When New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in the aftermath of scandal over his involvement with escorts, his successor, Lt. Gov., David Paterson, decided to pre-empt future public scrutiny by coming clean about his own marital indiscretions. In media interviews with Paterson and his wife, Michele, both admitted to affairs. Although Paterson implied that his cheating stemmed from jealousy and anger at discovering her infidelity, he was also quick to insist that their problems weren’t just her fault. Even though the Paterson’s story had a happy ending, the press leaped on their reference to his “retaliatory affairs” and brought that term, along with a juicier synonym, “revenge affair,” into public consciousness. While these phrases may be new to our popular lexicon, their meaning is as old as the cave dweller. I’d wager that hardly a soul among us hasn’t at least fantasized about acting out for the sheer glory of vengeance in the aftermath of a lover’s betrayal, sexual or otherwise.
Unlike lust or love affairs, revenge affairs are driven by raw, primitive emotions that have little to do with genuine eroticism. Here, the hurt, the anger, the resentment directed toward one who has already strayed is translated into sexual arousal or action – often in the absence of genuine desire. The compelling urge isn’t “I want you”… it’s more like, “I’ll show you…you @%#&%!”
Not only is the affair (or the one night stand) initiated to salve these wildly inflamed feelings, but unlike a romantic affair, discretion is hardly a priority. Leaving a breadcrumb trail for a suspicious spouse or deliberately flaunting the affair in the heat of a fight is more likely to occur in this scenario than any other. After all, “I’ll show you” is meant literally – as in, “let me punish you with an image you won’t forget; let me show you what it means to be hurt the way you’ve hurt me!”
Of course, the problem with revenge affairs is that they are a bit more “nyah nyah nyah” than we, as adults, would like to admit. Tit for tat is a rather immature approach to dealing with hurt, and revenge affairs are nothing if not regressive. The urge to get back at those who bully or injure us emerges when hurt morphs into rage, before we are even able to put words to our feelings. In time, rage hardens and takes on a life of its own, forcing blood sacrifices like a demanding, primitive god. Revenge affairs are offerings on that emotionally primitive altar; blood is spilled symbolically through sexual congress, and punishment is leveled against the one whose betrayal came first. But just as sacrifices to angry gods didn’t really accomplish the bringing of rain or abundant harvest that ancient peoples intended, modern revenge rituals fail to mete out relationship justice or soothe aching hearts. After any affair, partners are left to face the truth about themselves, and no ceremonial act of vengeance is likely to spare them that inevitability or pain.
Most experts would agree that revenge affairs only exacerbate problems, sometimes even putting the “avenger” in harm’s way. Not all retaliation is sexual or even emotional; sometimes an enraged spouse can get physical. Women have been seriously harmed – even killed – by violent men who feel entitled to keep women under their thumb. The woman’s affair is less a blow to such a man’s heart than to his ego and sense of property rights. While violent explosions are the extreme, if a partner has had explosive rage episodes or been physically aggressive in the past, a woman should consider her safety before flaunting an affair. In fact, if a partner is rageful, aggressive and unfaithful, a revenge affair is both a dangerous and fruitless method of dealing with hurt. Getting out of the line of fire entirely is the only safe and healthy option.
Revenge, retaliation, vengeance: these approaches to dealing with pain may seem initially satisfying – and they can certainly energize us out of the numbing depression that betrayal can impose – but in the long run revenge only eats up the souls of those who invest energy in it. Perhaps you’re familiar with the pop culture TV phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which one key character had a previous existence as a “vengeance demon.” It occurs to me that there was good reason for writing her as a vengeance demon and not a vengeance angel or goddess. There is no renewal, no healing or momentum to be found in revenge. To the contrary, revenge locks us solidly in place, keeping us stuck in the pain, anger, and victimization of our circumstances. What better sustenance for a demon than humans who are mired in negativity?
When an affair mars a relationship, the wise approach is to focus on self-care and healing – whether the couple attempts to mutually heal their relationship or partners choose to concentrate separately on healing their own hearts. David and Michele Paterson told the press that by going into counseling in the aftermath of their affairs, they were able to renew their marriage. They were fortunate, for there are no guarantees that a relationship can survive infidelity, although the odds are certainly in favor of partners who are equally dedicated to restoring their bond and willing to seek help.
Professional help, I believe, is a necessity. Why not deal with things yourself? Because when emotions are raw and circumstances seem grim, it’s enough to ask each other to do the difficult work of restoring faith and trust while a therapist provides a supportive and guiding presence. Trying to figure out (and agree upon) how to fix your relationship while attempting to cope with the post-affair fallout would be trying to do too much. On the (wickedly) bright side: think about how it might feel when a partner who was resistant to counseling before an affair goes willingly to therapy afterwards. That might seem like the best revenge of all!