When is an affair an affair?


So glad you could be here for the debut of my blog, "Thinking Human Matters," which basically takes the place of my Tuesday column in the Review-Journal. Drop in any time. Join the conversation. Here I'll be thinking and talking out loud about life, events in the news, and occasionally I'll address specific reader questions, such as this one:

Question: Define an affair. Do men-women friends who profess to totally love each other (oh, by the way, it is not sexual) define an affair?
-D.D., Las Vegas

Something in me is guessing you already know the answer to this question.

The "tell" is in your first three words: "Define an affair." You always know (or should know) you're in trouble when you find yourself seeking solace in the minutia of legalese. Define an affair. Define murder. Define an abortion. Define suicide. Define stealing. Define war (Korea was a police action!). Define lying.

Define alcoholic.

See, by the time you get around to asking questions like these, it's likely you're dodging - not seeking - the answers.

"Totally love each other?" OK, I guess it's possible, though it seems to me unlikely, that you might be describing my relationship with Gail. I was a senior in high school when I met her; she, a freshman. Thought she was drop-dead beautiful then. Still think so now. We've been friends for 34 years. And I totally love her.

We tried to date a bit in college. Weird. Just didn't work. Not exactly like dating my sister. But just never worked. Neither of us knew why. Later, as adults, we finally noticed that we're just too much alike. Damn near carbon copies, just with different anatomy.

Sexual energy? Uh . . . let's try a double-negative: I'm never not-cognizant that Gail is an attractive woman. But so what. Send me to the mall for an hour, and on average I'll notice 8-12 women whose particular look and energy turn my head. It's not a big deal. Post-pubescent homo sapiens are designed to notice each other sexually. But grown-up post-pubescent homo sapiens contain and manage that energy in relationships wherein it is both irrelevant and counter to the goals of the relationship.

Today Gail is thriving in a marriage steaming toward a 30th anniversary. Her husband is one of the best human beings I've ever known. She's a great mom. And still, I totally love her. Would take a bullet for her. If ever I fall in love again, my mate is gonna have to deal with that.

But you see, in the case of Gail and me, "totally love each other" does not mean "in love." It's not romance. It's not the sort of love that should threaten my beloved, if and when she should ever show up.

But this isn't what you mean, is it? By "totally love each other," you mean LOVE, don't you? Romance. Longing. Uncontained sexual energy, even if not acted upon.

Of course it's an affair. It's just not a sexual affair. Emotionally committed partners (marriage, etc.) include in their commitment NOT allowing, nurturing or cultivating undue emotional bonds with other partners, because there is simply NO WAY to enjoy those bonds without it costing your primary relationship. And costing dearly.

Here's something people don't talk about: In the course of a healthy lifetime of marriage, most husbands and most wives experience one or more "crushes" on someone who isn't their spouse. If you sat in the chair I've been sitting in for the last 24 years, you'd know why I'm actually surprised to meet a veteran of 20-30-plus years of marriage who this hasn't happened to at least once.

Making an exclusive commitment doesn't mean you're embalmed. You meet people in the workplace, or out and about. Suddenly there's energy. A spark. Both of you notice. Maybe you flirt. Fantasize. It's pretty normal, actually. But if your commitment means anything, you are quick to recognize this spark for what it is. Normal. Human. But irrelevant. You don't nurture it. You contain it, experience it, then let it go.

Assuaging yourself with the words, "But, we're totally platonic . . . we haven't even kissed!" is just a game. It's deliberately missing the point.

I grant you, when such relationships are discovered, it's a keen therapeutic advantage that sex was not included. I'm saying that committed couples stand a much better chance (statistically speaking) of healing the consequences of an emotional affair than they do an "official" affair, that is, an affair that includes sex and long-term patterns of deception.

But it's still a big deal.

You knew all that, right?