Acting Responsibly In The Face of Desire
Would you like to have an affair? vs. Would you have an affair?
These are two different questions, each so volatile in nature that most of us prefer not to think about them. My purpose in asking (as well as answering them for myself) is to shed light on what might be the greatest challenge in developing and sustaining an intimate relationship: acting responsibly in the face of desire.
I've been happily married for seven years and have two children. I am strongly committed to my vows of fidelity. I'm a therapist who specializes in building intimate relationships. Yet I've recently found myself poised precariously on the edge of the forbidden zone when the opportunity to have an affair presented itself to me.
It was one of those days I would have liked to stay in bed with the covers over my head. I woke up feeling depressed and disconnected. As the day wore on, I felt increasingly stressed out, frustrated, downtrodden and totally alone. I'd describe the state of mind I was in as apathetic and reckless, though I wasn't completely aware of it at the time. Perhaps, also, I was desperate for some excitement or relief. I was at my office and had a half hour break before my next client. What was I going to do? I thought, Why not make a trip to the mailbox and get some fresh air? On the way, I stopped at the candy store around the corner to say hi to my friend Susan who worked there.
On occasions when I had gone into the shop to get candy, we had spent several minutes chatting, and eventually we'd developed a sort of friendship. Our initial conversations centered on the many different flavors of chocolate in the store, all of which were given out as free samples on a regular basis. Then the subject shifted to movies. Then to my family members (whom she had met at various times during the year). Then to her boyfriend ("an okay weekend relationship").
Our encounters were always spontaneous since there was no pattern to my being in the mood for a treat and warm reception. Our interactions became quite playful and our playfulness naturally got physical; that is, culminating in hugs. There probably was an underlying but unexpressed attraction between us, but nothing was ever verbalized. I can't even say whether we had acknowledged these feelings to ourselves. They became clearly evident to both of us, however, one particular time. We hugged and her face turned bright red. We both laughed and went on with business as usual. This brief, seemingly innocuous interaction turned me on. I was surprised by how physically aroused I got. Not only did this experience make me more aware of our mutual attraction, my imagination was activated.
This day, it wasn't candy I wanted. I was looking for much more excitement than that, but all I was conscious of seeking was one of those warm, full-body hugs, something to lift my spirits. Susan was there. We hugged and as usual, I got aroused. I got what I had come for so I proceeded on my walk to the mailbox. During my stroll, I started fantasizing about having sex with her.
Just as I was about to enter my building I spotted her walking across the street from the opposite direction. I was amazed; it seemed impossible that sufficient time had passed for her to be where she was. As she was walking towards me, I thought how great it would be if she came up to my office. What if I asked her to come up? Would she want to come up? Would she get it on with me? Do I have enough time? She'd be into it! I stood there waiting for her approach, frozen in fantasy. I wasn't sure what to say to her. Feigning surprise, I yelled, "How did you get here so fast?" Apparently, she didn't hear what I had asked her. She responded, "You want me to see your office?" It was as if she heard my thinking. "Yeah, I said. "That's a great idea."
There we were in my office at ten after five (and a client scheduled at 5:30), with still enough time for us to have sex, albeit a quickie. We both seemed to be at a loss for words and fumbled through the obvious small-talk about how nice my office was, etc. After a few minutes, she looked at me and suggested it was time for her to return to the candy store. I didn't know whether I was disappointed or relieved. After a few seconds of hesitation, I agreed. "I guess you have to get back," I said. As she left, I stood there wondering, what if she had closed the door of my office and said, "Okay. You want me? Now you can have me." I don't know what I would have done.
Even the first question, 'would you like to have an affair' which is the more benign one, makes my heart palpitate. A voice in the back of my mind tells me that my answer is not supposed to be Yes, that people who are happily married, committed to vows of fidelity and who are entrusted to guide others on matters of the heart should not be thinking about having affairs. But there's another voice telling me that it is perfectly okay to want to have an affair. My wishes and desires are my private business. It's not like I did anything. Besides, how uncommon is it to fantasize about having an affair? The idea must cross everyone's mind one time or another.
So the truth is, sure, I'd like to have an affair. Given the right conditions, I can't think of anything more exciting. It depends on how I'm feeling. When I'm deeply frustrated and stressed out, the fantasy draws the most attention and is most tantalizing. But when I'm feeling greater satisfaction in my work and relationships, it's a different story. I'm not looking for an escape. I'm too busy doing other, more important things, to be bothered. It goes from one extreme to the other. Some days, there's nothing I'd rather think about and some days the thought never enters my mind. Clearly, the difference is how replenished and fulfilled I feel.
Imagine for a moment what it would be like to have an affair. For me, it's the ultimate fantasy sexual interlude in which I am not encumbered by inhibition. One in which there's no emotional baggage whatsoever for either one of us: no conflicts, differences or negative feelings. She expects nothing from me and I expect nothing from her. There's nothing about her I dislike and she wants me unconditionally. She knows exactly what to say and do, without my telling her. She just knows. She is the safest woman on the planet for I can open up about anything and she'll comfort me with understanding. There's no one like her. It's the same thing every time: we can't wait to "make love," the "love-making" is more wild and passionate than any I've ever experienced; then we part with no guilt or obligation, only with appreciation and anticipation of our next encounter, whenever it will be. There's no such thing as stress when we're together, it doesn't exist. No stress!
Could having an affair with Susan be this good? Perhaps. If it were this good the first time, would it continue to be so in subsequent encounters? It's doubtful, because the reality cannot match our fantasies. Reality and fantasy are two different realms of experience. Yet they are connected.
Here's an analogy: you're on a desert in the sweltering heat without water, and all you can think about is an oasis. Then you see one and you're ecstatic. Unless you were on a desert dying of thirst, you wouldn't experience excitement or desire. Under normal circumstances, 'oasis' would be just another word, a purely intellectual concept having no emotional impact.
We fantasize. about things that are missing in our lives, which is why fantasy works so well as an escape. If they weren't missing, we wouldn't be fantasizing about them, we wouldn't be excited or feel much desire. Any desire we did feel would occur in the context of reality. We would consider the consequences and they'd most likely deter us from acting on it.
If, in my mind, Susan was anything other than a fantasy figure, I wouldn't have been at all excited by the idea of having an affair with her. The moment the fantasy resembled reality; that is, involving a real person with real needs, a real relationship with the ups and downs that go with it and a real life with any level of stress, it would have been destroyed. I didn't want to have anything to do with reality. My "close call" encounter with Susan had less to do with Susan the person than it did with my need to escape my pain, which, relatively speaking, was quite substantial at the time. Clearly, my imagination and the accompanying excitement was nothing more than a temporary reprieve from how I was feeling at the time, which was sexually frustrated, emotionally isolated and stressed out.
Fortunately, I didn't push it with Susan. I knew that my fantasy wasn't going to translate into reality, and that the actual experience would fall way short of how I imagined it. Somehow I knew there's the build-up, the orgasm but then the crash' What now? What happened to the excitement? Did I want to be involved with Susan in this way? I knew that at the core of my excitement was a need to escape, and relied on my imagination to provide it. Apparently, the fantasy was enough for the time being.
Fantasizing poses no risk unless, of course, we can't distinguish between reality and fantasy and we act based on this confusion. What made it possible for me to make these distinctions was my willingness to acknowledge my wishes and desires regardless of whether I considered them impossible, forbidden and outright "wrong."
Understanding how my imagination works made all the difference in the world. I know there's no stopping my imagination. As long as I'm feeling frustrated or in pain, my imagination will be operating it if not consciously, then unconsciously. It's when it is unconscious that I'm most prone to making choices that I would regret. I don't want be act on my desire when I'm deluding myself about what is happening, when there is no distinction between reality and fantasy. I want to be conscious of when I'm fantasizing and be able to enjoy my fantasy, the accompanying excitement but have my actions be based in reality.
Even though my understanding of what my excitement was all about influenced my behavior (i.e., I didn't initiate sexual contact), it doesn't mean that if the opportunity presented itself on another occasion and I was in the same state of mind, I'd necessarily act the same way, which leads to the next question.
If the situation presented itself, would you have an affair? This question implies action, and therefore, increases the stakes considerably.
Anything desired or imaginable can be acted upon. However, the moment a fantasy is acted on, it becomes a real experience and is no longer a fantasy.
Whereas before I might have been poised precariously on the edge of infidelity, had I acted on my desire's if Susan and I had actually had sex, I'd be falling over the edge. The nature of our relationship would have changed from platonic to sexual, from friendly acquaintance to secret lover, with no way to undo that shift.
Furthermore, whether it would have been a "one-time" occurrence, a sporadic or regular one, I would have either had to lie in order to maintain the affair, or else confess it to my wife. Concealment would create a wedge between my wife and me that would probably increase in size as time went by, especially if the "one time" occurrence became a two or more time occurrence. Undoubtedly, confession would precipitate a monumental upset in our marriage. Any one of these scenarios poses undesirable consequences.
The voice in the back of my mind is saying, "Don't incriminate yourself. But the truth is, I could have an affair. If I was sufficiently run down and the opportunity presented itself, I'd be walking a tight-rope. It doesn't matter how happily married I am or how high my integrity or my status might be. I know that when I'm feeling depressed, apathetic, frustrated, etc., I want immediate relief. I don't think about consequences. In a weak moment, I can act impulsively. Furthermore, if Susan and I had had sex that day, I'd probably have kept it a secret. I could deny this dark part of myself; the part that can lie to get what I want, but I'd only be deceiving myself. I'm capable of dishonesty and deception.
With regards to the encounter with Susan, knowing the part of myself that is capable of dishonesty and in this case, betrayal, made me take nothing for granted.
Being aware that I'm capable of putting myself into a situation that I'd regret later made me carefully assess the situation and consider the potential consequences, determining factors in my choosing to not act on impulse. From a short-term perspective, I was left wondering how great it would have been," and was even more aware of my pain with no way to escape it. From a longer-term perspective, the terrible state of mind I was in at the time eventually changed to one more positive. I was relieved I didn't have to deal with Susan (after having sex with her), or insert any guilt, lies or crises in my marriage.
When we look at this situation in terms of a trade-off, i.e., immediate relief for responsibility, we can see that our consciousness is desire's worst enemy. My being conscious enabled me to act responsibly and acting responsibly made me feel more powerful and secure in myself. It gave me the knowledge that I can tolerate frustration, act in a way that is consistent with my top priorities and be undaunted by even the most compelling distractions.
The fact is every one of us can have a breakdown. It depends on how out of touch we are with our hunger and vulnerability. When we're going through life seemingly in tact, yet out of touch with our pain and desperation for escape, we're walking time bombs. The odds are that it will be only a matter of time before the right person comes along and opportunity to have an affair presents itself. The rest will be history our desire will be all-consuming, we'll idealize the person and the relationship, and blind ourselves to the impact it will have on our lives.