The best way to survive extra-marital affairs is not to have them.

It might seem extraordinary to you, but about a third of the couples who come to see me for couples therapy do so because one of them is having an extra-marital relationship. And every time I see the emotional pain and distress that accompany infidelity, I marvel at the amazing capacity of human beings to make their lives more difficult. For, affairs are not like illnesses. They don't just happen. We make them happen. And what's more, we actually go out of our way to make them happen.

When people ask me whether marital infidelity is a recent phenomenon, I am hard pressed to give them a clear answer. On the one hand, I know that I don't have any hard data, for, this is not the sort of information the Census Board collects (although sometimes I wish they would). However, I do know that when I started psychiatric practice over 27 years ago, people were blithely having affairs even then. The most unlikely of people, really. People who, if you passed on the street, would give you absolutely no indication of the passion that lurked in their hearts and minds. Your average, conservative, middle-class men and, hold your breath, women, were breaking their marital vows with the same alacrity that their children and perhaps, grandchildren, are doing today.

Vital difference

However, the one key difference is that people used to be much more discreet in those days and many have gone through lifetimes without their dalliances being discovered. Today, people engage in infidelity much more brazenly, and affairs are more in-your-face than ever before. Technology has contributed its bit, for people can and do conduct extra-marital engagements through mobile phones, the Internet and so forth. However, the same technology that abets such relationships also exposes them more readily, for, the commonest methods of discovery of affairs are itemised phone bills, poorly-timed text messages or undeleted chat transcripts (it's very hard conducting an affair if you're not tech-savvy).

In other words, affairs are being detected much more easily than before. This probably accounts for the perception that more people are having affairs nowadays. I don't think this is accurate though. It's just that since affairs were conducted more surreptitiously in the past, unless you hired a detective — which most people never even considered doing — it was hard to find out if your spouse was having it off with the neighbour. Of course, suspicious spouses have been known to come home unexpectedly and catch their unfaithful partners in flagrante delicto, but it's hard to tell how commonly this happened.

Another thing. There's also a fallacious perception that today's Indian woman has become more ‘licentious' than her counterparts from earlier generations and this whole ‘Westernisation' thing is driving her to ‘promiscuity'. It is, of course, true that contemporary women have empowered themselves to be more expressive when it comes to the gratification of their need for emotional and sexual intimacy, but women of their parents' generations were also in touch with these needs. However, since there were no glossies that exhorted them to be superwomen or told them how precisely affairs could be conducted, and neither family nor friends could be approached for tutorials on infidelity, they had to express their needs much more clandestinely. So let's not put the blame on the West for extra-marital relationships. We've obviously been quite busy on this front ourselves for centuries (a document as ancient as the Manusmriti recognises their existence and comes down very hard on ‘adultery').

So, where does that leave us? We know that many people engage in extra-marital relationships. We also know that both partners are traumatised when affairs are discovered. In addition, it's abundantly clear that affairs are easier to discover today. And that many contemporary couples are aggressively seeking to stretch the boundaries of marriage to, perhaps, even include extra-marital relationships within its ambit. Of course, there are couples who have affairs because they are desperately unhappy in their marriages and who eventually have fulfilling marriages with their paramours, but this constitutes a very small proportion of extra-marital relationships. Does this then mean that we should just factor infidelity into our marriages instead of making such a big deal of it? Should we just provide for the fact that our partners are going to ‘stray' and we should either ignore this or ‘stray' ourselves? Or should we just learn to accept infidelity as part of modern life like, say, the Internet, and learn to enjoy it rather than rail against it?

Avoiding pain

The way I see it, any experience that produces the kind of emotional distress — and indeed devastation — that affairs do in the lives and minds of at least three, if not more, people, can't be treated merely as collateral damage of contemporary married life. Anything that causes pain cannot be considered acceptable to the human condition. There are certainly many couples who don't feel distressed about their partners having affairs and cheerfully return the compliment. Who am I to say anything to these couples who treat affairs as gifts from Santa Claus? But to those for whom fidelity is non-negotiable, all I can say is that although infidelity can be survived, the better way to deal with affairs is not to have them.

The writer is the author of 3's a Crowd: Understanding and Surviving Infidelity and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com