Did you ever feel that one of your friends needed a good dose of reality?
If your friend is a woman embarking on a love affair with a married man, you might feel, Kristen Houghton implies, that she needs a serious intervention.
Happily, Houghton is up to the task. Rarely have I seen such a clear analysis of why affairs with married men are a bad idea.
The reason must be that Houghton is a friend, not a therapist.
If a therapist had taken on the question, he would have offered up something that would feel, to me, much closer to literary criticism than to an analysis of the reality of the affair.
Regardless of whether it is true, as Houghton’s friend claims, that you can’t help who you fall in love with, nothing obliges you to engage in the myriad of activities that will turn your feeling into an affair.
Facing a woman who was having an affair with a married man, a therapist would offer up some non-judgmental comments about control issues and the woman’s lack of self-esteem. An empathic therapist would sprinkle in more than a few questions designed to take the woman’s emotional temperature: How did that feel?
You see, therapists believe in love. Most of them are hopeless romantics.
Some therapists are like script doctors. They try to change the script and forestall the inevitable. When the inevitable becomes real therapists will shift into literary or drama critic mode and will help explicate what happened and why.
The new insights will make you feel like a character in someone’s fiction. Thus they will never satisfy. They will not even acknowledge the dire truth that, whatever you feel, you are still responsible for your actions.
Houghton offers the only sane and sensible advice to a woman who is contemplating an affair with a married man: Don’t. If her friend is involved in the affair, the advice would be: Cut your losses.
The more it lasts the greater your losses.
Of course, this sounds like investment advice. This makes it far more real than fairy tales that pretend that a sufficiently helpless woman will naturally be rescued by a prince.
When the husband in question is a human being, and not a fictional character, he has a wife and children. More importantly, Houghton adds, he has responsibilities to all of them.
Men take their duties very, very seriously. A decent man will not abrogate duties to his family because he has fallen in love.
Moreover, whatever he feels about his wife, marriage is not just a love affair. It is an essential part of the social fabric of his life. Houghton explains:
Whether or not they have children is a moot point; he will always feel as if he has to be a husband to her and take care of the marriage, whether he truly loves her or not. Their life together includes friendships and a social network that is shared and comfortable for him. He won't risk losing that.
Continuing her correct emphasis on the man as a social being, Houghton points out that a man will not make his mistress part of his everyday life.
He will wine and dine her, offer her gifts, perhaps even take her on vacation. But she will always be his secret, hidden from the world, deprived of the social recognition and status that would come from being publicly identified with him.
In Houghton’s words:
While he is more than willing to be your lover and to bring you gifts, he is not about to have you meet his friends and risk having his family find out about you.
This makes her a mistress, or, more elegantly, a concubine. A woman who falls in love with a married man is defining herself as his concubine. For most women it does not suffice.
A woman will make her love affair the center of her universe. A man who is grounded in his everyday life will see his concubine as a “temporary diversion.”
Concubinage is an arrangement. It never has the social permanence of a marriage.
Besides, being a great concubine is not the same as being a great wife. A wife has, we assume, made a home for her husband and family. If the concubine is offering true love while a wife is offering home, hearth and stability for the children, the vast majority of men will choose the latter, without thinking.
A man's life is not about love.
Houghton explains, as coldly as she feels she must, that a concubine has no legal, financial, or emotional claim on a married man.
Correctly, she emphasizes the absence of an emotional claim.
Many women believe that love is reciprocal. They believe that if a man loves them fully and wholly then he loves them exactly as they love him. And they believe that they must act on their love and make their love the center of their lives. Some even believe that true love must necessarily lead to marriage.
No man thinks in those terms.
A woman will think that satisfying sex is a sign that her love is true and reciprocal.
No man thinks that it is.
Houghton sagely notes that men and women process emotion differently. The point should be well enough known to anyone who has attained the age of adult reason, but men find it much easier to walk away from great sex than women can.
In part it has to do with hormones; in part it has to do with the nature of the sexual act; in part it has to do with an innate emotional disposition.
The less a woman gets out of the love affair in social terms the more she will become desperate. She will do all the wrong things, beginning by withdrawing into herself, shutting out her friends and family, pining away for true love.
Somehow she has been convinced that the purer her love, the more she is attached, the more he will return her love.
By moving out of the real world into the world of fictions the concubine has started down the road to ruin.
Sagely, Houghton warns against all of these traps.