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Chicken Soup for the Mistress’ Soul

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.”

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

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  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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