The Affair as a Symptom Not a Disease

If your sex life is anemic, work to understand why before you treat

When I was getting my medical training, a professor told us emphatically that anemia is not a condition or a disease. It is a symptom of something bigger afflicting the patient. If one were to find a patient anemic, it would be negligent to prescribe them iron tablets without first determining why they were missing so many red blood cells. The same could be said about affairs; in order to get to the root of what ails our relationship, we need to investigate the affair as a symptom of a much more complex state.

Though not my shining moments, I’ve dated a few married men. Shortly after a particularly harrowing breakup, I sought levity, laughter and room service to see me through the misery of heartache. I didn’t go looking for married men. They all sought me out through dating sites. Because neither of us was looking for the complexities of love, I was a good bet for them and they were a good bet for me. Then, true to my insistently busy brain, I’d spend a good deal of our time together asking why they were sleeping with me. Every one of them told me they’d love to have more sex with their wives. But their wives didn’t want to have sex with them.

‘Have you told her you’re getting sex outside your marriage?’ I’d ask.

‘No. That would hurt her. I don’t want to hurt her.’

‘But you know that over 85% of affairs are discovered, right?’ I pulled this statistic right out of my ass but sounded convincing. I wanted them to be a bit scared. Because what hurts more? Talking about your asymmetrical sex drive with your partner or finding out he or she has been deceiving you by sleeping with someone else?

At the time, I had a lot of sympathy with these men (though not enough to resist challenging their position). I wasn’t married myself, but I also had a high libido and I knew what it felt like to be naked in the bedroom with a partner who didn’t seem to desire me anymore. It’s damn hard to ask the person you love why they don’t want you physically, so instead we gravitate toward someone who appears to be into us. The transgression, the planning, the anticipation all conspire to deliver white hot sex and then brainwash us into believing our old relationships are too worn out for recovery.

“…affairs are less about sex than about desire: the desire to feel desired, to feel special, to be seen and connected, to compel attention. All these carry an erotic frisson that makes us feel alive, renewed, recharged. It is more energy than act, more enchantment than intercourse.”

This is taken from the new book State of Affairs by Esther Perel. This and her previous book Mating in Captivity should be required reading for any person willing to take on the challenges of long-term love. We will all get bored, disinterested and perhaps hopeless about our sex lives at some point. But like any metaphor employed to see you through to a brighter tomorrow, sex is ever changing as we grow old with someone. It’s simply a matter of how two people decide to navigate their adventure that will determine the quality of the journey.

The married men I dated really were convinced it was just a need for sex at the root of their behavior. But I don’t believe that’s the case for any of us who have affairs.

“Do you make her feel special?” I asked one of them.

“I don’t know. Sometimes.” came his reply.

“And she has sex with you. Sometimes.” I retorted.

Men may be more driven hormonally to seek sexual release. But we all want to be adored, appreciated and desired. Anyone who breaks the assumed position of monogamy is doing so, like Perel says, because they are seeking erotic intimacy and validation that they believe is missing from their primary relationship. It’s more likely they’ve just lost track of where it’s gone. Intimacy and sex so often break down within our long-term commitments, especially when kids zap all our potentially erotic energy. There’s nothing sexy about discussing financial difficulties, holiday logistics, and who needs to make the school lunches for the morning. Affairs are free of all that tedious, though necessary, crap.

What I’d like you to do though, above all else, is pledge to never, ever repeatedly deceive someone you repute to love. So, all you lovely people already having affairs, stop hiding behind your putative big-hearted sensitivity and unwillingness to hurt your spouse. Accept that you are a horny coward, or feeling unappreciated, and are too ashamed to talk about your failing sex life with the person you’re partnered with.

This doesn’t mean I’m an advocate of sexual monogamy. I am an advocate of what works for a couple. When I was dating married men I asked why they couldn’t just ask permission to have the occasional fling or a casual lover on the side. I have a friend who has a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ agreement with his wife: as long as any affair he has doesn’t affect their family and their social circle then he may discreetly get sex elsewhere. But I’ve often wondered if they tried to have a serious and ongoing conversation about what they both want from intimacy, if that would help stem the frustration, help feed their connection, and cut down on the possibility that an affair, even if tacitly approved, would damage their marriage.

If you’re having, or thinking of having, an affair that hasn’t been sanctioned by your partner, think hard about the repercussions of being found out. I would argue they will be much more devastating than the vulnerability and discomfort you experience asking your beloved how they feel about your sex life and what might you both do to address the issues? For most women, good sex requires appreciation and affirmation of her desirability. For men too, they want to be acknowledged for what they do well. Everyone wants to be heard. It sounds goofy, but try having a conversation with your mate where you reflect back everything that person has said to you, the way you heard it. Be sure your partner agrees that he or she has been heard by you before proceeding.

There are too many people these days (heads of state, for instance) who believe it’s ok to lie and lie and deny and deny. But that is a slippery-ass slope down the Valley of Doom when we bring that attitude into our close relationships. In fact, I would advocate that the only way to change the world for good is to practice honesty and vulnerability at home. Being honest with our spouses even when we feel ashamed of the topic can, over time, be so liberating that you’ll find yourself becoming less afraid of other things in life, like asking for a raise at work. These things really are all connected.

Read Perel’s books. Accept that sex has seasons within the years we spend with one person. And then, as we would by planning an amazing holiday, find ways to visit new vistas of sexuality with the one you love.

Love, Karin

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