Dear Lover or Mistress:
Let’s face it. No one’s making chicken soup for your cheating soul. You’re not well-liked.
If you’re a public figure and you get caught, pundits will line up to deliver their pro forma condemnations. Over-reaction to infidelity rules, except that it’s been so shrilly condemned for so long now that the condemnations themselves come across as listlessly rote. Even outrage can get boring.
You know who you are, but even your closest friends might not know. You have a furtive, intimate attachment that ranges from awkward to sinful, depending on where you fall on the spectrum of sexual ethics. Maybe you’ve got an intense crush. You might be having a full-blown love affair, or a dalliance. You’re the Other Woman or the Other Man.
If you’re deliberate and ethical, then maybe you’re in an open relationship with a partner in the same. It may not be easy (or it may be quite easy, indeed—the possibility that a monogamy-normative culture doesn’t want to concede) but at least you’re both guiltlessly living by a known and shared set of rules.
In short, you’re not being a jerk. Maybe your extracurricular erotic attachment even fuels your marriage, and is part of its shared erotic imagination.
For now, though, I’m going to write about everyone else—the old-fashioned cheaters.
Books are somber tales of the damage you’ve done to yourself, your dignity, and the aggrieved spouse. Many of them instruct spouses—mostly wives—on how to prevent affairs, and the rest instruct on how to recover after the affairs happen despite the advice of the first set of books.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. You can’t delude yourself morally.
You can’t escape the fact that you’re doing something that will weaken your spouse’s or even your children’s capacities to have trust in the world, and to extend that trust to others. The damage of betrayal reverberates into other lives, and contexts. Tempting as they are, you should resist any self-exculpatory rationalizations.
You musn’t blame the spouse that you’re betraying or helping another person betray. No one deserves to have a promise broken, or to be deceived, even if they’re “crazy” or “terrible” spouses.
Ex-husbands are endlessly declaring their first wives to be “crazy”—although usually, not so crazy that they aren’t happy to have that wife raise their children for them while they seek a trophy wife, so take that self-serving chatter with a grain of salt.
If your lover’s marriage is so bad that they must complain about it excessively, or if you’re a “Mistress as Deus ex Machina”—a move to get him out of his marriage through “divorce by affair”—then maybe it’s best that he get divorced, and that you end the affair.
We can’t really count on either happening, though, can we? Marital habituation and extramarital lust often fight each other to a status quo stalemate. That’s because the former feels so stable, and the latter feels so divine.
Now, for the chicken soup part.
I think the same courtesy that applies to a spouse applies to you, mistress and lover. You don’t deserve to be treated as if you and your awkward love are nothing but a prop in someone else’s marriage, a pathology of that marriage, a symbolic or symptomatic rebellion against the marriage, or its therapeutic catalyst.
You’re not a symptom. Your love isn’t inherently any more or less real, or compromised, than any other kind.
You’re a person who fell in love and/or became the object of someone else’s love against the rules, or at least the rules as we strictly construe them. For most of history, you’d have enjoyed a more quietly tolerated place in society. True, that freedom was mostly for husbands, but the double standard has crumbled now.
The Wall Street Journal reaffirms this week the years-old research finding that we’ve closed the infidelity gap before the wage gap. I talk about this in my book. For something as putatively natural as women’s monogamy, it’s wispily swayed by simple material factors such as opportunity, a paycheck, Facebook, and mobility.
No, you were just born a few hundred—or even a few decades—too late, not in the adultery-loving court of Louis XIV or the free love spirit of early 1900s American radicals, but in neo-conservative America. You don’t even enjoy the advantage of living in the inaccurately-idealized “traditional” 1950s suburbs, where salutary neglect of affairs was fairly common. In Sex and the Single Girl, for one example among many, Helen Gurley Brown recalls a wife who asked her husband’s business partner to “get a girl” for her husband.
(And surely, it’s no accident that this sort of salutary neglect crumbled at the moment in the 1980s when women were finally in a position economically and socially to challenge the monogamy standard themselves).
As to your character, you’re villainous. Okay, fair enough. Let’s look at it another way. While we don’t want to say it, behind many a great man (and a few women) has been a great mistress (or two).
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a years-long affair with Georgia Davis, and had other mistresses. After he was assassinated, Davis’ instinct was to jump in the ambulance, but Andy Young nudged her aside, as Hampton Sides describes in his book on the assassination. Young was right, Davis realized. This was not her place, and “the awkward truth of a mistress would become part of history forever.” Davis regretted hurting Coretta King but, she said, “I have never regretted being there with him. I would come whenever he called, and go wherever he wanted.”
Over two decades before a similar thing had befallen Lucy Rutherford, FDR’s mistress. Lucy was present at Warm Springs when Roosevelt was fatally stricken, and as biographer H.W. Brands describes, she knew she had to leave at once. Reporters would want to know who was with FDR when he died, and even though the president’s advisers had been covering for her for years, she didn’t want to complicate matters.
By the quirky heroism required of the discreet and non-vindictive lover, which you should aspire to be, they receded into the shadows at the end, redacted but voluminous chapters in their lovers’ biographies.
This is your timeless plight. Your bright, dazzling passion lives under a rock. You live in mute ecstasy, and heartache. You can’t discuss your fugitive passion with some of your usual confidants--including your spouse.
Despite Rutherford’s hasty exit, Eleanor did discover that she’d been with FDR at the end.
In her memoir, Roosevelt reflected with remarkable wisdom on marriage and life. “A man must be what he is; life must be lived as it is… You cannot live at all if you do not learn to adapt yourself to your life as it happens to be. All human beings have failings; ….Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another’s failings, but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration…”
There are even counterintuitive, pragmatic cases to be made—although only a few of us (me) are crazy enough to make them—for the good that you might do for a marriage.
Sometimes you help an ambivalent spouse escape marriage without escaping.
You help them run away without running away from the marriage entirely. You help them manage loyalty to a marriage or to their children and parenthood without wrecking the marriage wholesale on a serial monogamist’s dream of romantic fulfillment elsewhere, or growing bitter on the brine of their resentment at being “trapped” in an unfulfilling life.
In these cases, you’re not the home wrecker so much as the home’s flying buttress: You hold it together through an ingenious force of design and gravity, from the outside.
You create sustaining oases of pleasure and happiness in a duty-driven marriage, or life.
As composer Franz Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult, recalled, an affair in the best of circumstances becomes “years of pilgrimage.” Her mistress life wasn’t always smooth. She was beset by insecurities and remorse; Liszt was linked to other women, and other affairs (“I am willing to be your mistress,” Marie told him, “but not one of your mistresses.”). Their relationship disintegrated in 1844, but never faded. Lizst wrote to Marie that he had “forgotten how to live” in her absence, and when the two reunited in Paris 17 years later Marie told a friend, “it is still he, and he alone, who makes me feel the divine mystery of life.”