Dear Rick Moody: Should I End My Affair?
Rick Moody, Life Coach, on the Cost of Infidelity
Dear Rick Moody, Life Coach,
I have been having an affair with a married man for almost four years. To be honest, I’m not sure I can call it an affair. Maybe it’s an extended hook up? I don’t know. I’ve never had a one-night stand or been in a casual relationship. I don’t really know what to call this. We live in different cities and both travel a lot. But when he comes into town we see each other—once a month, maybe once every two months. Once we went five months without seeing each other. Sometimes we sleep together. Sometimes we just talk. Sometimes we kiss. Sometimes we don’t.
We are both artists but in different fields and at different levels. He’s fairly well known. He and his wife met when they were teenagers and have been together for decades. I tell you this because it’s what I remind myself each time he contacts me. It’s what makes his actions and mine slightly understandable, but also, slightly more deplorable. I didn’t know any of this when we first met. It took a year before I learned about his wife. Once I knew he was married, I planned not to see him again, but I inevitably give in every time he contacts me.
This is calling my morals into question. I grew up Catholic. I am agnostic now, but I still believe in the sanctity of marriage. I convinced myself I am respecting his wife by not contacting him (I understand the absurdity of such a statement). I have never cheated on anyone. I also never made a point of saying that until I allowed myself to be with someone who cheats. I assumed he had girls in different cities, but if he wasn’t committed to anything and I wasn’t committed to anything, it seemed ok. This was my idea of branching out—being more open.
Right before we met, I told a friend I wanted to find something like Stieglitz and O’Keefe. I wanted to keep my autonomy but still be inspired by a deep love. Live separately, but be loyal in some way.
Four years ago, I had just gotten into graduate school. I was in my mid-twenties. My boyfriend wanted to get married. I didn’t. We broke up. My friends kept telling me I should sleep around—try something new. I planned to take their advice the night this man and I met. Instead, we sat on his bed and talked. We spoke to each other in the safety and intimacy of strangers, knowing we would never see each other again. I did not give him my number when he asked. As morning came, I decided it should be one of those tender, fleeting memories.
Next thing I knew, we ran into each other in random cities and countries, outside cathedrals and inside elevators. I thought these were signs. He told me I made him think more deeply. Maybe it’s a cheap line. Maybe he figured out what I wanted to hear. But I felt he was having the same affect on me. I loved to hear him say what I was thinking.
My thoughts become more coherent when I tell them to him. When I’m not with him, I write down my ideas as if I were writing to him. When I’m making work, I imagine how I would describe it to him. I’ve taken to calling him my muse. I am not someone who is overly concerned with men and relationships, but I’ve also never had someone influence me like this.
I am embarrassed I can’t control it. I am embarrassed he is using me. I am embarrassed I am using him. I am embarrassed I might just be convincing myself I am using him to feel like I have more control than I do. I am embarrassed by the cliché.
He is coming into town soon. Do I see him? Do I sleep with him? Can we stay friends? Were we ever really friends? Can I be the type of artist who does anything to make their work better? Have I abandoned my moral compass? Is that maybe a good thing?
I hate that I even need to ask your advice, but am glad you are here.
Thank you Life Coach,
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What an honest and moving and important letter. It is best when pursuing activities that might be inimical to the self, to be completely honest. You are doing a good job of it.
I want to try to sketch out a few different lines of inquiry in response to your your very honest letter. First, I want to address infidelity itself. I want to say that I know that the suffering that accompanies infidelity is in excess of its fleeting ecstasies. And you write from that place, the advent of suffering, and I am sorry for it. For all the wanting to be O’Keefe, the wanting to be intellectually independent, I can feel anxiety about the isolation of your predicament, and I have known that isolation, and I am sorry for it. If everyone who was “unfaithful,” though I am not even sure this is the right word, thought methodically about the long-term implications of what they were up to, I am sure there would be a lot less infidelity. It is conceived of as heedless pleasure, episodic, but it would be more accurate to see it as a short-term bargain that in turn brings about much long-term hardship, and that’s without even thinking about what happens when you get caught in the pursuit of infidelity, when you get the 2am call from the aggrieved wife, or from his other lover(s). Practicing an “affair,” which for the purposes of the letter I define as a love relationship with someone who is elsewhere ostensibly monogamous, is ultimately to get caught, whereupon the suffering increases enormously, geometrically. So inevitable is this outcome that its consideration should be baked in.
To think clearly about infidelity it is important to think about the person who doesn’t know about the relationship yet, the effaced person. Sometimes this is a spouse, but it could by the child or the children of your lover too. How are they going to feel about it? I wrote a novel about this once, about the effect on the children, of systemic infidelity. At the time I wrote it as though I would not possibly have done such a thing myself, deracinated a relationship in this way, but of course the instability that follows inevitably from infidelity, is the property of everyone near and dear. It is intergenerational. The sins of the father pass onto the son. My characters became people who felt like infidelity was routine. Great heartache can come from this, rippling outward, and it’s the legacy.
So what does his wife think? What if she knows subconsciously but not consciously yet? How does she feel it? And what does his extended family think? His friends? What are the social ramifications? For him? For you?
And: what we’re talking about, here, really, is intimacy. In order for someone in a relationship to be especially intimate with you, he (or she) has to be less intimate with someone else. There’s only a fixed amount of intimacy available in the world, the brittle, noble, painful, moving, awesome thing that is intimacy between people, in which people allow themselves to be known. In order for you to be known to him, someone else is less known. Is that a thing to be lived with? And are you not ripping yourself off a little bit when you say it’s ok that you’re only seeing the guy every few weeks or months? She, his wife, is diminishing what you get too. Don’t you too want to be fully known? Your letter, on its face, is much in evidence of this. In your letter you make yourself known. You could, for example, tell your lover what you have told me, how much pain and foreboding for you there is in this? And the beginning of doubt that your letter expresses? Do you not want to express this to he who is overdue?
Or: every day, out here in the wilds of humankind, the goal is to feel the feelings of others, to recognize in others the common bond of a shared humanity. And every day there are those of us who somehow manage, whether briefly, intermittently, or on some vast, programmatic scale, to ignore the humanity of the people around us. This is especially evident in this political season of the United States of America. People everywhere are treating others as though these others do not have a complete set of human concerns and wishes and dreams and ambitions. At the heart of infidelity, I think, is this blinkering, in which one or more parties are not worth thinking about terribly much, because, contrarily, our passion is so important. It should be obvious that this is a kind of bad faith, this effacement of our fellows.
That said, remember that no “affair” happens without the willing participation of two people. And while you are responsible for saying yes, you are not the only person saying yes. There is also the guy. His motives are obscure, but worth inquiring about. He may have other lovers, indeed. When one loosens the moral fibers a little bit, enough to say shit happens about a particular affair, then it becomes possible to say it again and again and again. And it can take years before one can extricate oneself from such a way of life. Because of this, because the “affair” requires two people, you are not singularly responsible for the shame that adheres to what you are doing. It’s a joint project. Only 50 percent of the blame is yours. But you participate in the moral environment here, and in this moral environment you reap what you sow.
And: sometimes, I have observed, the pain and suffering of the extramarital relationship is a thing subliminally desired. I was teaching Chris Kraus’s excellent I Love Dick last week, wherein Kraus’s initial submissive tendencies are a major theme of the work, and the affair that then consumes her attention is to be seen as a suppressed desire for the rejection and torment that will inevitably accompany her extramarital adventure. This is worth thinking about too. An awakening to the sublimated or repetitious need for discomfort may help you feel like the romance is less spectacular and rewarding.
Believe me, Struggling, when I say that I know that some of desire happens in an autonomous way. It comes over us like a white line squall, and sometimes its low pressure system has been brewing for months or even years before we are aware of it, and when the storm breaks, we have to be nearly superhuman to resist. It comes from loneliness, maybe, or ennui, or some frustration with our daily fare, and desire then presents itself as a solution to these dissastifactions. My job sucks! I cannot stand another day of it! Desire presents itself as a solution, when it is, actually, just a momentary feeling, part of the cycle of the fleeting passions through which one passes regularly. To feel honor-bound to yield to desire is to manifest the workings commodification in the realm of human affairs, it is to auto-dehumanize. It is to neglect the obligations and the delights of just being a person among people, a regular man or woman who treats others with respect and decorum; it is to forget one of the highest and most admirable truths: that one can register a feeling and refrain from acting upon it.
I knew a man who was once having an affair with a woman, and felt he could not stop. Again and again, when he shouldn’t have done it, he felt he wanted to do it, and did. And he couldn’t stop. So he went to a therapist. The interesting part of the story goes like this: he didn’t believe, this man, that the 50-minute therapeutic session was a worthwhile tool. He wanted to talk through his problem until he was done, no matter how long it took. The therapist (who must have been very understanding) agreed (the price must have been significant), and they talked for over three hours. At the end of it, the therapist said to the man: “You know what to do.” After which the man simply ended the affair.
You, Struggling, are living in an environment where the cost of what you are doing is not insignificant. You are free, adult, you are self-sufficient, and you can do what you are doing as much as you want. And no amount of advice, I suspect, will convince you to do otherwise, nor should it. But what I hear in your letter is a dawning sensation that maybe the hidden cruelties and irresponsibilities of conducting an “affair” are becoming known to you, and that maybe there is another way to experience the joy and lasting support of intimacy. I know all about where you are now, and I wish I didn’t know. I know the shame, the deceit, the loss and regret that comes later, and I wish I didn’t know. You don’t have to go that far with all of it, Struggling. You can arrest yourself before the larger helping of pain comes due. You know what to do.
Rick Moody, Life Coach