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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
I am going through what is a classic midlife crisis with a bit of a twist. I’m in my early 40s and have a great wife and two great young kids, all of whom I love dearly. I’ve been with my wife for over 20 years. Everyone tells me how lucky I am to have the perfect marriage. But, of course, I don’t feel so lucky. Instead I feel burdened, trapped by the overwhelming obligations of family and of keeping up appearances. The way I’ve tried to deal with these feelings is by seeing prostitutes.
About eight months ago, I met and paid for the woman of my dreams. She’s beautiful, a sexual dynamo, smart, funny and sweet. She’s not a typical prostitute; she’s more like the girl next door who wants to get paid for her great looks and abundant sexual talents.
I soon went from being her client to being her friend and confidant. Her presence in my life does two things for me. First I get to feel those incredibly strong emotions that I haven’t felt in years about my wife (lust and longing), and more important, I feel so free during the few hours a month I get to see her. Not only do we explore sexual fantasies that would be completely out of bounds with my wife, but more important, I can completely relax around her and joke around and talk frankly, and not have to worry about things like who’s picking up whom from school.
Of course, I know that this whole thing is incredibly stupid and immature, but I can’t figure out how to unring the bell and go back to a life without this woman. Do you think it will be possible to not see her and forget about the pleasure, love and passion that we had? I’ve tried for a few weeks at a time, but I’ve always felt the need to see her again — the urge for release, both literally and metaphorically, was too strong. I have a hard time imagining life without her, but at the same time, she could never be a part of my “real” life — I have too much invested in my marriage and family to break it up.
So the question boils down to this: How do I give up sexual (and emotional) nirvana for the sake of my family?
Lost in L.A.
Dear Lost in L.A.,
Imagine this: In 15 or 20 years, when the kids are out of the house and you and your wife are adjusting to a new life in which the focus is less on the daily grind and more on gauzier, more philosophical questions, when you’re both less easily shocked by the rank perfidy and incompetence of man, when you have faced some of the early questions of mortality and senescence and have learned not to be thrown too hard by the occasional sucker punch, you sit down over coffee and tell her about an episode in your married life that you’d kept secret until now, an episode a long time ago that almost brought everything crashing down.
There’s no telling how she might respond. She might deck you. She might walk out and not come back. But imagine if she were to tell you, much to your surprise, that she had known all along, if not the details, at least the rough outline, and that by saying nothing she had knowingly protected you from the breakup that she could easily and quite innocently have precipitated had she chosen to confront you and demand all the sordid details. She might reveal that she had thought long and hard about what to do and had decided to continue with marriage and motherhood, betting that you would eventually resolve this devastating personal crisis on your own and come back to her.
Such a future is certainly not guaranteed. But it is only even possible if you can find a way to end this unconscionable indulgence and put it behind you. Even if you do everything right, things have a way of going wrong. But consider the alternative. Imagine where you will be in 15 or 20 years if you blithely continue along this path and are discovered in flagrante delicto, or, what might seem more honorable but could in a practical sense be worse, if you decide to come clean about this and throw yourself at your wife’s mercy.
My bet is that you then go through an ugly divorce. And 15 or 20 years in the future my guess is that the kids have still never forgiven you for destroying the marriage; they have never been able to understand how their father could have hurt their mother so, could have done such a stupid, selfish thing, could have, basically, destroyed his own life and theirs. The affair and divorce became the pivotal trauma of all your lives. You never really get over the loss, never again really feel whole and untroubled. Nor perhaps do you ever really get over the rejection by your “girlfriend” who, pleasure being business, must regretfully decline your proposed promotion from paying client to permanent lover.
No matter what your wife would do if told 15 or 20 years later, the news couldn’t possible be as tangibly disruptive to her life then as it would be now, when its revelation would threaten everything she has — her marriage, her children, her self-esteem, her identity, her trust in others. While your letter mainly spells out your own concerns about the effect all this might have on you, it is the effect on your wife that must determine your course of action.
So, for your wife’s sake, I think your best course of action is to end this affair immediately, put it behind you and never say a word about it.
There are problems with ending it and keeping it a secret, of course. Even if you’re capable of doing it — and we’ll get to how in a minute — some might argue that as an adult with free will she deserves to know the truth so she can choose whether to stay with you. Others might argue that the psychological damage done by keeping this secret would be greater than the damage done by revealing it. Some might say that a relationship based on less than complete disclosure is morally or psychologically inferior to one that includes full disclosure, and that it’s your duty to be forthcoming, whatever the practical effect.
But in weighing the known ill effects of revealing this affrontery — the probability of divorce and ignominy — against the hypothetical evil of keeping it concealed, I find in favor of the perhaps impaired but still functioning relationship. That is, I sentence you to live in your own private hell instead of dragging everyone else into it.
So, as you so astutely observe, what this all boils down to is that you need to give up this sexual nirvana and put this whole episode quietly behind you. The question is how?
I would submit that you replace this sexual nirvana with a more compelling vision: the hero’s quest to protect those he loves from the effects of his own tragic weaknesses. That is, you undergo a transformation of your fundamental orientation toward the world from one that is self-centered and narcissistic to one that is quest-centered and classically heroic. You move from a hedonistic extended adolescence in which you feel entitled to pleasures that threaten your marriage, to an adult role in which protecting your wife and children from your own imperfect character is your life’s guiding principle.
But what’s the fun in that? you ask. Well, frankly, it isn’t much about fun. It’s about right living. But there is something in it for you: self-worth, and the secret pride of knowing that you have done the best for others whether they know it or not. It’s the kind of thing you can take to the grave with you and die happily. If lived with sufficient vividness, this sort of renunciatory role can have an almost erotic allure — like the priesthood. OK, so maybe I exaggerate a little. But my basic take on it is that your only salvation from this god-awful mess is to pass into a new stage of manhood in which sacrifice and not pleasure is the goal.
Colloquially, this is known as “being a man,” or “stepping up” or “doing the right thing” — dealing with this quietly, on your own or more likely with the help of some confidential aide such as a spiritual counselor, 12-step sponsor or psychotherapist.
Again (and again and again) I’m not saying I think keeping secrets from your wife is a good idea. It’s a terrible idea. I’m just saying that confessing to her that you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute is an even worse idea.
You won’t have as good a marriage as you could have had if you had never allowed this situation with the prostitute to come up. But that’s tough. Something bad has happened. It’s your fault. Somebody has to take the fall. That person is you. You take the fall for the good of your wife and your kids. You shut up and be unhappy and uncomfortable for a while. That’s a small price to pay, I’d think, to protect the lives of your wife and children.
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What? You want more?
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)