We all think we know what an affair is, right? But things have changed and an affair is now not as simple a thing as it once was.
Once upon a time, an affair could be defined as a relationship in which a married person has sex with someone other than their spouse. But this definition is far too narrow in the 21st century. An affair is a relationship where a person who is already in a committed relationship (whether married or not) secretly engages with another person:
Basically, an affair involves secrecy and deception. One partner is doing something their partner doesn’t know about – although it’s often the case that there are suspicions. Sometimes the person having the affair consciously or unconsciously leaves clues and drops hints which may or may not be picked up on by their partner.
In any case there’s always a lot of interesting conscious and unconscious behavior going on. If the person having the affair wants their partner to discover they are, then there are always a lot of hints and clues.
But some partners may not want to know and unconsciously block all hints and remain stubborn to all that is obvious. One woman admitted long after she’d discovered her husband was playing away from home that he’d given lots of clues, but she’d not wanted to see them at the time. He’d even left a Valentine’s Day card from his lover on the dining room table and his wife had chosen to accept his feeble explanation that it was from an infatuated colleague, all the while unconsciously ‘knowing’ he was telling lies. As this woman explained, she didn’t want to know at the time, it suited her to continue with her marriage and she didn’t want any scenes, so she turned a blind eye.
Affairs range along a continuum, from serial affairs and flings to romantic love affairs and long-term affairs that may last an entire life-time. The emotional investment in the affair depends on the type of affair it is. But things are not always so fixed and that meaningless affair can morph into a romantic love affair or the romantic love affair grows and becomes a long-term affair. In recent years, the no-sex affair, the sexualized friendship, cyber-love and open relationships have been legitimized as affairs.
Serial affairs are those that have little or no emotional attachment and can be a series of one-night stands or short-term affairs. Out-of-town trips can provide opportunities for such affairs. This sort of affair is usually not serious but if discovered, it can lead to trouble in the primary relationship. They can damage goodwill within the relationship. Usually, there’s a pattern to these affairs with the serial lover is remorseful, contrite and becomes more emotionally engaged with and attentive to their spouse – until the next time. Good intentions and apologies sometimes are not enough to prevent a relapse – and another serial affair. Re-building trust is a slow process when it has been eroded time and again over a long period of time. Many prominent men, such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Senator Gary Hart and Bill Clinton have been labeled ‘womanizers’ and pursued serial affairs.
Flings are like the serial affair with little emotional investment. A fling might be a one-night stand or it may go on for a few months, but there is no real commitment to the sexual partner. In many ways, this sort of affair is the least serious threat to the primary relationship, yet when these flings are discovered, some partners take them very seriously and counselors might advise that couples put these flings into perspective. It may be painful to discover that your partner has had a fling, but it need not destroy your marriage. The best fictional illustration of the fling is in the movie Fatal Attraction, now widely considered a classic cautionary tale of extramarital sex. Of course, not every single woman involved with a married man is a rabbit-boiling temptress, nor is every single man involved with a married woman an axe-wielding psycho. But the point if well made: what begins as an innocent sexual fling can deteriorate into a living hell, with the lover stalking you and the strength of your marriage being tested – either crumbling before you or with combined goodwill, being steadily re-built over time.
Holiday romances or flings, have been popularized in novels and the movie Shirley Valentine. Holiday sex is a popular sex fantasy because the location and the lure of sand, sea and sex is a heady mix. There’s an unspoken understanding that the lovers will enjoy the sex and the good times, say goodbye and resume their real lives with no further contact. This is the ideal, but unfortunately, there are reports of stalking and psychological fall-out from holiday flings when one lover wants more from the relationship than the other can offer.
Romantic love affairs are those relationships where the lovers have a high degree of emotional commitment to one another. The relationship is serious and important to both and they’re keen to integrate the affair into their everyday lives. These types of affairs may have started off being serious or they may have begun as a meaningless fling that became more serious and important. The longer this type of affair continues, the more serious it becomes and the more committed the lovers feel towards each other. If both feel equally strongly about the affair, it may mean moving towards divorce and remarriage – to one another. If that’s not possible, then sometimes these affairs are then terminated – or alternatively, they evolve into a long-term affair.
The best fictional example of this sort of affair-of-the-heart is that of Ilsa and Rick in the film Casablanca. Lovers before the war, Ilsa and Rick find each other again, only Ilsa has married Victor Laszlo, a celebrated resistance hero when she meets Rick again in Casablanca. They fall in love again, but Rick makes the momentous decision to end the affair so that Ilsa leaves with Victor. The moral of the story is the importance of sometimes difficult decision-making in such affairs-of-the-heart.
Another such affair, which was largely played out before the public, was that of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. They had been lovers before Charles married Diana and a few years into that marriage, reports began circulating that the two were lovers again. Their romantic love affair had developed into a long-term affair and they eventually married.
Long-term affairs last for years and sometimes the whole course of the lovers’ marriages and other relationships. The lovers in these affairs are highly emotionally invested in their relationship, which runs parallel to their marriages. Some people in such affairs feel more married to their lovers than their ‘official’ partners. It seems hard to believe that if your partner is so intimately and permanently involved with their lover you wouldn’t know. But it appears to be the case that some partners have not guessed about these affairs and have only made the discovery when their partner has died. One counselor tells of a case where a woman only discovered her husband’s long-term affair when she found records after his death. She felt crushed by this betrayal and doubly frustrated because she couldn’t confront him about it. Apparently he’d been a frugal man with her and the family, yet she found check-books and statements revealing lavish holidays, gifts and even a regular allowance for his lover. This woman’s sense of betrayal was so great she told the counselor that she felt resentment at being cheated out of her life – she felt their marriage had been a sham.
Some couples turn a blind eye to the other’s affairs. In some long-term affairs, there is a ‘Don’t ask – don’t tell’ and ‘Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies’ agreement. Long-term affairs pose the greater threat to a marriage because of the high level of emotional attachment the lovers have to one another. The eternal triangle– or sometimes even a four-sided arrangement – becomes a feature of life, with a wife and her lover and husband or the wife, her lover, her husband and his lover involved in the complex relationship dynamic. Everyone helps to create the situation that eventually is lived out.
No-sex affairs or ‘everything but’ affairs are ones where there is sometimes intense emotional involvement but the relationship is kept in sexual check and the attachment is not consummated. Sometimes these types of affairs happen in the workplace, with the lovers sharing intense thoughts and feelings and perhaps giving in to some heavy petting, but stopping short of full sex. Researchers have found that often one or both parties are deeply religious and the very idea of physical contact with someone other than their legitimate partners is morally reprehensible.
Sexualized friendships are similar but different from the ‘everything but’ affair. Again, many sexualized friendships grow out of workplace contact between people who have good rapport and develop a strong emotional connection. Sexual tension and attraction can be intense and when acted upon, the lovers have a feeling that it was something that ‘had to happen’. Even though these affairs seem inevitable, most are short-lived, perhaps with only one sexual contact, yet the emotional connection and friendship endure. Sometimes the sexual experience acts to intensify their emotional bond and deepen their fondness for one another.
Cyber-love affairs are a relatively new phenomenon and a type of affair that is growing and works well for some people. Intense feelings of intimacy have been reported by many online lovers. Some researchers believe it’s really pseudo-intimacy rather than real intimacy. Cyber-lovers have said how shocked they were at how quickly such a feeling of closeness is experienced with someone they have never actually met. And the question needs to be asked: how truly intimate is this form of intimacy? One woman claimed, ‘My online lover and I were so close, I felt more intimate with him through words than I ever have during sex.’
This type of affair can blossom and then turn into a real-life relationship. The transformation process from online to reality is possible. On the other hand, some cyber-lovers have said that they keep their relationship online and find it as satisfying as many real life relationships. But a number of questions remain about this type of affair. How is it possible, if you think about it logically, to feel intimate with someone whom you’ve never met physically and interacted with in the real context of everyday life? How can you know someone’s true weaknesses, vulnerabilities, strengths and self-doubts? How can you take their word for it, without having seen it tested in real life? Despite some people’s reservations, cyber-love affairs are on the rise and the cues and clues of face-to-face communication in real time are dismissed by those for whom cyber-love has worked.
Open relationships are the equivalent of the equal opportunity affair. The ‘open marriage’ of the 1960s and 1970s popularized this sort of arrangement. Both parties give each other permission to have outside sexual relationships, with or without each others’ actual physical presence. Some forms of the open relationship operate in a swinging sense, where the couple attends parties where they swap partners, or deliberately set up meetings with at least another couple. Other forms allow for each partner to go their separate ways and have their own affair with a lover, often reporting back to their partner about their experience. Sometimes these couples claim to have a fierce commitment to each other, but believe in the liberation of exploring sexual experiences with other people. Interestingly, people sometimes underestimate the power of sexual jealousy and their reactions can surprise them. Something which sounds good in theory, may not translate so well into everyday practice.
Jump to Affairs 101 – Part Two.
You can read more about these types of affairs and how twelve women have experienced their unique affair of the heart in Unfaithfully Yours: Real life stories of women who take on a lover.