Thursday, April 7, 2011

The End(-Game) of the Affair

What exactly are married people thinking when they start an affair?

I don't mean, "Whoa, I'm finally gonna get laid! That hasn't happened in years!". I mean, how exactly do they see things ending when you start boning your secretary? (I'll take the perspective of the man, but the point is the same)

In some ways, boning a hooker is more understandable in practical terms. It's also despicable and repugnant, but within the mindset of someone completely callous to other people's feelings, I can see how they figure they can get away with it. You're away on business, you find some prostitute for one night only, you don't end up with the clap, and you tell yourself you'll never do it again and your wife won't find out. The latter part might be true, the former part probably isn't.

But what about when you set out on an ongoing affair with someone?

As far as I can see it, there are no good endings to that story.

And that should be obvious to the people involved even before they begin.

But apparently it isn't, at least judging by how often they do it.

The first point to note is that as the length of the affair increases, the probability that your wife will eventually find out converges to 1. The chances that you'll slip up somehow, or get inadvertently found out through some voicemail, missed call, something, are too high.

And when that happens, the results are as predictable as they are horrible. Hurtful recriminations, your children hate you for ever. Most likely you get divorced, the courts take two thirds of your money, you try to justify why you're not actually an asshole. Best case scenario, the secretary becomes wife #2, and you're much poorer.

Alternative best case scenario, your wife forgives you  but the relationship never quite recovers, you break things off with the secretary who now hates you too, and you have to live with the hurt you've inflicted on your loved ones.

If you want out of the marriage, aren't you better off doing that up-front?

I can think of maybe two explanations.

The first, less likely, is that the person has effectively made up their mind they want a divorce, they don't care about their wife's feelings, but they need some alternative female figure there for certain before they're willing to cut the cord. Seems like a very costly way to go about it (for both you and them), but it's at least internally consistent if your have a huge risk aversion, a complete lack consideration for your wife, and an underlying fear of abandonment.

The second, and I think more likely explanation, is just that they actively avoid thinking about the question. They focus on managing the immediate part (don't let wife find out, lead on secretary that you might leave your wife eventually but keep expectations reasonable) and don't think about the long-run. When these thoughts creep in, convince yourself that it will work out somehow, even if all the options are in front of you and they're all bad. Hyperbolic discounting takes care of the rest.

Never underestimate the ability of people to live in denial about the eventual outcome of their poor choices.

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