On Affairs and How They Don’t Have to Mean the End of the World

My mom and dad at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.
My mom and dad with me at Igoda, 15kms outside of East London, 1975.

During a wintry season in my parents’ nearly 50-year-old marriage, my dad took it upon himself to have an affair. As a man incapable of telling a lie, it was conducted very openly with a pony-tailed, bottle-blonde ‘friend’ of the family, and while I was protected from knowing the details of what was going on, my memory is of him coming home from work, showering and leaving again, and of his uneaten plate of dinner which my mother would leave, covered in foil, on the Formica kitchen counter. When I was both old and young enough to adopt an attitude of protective indignation, I was angry at what I perceived to be the spinelessness of my beautiful, green-eyed, flawless-skinned mother. Why did she allow this to happen? Why did she meekly, weakly stand by while he came and went as he pleased?

It took me being married myself to appreciate the courage and strength it must have taken her to watch her husband’s car reverse out the driveway and hold it together enough that her young daughter remained oblivious to her pain, even while the scent of his Old Spice lingered in the hallway. And also to understand enough about the frustration and quiet dismay which is the flip side of the image we’re presented about marriage not to presume to judge him. And what she did, which I understand now, was also extremely clever. She didn’t make a scene and throw his clothes out the front door or show up where they were, demanding justice. She simply waited it out. In typically pragmatic Capricorn-style, she understood – like most affairs – that this one would more than likely run its course, and that by creating a fuss she would only make his mistress more appealing.

So, she left his plate of supper ready for him when he got home and carried on as normal. She also told his entire (large) family, who have always adored her, exactly where he was and what he was up to when they phoned for him. They were horrified and furious, and froze him out one by one. It was due to her single-minded determination not to lose her husband, the love of her life, that he came back before long and their marriage resumed as if none of it had ever happened. But it could have gone a different way. She did what she needed to do to hold on in that moment, and ultimately she got what she wanted. And the reason all of this has been on my mind is because I had a dream a month or so ago, while on holiday in Sweden, that my husband was having an affair and I remember, even through the deep emotional pain, having a distinct dream-thought: if you want him you can have him, you just have to wait this out. And the immediate follow-up question: but, do I have what it takes to do that?

Do I possess the emotional wherewithal; the purpose of mind, the mettle to stand by and watch and wait? When I was younger I believed I was a one-strike-and-you’re-out kind of girl. Now, 15 years into my relationship, I see the world as a much greyer kind of place. I know what marriage is and what it can do. That, while it’s wonderful and fulfilling on all the levels they promise, it also has the propensity for a loneliness more vast than any amount of singledom can match. That sometimes it’s unkind and deeply disappointing. That there’ll be moments where you’ll reel at the horrified realisation of what you got yourself into and how impossibly difficult it will be to get yourself out. And this is the kind of marriage where friends say, ‘how do you guys manage to stay so happy?’ And we are, very. Not a day goes by where I’m not grateful that I chose him as my life partner because he’s so many kinds of amazing. But that is the nature of the beast.

And it’s why I think I’ve amended my position on affairs. I don’t know that I would leave. I’m not convinced, anymore, that these moments of desperate connection with another human being are not entirely understandable, given our deep desire to be heard and seen and how much gets in the way of married people doing that for each other. Would some relatively meaningless dalliance on his part be sufficient reason for me to break up our children’s home? To put us all through the mind-boggling suffering and turmoil that comes with divorce? Is my ego really that big?

I don’t know the answer and, mercifully, I’ve not been put in that position. While I don’t think I could be the wife who covers a plate of savoury mince with foil, tucks her young daughter in bed and then waits by the window for his headlights to swing into view (unfortunately for my husband I suspect I’m more the throwing-the-clothes, stalking, psycho kind), what I realise now is that my mom is made of some strong stuff and that, ultimately, we are not all that different. I’m grateful she made the choice she did, and I’m sure my dad is, too. 30 years later they are happier and more in love than they’ve ever been, and my sister and I enjoyed the privilege of growing up in an unbroken home. I hope, if this ship ever veers off course, that one of us will be brave enough to grab the wheel and hold on tight till we’ve steered ourselves back to safety.

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