From the abduction of Helen of Troy to the betrayal of Dr Foster, the tales told by our culture – in our literature, television, theatre and film industries – have thrived on affairs since the day we started telling each other stories about ourselves.
Of course, not all of these stories suggest that affairs are good things, on the contrary, but what they all have in common is an assumption that at the heart of an affair is some sort ‘grand passion’, an uncontrollable personal and physical temptation resulting in feelings that are bigger than all of the people involved and that the partner that was betrayed was somehow ‘not enough’.
Infidelity can take many forms, and, in this post, I’m not talking about one night stands that can result from a stupid drunken decision, or temporary problems in a relationship leading to a badly judged short term fling. I’m not even talking about falling in love with someone else whilst committed to a long-term partner. I think, if we’re absolutely honest, we could all potentially succumb to these – nobody’s perfect. I’m talking about long-term affairs where there is never any real intention of changing anything in either relationship. I think we’re probably all capable of infidelity, but not all of us are capable of the kind of cynical, self-serving, lying that’s required for a long-term affair. Not everyone is able to hardheartedly privilege their feelings over their partner’s for years, in order to conduct a secret relationship with someone else.
I’m not convinced that we’re meant to be monogamous, and I certainly don’t think all relationships should be for life, so I can absolutely understand falling in love with another person whilst still with a partner. I can also understand waiting a little while until you’re sure that the new person you’ve met is the person you want and not your current partner – of course this means someone gets hurt, but at least there is a kind of honesty here. I don’t expect people to be perfect. We’re all messy, selfish, chaotic human beings. It would be great if we would end one relationship before starting another, but sometime that doesn’t happen. It would be great if we didn’t get pissed and make mistakes, it would be fantastic if we didn’t stumble and fail in our relationships – but we do. We make mistakes, we hurt each other.
I’ve watched, read, listened to, and now personally felt the fall-out from many long-term affairs over the years, and whilst I would agree that physical and personal attraction is of necessity a vital part of them, I would argue that, contrary to the accepted ‘grand passion’ narrative, the primary motivation for all of them is an a incomprehensibly deep selfishness and a massive personal egotism. If someone doesn’t possess those qualities then, that they’re probably incapable of conducting something as cynical as the deception of a long-term affair.
The real question is: if you really love someone enough to have a long-term affair with them, how you can continue a long-term relationship with someone else, especially someone else who still thinks you still love them? What’s the real feeling here? Is it love for the person you’re having an affair with? Let’s be honest – this is really only understandable if, in fact, the only person you truly love is yourself.
As far as the stories the ‘other woman’ or ‘other man’ in a long-term affair tell themselves, it’s far easier to understand those – they’re in love, they completely believe the other person’s lies, there is a certain ease in a ‘no-strings’ relationship, they’re adored, they’re the one their unfaithful partner prefers, they’re, vitally, also not the one being unfaithful (unless, of course, they’re also in a relationship). Having said that, at the end of the day, it’s still hard to understand how anyone can justify a story where, if they’re really honest with themselves, they know could cause devastation for another person and their family.
Maybe the tales we tell ourselves need to be rewritten? Maybe we need to look properly at the impact affairs have on the rejected partner and others before we glamorise them and accept that they’re largely ok because they’re about love and passion?
We need more Sliding Doors stories – where the person who’s been betrayed is seen as more interesting than the person doing the betraying, and where they’re seen as better off without the person doing the betraying. People affected by infidelity need stories that reassure them that they’re worthy and loved. People doing the betraying need to see more stories about their selfishness.
Stories can and do change the way we think of ourselves, just a century ago, the accepted narrative was that women shouldn’t have the vote, whereas now that seems archaic. It really shouldn’t be too much of a mental shift to create a narrative that says long-term affairs are primarily selfish, not romantic. It won’t stop them happening, but it might stop them being justified on the basis of ‘because love’.
In a way, this blog is my way of grabbing the narrative, of reshaping it and throwing it back to those who wish to construct a romance out of an affair. It’s a way of joining the conversation about love and long-term affairs and shining a harsh light on the facts – long-term affairs might involve passion and even, sometimes, love, but they also involve a hefty dose of selfishness, a breath-taking disregard for others and an unhealthy degree of narcissism. We need stories that tell this tale alongside the ones that depict love and passion.
As long as human beings exist, affairs will continue to be part of our messy, imperfect lives, but the least we can do is start to acknowledge why – to create a narrative that leaves less space to ‘excuse’ them, it’s the least the people betrayed by them deserve.