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Till death do us part? Nah. It's till cheating sex do us part. Sexual fidelity is the sine qua non of marriage.

But is it all bad when an extramarital affair happens?

As a gentleman I know helpfully explained over his pinot noir in a downtown Toronto bar, "Sex is the life force, Sarah."

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Indeed. And an extramarital affair is a huge life-changing event, nothing short of transformational - if, that is, you don't hide in deep guilt and denial from why you did it.

I am not a professional psychologist, although I have had what I like to call a little shrinkification. (At least therapy is no longer taboo.)

So I will say this: Once you have endured divorce and the painful examination of why you stayed for as long as you did, what the pathology of the relationship was and what you need to repair in yourself, you see the world and people with a sort of emotional X-ray vision. You see what lies beneath.

Most affairs illuminate a truth, one you may not have been ready to see.

Okay, let me go first.

In my marriage of almost 18 years, which ended in divorce 4½ years ago, I, like many, had plenty of opportunities to have affairs. Once, when I was in my late twenties and travelling on business to Sydney, Australia, a colleague, who was also married, boldly propositioned me. Never once in the Toronto office had he made a pass at me. But now he was exercising what he called "the out-of-hemisphere rule." He called my hotel room in the late evening to ask if he could come up and see me, not some time, but right then.

I said no. I was happily married at the time. But many years later, when my husband and I were in trial separation, still technically married and mulling over whether we could work it out, an affair did happen. I didn't seek it out, but I didn't stop it, either. It didn't last long. He provided comfort and tenderness, something I badly needed, but more importantly, the affair gave me clarity. I knew that if I could make that emotional transgression, my marriage was over, and it spared me further ambivalence.

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Ambivalence, for anyone who is divorced or thinking about it, is an affliction that can last a long, long time before the decision to call it quits.

That's why I call it the "clarity affair." It's not why you're leaving your marriage: it tells you that you already have. A friend of mine experienced the same thing. "It made my decision about my marriage black and white."

She ended hers without revealing the affair, which was also short-lived, to her husband.

Stephen Grant, a high-profile divorce lawyer in Toronto's McCarthy Tétrault law firm, believes that both women and men often use affairs as a springboard. But he thinks that men are less likely to examine the reasons underneath the action.

"Men, to the extent that they are conscious of why they do things, think, 'I'm unhappy,' and infidelity is a response to their own bewilderment about the sense of loss in their marriage."

There's an adage at work here: Women leave their marriages for themselves, men leave for other women. "Guys, as opposed to women, typically aren't prepared to let go of one trapeze until another one is within reach," Mr. Grant says to explain the male need to have a safe (and soft) landing. Whether they stay with the new trapeze is another matter. The point is, they need it to get to the other side.

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The affair is a substitute for courage.

But if affairs can be a force for social change, they can also be really good marital glue.

"I'm not making light of it," says Anne Bercht, 45, author of a 2004 book, My Husband's Affair Became the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me, that landed her on Oprah and other television talk shows. "It's devastating. But pain is really an opportunity for personal growth. You don't develop character as a person in the good times," she says from her home in Abbotsford, B.C.

"Once an affair happens, nobody can turn back the clock and undo what has been done. But you're left with a choice: to become better or to allow bitterness to wreck the rest of your life." She and her husband, Brian, who had the affair and confessed it to her, were able to repair the damage, but not without a lot of work. Together they examined how their behaviour in their marriage had contributed to the problem. "We have much greater openness and honesty between us," she says, adding that they now run marriage therapy courses and a website,

Affairs as marital glue can work in other ways, too, according to a woman I spoke to who uses a website that facilitates adulterous affairs between married people. Her husband of many years ignores her. The affairs she has engaged in (several over the years) are never in the hope that she can leave her marriage for another man. She claims there are different kinds of love a person can experience - a sort of fraternal-like affection for a husband of many years and then the sexual passion with a new partner.

My take? I get the thrill of sex with a new person, that life-force thing, and how valued that can make you feel. But I think the human heart longs for a big, complete love, the one where, to quote literary critic Terry Eagleton, "each realizes himself or herself through the other."

I would venture that what lies beneath this woman's behaviour is her reluctance to leave the security of her marriage. Divorce is not just frightening, it's expensive.

Put simply, divorce is a privilege. It's like a car: lots of people may need one and want one, but not everybody can afford one.

This launches Sarah Hampson's

bi-weekly column on divorce.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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