Lust Life: Emotional Affairs

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Once upon a time, when I was miserably monogamous, I experienced what is commonly referred to as an “emotional affair.” Every few weeks, my “lover” and I rendezvoused for dinner in dimly lit restaurants and spent timeless afternoons at the Met. He was a painter, so naturally I posed nude for him. When sexual tension became as thick as the oil paints he slapped onto canvas, I broke off our posing sessions. We continued to see each other, however, in the innocent world of dinners, museums, art openings and movies. We connected through similar tastes and aesthetics—the delicacy of a line, the beauty of a floating space—details that my boyfriend couldn’t see. These details seemed to reflect the lines and spaces within me, intricacies that also eluded my boyfriend—and yet my not-quite-lover-but-more-than-a-friend “got” them. Sometimes we held hands or kissed, but never more than that. It was an old-fashioned courtship, an erotic friendship. It was sublime.

But I should have cut him off! I should’ve known that non-sexual romance would jeopardize the relationship with my boyfriend! That affair inspired me and satisfied a hunger, but I must say that it was wrong. Why? Because it opened me to the awareness that deep emotional connections can be felt with more than one person at a time. Isn’t that a terrible consequence?

These ironic afterthoughts are part of my reaction to Heather Johnson Durocher’s article in the August issue of Redbook, “The Affair You Don’t Know You’re Having.” She bases her story on the idea that an emotional affair is a dangerous taboo with the power to rupture the holy bubble of monogamy. I’m not referring to honest, conscious monogamy, but the insidious forced monogamy clamping down on our culture at the expense of our humanity. It’s limiting enough that we are expected to be sexually faithful to one person for a lifetime, now we have to restrict our personal thoughts and emotional connections to our spouse, friends of the same sex and relatives?

Durocher made some valid points: Yes, an emotional affair may disrupt a marriage (especially if the marriage is based on unrealistic vows and possessiveness); yes, emotional affairs tell us that something is missing (if not an emotional connection with the chosen partner, then emotional connections in general); and yes, we need to stay emotionally connected and honest with our partners in order for the relationship to be strong.

Despite these points, the article was disturbing on many levels. Durocher said that her extramarital emotional connection “…didn’t know me as a wife or mother, but simply as a woman. He was someone who reminded me of the person I used to be—and perhaps hoped to find again.” Apparently she has no gratitude for this gift because in the next paragraph, Steven Stosny, Ph.D., a so-called “expert” in these matters, chimes in with this revelation: “You know it’s wrong, that it’s taboo.”

Oh yes, it is so wrong to allow yourself opportunities to reconnect with yourself and be appreciated for who you are. Another “expert,” psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman, tells us “we simply do not have enough emotions and love and caring and time for both.” How interesting that we do not question whether a mother’s love will sustain the addition of each new child, yet we believe that a new romantic connection inevitably displaces the old!

Obviously the current reality of marriage is dubious if people are ridden with guilt and embarrassment because they can’t live up to unnatural standards of fidelity. We beat ourselves up for being human and call our well-intentioned actions or even attractions wrong. It’s childish, really. Mrs. Durocher tells the story of Toni, who chose to end her emotional relationship with Bobby. When Toni confessed the situation to her husband, he was hurt that she was “sharing personal thoughts with another man”! For a moment I thought Redbook was running a vintage issue from the 1950s.

Although I’m coming from a polyamorous perspective, I don’t have a problem with monogamy as long as it is consciously chosen with respect to one’s autonomy. What saddens me is that many women will readily throw away friendships and cut off connections with men in order to preserve that holier-than-thou version of monogamy/marriage. Through a desire to “complete themselves” with a forever mate, people invalidate other connections and end up more “incomplete” than they ever were before.

Although I felt incomplete with my boyfriend, I had no illusions about him completing me. The artist didn’t complete me either; he simply helped me feel more complete within myself while relating to someone on an intimate level. Whether you choose one or many loves, you must be complete within yourself. Only then is it possible to live happily ever after.

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