For Books’ Sake Talks To: Kate Figes
4th Jun 2013
Kate Figes’ eighth book, Our Cheating Hearts, is the latest in her series of explorations into family relationships. It’s a raw, honest look at that most troublesome of relationship beasts – infidelity.
This is, upfront, a book about straight people. Gay and lesbian relationships are discussed in Figes’ earlier book Couples, but in her latest, Figes explains that she “didn’t want to get into any kind of contrast and compare scenarios, although I do say that many gay and lesbian couples are more explicit about the boundaries of fidelity in their relationship, which means that both partners are more likely to know where they stand – something many straight people find harder.”
Monogamy cannot be assumed as a constant because of marriage vows or social sanctionsHappily married since 1988, Figes might not be the automatic choice to talk about the damage that infidelity can do, but, apart from some strident views concerning the effects of affairs on children, she is carefully non-judgmental.
“All too often [the unfaithful partners] are going through immense emotional pain too – guilt, shame, hating all of the lying and the deceit, confusion, emotionally torn and uncertain what to do,” she says.
“‘Blame’ is unsophisticated, inappropriate and damaging when it comes to the complicated nature of human relationships, where essentially we want to feel accepted for all our frailties by another human being.”
Human frailties are everywhere in this book alongside, inevitably, heartbreak and yes, blame. Perhaps surprisingly, Figes didn’t find it a depressing book to write.
She argues, “there is this sense that you absorb people’s problems as an unpaid therapist sometimes, and that can feel sad, but never depressing because I do feel that I have been of use to them, as they are to me.”
If Figes feels that she has been helpful to her interviewees, what help does she want to provide for the general reader?
“[An understanding that] infidelity is recoverable from,” she replies. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a relationship if you’re prepared to have some really difficult conversations.”
An example of these ‘really difficult conversation’ is the one that starts with “Why?” However much an honest answer to this question is going to hurt, Figes believes that it’s crucial to address it in order to either save a marriage, or to move on and enjoy a healthy relationship with someone new.
“We have to understand why people have affairs in order to understand ourselves and our relationship better,” she says.
This seems to be as important for the future of the betrayer as for that of the betrayed. Of course the one who does the cheating is likely to face recriminations and hostility whether their marriage survives or not; less understandable, perhaps, are some reactions from friends and family if an innocent party decides not to leave an unfaithful spouse.
Figes includes examples of (presumably) well-meaning loved ones who encourage people to end their marriages once affairs are revealed, heaping on further pressure and misery. She believes that society’s general view of infidelity is responsible for this, arguing, “the taboos surrounding the absolute wrongs around any infidelity can do more damage to stable relationships than the extra-marital sex itself.”
Figes believes strongly that, with infidelity being “more common than we like to think,” grown-up conversations about it are vital. In all of her case studies there are grey areas, and responsibility for the breakdown of the relationship on both sides.
In some cases the betrayed parties accept that they are partially responsible for their other half’s affair; in several of the marriages both husband and wife have cheated.
What becomes painfully clear very quickly is that “monogamy cannot be assumed as a constant because of marriage vows or social sanctions,” and that people who believe they’re safe just because they’re married are kidding themselves.
“Who doesn’t know someone in their close friendship group or family who has had an affair?” Says Figes. “Sticking our head in the sand and just hoping that it won’t happen to us, or saying ‘don’t you ever dare even think of it’ isn’t enough these days to build lasting relationships.”
What is ‘enough’ obviously depends on the individuals involved and what they want and need from their relationships, but Figes believes “knowledge and self-knowledge [are] key.”
She also argues that finding other people attractive is “healthy,” as long as you don’t act upon it when acting upon it is not in your proverbial relationship contract.
A set of ‘rules’ is at the heart of the conversations Figes wants us to have, now that social networking, online gaming and chat rooms give us ample opportunity for what she calls “‘touchless or ‘emotional’ infidelity.” It’s not just about sex any more, and setting boundaries is another key element to building a good relationship.
Blithely going about our business and relying on the wedding ring has never been enough to make a happy relationship. Infidelity has been going on forever; for most of history men have had mistresses, and their wives have been expected to put up with it.
Women found cheating were ostracised. To a certain extent an unfaithful woman is still seen, in the UK, as more shocking than an unfaithful man.
In terms of relationship equality Figes believes that women “are slowly getting there”, but her biggest concern is “the very subtle levels of abuse that still go on in relationships – largely from men to women… the ways that men can put women down and make them feel less confident, less able, less free to move about, be themselves and achieve their own dreams.”
She goes on, “If I was to rewrite both my books on relationships – I think I would now like to structure them from this perspective so that both sexes could see how this goes on without us even realising…”