so this piece has been making the rounds, and a few thoughts:
1. I think pieces like this are especially tricksy (and distasteful) because of how the writer goes about the topic – she wants to come across all neutral, like “oh, i’m just a ‘therapist’ sharing the results of my ‘open-ended survey’..“.
2. Yes, you can spin a long emotional story and sprinkle nuance all about, but at the day’s end Priya’s story is this: YAY I FEEL ALIVE when I do what pleases and excites me even if it would really hurt people that I love, i.e. my wonderful hardworking attentive husband + our two kids (who, btw, I really love!!)!!! And you know that the author has woven some good charms when you read my summary, and think: “Yes, but Joseph, you see…”
3. Let me give some examples. Here’s a normative statement: “One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilizing, but they can also be liberating and empowering“.
And let’s be doubly triply clear – this is not a woman in an abusive relationship, or one where affection is scarce and the love colder than tofu that you left in the freezer by mistake. So what exactly is she being ‘liberated’ from or ’empowered’ to do? Again, the author’s word choice is telling. Elsewhere, she describes the fling as a ‘quest for the unexplored self‘, which borrows from the legends of valiant knights on lengthy errands, or some long and arduous but noble endeavor, but really Priya is just having sex with a truck driver in his truck while keeping her family in the dark. It’s quite incredible how a few emotive words can dress up simple selfishness.
4. ‘Cheating is rediscovering a new you more than it is rejecting your partner!’
That’s certainly illuminating in some ways, and the piece does flesh out how cheating is more than our stock understanding of fleeing from marital unhappiness. But consider the author’s words again:
““Expansive?!,” I can hear some people exclaiming. “Self-discovery?! Cheating is cheating, whatever fancy New Age labels you want to put on it. It’s cruel, it’s selfish, it’s dishonest, and it’s abusive.”…And yet I often find myself asking jilted lovers to consider a question that seems ludicrous to them: What if the affair had nothing to do with you?”
Now this is a super good misdirection. Even if I take her hypothesis – that the affair was not Priya’s rejection of her partner – does that really make Priya’s actions not:
??? No. It doesn’t. Again, Priya just wants to have high-school sex with a truck driver, and yes the author does a good job of tying bow ties on her liaison to make it look prettier, but I really dislike people who garnish selfishness, who rationalise it and call it by different names to make it more palatable, more acceptable, more ‘adventurous’, more noble.
I’m almost done here. The author speaks of how Priya discovers an ‘intoxicating new self‘, as if the affair was not a betrayal but merely Priya picking out a new perfume in Sephora. And I do sympathize / empathize with those who struggle with awful and difficult marriages (less so with Priya, whose situation is just boredom and selfishness indulged). My issue is with the author, and with those who would repackage toxic self-absorption and call it liberation. “To be happy and free, cast off all restraints in unleashed selfism!”
No, selfishness is not something that we should bask in and give full rein to. It is not freedom, it is not emancipation. I do have an agenda as I write this, and I will make it perfectly clear – selfishness is something that we need to be rescued from and saved out of, and not for mere ‘unselfishness’ or self-denial, but for love – which is to value and to esteem things, and people, so much that we would be able to break out of the destructive self-obsession that leads us to where Priya is, a ‘walking contradiction’, ‘heavy with guilt’. We know this – as Lewis wrote, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay“.
If all we do is for us alone, we are desperately lonely, and if we try to mix others in for purely selfish reasons, everything is instrumental and rings hollow. Even the lonest of Lone Rangers needs a Tonto.
[A postscript that I would like to add is this: ‘selfishness’ is not something reserved for the person who cheats. Every selfish strain imaginable is in me too, and I would hate it if the counsel I received was that selfishness is O K, that I’m really just on a quest, and that I’m finding liberation. I do hope to receive compassion and understanding in my struggles, but not a sugar coat. Friends level with friends. Love cannot be separated from truth.]