LOVE RANTS: Why Do We Still Romanticise Affairs?
Hi, I’m Laura and I love to rant about love. Love is a curious thing and it can be embarrassing to talk about because we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re considering love. But I want to talk about all of it. Follow me as I write this column, Love Rants, a monthly exclusive on POPSUGAR AU. Let’s rant!
I was lying in bed a few weeks ago with a nasty cold, bingeing the TV adaption of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, and feeling nostalgic about all the times I’d had sex with someone I “wasn’t supposed to”.
The series, centred around an affair between a married man and a college girl, reminded me of the affair I’d had with my boss years ago, the barista who told me he loved me despite being in another relationship, the married man I’d had a summer fling with… and all of the extreme emotions that come with sexual relationships like these.
Danger has always been sexy to me. Ever since I was pre-teen and reading period dramas about the sexual tension, there’s been something about a forbidden sexual encounter that has always gripped me; especially with an older man and a younger woman — and yes, I know; it’s frightfully cliché.
I’m willing to psychoanalyse myself enough to accept that the likelihood of me having “daddy issues” — although I hate the sexualisation that comes with that phrase — is pretty high. I grew up with an extremely strict European father, whose approval I was always trying to earn, and therefore, the thrill I experience when I seduce an older man isn’t exactly shocking. When he chooses to engage intimately with me despite all the risks and very reasonable reasons he should restrain, I feel the ultimate seal of approval. It’s a physical way of saying “I choose you, you’re worth it”, something I guess I’ve always craved.
But part of me wonders how much of my appetite for forbidden sex and romance comes from its romanticised portrayal in films, TV shows and novels and how much of it actually comes from my own insecurities and products of my upbringing.
Normal Co‘s sexologist Georgia Grace, says that the conflict between right and wrong, “good” and “bad”, will always suck an audience in because these storylines are entertaining and they make us feel stuff; especially as most people have strong opinions on infidelity based on dating moral codes and individual experiences.
“Many identify that ‘the forbidden’ is a core theme in their eroticism —whether it’s having sex with someone they shouldn’t or in a circumstance that they shouldn’t, the element of risk can be a major turn-on, it’s thrilling, novel, exciting, out of your control and as a result — desirable,” Grace says.
Interestingly, feeling “out of control” is often something love stories affiliate with falling or being in love, this feeling of intoxication; that the person you’re being intimate with is completely controlling your daily emotions and that they’re leaving you in state of mind that renders you powerless. That’s the idea of romance I grew up with, and years later, today, that’s still the romance we consume, as shown in popular TV shows like Conversations With Friends, Sex/Life, Bridgerton and Valeria, just to name a few.
Now that I think about it, the only experiences I’ve had that have ever given me that “out of control” feeling have either come from toxic relationships or affairs. In both, there’s this feeling of helplessness; like it’s happening to you, not with you. It’s a terrifying cycle, too, because in order to understand your feelings, which feel so complicated and intense, you feel like you need to continue the relationship. We’ve been taught to follow those feelings because excitement, desire, pain, suffering, confusion and anxiety = love, right!?
Maybe it’s due to seeking out this feeling, that I have found myself in the middle of so many morally questionable sexual encounters; because I yearn to feel the dangerous level of desire and desperation that I once thought was what love and romance felt like. Maybe this feeling of validation I have always wanted and sought out in the most morally challenging of places, has simply been my attempt to feel what those romanticised characters portray on-screen.
Another friend, Mandy, has also been involved in quite a few affairs as “the other woman”, but she doesn’t feel good about her part in those experiences.
“I was very selfish when I was single,” she says. “Being naughty is an adrenaline rush, the risk of being caught and knowing that what you’re doing is wrong but doing it anyway. It adds a whole other element.”
“I found I liked flirting with men in relationships more than single men because if I was rejected or nothing happened it wasn’t because of me it was because of her. And it was kind of fun to see them struggle with their morality.”
“I don’t miss those experiences, though. I was searching so hard for something and I’m not even sure what it was. Maybe validation mostly?”
For some people, this might be confronting to read. I understand that although danger is sexy to a large mainstream audience — with many popular TV shows and films constantly written about it — there are also lots of people that don’t find it to be so, given their own personal experiences.
“As with all things human sexuality, we are all unique! Not all people are into this — and whilst some may get turned on by the thought of sex outside of their relationship, they’d never actually want to do it” Grace says.
It’s a difficult thing to talk to friends about because ultimately, cheating is painful and lying is wrong. Although I’ve never been the person doing the lying, there’s an element of dishonesty within affairs that make people uncomfortable, and rightly so.
My friend, Jess, has been cheated on three times, in her three most significant relationships. Each time, it’s left her pretty broken and with a total lack of faith in people. As an incredibly forgiving and understanding person, she’s tried to make the relationships work after finding out, but has ultimately broken up with them all.
“Our sex lives really suffered, they were never the same afterward. I think it’s a combination of me feeling insecure and a lack of trust that just doesn’t allow for the vulnerability you need to have good sex,” says Jess, explaining why she thinks the relationships ultimately don’t work out after she finds out of their infidelity.
“The thought process for me has always come down to me being the common denominator, and that thought of “what if it’s me?”, which still really impacts my dating life. Like, I’m dating right now but I’m not looking for anything serious, because I don’t have much faith in it working out. I don’t really believe that there are good men out there like I’m genuinely surprised whenever I find one.”
She doesn’t know why her partners cheated on her, and you can tell she still thinks about it pretty often.
“Maybe it was to sabotage the relationship subconsciously somehow?,” she mused to me. “They’ve always apologised and said they wanted me back, but the trust is so broken… there’s no real going back.”
Unfortunately, Jess’s experience with infidelity is super common; as cheating is widely prevalent within long-term relationships, often as a way to satisfy their needs externally. Statistics from online dating platform for people in relationships, Ashley Madison, shows that 74 percent of women still love their spouse, but don’t feel turned on by them, leading them to engage in an affair. With 389,436 new accounts registered monthly and over 60 million members worldwide, it’s clear that people in long-term relationships are often looking outside their relationship to satisfy their needs.
Since incorporating outside partners — whether through infidelity or the decision to be non-monogamous with their primary partner — 60 per cent of women say their sex life is more exciting, 42% are enjoying more variety, and 34 per cent have become less timid about exploring their own sexuality. Further, 56 per cent say having sex with their outside partners makes them feel desired and sexy, compared to 22 per cent who say the same of sex with their spouse.
These statistics tell me that it’s a common experience to feel that all your needs can’t be met by one person or relationship. And when you think about it, that makes sense. How can one person truly give us everything we want in any given moment?
A friend in a long-term relationship recently told me that they have a crush on a guy they work with. He’s the complete opposite of her partner; he’s loud, life of the party, spontaneous and passionate, while her partner of seven years is a super laid-back, would-rather-stay-at-home-and-watch-a-movie type of guy. She’s in the classic pickle I’ve seen repeated over and over again within people in long-term relationships of; “I want something more, something that excites and thrills me, but I also love my partner and want a future with them.” It begs the question, why can’t we have it all? One person surely can’t give us everything that we need, but we’re with them for a reason.
“When my clients share why they have sex outside of their relationship, this can be for a range of reasons; the excitement of something new and forbidden, feeling disconnected to their partner, stress, attraction to someone else, issues with commitment, desire discrepancy or it could be situational,” Grace says. “For some people, it is a one-off and for others it may be long-term/ongoing.”
“It is very normal to be attracted to other people outside of your relationship and there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding someone else attractive, sexy or a turn on. This of course changes if you act upon the attraction.”
Most of my experiences with people in relationships were in my late-teens and early-twenties and it’s true that as I get older, the more the dishonesty aspect of affairs actually grosses me out, rather than turning me on. Lying to the person you love is, at the end of the day, a cowardly move, and although our learned societal construct of monogamous relationships makes it hard to talk about wanting something different, I think it’s imperative that we talk about our desires regardless.
The elements of an affair that are romanticised and sexy are the dangerous parts, the sneaking around, the passionate moments in hidden places, the sexual tension captured in a moment of eye contact from across the room… but you don’t need to be lying to have these sexy moments. I think that we sometimes confuse the dangerous feeling as “doing the wrong thing”, rather than things like the type of sex or the setting. For example, if you and your partner entered into a more open style of relationship and you were to find someone at a bar super sexy, I guarantee that that “dangerous” feeling would still overcome you. Often, it’s the thought of something new and different that evokes a feeling of lust, rather than the actual lie itself.
“Many identify that the intensity, newness and the build-up can make for a memorable and exciting sexual experience, but this is certainly something you can explore in a relationship,” says sexologist Georgia Grace.
“I support couples with this in session all the time. We look at key themes, turn-ons, what they can do to create a context for desire, novelty and trying something new, different types of touch as well as things to do on a daily basis to work on the relationship dynamic.
“As a practitioner, I don’t use language like ‘wrong’ and ‘right’, I don’t impose a moral code on how people should engage and relate with others. Rather I look at relationship agreements, boundaries, communication skills and a range of other approaches to support everyone in feeling safe in their relationships.”
While having an affair, engaging in forbidden sex or desiring sex outside your relationship may turn you on, it’s important to note that kink and infidelity are not the same thing, Georgia Grace says. The distinction between them is vital.
“Kink involves ongoing consent, boundaries, agreements. So we can’t conflate kinkiness with infidelity. There are many consensual ways to explore the forbidden as your kink, ie role play, but infidelity doesn’t sit under the umbrella of kink if all parties involved/affected have not agreed.”
So, although 22 per cent of Ashley Madison members say their marriage/relationship is happier when they’re having an affair and 29 percent report better and more frequent sex with their spouse, it’s not an ethical way to get the things you want.
As I sit back down to resume the final few episode of Conversations With Friends and reflect on all that I’ve learnt from experts, statistics and other peoples’ experiences with affairs, I see this romanticised, visually stimulating depiction in a new light.
The affair itself is not the part that is romanticised (it actually looks quite stressful, and not in a sexy way); it’s the unexpected encounters, the unfamiliar intimacy, the complicated feelings, entwined into sexual desire; those are the bits that feel sexy and they can be experienced in many ways without cheating.
If you, like me, enjoy the thrill that comes with newness disguised as danger, chat to your partner about it. Or, simply have a meaningless flirty interaction with someone new, watch a sexy TV show or use it as a mechanism to have your next solo orgasm.