A friend of mine with whom I’ve had many conversations about feminism and older men/younger women relationships wrote me a note last week about a close acquaintance of hers, a young woman of 21 who is having an “emotional affair” with a man of 44.
I’ve blogged enough lately about age-disparate relationships, and I intend to do much more writing on the subject. Today, I’m interested in writing about this strange and troubling beast called the emotional affair, a phenomenon enormously abetted by modern technology.
I’m not treading on new ground when I remark that when it comes to love and sex, humans are generally very good at deceiving themselves. We are particularly good, as a rule, at justifying certain kinds of betrayals because they don’t meet our own contorted and legalistic definitions of what constitutes genuine infidelity. The paradigmatic example, of course, is that of Bill Clinton. A great many of us believed, and still believe, that our 42nd president was absolutely sincere when he denied an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he had constructed for himself a moral calculus in which only intercourse constituted authentic infidelity. In 1998, as the nation watched the Clintons’ all-too-public agony, a great many folks were challenged to think about their own little webs of deceit and justification. If the politicians we elect are mirrors for our best and worst aspects of ourselves, then President Clinton — a man of extraordinary gifts and extraordinarily banal frailties — reminded us of our own capacity for duplicity.
Most people have no trouble labelling oral sex with an intern behind your wife’s back as adultery. Bill Clinton is easy to admire, and easy to ridicule. But lesser men than he — and a great many women too — have shown a similar capacity for self-deception. And we are particularly prone to this sort of self-deception when it comes to affairs that don’t have a physically sexual component. For those of us who define fidelity in terms of what actions we don’t undertake with other people, it’s all too easy to slide into an emotional affair.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll define an emotional affair as a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others.
Both men and women are equally prone to self-deception about emotional affairs. For men, acculturated to think of sex in purely physical terms, it’s often difficult to grasp the degree to which an emotional betrayal can be just as devastating as an explicitly carnal one, but women are not immune from this misunderstanding either. One of the ugliest aspects of the emotional affair is that the participants often applaud themselves for what they see as their own admirable restraint. A couple that goes to lunch every day, exchanging intimate chatter and exchanging longing glances, may feel both the agony of unsatisfied longing and the perverse satisfaction of imagined virtue. It’s easy to say “Oh, Frederick, aren’t we wonderful people? We know we want to be together, but too many people would be hurt! It’s proof of how special our love is — and proof of how good we both are — that we are only exchanging these texts and emails and longing looks rather than getting naked at the Good Nite Inn out by the interstate.” As the kids say these days, epic fail.
Whether monogamy ought to be the preferred option for human relationships is debatable. For a host of reasons both psychological and spiritual, I tend to be enchanted with the idea of enduring monogamy (four marriages by age forty is confirming evidence of that enchantment, if not of the requisite ability to honor the pledges made.) But assuming we are going to make monogamous pledges, and be friends with others who have made those pledges to their partners, we have a responsibility to remember that fidelity — like every other aspect of sexuality — is ultimately holistic. In other words, heart and head and body ought to be connected.
My old Twelve Step sponsor, Jack, told me many times that being faithful was a matter of what you do with your body, what you feel with your heart, what you say with your mouth, and what you think with your mind. When I first heard that, I was aghast; who could be expected to police their very emotions? Besides being alcoholics and addicts, Jack and I had both briefly studied for the Catholic priesthood, and had a similar vocabulary. So when I heard this line from him, I said to Jack, “I thought virtue wasn’t the absence of desire to sin, but the conscious choice to resist the desire.” Jack nodded. “True. But there’s a difference between a fleeting desire over which you have no control, and ‘entertaining’ an immoral desire, playing with it in your mind, fantasizing endlessly about what you would do if only you weren’t so self-consciously virtuous.” He pointed out that the kind of radical congruence of body, heart, and mind was difficult, but immensely rewarding. “Being faithful to someone isn’t about being perfect, but it is about trying to honor your relationship with everything you do and say. When you’re doing it right, people will be able to sense you’re married even if you forgot your wedding ring at home.”
I’ve never forgotten that.
In the end, I confess I’ve always been exasperated by folks who have emotional affairs. Part of it is my own temperament, which is not inclined to such half-measures. Martin Luther suggested that if one were going to sin, one ought to at the least “sin boldly.” In my past, I honored that suggestion with zeal; I never had an emotional affair that didn’t end up as a physically sexual one sooner or later. Some of that is due to my ENFP Gemini impulsiveness, and some of it due to an awareness that there is no particular virtue in practicing both physical self-restraint and emotional abandon. After all, I highly doubt Hillary Clinton was impressed by Bill’s self-denial in refraining from intercourse with Monica Lewinsky; betrayal is betrayal is betrayal is betrayal. As we used to say in AA, if you hang around a barbershop long enough, you might as well get a haircut. There is no virtue, none whatsoever, in pressing one’s proverbial nose against the proverbial window pane, longing with every fibre of one’s being for what lies on the other side while all the while enjoying the bittersweet pleasure of self-righteous self-denial.