Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Mistress in a Moral Quandary

Dear Viny,

I have been involved with a married man for the past 2 years. I haven't told many of my friends about this because it's something you're not supposed to do. And, because some of them are married – and hate the idea of cheating or being cheated on – I'm just not bringing it up. I met this man online after putting out an ad for a 'friends with benefits' relationship on Craig's List. I do not know his wife and he keeps his life with her completely separate from me. I don't know – and don't want to know – what she even looks like. He and I meet downtown for lunch or at my house several times a week. A lot of early mornings on his way to work. The sex is quite amazing.

Aside from the social stigma of the relationship, I personally have no problem with seeing him like this. If I knew his wife, worked with her, even saw her somewhere, I wouldn't do it. But I have no relationship with her. I guess I'm writing you because worrying about what others think about me is the problem for me, and not the relationship itself. I want to know your opinion on extramarital affairs and whether you think they are just wrong, period. I've had feedback from friends who tell me it's dishonest and/or hurtful. I want to resolve this for myself, but obviously I'm spinning my wheels and need an objective view on it.

Please be kind,


Dear Janice,

I wish I could invite you to cozy up to my kitchen table with a mug of ginger tea and a slice of leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, so that we could have this conversation in person. Sometimes, electronic communication can feel so cold.

When I give you my opinion, please picture me giving it warmly. My subjective view – there is no such thing as an objective view – is that what you are doing is wrong.

That said, you're hardly the only person out there involved in what I consider to be an unethical relationship. Fifteen years ago, I myself was in the middle of a steamy affair with a married man. (Well, half an affair, anyway: my husband knew about the relationship, but my lover's wife did not.) And in the time since then, I have heard a lot of confessions from friends and acquaintances who are fucking someone technically off-limits to them, or who are madly in love with someone they “shouldn't” be, or who have engaged in some kind of sexual behavior not sanctioned by their partner(s). Mr. and Ms. Wrong can be extremely compelling, and a lot of us are going to end up doing them.

I will further concede that good can come of bad choices. For all I know, your affair will end up resulting in more good than bad, on balance. In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel argues that “an illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be a liberation, a source of strength, a healing.” She also points out that different cultures have different ideas about how to perform ethical calculations. In American culture, cheating is bad, and lying about it adds insult to injury; in other cultures, cheating is considered more acceptable, and “a protective opacity....not only maintains marital harmony but also is a mark of respect.”

It's possible that your lover's wife will never find out about you, and that what she doesn't know will never hurt her. Or maybe she sort of senses what's going on, but prefers a “don't ask, don't tell” arrangement, and has subtly managed to convey this to her husband, whose discretion is actually in line with her wishes. Or maybe she has the female equivalent of a cuckold fetish, and her husband regularly thrills her to orgasm by recounting the lurid details of his latest dalliance with you. Maybe you only think you're a big secret. I don't know, and it sounds like you don't know, either.

You don't want to know.

And for me, that's the sticking point in your story. I can try to wrap my head around the idea that not everyone values honesty and transparency to the degree I do. However, you have made it pretty clear that your relationship depends on maintaining a level of ignorance that has the potential to cause real harm, regardless of the cultural backgrounds or personal predilections of the people involved.

You admit that if you knew your lover's wife – or even saw her somewhere! – you wouldn't be doing what you're doing. Your relationship is thus contingent on treating a fellow human being as an abstraction, not a person. It's not just about keeping your world separate from hers: you actually need her not to matter. But she is a real person, and she does matter.

We're all wired to behave as though the humans we know matter more than humans we don't know. That's fine, because it has to be fine: at present, we aren't capable of re-wiring ourselves. However, when we actively cultivate thoughtlessness – when we refuse to set foot in the sweat shop, because we want to keep buying the shoes – we know we are behaving unethically, by our own subjective standards.

I want to leave you with a story. It's the summer of 2000, and my married lover and his wife are on the verge of divorce. For months, they've been in couples counseling, but it isn't working. At home, safe in my own bed, sleeping beside my sweet, supportive, totally-in-the-know husband, I'm having recurring nightmares. In these dreams, I am always in her house, and she knows. So I'm hiding in the blueblack dark of the upstairs TV room, hoping she won't find me. I hear her come in the front door, talking angrily. Then she climbs the stairs. Then she walks down the hallway. When she enters the room, I can't hide any longer, and I know I have to save myself: it's kill or be killed. So I step out onto the balcony. She follows me. Then I scoop her into my arms and toss her over the railing. Night after night, when she hits the ground, she fails to die.

You didn't ask for my advice, Janice, but I'm going to give you some anyway: make love, not war. You can put a hippie headband on the old cliché and disregard it if you like, but I think it's imminently applicable to your situation.

Hearts & stars,

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