I want it all

I am a happily married woman and my husband says he is OK with my having an affair with an old flame. Could it work?

By Cary Tennis
Published November 5, 2002 9:37PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I'm a 40-year-old married woman in a very exciting, amazing, happy marriage. I absolutely adore my husband. We have been married 16 years, are parents, and have always had a loving and supportive relationship.

About three years ago I hooked up again, via e-mail, with a guy I had a thing for in college. I met him my last semester in school and we had a hot four or five months together before I moved back home. It was great with him, and we connected on so many levels. Our relationship never really ended, but it was never defined in the first place.


Fast-forward to now. This guy, I'll call him John, and I have been corresponding for these past few years. He lives a few hours away and when my husband and I go to that town for fun or business, John and I meet up and have a drink and visit. Well, that's not all we do. We make out in the front seat of my mom-mobile. When we talk on instant messages, it's always hot and sexy. We talk about all kinds of things. But I want to be with him. I want to spend the night with him, spend three days, whatever. He makes me laugh, he is interesting and sarcastic, and he just turns me on.

There are a few more details that might be important. When we met, he was married. But I didn't know that. Not until it was almost time for me to leave school. But his was an "open marriage" and I thought it was crazy, that there's no way that could work. He's still married to that same woman. Only I'm not so sure how open his marriage is now. I don't think his wife even knows I'm back in the picture. (She knew about me 20 years ago.) I have told my husband everything that has gone on between John and me, and he's cool about it, which is also unnerving. He said he does not feel threatened in the least and if I want to fool around with this guy, the whole idea of it just makes him hot. That he knows how strong our marriage is and that he honestly and truly in his heart feels like this is something that is about me and has nothing to do with him, so I should just discreetly go for it. He said that since I have become friends again with John that I'm more sexual, happier, and generally just more fun to be around.

By the way, I have never had any extramarital anything in my entire marriage, nor has my husband.


Do you think it's crazy? Could it work? Could I actually go off for the afternoon, have sex with this guy who totally does it for me, and then go back to my June Cleaver life? The idea of it thrills me but scares the shit out of me as well. I mean, in theory my husband thinks it is OK, but in reality he might have a very different reaction. What if he thinks I am comparing him to John in bed? What if he wishes he didn't say he was OK with this whole thing once I had already done it and it was too late to go back? I love my husband much more than I want to have a hot afternoon with John. But if I can have both, well, I'd pick both for sure. "The only problem with resisting temptation is you might not get another chance." That's the fortune cookie I keep getting.

Any thoughts?

On the Fence


Dear On the Fence,

People in committed relationships often ask me if I think it might be a good idea to open up to more than one regular, committed sex partner or to just give in to the desire for a fling. I usually tell them no, I don't think it's a good idea. Then, on cue, I receive a torrent of e-mails from proponents and practitioners of polyamory begging emphatically to differ, calling me wrong-headed, intolerant, doctrinaire, arrogant and uninformed.


As though the entire exchange were some family trauma reenacted on religious holidays, each time it happens I feel a little shocked and blindsided, having forgotten -- or repressed -- the power of this subject to awaken deep and troubling feelings.

Obviously, you are the only one who can decide whether you ought to try it. Many factors seem to militate in favor of it, not the least of which is that your husband says it's OK. So you might wonder why I routinely advise against it. You might think, as some polyamorists apparently do, that I have a fixed ideological position in opposition to the practice of polyamory.

To the contrary, I think it's a wonderful and compelling idea. I'm very happy for those who are doing it and report good results. If I knew you personally to be a strong-minded iconoclast or a happy and committed free spirit, if you already had a well-thought-out and well-tested social philosophy of which polyamory formed a logical part, if all the other people potentially affected by it were also knowledgeable and well-balanced people, and if you were comfortable with your husband also having sex occasionally outside your marriage, I might even wish you well.


But I cannot possibly know all that. What I can know is that you chose to write to me. That tells me you are not sure; it also tells me that you may sense some affinity between us, that perhaps you have followed the contour of my thinking and found it congenial with your own. So I feel free to tell you what I really think, knowing you will consider it as just one voice among many voices. And then it is your job to sort through the many drives, desires and ambitions, the many fears and calculations, the many primal scenarios whose power to disrupt the confident and serene balance of the psyche looms large in the landscape of horrors and delights that is our inner life.

To those who complain that I have not researched the social practice of polyamory in sufficient detail, I would say only that I place personal honesty above empirical knowledge; so rather than a recitation of the facts, you may hear instead the honest opinion of a deeply flawed human like yourself; that approach is what allows for art, for whimsy, for occasional surprise, for those glimpses of something rough but true that remind us of our common humanity.

That you have taken the time to think this through and ask my advice also indicates that you are not a cocky adventurer or a social utopian. You have up till now lived a life of steady and happy stability. But now, prying at the edges are desires that you can find little external reason to deny yourself. You are being given permission, in fact, by your husband, to risk disrupting the orderly connections whose quiet strength underlie your sense of well-being. Like good health, untroubled connections with family and friends go unnoticed in times of peace; only when they are strained do we sense how much we need them, and how fragile they are. You are contemplating straining them in quite fundamental ways. Perhaps they will take the strain quite nicely. Perhaps not. Perhaps it will reveal hidden weaknesses.


Perhaps you have a lingering dream of utopia and think it might be easy to overcome your bourgeois inhibitions. Oddly enough, we feel most confident about doing away with bourgeois limits when we are happily living within them. In fact, that very sense of well-being that flows from living within bourgeois limits is what gives us the courage to dream of doing away with them.

It's like the difference between happily walking along the dock enjoying the beauty of the water, and thinking that because it looks so beautiful we might as well jump into it. Having jumped, we find ourselves plunged into chaos and doubt, robbed of the sunny confidence that got us into the mess in the first place. And at that point, disoriented, shocked by the chill of the water, amazed at how big everything looks from down there, amazed at how far the shore is and how difficult it is to climb back up on the dock ...

A true adventurer would not write to an advice columnist about whether to jump or not. An adventurer would carry on in spite of all social pressure. In fact, polyamorists have demonstrated that already; they do what they do in the face of much pressure. I say more power to them. It is their role to expand the boundaries of what society can accept, so that others may follow their lead.

My role is quite different. When people write to me, I assume that they are in some peril, and my instinct is to suggest stepping back from the cliff. For that reason, my advice will naturally tend toward the conservative. But I doubt that it seems unnecessarily so to the people who are asking. I think they are probably more interested in finding some relief to their dilemmas than in advancing the frontiers of social organization. I also suspect that social utopians may overlook the subtle beauty of the quotidian life, that a coarseness of temperament demands excessive novelty at the expense of quiet richness, and that it is the failure to see the flawed beauty in ordinary life that gives rise to utopian dreams. What is this restive, arrogant spirit, anyway, that believes that our base jealousy, possessiveness and insecurity are somehow trivial, that if the brittle constraints of society were merely lifted, we could watch with equanimity as our wives are screwed by strangers? It is far more common in the mind than in the flesh, I suspect. Besides, liberty is a fine thing, but it does not exist to goad the timid, but rather as a mercy to the irrepressibly bold, that they might not be suffocated. Let those who are bold go ahead and test themselves against their own nature.


For all these reasons, I think it would be a rare case in which someone asked me for advice and I suggested polyamory. I think the unexpected perils outweigh the momentary pleasures. Still, if you are interested, you ought to at least investigate it for yourself. And if you do try it, I would be quite interested to hear about your experiences.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

Cary Tennis

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