Much of what gets discussed within my social circle centers around cultural differences between Americans and Europeans. And since a large portion of my personal friends are from my group, Eurocircle, we often observe that our nonchalance about infidelity, and our practical approach to relationships are very much frowned upon here in the USA. As welcoming and accepting we are to each others’ cultures and political ideas, this has always been a subject of contention. It seems to me that whenever the subject has been brought up, it hits a nerve that causes extreme reactions among our puritan friends.
I have to point out that attitudes within Europe vary on this subject. Our continent has many cultures, numerous languages, and customs that vary from region to region. It would be unfair to generalize that all Europeans view the subject in a practical manner. For example, I find that the Brits share the view of Americans, while most of my French friends agree with us Balkans that affairs are one of the finest things in life. Like a fine wine, it is something to be savored, appreciated and respected. It has its place in one’s life and if treated with finesse and reverence, it will develop in complexity, add years to a marriage and that special something to our lives.
In addition to our differences regarding the affair itself, we seem to differ in our methods of dealing with the issue. Americans seem to take it head on, like a collision. Here, an affair is a crime. Once it happens, the sanctity of a marriage is broken, and so is the legal contract that dictates to love, honor and obey. I personally don’t see how love can be written into a contract. Marriage, yes, but love no. A marriage contract can spell out the conduct and expectations of each partner, as well as what constitutes failure to comply. Adultery, in most cases, is the end all, be all annihilator of that contract, and of people’s lives. But love, cannot be contractualized, and as most lawyers would have us believe, they really cannot and will not protect us from the end of love. There is no such thing as a document one can sign to protect us from humans being humans and satisfying our human needs.
In this country, infidelity is a crime, both moral and legal. It is frowned upon by the church, by judges, by one’s peers and popular media. The evildoer is punished by guilt, social shame, alimony and public outrage. In much of Europe, and affair is something to be dealt with poise and respect for oneself. No one wants to be seen as the desperate, tormented, jealous, hateful, raging love reject, so we put on our best face, hold our head up high and strut forward. How one deals with this indiscretion says everything about our position, and there’s a certain nobility in facing the ugly truth.
The best example of how to handle the matter with class, is Danielle Mitterand. As wife of the late French president, she endured the same public innuendos as most American first ladies. But this one did not shed a public tear or give a gut-wrenching interview to Oprah. Instead, she stayed composed. The funeral was discussed in European social circles, not because Mitterand’s mistress showed up with the illegitimate daughter to the ceremony, but how such a delicate situation was carried out properly.
So here, we Europeans handle the matter with much more decorum and dignity than our American counterparts. The fact is, people have affairs. Sometimes they are illicit, sometimes they are vengeful, sometimes they are based on true love and compatibility, and other times, they are the icing on our cakes, and truly what makes life worth living. Why such a negative attitude toward them? This question brings me back to the point of this rant, and that is to show to some readers the joys and pleasures an affair can bring to one’s marriage and personal life.
Where I come from (the Balkans), relationships are viewed as a practical matter. Affairs happen, and are expected to happen. They are viewed as healthful, rejuvenating, and revered for their relationship revitalizing properties. They should always be discreet, and the three parties deal with the ups and downs, joys and pains as adults. Ideally, we all remain composed and dignified. Tears are shed in private and never on public display. We try to understand that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and we really mean it. The goal is not to manipulate, threaten, guilt or shame the offending party into coming back, but to enjoy life’s little pleasures just as much. This of course is not how it always happens, and we Balkans are a temperamental bunch, so don’t believe a word I say about remaining dignified. But the goal in such a situation is to react with class, or not to react at all.
Personally, I believe that life is for living. To have a good, long, prosperous and joyous life, one must be willing to accept it all. There is no joy without pain, no love without heartache, no passion without anger and resentment. Life gives us contrasts and undesirable situations to learn from. Who are you as a human being, if you shun painful experiences? I also believe that life is for personal growth, and that two people cannot fully develop themselves if they are chained to each other with strict rules, terms and conditions. Married people face this tremendous challenge of growing and expanding themselves, while always trying to grow in the same direction as their partner. How is that possible? If genuine personal growth is to happen, then each human must be allowed to experience life’s pleasures and pains freely, yet most American marriages force the weaker partner to grow in the stronger partner’s direction, and that’s not growth at all.
Our culture is based on very firm ideas of what love and marriage should be. We are told that true love is forever, and that it never dies, and we accept this idea with blind faith. Yet, 50% of our marriages end in divorce, so, does that mean that 50% of divorced people have never known true love? Are the remaining 50% of the married bunch more pure and enlightened? Have they discovered relationship nirvana simply by choosing to remain under contract?
I believe that true love is perfectly free. No, I am not a love child, nor a product of the 60’s, but as I age, I gain experience and see that the best loves have been the ones that have been free of need. The purest loves were the ones I’ve experienced under no obligation to commit within a specified time frame, comply to a strict set of rules, and change myself for the benefit of someone else. I did not need the person to fulfill me, I did not need the person to marry me, I did not need his commitment, I asked for nothing and received everything. And that’s the beauty of an affair. There is this knowing that it is only temporary and that time is precious and rarely wasted. There is this sense of excitement because it is something fresh, intoxicating and new, and that is what makes life worth living. Yes, there is a little guilt, because we do love our significant other, but the guilt is remedied by this knowing that the affair makes us a better person. I feel revitalized, more confident and rejuvenated. I feel alive, attractive and desirable. I am happier with myself and my general attitude about everything is much more positive. And this inner vitality shines out and becomes evident to others. People notice the sexier clothes, the random bursts of laughter, the spring in my step and the added confidence. There is a huge difference in how I perceive myself when I am having an affair, as in the times I enter a room as someone’s wife, and times I enter the room as the woman who owns the place. The second is a much more powerful woman, and I really like her. I would almost always rather be her, than the wife walking in the shadow of her man.
I know I will never be able to convince my pilgrim friends that an affair is something to relish and be absolutely ecstatic about. We come from different cultures and see life from different perspectives. Here, an affair is a sure sign that there is something wrong with a marriage, and it must be stopped, killed, and annihilated. In my culture, an affair is a sign that there is something good in one’s life, and some of us appreciate it. American readers are most likely to see my choice as pathetic, pitiable and a sign of insecurity. Ok, I will take that, because none of them can ever imagine what it’s like to like it, appreciate it, be a 100% comfortable with it, offering no excuses for it. This is when it is reassuring to have expat friends who share my opinion, are supportive and occasionally buy me a congratulatory drink when something exciting happens in my life.