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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25 thoughts on “On Affairs and How They Don’t Have to Mean the End of the World

  1. I was where your mom was – with two small girls aged 2 and 7, having been together for 17 years. I tried to hang on and wait, tried to forgive and mostly succeeded. Sadly he left again after being taken back for the third time and I was broken. I met someone else and have been loved and cherished for 5 years+ now and still remain good friends with my ex. Our kids know we are good friends and so does everyone else – we just figured maybe we were the people that made better friends than husband and wife. The world is certainly a big grey area especially when matters of the heart, your family and kids are involved

  2. I always say that if it happens once I will look to myself and see where I may have contributed to the situation… But I may think differently with a second time.
    Next year is our 20th married year – I have worked too hard to be where we are now.
    I am glad for your folks that this worked out, so very, very glad.

  3. I think each person has their own way of dealing with such a situation and having been on both sides of the fence and being a Capricorn I think it’s always about weighing up what you stand to lose against what you stand to gain. And as a Capricorn I’d say you mum might have had too much to lose. Having been the villain in such a set-up it has always been that about having an experience that even the stigma attached to it could not have kept me from, I just had too much to gain despite it. Now Im definitely a one-strike-your-out kind of girl because I know that ultimately the decision is yours to make. No one pushes you there and no one has the power to keep you there either.
    Nice post as usual.

  4. I always enjoy your posts, even if I don’t always 100% agree with them. They get me thinking though! Why don’t you write more often? You are incredibly articulate! Julie xxx

  5. Hi there – your piece spoke to me. My husband had an affair when my boys were very young (baby and toddler) – its was so cliche it was painful. He saw the other woman for a year without me or her knowing about his double life. I come from a family where my dad had 3 wives so I did not view this the same way as some other women might – after all no one had died. So I share your sentiment. However in reality – trust leaves the relationship – and when trust leaves so does respect. and without respect a relationships dies. Quite simple. It wasn’t the act of the thing – but rather the fact that the person could be so duplicitous. You loose faith and the world becomes so very grey. The gloss and sheen of love is so faded it cant even be polished to revive it. We tried for 5 years to repair and revitalize and once we realized that it was broken we moved on – with love and understanding. We are both now in very loving relationships and have good friendships with each other – and our boys are happy and well adjusted. As I said – no one died. But the relationship did. Our expectations are different from that of our parents. We demand more emotionally from our partners because practically we need each other less. What I mean is woman are empowered and work etc…. we are more fulfilled generally. I used to think like you. That it wasn’t the end of the world. But something dies. Maybe its possible to start afresh….. but my personal experience was that its not. Peace & Pie!

  6. It was like reading my mom’s life story except my dad strayed three times. Only now that I am going through something very similar do I no longer see her staying with him as a weakness, but instead such strength and selflessness for my sister and myself. Don’t know if I can or want to be as strong as he was!

  7. Very nicely written. Your posts are always thought provoking and have missed seeing them for sometime now, where have you been?

  8. I disagree; affairs are inherently the end of a world. It’s impossible to go back to a marriage without infidelity once it’s happened, but it’s possible to make something new afterwards.

    But affairs are also something that’s impossible to plan your reaction to until and unless they happen. Like amputation or infertility.

    Good for your mother, though.

  9. So well written, and very thought provoking. Thank you (again) for reminding me to count my blessings. I love the way you write!

  10. great piece about something very personal. I feel a little like you that now if a long term relationship would I view it differently to the earlier years to wanting to throw him out etc. That said, you truly don’t know until you are in those shoes

  11. Yoh! Heavy stuff, this.
    When my marriage veered off course a few years ago, it wasn’t my husband who strayed. I can only say that I am eternally grateful that he possesses the kind of strength, understanding and kindness it took for us to survive and that, although he’s forgiven me and moved on completely, not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could take it back.

  12. I hope your dad was truly sorry, and I am so happy they were able to move forward together with love for each other and their family. Your mom sounds like a remarkable woman.

  13. Superb!

    Both happy and sad… coming from a broken home and a marriage your mum was a bolder person than I… but then again my husband was seriously never invested in our marriage and the three daughters at the time. I did choose not to damn him openly so our daughters have at least a good relationship all these years later, and myself, a residual sadness at a man who never cared enough to even want to try.

    great writing … as always

  14. Brilliant post…my two sisters and I experienced exactly what you have written about but my mum made the (correct) decision to not accept the affair and my parents divorced when I was 23…I did not handle it at all well and shortly after suffered what was essentially a nervous breakdown. It took several years of therapy to get over it all and while I now realise that my parents absolutely did the right thing by splitting up, I would certainly not recommend this course of action to everyone…sometimes it really is just better to wait it out and carry on in order to protect the sanctity of the family unit ,as this forms the basis of every child’s life and it is the foundation throughout their lives…take that away and the result can be catastrophic.

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