I’ve been having sex with a married woman on and off for more than a year now. I don’t feel bad — her husband sounds like a real dick: inconsiderate, unintelligent and unwilling to even try to meet the needs she tells him are being untended to. Recently, she told me she might have a potentially life-threatening illness, and I’m not sure how to respond. We have a great connection, intellectually and emotionally, but it’s hard to know what the boundaries are in this situation, or the boundaries in general. Can you help?
Other Man, 32, Montana
Dear Other Man,
I’m sorry your friend/lover might be sick. Thinking you might have some terminal illness or knowing someone who thinks they might have some terminal illness is an incredibly bleak experiences. Of course, it sounds like you don’t yet know for sure, but such uncertainty is hell regardless. It’s hellish in its own way to watch this ambiguity unfold from afar (in some ways, even more so from afar). The anxiety and stress of worrying about being sick, or caring about someone who might be, are both among the worst things that can happen to a person. It can make otherwise sane people very depressed and a little crazy.
That said, you don’t say you’re in love with her or wish your relationship were more legit. You don’t say you have plans to be together someday should things with her dickish, inconsiderate, intellectually challenged husband finally go off the rails. You don’t really say anything other than that your sexual relationship has been on and off for a year and change (though the on-and-off part suggests that one or both of you may have suggested stopping, only to start up again). You do say that you have a great intellectual and emotional connection, and I assume, a physical one too, because you’re having sex and all. Which makes it sound like you have some kind of pretty good thing going on here, ethics aside. Yet, you don’t know what to do, boundary-wise.
And even though you make it clear the ethical issue in the affair does not trouble you because he’s a stupid, selfish dick, I will add that it does not trouble me, either—but not because he’s a dick, and not because affairs are okay. Affairs are bad for many reasons — chiefly because they are not only dishonest, but lazy. Cheating is a shortcut; it’s skipping the real work of ending one relationship and starting another and just cutting straight to the good parts.
That said, oversimplifying the human heart is intellectually lazy, too. It took me a long time to uncover the strange negotiations and mystifying sacrifices not-so-willingly made in many relationships (e.g., This marriage is perfect as long as I swallow every single one of my feelings!), the private misery many people tolerate simply to be with anyone, the way obligation can outweigh desire again and again, even with perfectly okay, non-dickish people.
Everyone thinks: If you’re unhappy, just leave! Or fix it! They fail to realize how many relationships reach an unresolvable impasse that is bad, but not horrible; or remain maddeningly just okay enough to guilt you into staying. Perhaps there are children; there’s often a person trapped inside a relationship who wants to go but can’t, and has often convinced themselves that this is as good as it gets. Or there is another person doing everything they can to keep them in the bad thing at any cost. Also, one of the most underrated motives in human history? Loneliness.
All of this is to say that affairs are weird and horrible and nothing to be proud of, yes, but one thing they are not is difficult to understand. For your sake, you should probably determine what kind of affair you’re having if you aren’t sure, because one day it will come in handy. Experts say there are many kinds, but they really all fit under three categories: One is just for the sex or emotional connection and will never be real, and you will never leave your partner. The second is the exit or bridge affair — you use it to end a bad relationship with your partner, but will never be with this other person. The third is the kind where you’ve met someone you could actually have a successful relationship with if you were only single, so now what?
But regardless of the type of affair and regardless of how complicated your situation may be, the answer to what you need to do now is actually really simple. Just play it like a person. That means act like a caring human would, with affair asterisks. Those asterisks — or boundaries, as you put it — are not set by a mystical guru on a mountaintop. They are set by people, and negotiated by people. The only boundaries here are the ones she sets, and the ones you negotiate with her, based on your own. That’s it.
When someone you are having any sort of relationship with says they might have a terrifying disease, you say, That sucks and I’m sorry. What can I do? But you don’t just leave it at that. You go on to clearly explain that you realize there are limitations to your communication here, as well as your ability to show up unannounced with broth and a sympathetic ear. But you can still offer support and help within those boundaries. The times you would meet for this great connection can be used in any way — have sex, watch bad television, read poetry aloud while naked — that she needs.
You should offer again and again to be available. You can accompany her to appointments, bring her magazines and continue to communicate support however it is welcomed. If she would rather you step back and not see her this way, or if she calls it off to deal with it or reconnect with her husband, you comply. If she wants more communication and time together — or the sort of help her husband cannot give — should that be possible, you comply.
It does not obligate you to increase the seriousness of the affair or in any way save her or commit to her. But if you know she’s already in a relationship where her needs are not being met, you can assume this goes one of two ways: Her husband is going to remain pathologically himself or worse and continue to be unavailable to her. Or, seized with the fear that he could actually lose her, he will suddenly step up with renewed vigor to save her and the marriage.
It’s possible this revelation—even if she turns out to be healthy—and his response to her potential illness will end their marriage. The divorce risk is seven times higher for women who get sick; not for men. That’s not your fault. Nor does this obligate you to step in and makes this a “real” relationship between you if their marriage dissolves. But by definition, an affair should at the very least aspire to be better than the relationship it seeks to offset, no matter how misguided that notion may be. There is, allegedly, honor even among thieves. We may behave ethically in some situations but not others; here is one where you should.
Plus, if you like someone enough to have sex for a year and a half, and describe your connection as great in the three main ways most people would kill for, I believe you are personally obligated to care for this woman apart from the affair, however is reasonable and possible, based on her needs. Because it’s very likely she needs it.
Because really, only a stupid, selfish dick wouldn’t.