I'm never surprised when one of my middle-aged patients tells me that she is having an affair.
There is a certain grin, a twinkle in the corner of her eye. She's waiting for me to ask the one question that matters. When I do, she's often surprised by my reaction.
I believe for most of these women that having an affair is an act of courage.
Yes, it is fraught with guilt and risk and fear, but in the same breath, it sings with adventure and passion and joy.
For one 50-year-old patient, the affair was the slow evolution of a long-standing friendship with a high-school sweetheart. She had loved him at 15, but their paths diverged and when they reconnected years later, she still glowed in the warm feelings embedded in her youth. But she was married by then, with kids and a career, and life was challenging enough. So there was little attention paid to those tender memories. So why now?
Her marriage is predictably stable. Indeed, it's more than most since it went through a rocky period when she left and negotiated a return on her terms. Their children are not quite grown, but enough so that mom isn't needed to attend at every turn of the hockey blade or the instant summons from school.
"Well, you're on your way to becoming a hero," I said, and her eyebrow quickly rose.
The notion of adopting a hero's journey is not a comfortable concept for most women; indeed, many have difficulty identifying any kind of hero within themselves. This motif was spelled out in the early eighties by Carol Pearson in her book The Hero Within: The Six Archetypes We Live By. Her journey to heroism involves the maturation of a number of these core archetypes that direct both men and women -- orphan, wanderer, martyr, warrior, magician.
The full life requires a journey through all stages, but it's clear that the archetype of martyr is the comfortable one for women, as is the warrior for men. Integral to both these archetypes is the wanderer, a phase that usually predates the development of the others and is associated with striking out on our own and establishing an independent life.
The wanderer motif also assumes that cultural values are expected to be challenged, if not rejected outright, and that for a period of time anyway, the individual is prepared to be isolated.
A lot of women never question those established values. Nor do they reject all those binding expectations of parents and peers that are the linchpin of one's worth as a wife and mother. That they can and do become warriors is not unthinkable. But the circumstances that induce the warrior in women are usually unique. They become warriors when, shaken with illness, they begin a quest to eradicate cancer, or heart disease or arthritis.
For a woman to begin a quest as a wanderer, she must be prepared to question her values and societal prescripts: her dependence on men to define her worth, and the consequences of her actions on those who are tied to her, whether it's a husband or children. She must be prepared to look into the prospect of abandoning everything she has held inviolate.
Wanderers are, by definition, seekers, and their quest may cut them off from family members who are stunned by their actions and dubious about their intentions. Becoming a wanderer so late in life forces the whole family into the same motif -- all the comfortable notions about roles and duty are fractured; there is insecurity and fear and profound sense of loss.
So how is having an affair any woman's idea of a hero's journey?
For my patient, there is no thought of leaving her home or her children. But there is an urgency to re-examine what constitutes intimacy, what complements emotion, what connects hearts and minds. Under the terms she struck with her husband on her return home last year, there wasn't a particular understanding that she would or could engage in an action that so flouts their marital vows. However, the leave-taking had started something within her. She was more prepared to re-examine her life and its soft-shoe routines.
Re-enter the old schoolmate and this time the response is altogether different.
And that is what I see in her full frontal approach to life, her jauntiness, and the lift of her chin. Of course she's apprehensive about her children, but she has no intention either to disclose to them or abandon them. What she hopes to gain is a richer, deeper understanding of what she is receiving and what she has to offer in a sexual relationship, if not a partnered one.
Make no mistake, if you try this stunt in your 50s, you will be deemed to be in a full-blown mid-life crisis.
But try it in your 60s and you'll be presumed to be demented or drifting into senility.
That was the conclusion of the family members for another of my patients who had held off her move to independence until all the children had left. So disturbed was the family by her actions that they arranged for a psychiatric consultation, unbeknownst to mom. And not just any standard probe but the whole three-hour psycho-geriatric test match, complete with standardized tests for memory, calculations, IQ, and interviews about her motives, intentions, needs. Quite a surprise at the end of a presumed outing with her son!
But did she pass?Resoundingly yes.
There is something else that has come out of the ordeal. She now stands apart from her family, rewriting her relationship with them on her terms. She is clearer about what she has to offer all of them, including her grandchildren. It is an offer and it's based in her sense of simply loving them -- there is no presumption that it is obligatory, or even necessary to fill out her role as mother or grandmother, let alone wife and lover.
Are these two women heroes?
Neither has taken such steps with a cavalier sweep of hand. But it is a hero' s journey nevertheless when, at any age, you are prepared to dismantle seemingly indestructible patterns and be naked to who and what you are becoming.