At the beginning of a love affair, one might ask oneself either ‘what am I getting into’ or ’what am I getting out of?’  Every entrance is an exit.    The only real question is,  ‘Are we going to go through (with it)?’ 

The pivotal moment in Emma and Jerry’s seven year long affair occurred just two years into it.   Emma was sitting on the bed in the Kilburn flat they had bought together, excited to see him again, when wistfully, nonchalantly but not so, she said.  ‘Are we going to change our lives?’  There was a pause.  Then Jerry replied, ‘we can’t’.  That was it; the start of the illness from which the relationship succumbed.    

They were both in their thirties, married, their children were still young; they had their obligations.   The time was crucial.  For Emma and Jerry, thirty plus represented a loss of freedom, the acquisition of responsibility.  No longer, it seemed, would life hold that frisson of possibility; it now stretched ahead, that slow decline of disillusion.   

In the affairs of men and women, time is of the essence. It both offers the opportunity and then snatches it away. That chance meeting, the inventive creation of space, free afternoons, rendezvous snatched between appointments; at the time, it seems their love could last forever; feeling expands time.  But in real time,  such intensity of passion is ephemeral. 

Falling in love is predicated on hope, and hope cannot be sustained forever.  If the affair goes on too long without a resolution, then hope dies.  The fulcrum of reality is followed by the inevitable winding down of the clock to when time together, like the flat Emma and Jerry rented, becomes empty and meaningless.  If an affair doesn’t go anywhere, if it doesn’t change the lives of the participants, it will die and something in them will die too.

The happily married never need consider these issues.  As the philosopher and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, comments, for them the future is the same as the past.  ‘Outwitting time and change, they construct a monument to continuity among the promiscuous ruins.  Valuing a relationship because it lasts, they live as if time proves something.’  

It was a poignant and clever device for Pinter to write the play backwards; time running in reverse.  The end of an affair is always there right at the start.  They both knew it was impossible that first time they kissed at the party; that’s what made it so risky and exciting.   They couldn’t!   But why not?  They were in love.  And love skews perception, makes the impossible seem plausible.   

Except it’s not.  Life is not make-believe, however much we may try to make it so.  There are incompatibilities; the taken-for-granted and the precarious, the tedious routine and the impossible risk – the thing that couldn’t be done.  There is safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  Of course we want to have our cake and eat it.  Why not, we protest, we are integrated beings. Isn’t our body but a representation of our meaningful soul and isn’t our mind the way we think about it?  Why can’t we be more honest?  

But in the affairs of men and women, honesty and kindness are at odds with each other, Phillips asserts.  ‘We lie because we can’t admit our desire and we don’t wish to hurt or be hurt. We lie in order to keep our options open, but also to find out what our options are.  The successful lie creates a fragile freedom.  It shows us that it is possible for no one to know what we are doing, even ourselves.  The poor lie – the wish to be found out – reveals our fear about what we can do with words.  Fear of infidelity is fear of language.’  

Monogamy is reassurance. It’s like believing in God.  Not everyone believes, but most live as though they do.  Erotic life, Phillips writes, is political, disruptive; ‘it rearranges the world, it makes a difference to the ways we and other people organise their lives.  Every infidelity creates the need for an election; every separation divides the party.  Friends may share, cooperate and be honest.  Lovers have to do something else. Lovers cannot be virtuous.’  

Rules by which we govern our lives are ways of imagining what to do.  ‘Our personal infidelity rituals – the choreography of our affairs – are parallel texts of our marriages’.   Successful affairs reproduce the loneliness of marriage.   Unsuccessful ones intensify it.  Serial monogamy, it could be argued, keeps us moving on, maintaining the hope, restoring meaning and renewing life.     

Adam Phillips would claim that ‘guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want.  It shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life, there is no morality.  Because we are always being sexually faithful to somebody, every preference is a betrayal.’  

He continues, ‘what is coupledom, but a sustained resistance to the intrusion of third parties.  The couple needs to sustain the third parties in order to go on resisting them.  The faithful keep an eye on the enemy, eye them up.  After all, what would they do together if no one else was there.  How would they know what to do?  Two’s company; three’s a couple.  Everyone feels jealous or guilty and suffers the anguish of their choices.  No one has ever been excluded from feeling left out.’ 

Betrayal by Harold Pinter is currently playing at the Comedy Theatre,  London. Kristin Scott Thomas is  wonderful as Emma; she was sexy, playful and very attractive; how could Jerry ever resist her.    The programme included  notes from Adam Phillips Book, Monogamy (Faber and Faber, 1996).

(please don’t read this as a moral statement, more an attempt at analysis)

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