In the gaze of the other

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“Why I Date Married Men”

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Heather L. Hughes, a freelance writer, contributes to Salon.com “Why I Date Married Men” and lends light insight into her choice of dating partners, a kind of liberation for a sexual late bloomer (a virgin until 29), when she concludes:

Affairs with married men offer controlled companionship — there’s warmth and there’s space, there’s intimacy and there’s distance. I can’t control growing older. But as the other woman, I’ll always have an element of mystery, an invitation to a different narrative, like that lit-up window in the darkness.

The “lit-up window in the darkness” refers to her ignorance of and outsider status to the married man’s family life, his other life, about which she admits to being curious and even fantasizes.
The “controlled companionship” concept certainly appeals to the more introverted of us. Hughes doesn’t say so, but adding up the facts of her nerdy entertainment choices, her lack of sex and her lauding “controlled companionship” aka I love you now get out and give me my space, she is probably an introvert. Introverts need battery-recharging alone time, something marriage doesn’t always afford.

The best and worst part of any long-term relationship is the daily living together, the friction and resentment that builds up by the large and small stuff, disliking a mother in law or snoring. Space, one’s own space, could help relieve some of that tension. When my husband and I were separated, it was the first time I had ever had my own room. I was delighted, covetous of that space to call my own, clean as I wished, decorated as I wished. That ownership of space alone improved my disposition. That separateness also allowed me to see my then estranged husband when I wanted to and not when I had to, which improved our relationship. In sum, controlled companionship is not only convenient but a high recommendation to the relationship that allows for that. Of course, married couples can and do afford each other space, but unless one of the couple travels a lot, there is not that completely divided space that one owns and occupies like a room of one’s own.

I suppose the element of mystery in being the other woman that Hughes refers to is also tied into that controlled and convenient aspect of the dating a married man relationship–parts of the other are left private and unknown. A couple does not kill the mystery and one another with familiarity. How often have I heard, “I know you only too well”? That is not only a mood killer, an instant irritation, but is an accusation that the accused is a pattern predictable and boring, and can be no other way. Ironically, the accuser both desires and despises that kind of predictability that produces comfort and boredom too.

The most interesting part of Hughes statement, however, is that the other woman is “an invitation to a different narrative.” The assumption is the different refers to different from the man’s wife and family, the life he has set up in the daily display of the house he lives in, perhaps, the wife, kids and job he has, community he is part of and the like. His story. Perhaps it is the story of the suburban upper middle class man with money to buy nice cars, house and toys for himself and his family–the lucky guy who has everything story on the outside from society’s point of view, the very same one who keeps another woman on the side, immoral from society’s point of view. Perhaps that is the draw: look like a good boy while being a bad boy.

However, I take issue slightly with Hughes “invitation.” The assumption, though imperceptible, is that one narrative is more legitimate than the other, i.e., the married narrative is the acceptable one and the one with the other woman is “different”, weakly argued as mysterious to make the invitation more inviting. However, invitation could be bridging the territory of its silent rhymed reminder of temptation, which, of course, suggests the illicit nature of the “affair.” Hughes takes the cautious self-repudiating approach even as she defends–lightly–her choice of lifestyle. It’s weak.

Her mention of narratives reminds me of something unacknowledged. I am reminded of an old studied philosopher from school years back, one who baffled me more than enlightened except in intermittent glimmers. But now as I am older and wider read, I realize he is a writer who has covertly influenced my way of thinking and viewing the world more than any other philosopher or writer. Jean Francois Lyotard, the French philosopher who describes the postmodern condition (post WWII) as one without universals or generalities that work any longer, lured me in with his anti-establishment thought. He exposes the overarching theories and philosophies (meta narratives) that historically govern thought and behavior since the Enlightenment, for example the notion of absolute freedom or justice, as no longer tenable to order an ethical, legal, philosophical or moral structure of societies made of individuals with such an acknowledged immeasurable degree of variety.

Lyotard argues that reality is created by and social structure consists of micro narratives that we all speak and act on, engage in on the local level in discrete situations of daily life, which show how different and diverse we all are in our beliefs, desires, and actions. So even though we may say we subscribe to the belief that all humans are born free and freedom is the ultimate right and happiness, the way we live daily from situation to situation negates that actuality. Each day I work, drive kids around, eat, sleep and speak at the dictates of others. Freedom is negotiated within the pockets of time and allowance of others, not some overarching principle that governs thought and behavior.

Extrapolating from Lyotard, the way we think and act should not be proscribed, encouraged or naturalized by broad moral banners that wave the monogamy narrative or the marriage narrative as THE narrative. It is painfully obvious that we actually operate within the language and rules of private, small group situations, and specifically with respect to Hughes’ dating: man, woman, children, other woman. What is justified behavior is applicable to and determined by each individual, i.e., this man needs newness to keep him alive and happy, while this woman needs the security of a marriage to keep her free to do what she needs to do, etc, in conjunction with another or others. The agreements and socio-ethical rules are local to the participants. And they are agreements. It’s only when we start believing the grand narratives of right or wrong for everyone is where we fall into fantasy land, wanting to believe there is one right for everyone.

Some may say this is merely relativism, which may be regarded as chaotic, unstructured and anarchy (I can hear a friend say, “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything”). I don’t believe that is true. It is simply an acknowledgment that people actually operate on the level of their one on one or small group interactions relative to their lives, and their behavioral ethics are determined within that local climate.

So, Hughes, relax. This works for you. You’re different from others. Celebrate difference. It’s what we all are anyhow.

4 thoughts on ““Why I Date Married Men”

  1. Perhaps Hughes does celebrate her difference alone or in the one on one relationships she has with her local circle. Certainly we can assume she does with each married man she beds, as he no doubt does with her. But to take to the open space beyond the inner circle she may have purposely chosen language and displayed ideas designed to attract the readership of a broader audience. Dunno, just sayin’.

  2. This is an incredible article that really does come from an authoritative position. First thing I always look for, I never accept the writing of others at face value and always question the writer’s experience and knowledge. There is wonderful experience herewith a breadth of knowledge few my aspire to hold.
    I think what you might elude to in the end is, you are not a joiner. A genuine Buddhist approach to existence. I am not one either, it allows me a freedom I prefer. I once drew a comic titiled: “Your Belief is Your Burden”.
    It can truly be a burden to some, as if your looking at a person carrying a large box on their back and you ask, “why do you carry that around”, at which point they will decry the value of their burden plied against the fact you do not abide by their example.

    • Clever allusion with the box example, but I agree that it is better to question and challenge accepted stories and ideas that feel like the fabric of your clothing you’ve worn them unquestioningly for so long.

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