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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On marriage, and how it sometimes feels really, really crap

A very real marriage in summer.
A very real marriage in summer.

There’s a lot of bollocks we’re taught about relationships, but to my mind the cruelest assumption we’re allowed to nurture is that when you’re married things are nearly always going to go great. Yes, there’ll be arguments about who sees whose friends more and which of you didn’t unpack the dishwasher, and maybe even fights about bigger, more important stuff like money and religion, but nothing that won’t blow over within a few hours or, at worst, a few days. And the danger in not telling couples the truth – that, when the bad times come, they don’t always go away quickly; sometimes, they settle in and hang around for quite a while – is that people panic. They didn’t expect this. Why is it so hard? We ask ourselves. It shouldn’t feel like this. Did I marry the wrong person? Maybe we shouldn’t be together?

If only we got warned early on, we wouldn’t feel quite so bewildered when the day comes that you sit across a dinner table from your partner and the distance between you is so immense you’d need an aeroplane to traverse it. You look over at each other over dinner plates and you simply have nothing to say. You see these couples in restaurants all the time – scanning the menu after they’ve ordered; looking up at the ceiling. Because somehow amidst the maelstrom of life and the pressures of raising children, earning money, owning a house, going on holiday, getting to gym, paying parking fines, buying the groceries and doing what needs to be done to survive, you can lose one another. And, with that, the map to find your way back.

An older, wiser divorcee I worked with when I was in my twenties once said to me, ‘there’s nothing quite as lonely as the loneliness you can feel in a relationship,’ and I had no reference at the time, but later I remembered her words and understood exactly what she meant. But, here’s the rub. Barring serious problems where there is no other solution but to part company, if you can muster the courage, the mettle and the good, old-fashioned self-discipline not to bring up the ‘d’ word too often; not to succumb to easy ways out (they’re not easy in reality) and the next hopeful singleton who promises to ‘understand’ you – if you can just take a deep breath and wait this shitty time out – and it can go on foreeeeeever – I promise you with all my heart that the love almost always comes back again, better than it was before.

I’m not saying things can’t get beyond the point of no return, or that there aren’t people who try really hard not to separate and for whom parting ways is the absolute last resort, but I encounter too many who make this move without understanding the ramifications and how painful and devastating this process really is. The end of a marriage isn’t the end of the world, but you have to earn your way out of the relationship, especially when there are children involved. You are allowed to make this move only when there is no other conceivable solution. Because marriage is not going to make you happy; it’s just going to make you married. The happy thing is your responsibility, and all about how much you’re prepared to work at stuff and stick around when times get rough. As they will, without a shadow of a doubt.

Marriages have seasons, and sometimes winter stretches on. But time will pass, things will change, and stuff will happen that will bring you closer to where you were before. And, often without even trying, one day you’ll find yourselves sitting across from each other at that same table with loads of things to say. And your bond will be better and you’ll feel safer and more solid than you ever have because you survived, and you’re a team and in the end it’s the two of you against the world. It’s not better on the other side. It’s a battle of a different kind; plus you have the added complications of blended families, less money, pissed off exes and other peoples’ children. Suffice to say, that grass might look a bit different, but it aint any greener. There are enough divorced people around to testify to this. Just ask them how they’re doing.

That guy you hate with such venom at 9am on an arb Saturday morning that you’d happily put an axe in his head before going out for brunch with your friends? There was a time you wanted him so badly you could barely breathe. That feeling was real, and it hasn’t gone away, it’s just got gotten a buried beneath the crap of everyday life. Wait this period out because, more often than not, what comes at the end of it will be richer and more rewarding than you imagine now. Plus, it’s the best gift you can ever give your children. Ever. Trust me on this. Hanging in there is the better option.

Why you cannot shag a guy you’ve just met. Even when you’re forty.

Remember that stuff your gender politics lecturer taught you about men and women? That the only reason we are different is because girls were given dolls to play with and boys were given guns? Well, I’m sure she was coming from a good place and bless her Birkenstocks for it, but fuck me, what a load of bollocks. For 20 years it’s been my job to navigate the tricky terrain of modern relationships and to try and establish what kinds of creatures men and women are and what we want from each other, and I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I’ve learned a thing or two. And the reality aint got nothin’ to do with feminism, dolls or guns.

Here’s a story by way of illustration (and this is just one of many I’ve encountered over the years). I have a guy friend; we’ll call him Michael because he will definitely read this and kill me if I use his real name. Michael is forty, has been divorced for a year and has one child. He is good-looking and owns a successful business. He’s moved on from the angst of divorce and is now ready to meet Somebody. Cue Chantal (not her real name). Chantal is also divorced, also has children and (hallelujah) is also keen on getting involved again. She is gorgeous (as in she’d look great hanging upside down from a stripper pole), has a good income and is ‘tough and kind and intriguing’ (in Michael’s words. I never did meet her to find out for myself. Read on).

Both understand the crapness of divorce; neither wants more children, and when he tells me about her he is more excited than I’ve heard him be about anyone. They have a strategy in place: in order not to affect their kids, friends or family, they will keep their relationship a secret – only seeing each other in private until they know one another better and are confident this will work. Great strategy, you might say – round of applause for these two adults, folks. Except, except – it’s very, very early days and strategies for how to involve children are just an element of what is required here. And in this, people, is where Chantal makes her fatal mistake.

I guess the girl wasn’t reading her Cosmo, or she was taking gender politics lecturer’s advice at face value. But, relationships with men (especially the skittish young ones and the battle-weary divorced) require some planning if they are going to work. You’ve got to see it like going into war. Because (ask Pat Benatar), you are. Relationships are a warzone where you have a 50% chances of getting out unscathed. Be smart, you’ll conquer the enemy. Be stoopid, you’ll get annihilated. So, back to Chantal. In the erroneous belief that they were both adults who had been around the block and the rules didn’t apply anymore, she shagged him immediately. Not once, but repeatedly. She showed up at his house during her lunch break and shagged him some more.

Then they go out on a date on Saturday night and he is (surprise!) distant. Of course he’s distant – this is Male Behaviour 101. Which is not offered as a first year course, but should be. He’s distant because this amount of availability messes with his brain. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, men (even at 40 and 50 and 60) cannot handle when you like them as much as they like you, and the fact that you’ve destroyed the mystery so early on in the game. They need to chase women. It’s hardwired into their genes, and it’s what makes sense to them on a level even they don’t understand. It’s about the fact that he needs to believe you’re a little bit better than him; a little bit hard to get, and a lot worth the effort. Even if you’re so smitten you’d marry him forever tomorrow, for god’s sake, don’t let him know. Come Monday morning Michael ended the relationship. And it could have been a really nice thing if only she’d played her cards right.

So, the moral of the story is this: If you like him and he likes you – as stupid and sexist and retrogressive as this may be – you have to play games. Men. Need. The. Chase. If you want this guy in a long-term kind of way, don’t shag him, don’t whatsapp him ten times a day and (even if it kills you) do not be available every time he dials your number. Because when you instantly offer yourself on a platter his brain short-circuits and he runs away, whimpering. It’s the oldest story in the world – even your gran knew this stuff. If he likes you enough, he’ll come get you. It’s just the way it works.