Extramarital affairs are in the news. In Bangalore, the sad story of a techie killing his wife and then hanging himself has hit the headlines. David Paterson, the new governor of New York, has had extramarital affairs for years. Smart guy. He revealed all before taking office, thus divesting Americans of their umbrage and newshounds, their story.
While his predecessor Eliot Spitzer’s saga could be called suicidal, Paterson’s revelations were taken in stride, viewed as almost normal. Affairs seem to have become commonplace in urban society. So, then the question becomes: What is the appropriate stance towards them? What is the morality of affairs? When someone you know is having an affair, what should you think? That he or she is a jerk breaking up a marriage? That they are victims caught in a loveless marriage? That they are acting out their childhood traumas? Wonder what it is like and wish you had the guts to follow suit? Or privately and publicly berate them?
Even though we humans have evolved towards monogamy, it is not a given for many species. Affairs and threesomes have been happening in India from the time of Kamasutra, Kalidasa and Konark. Affairs can be pleasurable; their illicit nature can evoke a passion that has long been lost in a marriage; they are liberating because they allow you to take on roles and positions that you cannot within the rut of your own marriage. Understood. But affairs are also catastrophic for a family, particularly if there are children involved. I don’t know many marriages that survive an affair; what’s more, I don’t know whether they should. Public figures are an exception but their reasons for staying in a marriage have more to do with ambition than connection.
When I ask about the correct attitude towards an affair, I am not talking about marriages of convenience. I am talking about conventional marriages; about you and I; the average bloke on the street. What prompts a Rahul or Renu to have an affair? And what prevents others from having one?
In a spot: Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer patronized an escort service. (Nathaniel Brooks / Bloomberg)
For many couples, I think it is fear of breaking up the family that stops them from taking the step towards illicit relationships. In other words, merely being attracted to another person is not a precondition for having an affair. You may think scores of guys—or gals—are cute. But for most, it stops with ogling.
Couples that don’t have affairs, I think, internalize the cost more than the benefit. The reverse is true for those that jump into flings. Internalizing the cost; imagining life sans the other person both in the practical sense (paying taxes, sharing chores, caring for each other’s parents) and in the emotional sense makes it possible to say, No. Also the question: What if you lose it all for a moment of passion and then realize that it too doesn’t last? What if the person you gave it all up for turns out to be a total jerk or jerkette? What if a string of affairs simply to recreate that initial excitement is not possible for many reasons: not that many people are attracted to you; plus, you just don’t have the energy for that whole rigmarole: looking for the passion; chasing the passion; the cost of maintenance—the whole perfuming and powdering before the date; and realizing that you can never slump in a drab nightie before the object of your passion. You’ll have to look sexy forever. Oh, God, the chore. People who ponder an affair should also ponder this: They may be bored with their marriage but they may not realize that they’ll forever have to suck in their stomach when they stand up. That’s the cost of boredom.
For all that, I do buy into the notion that marriages can get tired; they can be stressful; they can make you want to jump out of yourself. So, what’s a married person to do? Marriage counsellors have lists of tips: Reinvent yourself so that you are constantly surprising each other; fight like crazy just so you can have great make-up sex. And make sure that you have a person that you can vent to. This “vent” has to be chosen carefully. It can’t be your mother—she may show up on your doorstep the next morning. It can’t be your sibling; not for me anyway. My brother will get all holier-than-thou and say that my husband walks on water and it is all my fault anyway; plus it is a cosmic revenge because I was too selfish to share those Triple Taste covers with him when we were children. At which point, I simply slam the phone down. My husband’s sister is a great vent, but she is in America and the time difference sometimes makes it impossible for me to just pick up the phone and have a conversation when I am all steamed up.
Your vent has to be a local person who has known your marriage long enough to place your outburst in context. It has to be someone who you respect; someone with wisdom; someone with the patience to listen to your sob stories and the discretion not to repeat them. Most importantly, it has to be someone who will not think badly of your spouse at the end of the conversation. I don’t know about you but for all my complaints, I could not bear it if someone thought ill of my husband after listening to my complaints (if that makes sense).
For all these reasons, I call my friend Asha in Mumbai. She has known us long enough to dissect the truth from the venting. When I yell at her that my husband has forgotten “yet again” about my birthday, she knows that I am telling a lie; that my husband is not the forgetful type. She knows that he is travelling through four time zones. And she knows that I am in a funk because of the way the whole Hillary-Obama thing is playing out. Maybe, she will think as we hang up, Shoba is just having her period. And she will forget the whole conversation. She will not ascribe motive.
There are many ways you can stop yourself from having an affair (if you are moralistic about that sort of thing, that is). The one that seems easiest to me is to find a venting buddy well before the whole relationship explodes.
Shoba Narayan thinks her husband walks between hell and high water. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.