Just as the first chill winds of autumn may catch us by surprise, so a change in the climate of a relationship can be devastating. Whereas our relationship in summer was characterised by warm breezes, we find that biting winds now test our love. These are dark and cold days, but there is no relationship that does not, at one time or another, have to love in January – times when we have to love our partner not ‘because of’ but ‘in spite of’.
Marriages break up, relationships fail – those things are a fact of life. But it’s also a fact that we will never find a lasting relationship with anybody unless we are ready at some time to fight to keep our love alive against the odds – to love in January.
I remember counselling a couple in their mid-20s; they had a baby girl aged six months and were about to divorce. I asked the man why he wanted to divorce his wife. He said, “I don’t feel in love anymore.”
As he spoke, I looked at the little bundle being cradled in his wife’s arm, the first man in her life about to walk out on her forever. I said, “Did nobody tell you when you married that there will be times when that happens – you won’t feel in love, or the feeling of love will diminish? Did nobody warn you that love that lasts, does so by loving – at least for a time – with not the heart, but the will? Did nobody say that unless you understand this, you are doomed to move from relationship to relationship at the mercy of your feelings?” He looked genuinely surprised. “No,” he said. “Nobody told me that.”
Nobody had told him this simple truth and yet grasping this principle would allow his and many relationships that fall at the first hurdle to at least have a chance of surviving. You will not keep your family together if a prerequisite is that you and your partner always feel in love with each other.
Couples that stay together are prepared to go through periods in their relationship where commitment, responsibility, and sometimes “what’s best for the children” is what keeps their relationship going. “For the sake of the kids” is not always the right reason to stay together, but it’s still a good reason. Of course, none of us want to live our whole lives loving our partner through gritted teeth, but there are thousands of couples who tried again, perhaps “for the sake of the kids”, and in the process found again a love they’d thought was gone forever.
In almost every marriage there will come a time when the ‘feeling’ of love is at a very low ebb. Such times may creep up on us over the years, or they may be linked to specific strains in our relationship – perhaps following the birth of a child, financial pressure, sickness, or redundancy, when the self-esteem of one partner is very low. It’s at this point that something sometimes enters the relationship that, in its ability to destroy families, is in a league of its own: the affair.
The price tag reads…
I’ve seen all kinds of things destroy families. But I believe that nothing comes close to the affair for having the ability so quickly and with such surgical skill to decimate families – and often for so little. It’s as if the affair whispers: “Trust me. I know you’ve heard what this can do to families, but it will be different for you. Just take the next step.”
Of course, the end results of the affair can vary. Some people find new and fulfilling relationships, and some feel cheated after just a few days, but in my experience those involved in an affair exhibit the same two characteristics time and time again.
The first is what somebody called “a period of temporary insanity”. During this time people act totally out of character. They set aside previously held personal or religious beliefs. They sometimes begin to dress differently – perhaps younger, more daring –and almost everything in their lives – children, job, home – comes second to the sheer thrill of this affair.
During this period, people often ‘rewrite’ the story of their lives. They say things such as, “We were so young when we got married – we didn’t really know what we were doing”, “We’ve never really been happy”, “I was always dissatisfied with our relationship”. It’s not necessarily that these things aren’t true, or that they haven’t gone through difficult times, but the trick of the affair is that it manages to wipe out every memory of genuine love and happiness in the relationship that ever existed.
If that’s the first characteristic of affairs, then the second always follows. It may come within a few weeks, or it could take a few years to happen, but there is no exception. It’s the moment when reality kicks in. For a while, everything in the new relationship is thrilling and fun, but eventually the excitement dies and the couple discover that even in their new love nest the taps still leak, the bills still need paying, and babies still wake up crying in the middle of the night. In short, they discover that “the other man’s grass may be greener, but it still needs mowing”.
The shock of this second stage is often cataclysmic. It’s as if the cost at the beginning of the affair is negligible, but quickly changes. In the early stages the price is rarely on the ticket; in fact, at the beginning, the price tag reads, “Free”. There’s no harm in what is happening – some flirting, a little time spent together. But as the affair progresses, it’s as if there’s somebody at the back of the store changing the price ticket because suddenly it’s more expensive. It now calls for a little deceit – “I’ll be home a bit later on Tuesday, darling.” But, hey, even if the price is getting higher, the rewards are fantastic – fun, almost teenage-like conversation, incredible sex. They say to themselves, “This is the person I should have married.”
Then one day, the couple walks into the shop and the price tag has changed for the last time. Now it reads: “Everything”. They gasp when they see it. They protest that they couldn’t possibly pay it without losing almost everything they’ve ever loved – their husband, their wife, their kids, maybe their friends and wider family, and perhaps their home or even their job.
I get angry listening to so-called experts talk about affairs being good for a marriage. Can marriages recover from affairs? Yes, of course. Can those marriages be stronger than they were before? Yes, without doubt. But the affair is a breach of trust so great that it tears at the very heart of a relationship, and although the love may return, it may take a long time for trust to be restored.
And affairs are bad for kids. Over the years I have listened to the stories of many people who have experienced family break-up, but one small boy sticks out in my mind. He was ten years old and his father had just left his mother. He was sitting on a step outside his house, looked up and said, “My father doesn’t love my mother anymore and he has left us now. What does a kid do?”
Breaking up is hard on everyone
But it’s not just young children who feel this experience so deeply. Laura Telfer, a Relate counsellor for 18 years, says that splitting up when the children are older can seem like an attractive option: “There is definitely a susceptible time when the children leave home when all possibilities seem open. But it does not make the unexpected desertion any easier. What can be an exciting venture for one partner is invariably a painful grieving episode for other family members. Children watch appalled as their family, that secure and safe place that survived all their childhoods, is swiftly dismantled.”
Some time ago I met Jeremy. He too had reached a period in his marriage when he said he no longer felt in love. Whether that was hastened by his being attracted to a woman in his office is something we’ll never know. But I suspect his marriage had been going through a stale patch, and the new woman made him look at his wife, his life – his lot – with a growing dissatisfaction.
He told me his story on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a McDonald’s next to a cinema complex. He was now divorced and had recently broken up with the woman he’d left his wife for. He had access to his children once every two weeks. Rhys was five and Victoria, ten. They were sitting at a nearby table, colouring and looking bored. He said, “It’s hard to know where to take them if it’s raining,” and then added, “I’d like to tell all the men out there that the affair is great – for a while. The sex is great, and the excitement is great, and the feeling of being young again is great – but it’s just not worth it. These are my kids, for goodness’ sake. I’m their father and I’ve just been with them for three hours stuck in a lousy cinema because there’s nowhere else to go, and now I have to take them back like a couple of library books.”
I know that marriages break up. I know that some marriages cannot survive. I understand that. But the affair is in a class of its own for destroying the world of ordinary families – families that weren’t perfect, but could have made it and been relatively happy together.
Some years ago I went to see a London play. In the last scene, the lead actor breaks down in tears. It was one of the most brilliant pieces of acting I have even seen; his wailing seemed to come from his very soul. After we left the theatre my friend said, “I have never seen such a portrayal of grief. I felt I could hear the mucus catching in his nose as he wept.”
The affair could happen to you and to me tomorrow, but as I watch couple after couple pay the incredible price that it so often demands, and as I see the fallout in the lives of children, I am reminded of something George Bernard Shaw said: “There are two great tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
We live in a world where personal happiness is put at a premium, but often when we pursue it, we find it eludes us. Sometimes, even for the sake of our own long-term happiness, we have to begin with not what is “best for me”, but for them.
We have to love – at least for a time – in January.