Affairs: What do they mean for a marriage?

Publically, we all believe affairs are bad for a marriage…until we have one ourselves it seems….  An insightful book I’ve just read (Esther Perel, ‘The State of Affairs’) casts new light on the varied meanings and impacts of affairs on marriages (or long term ‘relationships’) and gives a very different perspective on how marriage is and should evolve to account for this common critical event, based on her professional practice.What is an ‘affair’?

Perel argues ‘affairs’ involve secrecy, sexual alchemy and emotional involvement, meaning a one off ‘fling’ and other sexually-oriented activities (eg watching porn, flirting with a friend) might not qualify, but she argues each couple needs to define their own boundaries for what is, and is not, permissible – challenging in itself!

Marriage expectations have evolved and are unrealistic

She argues that marriage has moved from being economically- (an income to raise children) or socially-motivated (arranged marriages, linking families), to a ‘capstone’ of life, something you do after you’ve played around sexually, perhaps even had a child, found a love partner and want to ‘settle down’ to a romantic idyll of perfect bliss (look at wedding events, listen to vows).

Marriage has moved from being a reason to have sex to a reason not to have sex, at least sex with anyone else…which you might have been doing before marriage.

But in a consumer society, where we constantly seek new and better experiences and where personal comparisons of everything are widespread, the concept of settling for one partner…forever…is not consistent.  Further, the concept of having to undergo difficult times to develop and cement the marriage bond (doing without, budgeting, undertaking DIY work) doesn’t fit with have-it-all-now consumerism.

Affairs involve three parties and have different contexts and meanings

Conventional western wisdom sees ‘affairs’ as ‘cheating’…which is ‘bad’.  But affairs occur for many reasons:  wanting something more, something different, to overcome different sexual desires of partners, to hold a marriage together and more.  It’s often the secrecy, not the event, that is the biggest problem for a couple.

Two parties to an affair – the ‘cheater’ and the lover – are usually ecstatic about the affair.   Uniformly, people in affairs reported the excitement, ‘aliveness’, eroticism, sense of belonging they experienced.  The lack of responsibility, lack of routineness and secrecy exacerbated the difference between the joy of the affair and the daily grind of everyday ‘normal’ life.

It’s only the ‘cheated’ party who is devastated by an affair.  And the third party lover often doesn’t resemble the stereotype young beauty or wish to break the marriage.  How do we ‘add’ the different perspectives of the total experience?  Whose view do we take?

So the ‘meaning’ of an affair varies greatly, and it’s the meaning that needs to be understood before the couple can move on.  The affair may be due to a breakdown or long-term deterioration in a marriage, due to a lack of discussion between the couple about their intimate lives.

Depending on the meaning, the couple could:

–          Separate (the affair has broken the bond irretrievably)

–          reconstitute their marriage as it was (effectively seeing the affair as a one-off, not to be repeated), or

–          reconstruct their marriage (recognising that the affair was meaningful, but that the couple hopes to adjust their own relationship so that the need for an affair does not arise again).

Rethinking marriage

Perel argues that affairs and infidelity are only one type of betrayal in a marriage.  Lack of interest, putting work before partner, humiliation, power differences, drug and alcohol abuse all result in an undesirable marriage, probably of more daily impact than a secret affair.

How to put adventure, fun, variety, humour, independence and more – the elements that an affair may revive – back into a long term marriage?  Perel argues that honest conversations between partners that address each partner’s intimate needs, desires and thoughts need to occur if the implicit contract between partners can revive the original relationship…or the enjoyment the affair brought.

Consensual non-monogamy as an option…

A fourth option for a marriage nowadays  is to renegotiate the marriage agreement to allow consensual non-monogamy – explicitly allowing affairs or other sexual activity of some sort.  Consensual non-monogamy is a mouthful, but Perel  argues that this may be a useful option for a couple to consider, given how fraught the marriage contract is with its unrealistic expectations in today’s consumer society.

Can marriages be conceived with consensual non-monogamy, with partners agreeing that different sexual experiences are ‘OK’ without breaking contract boundaries?  Can explicit contracts match the unspoken implicit contracts that each partner has, but won’t reveal or discuss?  Balancing contradictory objectives (trust and independence, security and adventure), changing and developing over time are necessary if both partners are to continue to be satisfied…and marriage is to continue as an important institution.


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