Dinner table discussions around the holidays are always enlightening. The boisterous clashing of personalities of all who chime in on politics and religion, especially liven up any table, even if not recommended for ease of digestion.
Inevitably, when the shouts die down and civil conversation resumes, family members ask me about the latest on the blog. My preoccupation of yesterday I have to admit was the sticky issue of mistress morality, and how I may have mis-represented myself as rather heartless or conscience-less with respect to the cheated on wife. I have maintained that though I have felt guilt, sorrow and empathy for the wife of my married lover, I have not felt as if I cheated her.
She is not mine to betray, the wife of the married man I have loved. I have made no promises to her.
Yes, we all owe others the duty of non-harm. Ahimsa. I came across this term several years ago when I renewed my yoga practice, probably in a yoga journal. In my readings over the years, I have come to understand that the Vedic meaning is non-violence, though it has been modernly used as a wider term embracing all non-harm, whether in word, deed or thought. While I embrace non-harm as a measure of ethics, I confess I find the practice challenging, perplexing at times.
How far does that duty of non-harm/non–violence extend? Some say as far as the improbable. There is no Sanskrit exception to the rule. I would hope the love thy neighbor biblical axiom would likewise have no exception clause. But I am neither a Sanskrit or a biblical scholar, just an ordinary person trying to live well among others.
How far does my duty to others extend? Am I obligated to stay home when I have the sniffles in order to prevent someone I may come in contact with in the street, on the bus, or at work from contracting my cold? Or is my higher duty to go to work, the grocery store and the pharmacy in order to keep my life, and those whose lives depend upon me–children, husband, parents–from suffering damage, i.e., jeopardize my job, feed my children or medicate my father’s diabetes. Whose harm do I avoid? In this hypothetical, I would do what I could to protect others in a compromise position: keep my distance from others and protect them from my coughing and sneezing by directing my germs away from them and wash my hands frequently. But I would go out.
We always weigh our priorities, and often, we hurt others in picking one priority over others. Okay, I am not equating the possibility of spreading a cold to hurting a wife in the event she finds out her husband is cheating. I am simply stating that our choices are relative to circumstances, and we are often forced to choose the lesser of evils. I’m also concluding that there is no way to completely forego harm to others.
The mistress to a married man risks injuring his wife, that the wife will find out and the fallout from the discovery will unleash the untold misery of hurt and immeasurably blasted trust. I have suffered it. And I also have caused it. Neither end of it escapes the scarring.
There is nothing equal to the hurt that comes from betrayal. It overturns the world of belief most adhere to just to get by, feel safe and experience love and peace day to day.
My children betrayed me recently. In light of the depth and length of our relationship, betrayal is the appropriate word. I felt betrayed. The predominant emotion was hurt, not anger.
I raised my daughters under the banner of honesty is the best policy. I reminded them frequently since they were born that honesty and trust go a long way to buying freedom. As they approached teen hood, I spelled out more concretely the concept: the leash is longer if you follow the rules of checking in and answering your phone, telling me where you are when I ask. I’ve explained the consequences of lying and deceit, that it causes all parties to suffer from constant vigilance: verification of the whereabouts and alibis and lockdown when verification isn’t a possibility.
I depend a lot on trust. I relax my vigilance some in faith that they will do what’s right, that I raised them with a good guiding inner voice. I depend on their bond with me as the cradle of their freely confessing their fears, hopes and mistakes, knowing that my love overcomes disappointment or disapproval to rescue and forgive. I depend on that bond.
But they are kids. My 15 year old crawled into my bed early the other morning like she hadn’t done since she was little, complaining of a stomach ache. She slept uneasily by my side for an hour or so. I let her stay home from school, something I am loathe to do unless fevers, broken limbs or other severe maladies present. A teenager will want to stay home from school for a ripped cuticle. Concerned and questioning her symptoms and possible alleviation, I determined to let her stay home.
Later, I went off to work but came home mid-shift to pick up some lunch, something I hadn’t done before. On the way home, I called the older, my 18 year old, asking if she had seen her sister, was she okay, and did she think she was faking. She said she had seen her but didn’t know if she was faking. She seemed a bit stuttering and cagey. When I arrived home, I went up to see the infirmed one, who was nowhere to be found. Checking in with my father, I found that she went out with her sister somewhere.
Now the rule in my house is that if you are too sick to go to school, you stay home. Even if you have a miraculous recovery, you stay home to convalesce or catch up on missed school work, work ahead if you have to. So, this was not only a clear violation of rules, but a deception maybe even from the start on the part of the supposed ill daughter. However, the cover up of the older was just as if not more culpable. She defended herself by saying it wasn’t she who broke the rules; she just provided the ride. However, I found her lack of responsibility to advise her sister about the consequences and to consider the choice, to be disappointing, but to lie by omission to me was the worse of the two indiscretions.
She had broken the trust between us that she would not sever the bonds of faith built upon her good character.
My younger daughter was contrite, desperately apologetic. However, I countered to her apology and explanation that I did not know whether she was sincere or just telling me what I wanted to hear, that that is the real tragedy of deceit. It puts all actions, all words, in a new light, suspicion.
As to the older, I finally got through to her about her part in deception by offering her insight into my misgivings going forward.
My daughters are close and enjoy spending time with each other. I allow the younger to go places and do things, like concerts and late night movies, that I did not allow the older to do or go to due to safety concerns. The younger, however, is permitted to do what her sister could not at her age, when she is accompanied by her older sister.
Now, however, I explained to my older daughter, I did not feel comfortable allowing her to be the guardian of her younger sister, given that she does not have the moral compass I entrust her sister to. If she cannot be a guide to her good choices and her safety, cannot make her sister consider her actions in light of what the consequences might be at minimum with her own mother, I cannot entrust her with a minor for whom I am responsible. She got the point.
We are all on lockdown when trust is broken. The suspicion is taxing on mental space and energy. The process of verification, of having my daughters prove their whereabouts or my confirming their stories by others or checking up myself physically, is not only fatiguing physically but psychically. It’s a lot of negative energy.
So how much more is the bond of spouses severed when one person cheats and deceives the other? Similarly, the faith that each operates on daily, the one that feels like a guarantee that the other will not do injury to his or her loved one, gets shattered. He thinks: “She really does not have my back but is only out for herself.” Not only is that faith gone, permanently or temporarily, but in its place is the pain of betrayal: “I gave her my body, my secrets, my love, my all, and she gave the same to me. That was our bond, something we silently swore is what makes us, us. When she gave her body, shared intimate pleasure with another, shared her secrets, maybe, gave her heart, even for that moment of orgasm, she severed what was our bond of sole sharing. Now I cannot trust her to protect me for my safe keeping, not of my body nor of my mind and heart.”
The injury slices deeply. It is a death. One person kills trust which is the root of allowing the self to deeply connect and surrender. It is a promise between two, to love and be loved.
So when one strays, and the other finds out, trust is broken and the suspicions turn what was once sailing on the calm seas of faith in doing no harm, into the turbulent waters of where is he and what is he doing, feeling, thinking? It is the difference between the peace to pursue one’s own dreams supported by another and the anchor of watchfulness in keeping another.
Most, I suspect, opt not to keep the trust breaker after that wounding and aftermath of recovery. The one I cheated on chose not to keep me. Others learn to trust again after determining that there is a good chance that it won’t happen again and believing in time as healer. Some may also remember that there was something good enough in the first place to keep that person (their others) so close, to let him/her in that far.
When my husband told me early on in our marriage that he loved someone else, a purported friend that he had just gone camping with for a few days, I was devastated. He hadn’t had sex with this person as the friend would not engage, but I believed the love was reciprocated. No matter, the fact that my husband was in love with someone else was the hurt.
The circles of suspicion kept my mind imprisoned. It rolled back to days and months past. Was he anywhere he said he was when he was not with me? What had been said between them to make this happen? He must not love me, and here I was loving him, giving him all I had. It hurt so much that I could not stand to be near him as it felt like the Promethean stab to the liver time after time. I moved out.
I forgave him eventually. I think I did. I accepted that it happened. I also accepted that he wanted to be with me and would get over the other, the outsider. I accepted the risk that he would do it again. There was and still is no guarantee. My heart wanted him, and I accepted that too.
In the 32 years after, he did stray again. However, there were still more practical and impractical reasons to stay together than not, and not only children, despite those others who were in the woodwork, crawling about the gaps in our marriage.
Jealousy, isolation and hurt, large and small, is part of the history of our marriage. If it wasn’t another person, it was his dedication and love for other things he spent so much time and energy on to the exclusion of me: his job, his sport, his music, his friends, his family, his depression. I learned to adapt. I learned about him, and me, how I could not make him something he was not. I took inventory constantly. I weighed priorities.
As long as I could be sure that I was physically protected by my own measures in addition to assurances from him, I had to be okay with the way things were or leave.
Our marriage has morphed over the many years to adapt to the changing individuals that comprise it. As our needs have changed, so has our marriage. What was once the passion of two young people is now the mature steady support and backbone of each of our lives, which also forms the silent sturdy scaffold of many other people’s lives: his, mine, our children, our parents and siblings, our employers.
We are able to perform our life duties and pleasures by virtue of knowing there is someone in each our separate corners. Someone to defend us and pick us up when we feel no strength to get up on our own volition. Someone who will defend us even when we are not deserving, not judge us when we judge ourselves more than anyone else could, make us feel like something when we feel like nothing, love us when we cannot love ourselves and love us even as we are not loving in return. Each does that for the other. Those doings are more important to me than sexual fidelity. But for some, it is all or nothing. And that is theirs to negotiate.
When I carried on an affair with Wayne, I could have contributed to his wife’s injury, only because it would have been me and not someone else that facilitated his infidelity had she found out. And only now I realize just how much. Did I intend to harm her by being kissed that first time so unexpectedly? No. And neither did my kids when they conspired to flout the rules, nor my husband when he fell in love with another. No one declared, “Let’s hurt mom/my wife today.” Did I intend to harm her when I accepted his invitation to meet a second time knowing that it was to continue a clandestine act? No, but the probability of injury was higher. If his wife has not found out to this day, have I harmed her? No. If I had not found out about my kids’ or my husband’s actions, would I have been harmed? No, not then. And I believe that the greater responsibility for her hurt goes to the one who specifically promised not to hurt her in the very manner he would have–by loving another–whether explicitly or implicitly by the marriage contract.
Did I hurt Wayne in carrying on an affair? I did not help him to stay faithful to his wife if that was what he wanted to do. I did not help him if he suffered a bad conscience. Did I cause his suffering of bad conscience or infidelity? Indirectly, I suppose, as catalyst. Had I rejected his advances, I would have protected him from the injury of conscience he may have suffered.
With respect to his wife, I believe I did no harm–in actuality. In fact, I may have even done her a good turn as I have maintained before by causing him to stay in his marriage when all was said and done–if that is indeed a good place for her. It’s all speculation just as much as if she had found out is speculation.
But rules of conduct and the practice of non-harm only make sense as rules and practice in view of potential harm, even if ahimsa was not originally meant to address possibility. Otherwise, rules are not rules but relative applications of labels after the fact. And what of self harm? Did I cause myself injury in engaging an affair? Yes. I suffered the injury of bad conscience and dishonesty. I forewent my principles that structure how I live and how I expect others to live. I did not support monogamy or fidelity, even though I was a believer in them both at the time. In fact, I contributed in some fractional way, to the erosion of those principles.
In light of my use of ahimsa–non-harm–I did harm in engaging in affair, as did my children and my husband to me, though the degree and duration of each specific instance of suffering may differ. And just as I have taken inventory of harm, I could take inventory of the blessings I bestowed and were bestowed upon me, especially if I follow the cause and effect chain far enough. Is it a blessing to love someone and cause him to feel loved and worthy of love? Yes, and more so when he feels unworthy and unloved. Did my children’s awareness of my hurt change them for the better, gear them to be better people, and strengthen our relationship? I believe so. Did my husband’s affairs teach me about myself, make me wiser and stronger? Yes.
Some would judge me as justifying for even considering the benefits since avoidance of harm should be the first principle. Perhaps they are right. I weigh costs and benefits and assess risk in much of what I do by examining facts and the principle of cause and effect. I don’t always believe in that method but I do it, nevertheless. I also aim to behave with compassion and empathy as a general rule. It’s a practice, never finished or achieved as a constant.
Though the tendency is strong to generalize about marriage, cheating, betrayal and hurt, to pay attention to what is universal in the human condition, the specific promises each person makes to another is made upon the particular intentions of the person making the promise, the intentions of the person receiving it and the bits and pieces of their lives coming into the relationship and living their relationship together. Each bond between two minds is unique. It cannot be parsed and judged except on knowing the story of each case. My life as an attorney, teacher, wife, lover, mother, daughter, sibling, friend and citizen has taught me so.
The mistress blog contains many stories. Each who weighs in on the moral, ethical and experiential of her own or another’s story, does so to tell, teach and entertain others–to share. Judging, urgent and unconscious as it is in all of us, curtails or stifles the conversation and may snuff out someone else’s story. Who wouldn’t recoil after being labeled a cheater or having her motives or morals questioned?
While judgment is necessary to a citizenry, to curb behaviors that break down social bonds, there is a time to listen and learn without judgment. There is also a time to judge (discern?) in order to act within one’s own conscience with respect to others, i.e., I won’t date a married man because I don’t want to risk hurt to his wife and me, inevitable with a man who cannot be trusted to be faithful. But too many judge others to silence or control them, using judgment as a weapon rather than as a tool, i.e., if you date a married man, you are as bad as the cheater.
I harp on this point about judging. Without restraint, the importance of the human condition generally and particular human choices specifically do not get revealed and discussed, not only on this blog but in the market place of ideas upon which the American democracy has any chance of survival.
So let’s be scientists or possibilians with respect to stories of love and marriage and mistresses, and suspend judgment until we can definitely rule out certain possibilities. An open mind that does the work of understanding from study, listening, and paying attention, and not knee jerk reaction or bandwagon mimicry (yes, I’m judging) is crucial to preserving awe and wonderment in the world and democracy over militancy and violence in our country. It is not a plea for tolerance as much as for cogent consideration. Ahimsa.