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After the Storm - Page 5

The Survivors

On Friday, Joanna was all set to go. On Saturday, she couldn't sign the lease. She'd fantasized about the moment for almost two years: she'd leave her husband, Michael, move in with her lover, Eric, and be bathed in a state of bliss and sensuality that had been sorely missing from her life. Eric had showered her with affection and a sense of importance—attention she'd only ever received from her children, since Michael had excused himself from these gestures, saying he wasn't that kind of guy. Lassitude had gradually crept into her marriage, leaving her feeling more attached to the habit of being married than to the man she'd once loved.

Joanna's transgression was an attempt to recapture what she'd shared previously with Michael and didn't want to live without: a sense of importance and belonging, relief from loneliness, and a feeling that life was basically good. Unfulfilled longings for feelings like these drive many of today's adulterers. Joanna carefully plotted her departure, but when push came to shove, she couldn't do it. She thought about the 24 years she and Michael had been together, their unwavering friendship, his dependability, the comforts of their life, and, most important, her kids—realizing that once she turned her affair into her primary relationship, there'd be no turning back. Often people begin to see what they want to preserve at the moment that their affair is about to come out of hiding. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also when they realize that the lover was meant to be exactly that: a lover.

Joanna didn't want to leave Michael partly out of fear and partly because she still loved him. It wasn't clear which was stronger, fear or love. "Part of me was very disappointed in myself for not being able to leave Michael, and I wondered if I was letting go of the love of my life," Joanna recalled. "But part of me felt relief that I was going to stay and not destroy my family." Michael alternated between panic and rage, between begging her to stay and chasing her away. "I couldn't believe she was ready to jeopardize everything for this guy, Eric, and I felt trapped because I suspected that her reasons to stay ­didn't have much to do with me. It was more about what we had than about who I was."

At the core of Joanna's predicament is a conflict of values, inherent in the affair itself, not just in its resolution. When people talk about their fears, often they're really pondering their values. When they say, "I don't want to break up my family," they're also saying that they hold dear family continuity. When they refer to the shared history with their spouse, they express their respect for loyalty and commitment. Following Cupid's arrows is akin to losing one's moral compass, and, in this sense, the affair brings about an identity crisis: how to reconcile the enchantment of an experience with the feeling that it's fundamentally wrong. For Joanna and others in her place, lying and deceiving are more agonizing than thrilling. They don't set out to betray their partners. Sometimes, as in the case of Joanna, they're motivated by a yearning for what they're no longer willing to live without: passion—not in the narrow, sexual sense, but as
a quest for aliveness and erotic vitality. Although a glimmer of passion can be intoxicating, many of us shudder at the prospect of losing everything. The volatility and unpredictability of desire is scary.

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