When one is wronged, it is easy to feel angry. Anger robs us of the necessary sobriety of thought we need to grieve – something the end of an intimate relationship may need. Anger hi-jacks us of our faculties of thought required to think clearly and deeply about our loss.
“Intimate relationships are perilous because of the exposure and lack of control they involve. Being seriously wronged is a constant possibility, and anger, therefore, a constant and profoundly human temptation. If vulnerability is a necessary consequence of giving love its proper value, then grief is often right and valuable. It does not follow, however, that anger is so.”
~ Anger and Forgiveness, largely based on Nussbaum’s 2014 Locke Lectures in Philosophy at Oxford University.
We all deal with pain in our own way. Sometimes our way may not always be the best way for us, but its likely the quickest or the easiest. Dealing with betrayal in a relationship is often that very difficult situation to bare and anger is neither beneficial nor constructive.
I was once advised by some wise and well-meaning friends that the best way to get over someone that has betrayed me is to get under someone else. As this might work for some, my approach is to write a two-thousand word essay whilst on a plane on the philosophical reasons why someone of a good heart may find it necessary to stray, to have an affair.
We should spend time to think deeply about why humans do things, in an effort to understand, than to merely remain angry, hurt, and incensed by the betrayal and the loss of a loved one.
In the moral landscape we live in, the boundaries between right and wrong can often become blurred. Society offers us a particular code and contract to conform to, but this is merely a general guideline for the masses and should not be taken as a definite rule to the wise.
What is good, as we come to understand by the moral landscape, is what we agree to be of benefit to our general well-being and which does not harm ourselves, others, or the environment. We can then, from this base, build our own understood contracts with ourselves and with our partners.
If we are to honestly and deeply explore where affairs arise from, we will find that it emerges from the oddest parts of our romantic psychology. Specifically from three possible areas:
1. The misalignment of our needs of closeness and distance in a relationship.
2. The conflict between our need for freedom and our requirement of security.
3. To gain externally and to bring back internally parts of a successful relationship that seemed starved.
On closeness and distance.
Too often affairs are seen as being the result of random bouts of horniness or even vengeful cruelty. This is rarely the case.
We are borne into conflicting natures:
The need for closeness and the requirement of distance.
Most relationships attempt to carefully calibrate their mutual needs of closeness and distance with their partners. Making sure that they have the right degree of closeness and distance in a synchronistic state with their partner. This is the ideal relationship. To require the same degree of closeness at the same time, to need the same amount of distance at the same time. The trouble is we are not perfect and being out of sync or not of the same level is a key problem.
We want to have the closeness where we are able to love, hold, cuddle, hug, caress and be relaxed and intimate with our partners. We want them to exist in every sphere of our lives.
We also want the freedom of distance. A place we can go to call our own, a private place to be ourselves and exist in our own pure individuality, apart from our partners.
When these states of need occur in a couple at opposing times, it can easily and often be quite catastrophic.
If we are in the need for distance and our partners are in the need for closeness we can be driven to stray purely to prove to ourselves that not everything about ourselves is part of or owned by our partner. To feel and confirm that we do remain desirable to the world – a world that excludes our biased partners perceptions. This form of straying has very little to do with lust but more about escaping the feeling of losing ones individualistic identity within the couple.
If we are in the need for closeness and our partners are in the need for distance we can be driven to stray just as powerfully. This distance causes us to feel an affliction of constant rejection – where most of our intimate advances are met with distance, sighs, and headaches. Here, we stray, not because of a lack of love for our partner but – with complete irony – because because we love them very much but the distance that is being afflicted upon us feels humiliating and unendurable.
It is tragic that two people very rarely enter into a relationship with the same requirements for closeness and distance and with the understanding of the others needs. Had we a better understanding of these polarities we would hear far less about the clinginess of one partner or the coldness of another.
Should we be more mature in our relationships we would be able to understand each others different needs for closeness and distance very early in a relationship and are able to communicate, very early, about the gap that the difference has made between us and to acknowledge with grace our own distinctive contribution to it. Doing so will make sure that such a gap will not lead to a secret ‘friendship’ or a late night office romance with a married co-worker.
This view, however, is not as simple as the constant negotiation of closeness and distance in a relationship but also between two distinct types of mindsets that exist in modern-day long term relationships.
Enter, stage left.
The libertine and the loyalist.
Monogamy, for many years, has been the approved default state for security as confirmed by community, society, religion (some), the media, and general romanticism. It has offered us the security we have needed for centuries to run furtive households and raise children – it offered security; a defense against jealousy and protection from chaos. This is still just a part of the spectrum of our psychoemotional needs. The other side being our need for exploration and freedom – often contrary to the security begotten from monogamy.
For a long time, these two fundamentally opposing parts of our nature have been in search of reconciliation. An alternative that could allow us to simultaneously experience the pleasures of exploration and securities of romantic love was sought after. Free love and polyamory, not new concepts, re-entered the stage with a stronger vigor and maturity than previous centuries allowed. This gives rise to the seemingly distinct mindset types that enter this field of thought – the libertine and the loyalist.
The loyalist is acutely aware of the fragility and the fickleness of human emotion and offers deep recognition to the fact that any meaningful relationship requires large quantities of reassurance, safety, security, and collaboration on the part of both partners. However, the loyalist believes that sexual adventure is an incompatible quality to sit with a secure relationship.
It is, after all, a very difficult feat to not be deeply rejected at the thought of ones partner being enchanted by the smile of another, to be in anothers arms, and to share intimate experiences with another.
The libertine struggles to see why sex and love are seen as wholly equivalent things rather than one an activity, much like tennis, and the other a state and emotion. The libertine views the world through hedonistic and somewhat liberated lenses and has a difficult time reconciling societies propagation of songs and movies of longing, lust, and ecstasy, of night clubs, revealing clothing, and constant images of desire with the somewhat polar acceptance that a certificate may one day entail the renunciation of sexual discovery purely due to an unthought and unexplored ideology that the contrary must be all wrong.
In the often painful aftermath of betrayal, it is the one who strayed that has done all the harm – at least that is societies view. The libertine would argue that there are subtler, simpler, possibly more damaging ways of betraying the beloved than by sleeping with someone else. To stop listening to each other, to stop trying, to stop dating ones partner whilst together, to be too distant and aloof, or more inconsolably to be our limited selves. Is it not somewhat cruel to set the bar of truthfulness so ruthlessly high that we force our partners to lie for no higher reason than to submit to jealous insecurity masquerading as a moral standard.
The sad and terrible truth is that neither the libertine nor the loyalist are entirely right in their thinking. Both versions of a relationship can be disastrous. Fidelity does require the loss of exciting and possibly enlightening experiences with a variety of sincerely wonderful individuals. Monogamy is at times terribly suffocating and boring. Though, infidelity, does shake trust and security in a relationship, and are crucial aspects for our and the next generations mental health.
There is no position that offers a cost-free settlement where no party suffers a loss. Where all the good and exciting elements of each ideology could harmoniously co-exist without either causing damage to the other. We should acknowledge that there is wisdom to gain from both sides – with wisdom there is the experience of loss.
We can adopt the Melancholic Position that accepts the sad truth we all share that in some areas of life, there are no good solutions. The Melancholic position would require a more realistic, sadder, exchange of vows and promises if we are to stand a sincere change of mutual fidelity over a lifetime. Definitely something a bit more honest and downbeat should do rather than the usual contrived platitudes shared at the alter:
— I promise to only be disappointed by you and you alone.
– I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets rather that to distribute them widely through multiple affairs.
– I have surveyed my various options for unhappiness, and it is you that I have chosen to commit myself to.
These are more generously pessimistic unromantic promises that we should be making at the alter if we are to truly be honest at the alter.
In Kierkegaard’s humorous outburst in his book Either Or, he writes:
“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”
The point? That we need to understand that Melancholia in relation to life choices is not exclusive to one area of our lives but is a fundamental requirement across the human condition. It brings forth the acknowledgement that in some areas of life, we lack an ideal solution towards happiness.
Couples that remain entirely faithful to each other should be aware of the vastness of the sacrifice that they are making. Sexual renunciation is after-all unnatural. The restrained libertine deserves a particular honor for their ability to both know the deep, genuine attraction of other people, and yet with great inner sacrifice, hold back.
A loyal marriage ought at all times to retain within it an awareness of the immense forbearance and pessimistic, stoic generosity which the two parties are showing one another in managing not to sleep around (or, for that matter, in refraining from killing each other). That is something to feel truly hopeful about.
This leads us to the next question regarding affairs
Is there a good kind of cheating?
We already understand the general societal stance on straying within a relationship. But, is there not enough maturity of thought available that we may ask if there are any situations in which straying in a way would be advised? not for the sake of betraying and straying, but for the sake of the primary relationship of which it directly threatens.
There may be cases in which we can treat the affair as a reservoir from which we take all the things we once lacked in ourselves and in the relationship and feed back into our primary relationship thereby nourishing it. We may often begin to lack confidence in ourselves and our own likability in a relationship, especially when the state of our partner may have devolved to one of distance and taking ones attraction and presence for granted. Consider how frequently we behave badly in love from feeling insignificant and undesired, a new persons affections can stir in us renewed sense of our own potential, our attractiveness, and our likability.
An affair will also allow us to acknowledge that our current commitment has not deprived us of beautiful alternatives in life. It makes us aware of our unfair suspicions that the melancholy we feel is the sole fault of our partners rather than a general feature of existence. It teaches us that everyone is rather difficult from close up. A new person is equal parts different and hard to deal with. Its merely a situation of weighing up the varieties of suffering and resigning ourselves to the suffering we are best suited to. We stand to remember that we surrendered our freedom for very sound reasons, because we wisely realized that we had found someone who was – in the end – as good as any decent human can ever be expected to be.
Ultimately, as far as there might be a ‘good’ kind of cheating, it would be the sort that would – without causing too much chaos and pain – quietly instruct us that it isn’t, in the end, worth it at all.