The whys and why-nots of fooling around. "Having an affair is a lot like eating an ice cream cone. It may be a little sticky, but it's delicious and fun."
Editor’s note: Not sure what to say about this 1978 cover story other than, “Hey, it was the ’70s.”
Depending upon your personal experience and that of your friends and relatives, you may:
View The Affair as a fairly routine part of life, to be expected as a natural but peripheral piece of the human experience;
Think of The Affair as a spice-of-life kind of game that really doesn't hurt anybody ... much;
Believe that The Affair is immoral, wrong, wrong, wrong and a danger to the fabric of family life in America.
But chances are good that you don't mind a little zesty chit chat about somebody else's affair. Be it at a dinner party in Dublin, drinks at Scioto Country Club, tennis at a private court on the east side, intermission at Players Theatre, when one person turns to another and says, a little too casually, "Oh .. did you know that he's having an affair?" The eyebrows raise. Oh, really? Tell me more ... how long has it been going on, who is she, how did he meet her, does the wife know?
For whether you approve or disapprove, you’re probably interested. Think what the movies have done with affairs over the years, the portraits of the people involved vary—they are likable, unlikable, sympathetic, unsympathetic. Consider “The Graduate,” “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” An Unmarried Woman” and innumerable others. Sometimes the affairs have beneficial effects, sometimes they result in disaster all around. Affairs are dealt with in countless pulp novels, countless well-written best-sellers. They are even mentioned in newspapers—on page one and in you-read-it-here columns. Such news items have involved even presidents. Affairs must hold some fascination for somebody.
We’re not talking about a little low-key fooling around—the clutch in the kitchen after the neighborhood barbecue, the playful passes over the bridge table, the occasional lunch with a friend of the opposite sex. And we’re not really talking about those long-term extramarital activities that everybody, including spouse or spouses, knows about and which, therefore, nobody cares about.
We’re talking about the serious affair—not the short-term dalliance or one-nighter—conducted by someone who is ostensibly happily and faithfully married. The one that is kept an absolute secret. Ask one Columbus man who has had a number of affairs how many people knew exactly what was going on during the most recent one: “Nobody,” he says. “Neither she nor I ever mentioned it to anyone. I didn’t talk about it with anyone in the office, anyone at the club,certainly not with any of my family, not even with my closest friend. I was having an affair because I wanted to, not because I wanted something to talk about.”
Columbusites probably do not generally approve of affairs. They may not think the adulterer will be consigned to hell, but they may well think that it’s a nasty thing to do to the unsuspecting, and presumably true blue, spouse. (“Adulterer” is a harsh word which somehow implies a value judgment, but sexual revolution notwithstanding, that’s still the only precisely accurate word we could find. “Affairant,” perhaps?)
Yet it goes without saying that Columbusites (and Worthingtonians, and Bexleyites, and Grove Cityites and … ) do conduct affairs. We looked into the whys and wherefores. We talked to marriage and family counselors, psychologists, lawyers, clergymen, private eyes, people who have watched their friends go through affairs … and yes,we even talked to some actual on-going adulterers. Here’s what we found out.
“When I look back on it all,” says the North Side self-employed businessman, “I know that I had an affair not because of problems at home, not because there was anything wrong with my marriage, but because I had to prove myself. I had always worried that women found me unattractive, and I wanted to prove to myself I was wrong. And I was getting to the age that if I ever was going to have an affair, I’d have to do it quick or I’d surely be undesirable. So I started looking, and it wasn’t too long before I was involved with a woman who assured me I was attractive, and I wasn’t over the hill.”
A psychologist could probably have told that man long before he became involved that he was a likely candidate to have an affair. The psychologist, and others who have studied the quantitative aspects of affairs, analyze the times when a person is likely to stray from marriage, and the kinds of people likely to do so.
“If a person has had a lot of sexual activity before marriage, he or she is likely to begin an affair within a few months after the marriage—they just can’t limit themselves to one man or one woman,” one Columbus psychologist explains. "Next, there really is a 'seven-year itch,' which can occur anytime between seven and 10 years into the marriage. The partner, usually the man, can sit back and see his children going off to school, his spouse settling into a niche where she'll probably be for the rest of her life. He starts to feel settled and confined.
"The next likely time is when the man is going through ‘male menopause,' usually in his late 40s or early 50s (as in the case study above). For a woman, the most likely time she'll have an affair is after her menopause, when she starts to think of herself as 'mature sexually,' and may need some reassurance that she's still desirable. And by this time, the children are usually self-sufficient, so she may be entering the business world and seeing a lot of men other than her husband for the first time in a long time."
He says that married men are more likely to have affairs than married women, since they traditionally are in the business world while women are traditionally in the home, and the societal attitude in the past has been that men "need" more sexual activity with more sexual partners than women do. As well, there was always the potential that the woman would become pregnant by someone other than her husband. Figures compiled in various national surveys support his beliefs.
Another psychologist who works with couples having problems with their marriages says that frequently the person who is having or has had the affair is physiologically not quite average, and needs to prove to himself or herself that it doesn't matter that he's too short or she's too tall, that someone can still be desirable even though they are plump, flat chested or balding.
People who have affairs most often work in occupations where they are their own bosses or at least have some time which can be unaccounted for. One man who does some counseling lists typical occupations: he says lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, photographers, consultants, college professors, even journalists are more likely to be able to fit time for an affair into their schedules than are high school teachers, many executives, department store clerks or bus drivers, for example.
While it is usually those in higher income levels who have more time they can call their own, that does not mean those having affairs are confined to any particular socio-economic status. One lawyer who has handled numerous divorces for low income clients says he frequently hears of a spouse's relationship with someone outside the marriage as the reason for the break-up. Those working with marriage problems in Columbus say that neither is there any real difference in the number of people having affairs based on education levels, race or religion.
They do notice that people having affairs usually are seeing people in socially similar positions. "A man is more likely just to be screwing around with his secretary," points out one counselor. But, “He'd have an affair with a woman who has a job equal to his, or who's got an education and a background at least somewhat comparable to his.”
Common spawning grounds for affairs, says one man who's watched his friends become involved in numerous ones, are meetings of voluntary and philanthropic groups, self-improvement classes and programs teaching crafts or hobbies, golf and tennis clubs, and other such places where people can meet others with similar interests and backgrounds. (Then, if someone does see them together, they can say they were discussing the latest fund-raising project or exchanging pointers on chips or volleys.)
The secret relationship between a wife and the husband of her best friend isn't that uncommon. “Watch out for bridge games," cautions one family counselor, only half in jest. Another says, “Anytime you think enough of someone to become friends with them, you should realize that friendship might develop into an affair."
Not everybody who begins an affair does so with the degree of premeditation shown by the man in our opening example. Some people will tell you that it began—sneaked up on them, as it were—before they had a chance to think it out, to consider the pluses and minuses. “Of course, rationally, you should never get involved in an affair," one man says. "But hell. Who approaches it rationally?"
"I guess I'm not surprised I kept seeing him for as long as I did," one married woman says of her former lover. "We always had a good time together. We cooked, we listened to records, we talked a lot. And we seemed to get along so well. I don't think we ever had a fight.”
The very shallowness of most extra marital relationships is what makes them attractive to some people. Psychologists will tell you that relationships like the one described above are doomed to failure; an affair is a good times-only situation.
"An affair does not have all the aspects of human interaction that ongoing relationships normally do,” says Dr. Donald McGee, an East Side psychologist who does some family counseling. "There's limited social interaction, and only minimal decision making affecting the two of them."
In other words, there will be discussion about what to do that evening—and whether to do it before or after dinner—about what to watch on TV, where to go for lunch or a drink, when to meet the next time. Low-pressure decisions. There will be no discussion about the cost of the 11-year-old's upcoming braces, about the 16-year-old's new and spaced-out boyfriend, about who should run home from work to let the plumber into the house.
People who have been involved in affairs frequently say they were bored with the predictability of their spouses and their marriages, and wanted to find out how another person would react to them. Some have an affair to overcome worry about a supposed physical deficiency. Some men point to the times their wives have been away on extended vacations, or working in another part of the country, and say they got tired of eating dinner alone.
Once in a while a husband or wife has rejected the spouse. "I've seen several couples," says one sex therapist, "where the husband or wife loses all interest in sex, has flatly told the spouse, 'If you want that kind of thing, you'll have to get it somewhere else.' So they do."
Some men who in the past have had a series of one-night stands have simply found that it's easier and cheaper to have a continuing affair. They don't have to waste time meeting new people, hustling, buying drinks and dinners. They have someone accessible.
An affair may actually be therapeutic, may help save a marriage. Dr. Robert Birch, an Upper Arlington psychologist, explains that "if one partner is going through a struggle, and his or her needs are not being met within the marriage, it sometimes happens that that partner will get his or her needs met outside the marriage. If they weren't met, that partner would become angry, bitter and perhaps even destroy the marriage." Others point out that an affair can lessen a feeling of resentment one may have toward his or her spouse, the feeling that “You are keeping me from happiness.”
The affair can provide temporary respite from problems at home, perhaps even giving a new perspective which will help solve them. And it can make the person involved in the affair feel more alive—and communicate that feeling to his or her spouse.
One man in Columbus who has worked extensively with couples trying to deal with sex problems says, "It is incredibly naive to believe that human beings are supposed to be monogamous." A quiet affair helps them satisfy urges while keeping up appearances.
A single person may become involved with a married one for different reasons. For one, the married person will probably make fewer demands on his or her time than another single person would; they will not be pressured to settle down and get married. One single woman says, “I'm nearly always bored by men my own age—but the ones that are bright enough to interest me are old enough that usually they've been married for some time.” She balances her options, and in the past has settled for several affairs with married men who truly interested her instead of open relationships with men she didn't care about.
One man put it rather bluntly when asked why he'd had an affair: "Having an affair is a lot like eating an ice cream cone. It may be a little sticky, but it's delicious and fun."
"At first it didn't seem too bad," says a man who dated a married woman for several months. "A couple nights a week she'd come over to my place we'd have some wine, fix dinner, spend a few hours together. After a few months we got so tired of never going out to eat, never seeing a movie or play. But we were afraid. She was—and is—a well-known executive in Columbus, and she had a lot to lose if we got caught."
It's pretty obvious that if you're keeping company with your best friend's wife, you can't just blithely escort her to the neighborhood block party. In fact, you can't just blithely do anything. You might get caught. "That's the worst part of having an affair,” says one man who has watched numerous friends conduct them. "You're always looking over your shoulder." There is fear, guilt ... maybe even an unpleasant, slightly sleazy feeling.
Even in cases involving open marriages, where one spouse is fully aware of and content with the other's extramarital activity, it may have to be kept secret from employers, friends, children, other relatives.
You can try your luck at eating out, dinners at restaurants on the other side of town, at places you know your friends don't usually go. “The first time anyone sees you together, they probably won't think too much. It could be legitimate," says one man. “But if they see you together a second or third time, they'll start to talk."
And once a spouse finds out about an affair, he or she may well threaten to move out or file for divorce. One marriage counselor says he'd advise people not to begin an affair unless they feel they can deal with a possible end of their marriages due to it.
The effect of such a discovery by the uninvolved spouse can be devastating. Psychologists in Columbus can recall occasional suicides, more frequent suicide threats. Often there are self doubts, depression. Even those who have agreed to an open marriage don't always take the discovery of an affair well. “Sure, maybe the partner agreed the other could see other people," says Dr. Virginia Holmes, coordinator of the Downtown counseling service for Family Counseling and Crittenton Services, a family service agency. “But then they discover the affair. And a typical feeling may be, 'I know I said it was OK—but I don't feel good about it.' ”
Unless a truly open, do-your-own thing marriage does exist, the spouse who has been conducting the affair will have lied fairly regularly. A husband or wife may say to the adulterer, "I will never trust you again.” And mean it.
The whole idea of sex outside marriage is condemned by all major religions. Adultery is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. The comment by the Rev. Anthony Borrelli of the city's Catholic Diocese is typical of organized religion's reaction to the idea of an affair: "The teaching is that unfaithfulness in marriage is sinful, wrong, against the teachings of Christ and therefore not allowed."
The Moment of Truth
"It had been going on about three months,” says one man about his affair. “Then one night I got home a little later than I should have. It was awful. My wife didn't say anything. She just looked at me and started crying. Then she finally said, 'I know you're seeing someone else.' I denied it. I said yes, I'd been with another woman, but we were just good friends and we had a big project for work that we had to finish—and that I hadn't wanted to disturb her with all the details. Well, my wife bought it, or at least she said she did. I made sure we were just friends from then on."
The question may come any time, spoken too quietly in a too-thin voice, climaxing a rage or presented calmly. There you are, sitting at breakfast, and the words come. It's some variation of: "Are you having an affair?" And your discreet little relationship has suddenly become very large, distinctly undiscreet, and now looms between you and your cornflakes. You think of William Holden leaving his wife for Faye Dunaway in “Network”and the nasty scene at their breakfast table. You can deal with the situation just like he did, admitting exactly what's been going on.
Or you can do what several marriage counselors in Columbus say you should do. You can lie. You can deny being involved with anyone, you can reassure your mate. "The question being asked is not really, 'Are you having an affair?' ” says Dr. Birch, "but, ‘How do you feel about our marriage?’ You should focus your energy and attention on answering that question,” he says. To answer, "Yes, I'm having an affair," in effect says, “I don't care too much about our relationship."
Further, telling all may have a cathartic effect on the adulterer, but it may put an enormous weight on the shoulders of the spouse. There will be instant feelings of failure and inadequacy, there may be hysteria and further debilitating effects on the marriage.
And telling the spouse often merely places on him or her the burden of what to do next. “It's not fair to ask the spouse to make the decision for you," says Dr. Birch. If you answer "yes" to that initial question, you force the issue, demand that the spouse approve your action or throw you out.
Dr. Birch says he has seen some people who have told their spouses the truth, only to be greeted by smiles and sighs of relief. “Wow, that clears up a lot," is a potential response, he says. The spouse may then understand why the other mate was difficult to reach at certain times, or came home exhausted or grouchy—it wasn't that there were problems at work, it was difficulty with his girlfriend. Some spouses may be more understanding of this situation, feeling they can deal with flesh and blood "competition” a lot better than they can competition from a job.
Birch and other local counselors, not surprisingly, stress counseling for couples with such “communication" problems. Most counselors say that, depending upon how open their clients are with them and with each other, and upon how much the marriage means to each of them, most have at least a decent chance of saving it after even the most torrid affair.
And some take the affair for what he believes it usually is, a sign of deeper trouble in the marriage. "Of the people I see here, very few are having trouble just because one or the other of them had an affair. More often, they are having trouble because they can't communicate--and the affair is just a symptom of that communication problem," Dr. Birch says.
"There are some relationships that just can't be saved," says one marriage counselor. "One partner has had an affair, the other one knows, and says she'll never trust him again, never believe anything he tells her—doesn't even want the kids around him. She won't talk to him, won't listen to me. If she's still like that after a couple of sessions, there's not much hope for that marriage.”
"As soon as I started seeing Gary," one woman recalls, “I began to wish I'd met him before I married my husband. He was everything my husband wasn't: bright, good-looking, considerate—and very successful. For a long time I thought, You're married, that's it, nothing can happen between you and Gary.' Then I decided, 'I just can't stand it. You only live once.' ”
Divorce, of course, is one possible consequence of an affair, and the more common of the two situations above is the first. The flexibility of the marriage partner not involved in the affair and the strength of the marriage before the affair are important factors to consider in predicting whether the marriage can weather the discovery of an affair, marriage counselors say.
One woman decided she wanted a divorce simply because she saw her husband's secretary rub him on the back one day. It took some time, her marriage counselor says, before she was convinced that her husband was not being unfaithful to her just by letting another woman touch him.
Others are more flexible, but still end up feeling a divorce is the only answer. It may be that the marriage was already weak, or that the couple was already having problems getting along, and the affair was just the final act in a series of actions which showed lack of understanding and care for each other. Other counselors point out that some people who are strongly religious cannot even imagine continuing a marriage to an adulterer.
A divorce which comes after the discovery of an affair can be intensely unpleasant. Whether a divorce is contested or uncontested, there must be grounds for it—and adultery is one of the grounds for divorce in Ohio. Attorneys say they rarely use it as a grounds since it normally is difficult to prove; one attorney says, "It's probably only used about one one-hundredth of the times it's actually present.”
But any adultery which did take place may be brought out in court in the proof of gross neglect of duty, one of the other grounds for divorce.
And proving just how gross the other partner was may become especially important when the spouse who was not involved in the affair wants custody of the children. To make a strong case against the person who was involved in the affair, the opposing attorney usually questions him or her, finds out the name of his or her lover, and subpoenas them for the divorce proceeding.
Then he puts them on the stand. And questions them. Explicitly. Do you know Mr. X? How well do you know him? Have you had sexual intercourse with him? How many times? Where? When? "Sometimes I'll just keep pushing them," says one lawyer who is very successful in his domestic relations practice.
"Finally the judge will stop me and say, 'All right, counselor, I think we've got the idea.' Sometimes there are a lot of racy scenes, sometimes there's a lot of crying, once in a while there's a real fight." (According to the Ohio legal system, though, adultery is not considered in the awarding of alimony. A woman could have had any number of affairs, for example, all of them could be discovered, and she still could be awarded a hefty chunk of money in alimony payments.)
Not often does the person having the affair seek the divorce in order to be with his or her lover, but it does happen. One professional man and a woman who worked in his office, both married, began a casual fling. But then John and Kate (not their real names) realized it was turning into much more. It ended with each of them leaving their spouses and moving in together.
"I didn't want this to happen," Kate says. "I resisted for a long time. But my husband really didn't care about me anymore, and I realized John did love me, and could give me a lot more than my husband ever had. And I did—and do—love John. So I finally gave in."
John says that he loves Kate but says that had the situation been different, he probably would have continued to live with his wife and see Kate outside the marriage. “If my wife simply had stayed at home all her life, had no means of support, no one to talk to, nothing to do, I could never have left her. But she does have a profession, a very good job, she's bright and well-educated. I thought she could get along without me."
He gave up his spouse—and beyond that, some of his long-time friends. “I had one friend that I played golf with nearly every week for 25 years. Since I moved in with Kate, four years ago, I've heard from him twice. There are lots of friends I haven't seen at all. And my sister's only called me twice.” He says he doesn't miss most of his friends, though, saying, “They're just jealous. I did something they would really like to do, but don't have the guts to do it.”
"I don't know how long I would have kept seeing her,” muses the man as he stares out of his office window at Broad Street traffic. "We seemed to get along, and she was so understanding. Then one day, one of my friends who works here said, 'Is your wife out of town?' I said, 'No, why?' He looked puzzled and said, 'Oh, I just assumed she was since I saw you eating dinner in German Village last night.' That was all he said. But I knew that if he'd seen me eating out, he'd seen my girlfriend with me. It was his way of saying he thought something was going on. And I just got scared. In less than a week, I told my girlfriend it was over between us.”
Fear of discovery may be the most common reason for ending an affair, but those who have gone through them say it's not the only reason. The couple may stop seeing each other because as the affair continues, they gradually learn more about each other. And they aren't pleased with what they find out. There may be a serious argument—one which wouldn't cause more than some bruised feelings in a marriage, but which is too much for the ephemeral nature of the affair to withstand.
There may be reasons for the affair's end which are unrelated to the affair itself: greater commitments at home or work, change in a job which takes one person out of contact with the other.
Occasionally the married party simply "comes to his senses." "I had several affairs in a row," says one man. “I saw quite a few different people, usually for months at a time, over a period of more than 20 years. And my wife never knew. Finally, I thought, I've got to stop acting this way. I married her, now goddammit, I ought to live with her and be happy. I broke off with my last girlfriend—it wasn't easy—and that was it. I haven't seen anyone for three years."
Perhaps the affair has gone farther than either of the parties involved has planned, with true feelings of love and affection, a serious bond, developing. A decision has to be made: Do they terminate the affair or the marriage(s)? Quite possibly they will choose to end the affair.
A national survey conducted in 1969 found the average affair lasts anywhere between a month and a year. The kids' braces, the teenagers' love lives, the leaky faucets, the rising cost of Spaghetti-Os, the need to clean out the trash can and take the dog to the vet may not be exciting or glamorous factors in married life, but they are the stuff of which multi-faceted relationships are made. And relationships with the most aspects are normally the most long-term.
Which means that even the most idyllic affair usually never goes beyond that. Typically, affairs are to remember as you keep on being married.
This story originally appeared in the September 1978 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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