I know people who have had affairs. They’re all good people who made stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes leading to irreconcilably-damaged relationships, which the protagonist regrets hugely.
Why me? Well, I’ve got about five years of experience in not having affairs, so that’s something, I guess. I’m also planning to have many more, if that helps. (Years of experience, not affairs.)
But mainly it’s because of a tweet, a few months ago. threads tweeted a link to a blog written by a pastor in Ohio, where he writes out his rules to avoid having an affair. He refuses to have lunch or ride in a car alone with a woman who isn’t his wife – which, let’s face it, is a bit mental – and shares with his wife EVERY email sent to him by another woman – which is definitely mental, not to mention surely a bit annoying for his poor wife.
I replied to threads’ tweet: “Only last week did I manage to have lunch with a female friend and not sleep with her. Go me!”
So I was asked to write something about how not to have an affair. I think the editor hoped I’d write 800 words of hilarious anecdotes then end with a lovely tear-jerking paragraph about how I love my wife. But… there’s a problem. And the problem is that this is a difficult topic. I know people who have had affairs. They’re all good people who made stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes leading to irreconcilably-damaged relationships, which the protagonist regrets hugely.
Last week, the content of text messages exchanged between former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne and his then 18-year-old son Peter, were released as part of Huhne’s court hearing.
In July 2010, in the aftermath of his parents’ divorce due to Chris Huhne’s affair, Peter sent this message to his dad: “You are the most ghastly man I have ever known.” On Christmas Day Chris Huhne wishes him happy Christmas and tells him he loves him. Peter’s reply: “I hate you, so f**k off.” In May 2011, Huhne wishes him well with his exams: “Don’t text me you fat piece of s**t.” A year since the affair. No change in Peter’s response.
A friend of mine once told me about a radio programme he took part in, where an atheist raged about the Ten Commandments. They were apparently an affront to modern society, an absent God controlling his subjects and not allowing for the freedom and joy found in making our own decisions. The overriding sentiment was ‘don’t tell me how to live.’
Then the show’s host brought in my friend, a Baptist minister, to respond. He said the commandments weren’t the work of a control freak but were guidelines from a loving God who cared for his people. He used ‘do not commit adultery’ as his example – he thought God was saying ‘don’t commit adultery – not because I don’t want you to have fun, but because I’m looking out for you and I know the pain this will cause.’
Pain like Chris Huhne is feeling. Pain like, regardless of what his text messages say, Peter Huhne is feeling. Pain like another friend of mine, who cheated on his wife, feels. Pain like another friend, whose parent cheated, still feels, a decade later. The message of the seventh commandment, surely, is ‘don’t commit adultery, because I’m looking out for you and I don’t want you to have to go through this.’
So, how not to have an affair. The thing about our Ohio pastor’s blog is that putting arbitrary boundaries on mixed-sex relationships misses the whole point: boundaries don’t stop affairs. Boundaries might make affairs more difficult, but that’s about it. The pastor could text or ring; he could tell the other person not to email him, or could set up a new email address.
There are innumerable possible answers to this question, but maybe one of them is to remember the big picture. Remembering that even if at this moment this seems exciting, seems right, because all my wife and I do is argue, especially since the kids came along, and now I’m in this position, with this fantastic woman who understands me so much better than my wife does, and I’ve had a few glasses of wine, and… and… remembering that actually this isn’t the best way forward. Remembering that marriage isn’t easy, but you’ve promised to forsake all others for the rest of your lives. Remembering that the grass always seems greener on the other side, and remembering the heartache your actions will cause.
And no, of course it isn’t easy. Show me a man who says he’s not been attracted to another woman since he’s got married and I’ll show you a liar. It happens to everyone. But you’ve always, always got the option to not act on it.
Marriage can be difficult. But taking the instant gratification route rather than looking long-term is the cause of the breakdown of all kinds of friendships as well as marriages, symptomatic of a society that wants to microwave relationships when they need to be slow-cooked. Maybe if we follow the slow-cook recipe for marriages, we’ll learn how not to have an affair.