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January 17th, 2010

Have An Affair Or Not: Here’s Smartmom’s Take

From this week's Smartmom in the Brooklyn Paper:

A few days ago, these plaintive words appeared on Park Slope Parents, that invaluable list-serve for parenting and, er, marital advice:

“I wanted to ask fellow Park Slope Parents how you deal with a spouse cheating. My husband has a real desire to act out on it, and I have caught him browsing the Craigslist ads. He has not actually met with anyone, but I feel that if he continues browsing the ads, it will happen. It very upsetting to me, and I also realize the reality of things that it’s hard to be with the same sexual partner all your life. How do you deal with this? Besides getting a divorce? Any advice would be so helpful.”

Obviously this woman is very upset. Why else would she write to a bunch of virtual strangers about something so personal?

Smartmom pored over the plethora of responses, which expressed many points of view. One person wrote that viewing the Craigslist listings does not mean that he plans to cheat.

“I’ve been married for seven years, have never cheated on my wife, would never consider cheating, but have browsed plenty of Craigslist sections. It’s fantasy fodder.”

It’s tough not to notice that he’s been married seven years …

Another person suggested that the wife should send her husband to strip clubs to get his ya-yas out. “Send him with the understanding this is an outlet for visual stimulation, not permission to go home with anyone,” she wrote.

Smartmom thinks strip clubs are sexist and just plain silly (and they didn’t help Tiger Woods from straying).

Another married woman, who has had affairs mostly with women, said it was OK as long as the affair-haver is honest about it.

“It was amazing. My husband, somehow was fine and I found myself feeling more head over heels in love with him than I had in a long time,” the bisexual adulteress posted. “I felt so trusted, loved and blessed that he would let me have this — and the blast of sexual energy from being with someone ‘new’ just recharged our marriage.”

Smartmom was intrigued — and annoyed by the overly effusive tone of this post. Sure she knows that there are loads of people out there who engage in some form of polyamory, the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. But clearly, it’s not for everyone.

If your partner trusts you to go out and fool around a bit because the love is there, then maybe this could work. But if your partner feels the slightest bit of betrayal then the whole thing is a bust.

And why would you want to hurt your spouse that way? “Do no harm” should be the mantra of marriage.

Still another person wrote: “Cheating is almost always more about narcissism, escapism and immaturity than any purely sexual need. For the most part, people who are self-assured and happy with themselves, their lives, their achievements, etc. don’t cheat.”

Smartmom isn’t sure that it’s all together true. All kinds of people have affairs — even self-assured and happy ones. Tiger Woods? David Letterman? Bill Clinton? These are men at the top of their games, for Buddha’s sake.

By the same token: having low self-esteem or being unhappy doesn’t necessarily mark you as an adulterer. For instance, Smartmom has issues with self-esteem, but that doesn’t mean she’s “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Not yet anyway.

But if it is the mid-life miasma that’s the problem, there are a lot of other things you can do to elevate your mood that might be a tad more constructive like therapy, making a change in your career or creative life, going on a trip, making new friends.

Being married does not mean that you’ll never feel sexual stirrings for another person. Who hasn’t had a teeny, tiny crush on someone he or she met at a dinner party or people they look forward to seeing at school drop off? But having an affair is another order of magnitude.

Managing an affair is a time consuming — and a morally compromising activity. More often than not, it involves lying about where you are and not being where you’re supposed to be.

And what happens if you fall in love? That will almost certainly wreak havoc on your family and hurt your beloved (and your children). You can’t always control the trajectory of what goes on between two people. And this is where the hurt, betrayal and rejection comes in.

OK. But isn’t it possible to be just a little bit unfaithful? What about a frenzy of kisses at a Christmas party or a quick romp while on a trip?

If it’s a one-time thing, Smartmom says, why not? While that might sound flip, the truth is, it doesn’t need to break up a marriage. But if you find yourself doing it again and again, you really need to look at what’s missing in your relationship — and your life. So find a good therapist. In therapy, you can take an incisive look at what’s really going on.

What about doing it the French way? Many married couples there have lovers on the side, and it seems to work out just fine. One former president even had his mistress at his state funeral!

While that sounds tres sophisticated and fun, Smartmom knows she’s not capable of being quite so French.

Truth is, Smartmom is the jealous type. She goes a little bit crazy when Hepcat visits his ex-girlfriend from sophomore year in college to fix her computer.

As for being unfaithful herself, Smartmom knows with certainty that an affair would be very unwise. When she falls in love, she falls big. She’s not capable of Clinton-esque compartmentalization. Plus, she’s a lousy liar. She’d probably become obsessed and stalk the guy or at least Google him until her fingers fall off.

Worst of all, an affair might force Smartmom to question her marriage. While Smartmom loves to analyze and test her marriage, she doesn’t really want to challenge it in such an obvious way. She’s worked good and hard to get along with Hepcat, and they even have a new couch. Who wants to pine for someone other than person with whom she shares her bed?

Truthfully, Smartmom is too much of a pragmatist for an affair. Sure, at the beginning it might be hot and sexy — and a seemingly great panacea for a mid-life crisis. But inevitably, the sparks stop flying and eventually it will be just like her marriage — no better or worse.

Pretty soon, you’ll be discussing hemorrhoids and colonoscopies with your paramour, and it won’t be quite so romantic after all.

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