Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships. They open the door to a deeper examination of values, human nature, and the power of eros. They force us to grapple with some of the most unsettling questions: What draws people outside the lines they worked so hard to establish? Why does sexual betrayal hurt so much? Is an affair always selfish and weak, or can it in some cases be understandable, acceptable, even an act of boldness and courage? And whether we have known this drama or not, what can we draw from the excitement of infidelity to enliven our relationships?
Must a secret love always be revealed? Does passion have a finite shelf life? And are there fulfillments that a marriage, even a good one, can never provide? How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional needs and our erotic desires? Has monogamy outlived its usefulness? What is fidelity? Can we love more than one person at once?
For me, these conversations are part and parcel of any adult, intimate relationship. For most couples, unfortunately, the crisis of an affair is the first time they talk about any of this. Catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essence of things. I encourage you not to wait for a storm, but to address these ideas in a quieter climate. Talking about what draws us outside our fences, and about the fear of loss that accompanies it, in an atmosphere of trust can actually promote intimacy and commitment. Our desires, even our most illicit ones, are a feature of our humanity.
As tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, I prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. Infidelity brings us face-to-face with the volatile and opposing forces of passion: the lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement. Be forewarned: Addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.