but it overlooks a complexity: the start of an affair should not be equated with the moment when two straying people meet. Affairs begin long before there is anyone to have an affair with. Their origins lie with certain initially minute fissures that open up within a subtly fracturing couple. The affair predates, possibly by many years, the arrival of any actual lover.
There is an intellectually somewhat parallel issue to which historians are trained to be alert. It is common to ask when a cataclysmic event like, for example, the French Revolution began. A traditional response is to point to the summer of 1789, when some of the deputies at the Estates General took an oath to remain in session until a constitution had been agreed on, or a few days later when a group of Parisians attacked and broke into the Bastille prison. But a more sophisticated and instructive approach locates the beginning significantly earlier: with the bad harvests of the previous ten years, with the loss of royal prestige following military defeats in North America in the 1760s or with the rise of a new philosophy in the middle of the century that stressed the idea of citizens’ rights. At the time, these incidents didn’t seem particularly decisive; they didn’t immediately lead to major social change or reveal their solemn nature, but they slowly yet powerfully put the country on course for the upheavals of 1789: they moved the country into a revolution-ready state.
Likewise affairs begin long before the meeting at the conference or the whispered confidences at the party. It is not key to fixate on the trip to Miami or the login details of the website. The whole notion of who is to blame and for what starts to look immensely more complicated and less clear cut. One should be focusing on certain conversations that didn’t go well in the kitchen three summers ago or the sulk in the taxi home five years before. The drama began long before anything dramatic unfolded.
This is how some of the minute but real causes might be laid out by a partner who eventually strayed:
Unending busy-ness: it was a Sunday morning, our beloved had been taken up for months on a big project and we’d been very understanding. Now it was over and we were looking forward to some closeness and a trip to a cafe. But there was suddenly something new that they needed to look at on their phone; we glanced over at their face lit up by the glow of the screen. Their eyes looked cold, determined and resolutely elsewhere. Or else they hatched a sudden firm plan to reorganise the kitchen cupboards just when at last we might have had a quiet time in the park together. That’s perhaps when the afternoon of passion in Paris really began: with the need to stop everything in order to swap around the crockery and the glasses.
Neglect: We were away on an exhausting trip and in a break between meetings, we fought for the chance to call them. They picked up, but the television continued on in the background: they had even forgotten we’d had to give a speech and it felt a little humiliating to have to remind them and to hear their lacklustre ‘great’ in response.
Shaming: We were with some new friends, people we didn’t know too well, and wanted to create a good impression on. Our partner was looking to amuse them and, having cast around for options, opted to tell everyone a story about how we once showed the wrong slides in a presentation at work. They know how to tell a good story and there was a lot laughter.
Ownership: Without discussing it, they arranged that we’d both go and have lunch with their parents. It wasn’t so much that we minded going – it was the fact that they didn’t feel the need to ask us if we minded and if the timing was convenient. On another occasion without even mentioning it, they bought a new kettle and got rid of the old one; it was as if we had no say at all. Sometimes they’d just tell us what to do – ‘take the bins out’, ‘pick up some mineral water at the shop’, ‘put on different shoes’ – without adding ‘please’ or ‘would you mind’ or ‘it would be lovely if …’. Just a few words would have made a very significant difference.
Flirting: We were at a party with them and we saw them across the room: they were bending towards this person, saying something; they were laughing charmingly; they put their hand on the back of the other person’s chair. Later they said it had been a very boring conversation.
One too many arguments: It wasn’t the basic fact of having disagreements, it was the sheer number of them – and their unending, repetitive nature. One that sticks in the memory was when we were at the seaside and things should have been happy for once – and yet they chose once again to ramp up the tension about a Thai takeaway that had been ordered. We remember arguing and at the same time, one part of our mind disassociating, looking down upon the two of us standing on the pier with cross faces – and wondering ‘Why?’
Lack of tenderness: we were walking in the street together near the antiques market and we reached out to hold their hand but they failed to notice; another time they were doing something at the kitchen table and we put an arm round their shoulder and they said sharply ‘not now.’ In bed we’re always the one to turn towards them and kiss them goodnight; they respond, but they never, ever initiate. This rankles more than it seems normal or possible to say.
Erotic disengagement: there was a sexual idea we’d been getting interested in but we felt awkward about mentioning it to them; we tried to give a few hints, but they didn’t let out the impression they were curious, they didn’t encourage us to expand; they gave us the sense that it would be a lot more convenient if we just kept whatever it was that tickled us to ourselves.
Individually, none of these things may be very dramatic. Some little version of one or other of them may be happening pretty much everyday. And it’s not all one way: both parties are probably doing some of these things quite regularly, without particularly noticing or meaning to.
Yet, a careful historian of infidelity might pinpoint any one of these as a moment at which – in a true sense – an affair began: long before the party or the conference, the feeling was implanted deep in someone’s mind (perhaps beyond the range of their conscious awareness) that there was something important missing in their relationship that another person might perhaps be able to supply.
It is common, when an affair is discovered, to become an inquisitorial prosecutor: to seize a phone and ask the ‘cheat’ in detail where they have been; to read through their emails and parse every receipt. But such assiduousness is a little late, a little misdirected and rather too self-serving. We should look further back than the moment when a lover came on the scene. The revolution didn’t begin with the sexual act or the dirty texts and with the actual storming of our domestic citadel; it began on a sunny innocent afternoon many years before, when there was still a lot of goodwill, when a hand was proffered, and when the partner was perhaps fatefully careless about how they received it. That might be a rather more painful account of our relationship and its troubles than either of us is ready to contemplate for now, but it may also be a more accurate and ultimately a more useful one.