Sally (Meg Ryan): You sent flowers to yourself?

Marie (Carrie Fisher): Sixty dollars I spent on this big stupid arrangement of flowers and I wrote a card that I planned to leave on the front table where Arthur would just happen to see it.

Sally: What did the card say?

Marie: "Please say yes. Love Jonathan."

Sally: Did it work?

Marie: He never even came over. He forgot this charity thing that his wife was a chairman of. He's never going to leave her!

Sally: Of course he isn't.

Marie: You're right, you're right. I know you're right.(From When Harry Met Sally, ©1989 Castle Rock Entertainment)


I think you know where I'm going with this....

Extra-marital relationships (EMRs) where one partner is single and the other (obviously) is married have their own particular dynamics. Although I'm unable to find any reliable statistics, the collective wisdom of those who post on the Forum here at philanderers.com is that the vast majority of these EMRs end because the married partner goes back to his or her spouse. There are occasional debates about this—whether married men are less likely to leave their families than married women, for example—and we all have heard of cases where the married partner "ran off with" the single partner to get married. I'm sure that this is part of the reason why single and married people get involved all the time. The fairytale ending of a single person "saving" a married person from an unhappy marriage…and then marrying and living happily ever after…that's a compelling vision for anyone's future.

I'm here to tell you that fairytales don't always come true…and in these kinds of EMRs, both the single partner and the married partner need to manage their expectations very carefully, or risk a lot of heartache. And even then, heartache may be inevitable.

First, let's dispel some myths about what happens when someone has an EMR with a single partner. The most prominent myth is the "bunny-boiler" scenario, à la Fatal Attraction. Married people are cautioned against having EMRs with single partners, because the single person "doesn't have as much to lose." While the married person's life would be turned upside-down if the EMR is discovered—divorce, loss of status, etc.—the single person has no such constraints. Therefore, the theory goes, if the married partner refuses to leave his/her spouse, or does something else that the single partner doesn't like, then the next thing that happens is the married partner's spouse gets a phone call, and then the kid's rabbit ends up in pot on the stove...

While this scenario is not completely far-fetched, it's also not really fair to single people. After all, most single people don't relish necessarily the idea of being a "homewrecker." Also, during the EMR, a single person isn't likely to advertise a relationship with a married person—that would invite derision from the single partner's peers and family, plus risk making the EMR known to the married partner's family. So just because a single partner has fewer constraints than a married one doesn't mean that such a person is going to announce to the world that he or she is in love with someone's husband or wife.

Another myth is that men are much less likely to leave their marriage for a single person than women. The idea is that men supposedly engage in EMRs primarily for sex, and don't want to divorce for risk of losing their assets to their wives. On the other hand, women supposedly have EMRs because they are truly unhappy in their marriages—and an EMR is just one step towards the decision to file for divorce. I haven't seen any studies that would confirm this impression, and doubt that I ever will. But there's at least anecdotal evidence that men have EMRs for emotional reasons as well…and that men DO leave their wives after falling in love with someone else. And conversely, there are women who have EMRs with no intention of leaving their husbands.

The type of extramarital affair that presents the most challenges is one where a married person and a single person are in love—and the married person for whatever reason is unwilling to get a divorce. The reasons for this are varied. The married partner wants to stay "for the kids," can't afford the financial costs of divorce, or simply still loves his or her spouse and wants to stay married. And yet, that married person is in love with the single partner. So what are the prospects in that situation?

I can tell you from experience that the prospects are not good, but the situation is not entirely hopeless if both partners approach it with an appropriate mindset. There are also cases of long-term EMRs involving a married partner and a single partner—the relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy being among the most famous. These relationships can be rewarding and fulfilling for both partners, provided that they keep their expectations in check.

First, the two partners need to understand the incongruities of this kind of relationship, which will contribute to frustration and friction. The single partner is going to feel frustrated by the constraints of "dating" a married partner: the inability to go out in public, the need to conform to the married partner's family schedule, the need to keep the relationship secret from the single partner's own family and friends. Even the deepest love cannot stop someone from chafing against those restraints. Eventually, the single person will start to want a "normal" relationship with another single person. I've spoken to a few single partners who have been involved in EMRs, and most describe the feeling of liberation after the EMR is over and they are able to date someone without hiding. Any single person is likely to choose a public relationship with someone they love over one that has to be kept hidden.

Second, the two partners need to be wary of the twin evils of jealousy and envy. For the single partner, this entails jealousy of the spouse. It is natural to wonder, "If my partner is in love with ME, why does the spouse get to take up so much of his/her time and attention?" And if the single person IS looking for a committed relationship, it's easy to become envious of the stability of the other partner's marriage and family life. On the other hand, the married partner might envy the freedom of the single partner's life—free from the demands of conforming to a spouse's expectations, able to live on their own, etc. Seeing the life of a single person—especially one without children—up close can make anyone question why they're still married.

Things get really interesting if the single partner decides to date other single people while in the EMR. Then, the married partner might become jealous of these other boyfriends/girlfriends—and yet, to demand that the single partner stay "monogamous" to the married partner is hypocritical, to say the least. After all, is it reasonable to expect that the single partner should always go home alone, while the married partner gets to go home to his or her family?

Third, and this is the toughest aspect…these EMRs, I believe, are not destined to last. It is extremely difficult for a single OP to accept the idea of a relationship where the married partner cannot give the relationship any kind of priority. As a single friend of mine once said so well, "A relationship with a married man is nothing more than a nice trip down a dead-end street." Sooner or later, the single partner is probably going to ask the married partner to either get a divorce and make a greater commitment, or call the whole thing off.

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IMPORTANT NOTE. The only exception I have observed is when the single partner, for whatever reason, does not WANT a committed relationship with another single person. Maybe the single partner has ended a relationship or marriage and doesn't want to make that commitment. Perhaps the single person has other priorities, such as a career, and feels that a "traditional" relationship would itself involve too many constraints. In such cases, a single-married EMR has a real chance for long-term survival.
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If you recognize that these EMRs will certainly end, the toughest question presents itself. Why even let the relationship continue? Perhaps it's better to end the EMR as soon as possible. At least, in that fashion, the two partners can perhaps avoid any heartache involved in letting go of each other. It's a mindset that suggests the analogy of someone who commits suicide as a means of controlling the circumstances of his or her death.

I would ask a different question: "why end it now?" Whether the EMR ends now or later, pain and heartache are probably unavoidable. Even if the relationship isn't "meant to be" (and few of these EMRs are) both OPs are going to be very reluctant to let it go. You can kill the relationship and suffer today…and in doing so, forego any joy or other benefits that the relationship could bring you if you let it continue. The relationship, for better or worse, is extremely likely to collapse from the weight of its circumstances. Forestalling that collapse may seem like tilting at windmills...but hastening it may also deprive the partners of an experience that will enrich their lives now and in the future.

Remember that it is the nature of any EMR—almost any relationship, for that matter—to wind down and, perhaps, simply stop. It is the journey and process of the relationship that brings rewards to the participants. An EMR between single and married partners certainly carries particular risks and pitfalls for the participants. These must be considered carefully. But those challenges may still be justified, if they are the price to be paid for making a fundamental, emotional connection with another person. In other words, that may be the price of love.   ©