Were I to write the thinking woman’s book of advice for potential lovers of the already committed I would firstly say, it isn’t thinking that gets us into such situations, and it usually isn’t thinking that gets us out. It will come as a confronting shock for many thinking women to discover that thinking only goes so far, and cannot by itself save you from yourself.
I would then say, it is extremely important for your own survival to remember there are always three people in your relationship, one of whom is quite likely unknown to you.
It is also important when everything goes pear-shaped (probably more important than anything else) to invest time in understanding why you decided to inflict this particular kind of torment on yourself in the first place.
I don’t want to gender my imaginary book: women take extra marital lovers as well as men, lesbians are unfaithful and so are gay guys, and I don’t know how gender and sexual orientation change the dynamics of betrayal, or if they only add variation to its expression.
Also, for the sake of convenience I’d use the term marriage in the largest sense, to include committed relationships without the State’s imprimatur.
In my case, I blundered into a marital minefield. Because of what I knew of my lover, and also because of what he said, such as “I am only doing this because you are irresistible, I don’t tell lies to my wife,” I thought adultery was a rare event in his life. As it turned out he’d been engaging in extra marital affairs since the 1970s, and they were, in fact, part of the established pattern of his long marriage. I was a rarity in the sense that, according to his wife, I was “the only one he’d done this with,” this meaning fallen in love with, and so deeply threatened the marital equilibrium. The others had apparently been little more than co-operative receptacles for his ejaculatory fluids, and of minimum consequence, and she’d seen them off without too much trouble. Annoyingly, I have this sense of myself as an equal human being, and an unwillingness to crawl under a stone when someone decides I am no longer of use to them.
My lover’s wife had, she told me, become very cynical about men and their pathetic sexual desperation. I told her I couldn’t imagine becoming cynical about an entire gender, but, I added, perhaps that was my downfall. I don’t think sexual desperation is particularly gendered, women can and do yearn and desire. Woman can and do go looking for a zipless fuck, and feel ashamedly desperate both for wanting it and doing it. It is one of our culture’s epic fails, that human sexuality is looked upon with such severe moral judgement, and such complete lack of understanding.
As well, I felt sorry for my lover’s wife. After all those years she probably thought his adulteries were over, and then he’d gone and done the worst one of all.
These people were to all appearances living in a long-term monogamous marriage, the kind that is held up to us as a model, as a desirable peak of human intimate achievement. They were “pillars of the community,” forgive the cliché, an outstanding example of a bourgeoisie that still exerts repressive control over public morality, and expectations of sexual behaviour. They do not, as she accused me of doing, “write intimate things all over the Internet.” But they are pretenders. There is nothing in the least monogamous about their marriage and hasn’t been for decades. Indeed, the biggest threat I apparently represented to this couple was not the ending of their marriage, but the power I had to reveal them to their community and family as two-faced long-term fakes.
You always take enormous emotional risks when entering into affairs with married people. But when you walk into an already well-established pattern of infidelity it’s like walking into a spider’s web of lies, half-truths, games, dishonesties, and an accumulation of dysfunction, all of which cling to your face and heart with a nasty stickiness that is extremely difficult to remove.
They are practised at playing this game, you may not be, and believe me if you aren’t, you will not know what has hit you. You are a pawn. They will use you. You will be the means to their duplicitous end. You, and others before you, have served to keep together a marriage that otherwise might long ago have blown apart, had it been truly monogamous instead of only pretending to be. You are an outlet, dear. For a man’s or woman’s desire that cannot be contained and satisfied within the monogamy to which he or she has committed themselves, and lacks the courage to examine.
“I knew I should never have let him meet you that first time on his own!” his wife raged at me and I saw immediately that I was not dealing with an adult when I got involved with this man. I was dealing with a naughty child who couldn’t be let out without a wife to guard him from himself. But by then it was too late. I’d done it.
Personally, I don’t see the point of monogamy as a life goal, or as any measure of moral achievement. It may be an ideal situation for some people. I can see it has potential. It worked for me because I never found anybody else as interesting as my husband, which was simply great good luck, not to do with any strong moral sense about monogamy, or strong resistance to temptation. Of which I obviously have neither.
It isn’t the desire for another that is wrong, or even the acting on it. It’s the arrogant sense of entitlement that allows people to use and then dispose of other women or men as temporary sexual and emotional outlets, in order to help them maintain the treasured illusion of the perfection of monogamy, that in itself counts for so much in the assessment of what is a “successful” marriage.
When we are devastated by betrayal, and the profound hurt and jealousies it brings, it can seem to help, I suppose, to call up a moral framework from within which to hurl fury and pain at the perpetrator. Not only have they done you wrong, they are wrong, in the terms of this moral framework. It might temporarily help with the pain, but in fact, it’s just another illusion.
I am a symptom of the troubles in your marriage, I told my lover’s wife. I am not the cause. To her credit, she agreed with me.
It is a mystery to me why people do not sort these things out. Come to some mutual arrangement about a partner’s ranging desires. Refuse to come to such an arrangement and leave. Live as single people free to love who they will. To play the same old game of betrayal and remorse and broken promises for decades, in the service of a constructed ideal of family founded on monogamy, smacks of idiocy to me. I prefer the deeper intimacy that comes from acknowledging and sharing the truth of a situation, even if it means frightening change and sometimes endings.
What is “family” if there isn’t truth at its foundations?
This all matters very much, because the monogamous relationship is held to be the cornerstone of our culture. It’s increasingly challenged, and that can only be good, because I doubt my experience is an isolated one. I suspect there are many more playing at monogamy, and I suspect that the cornerstone is neither strong nor true. Challenging its cultural stranglehold is likely one of the more significant tasks we face, and the ramifications are extensive.