Playing with fire in a relationship: risking it all for a little of what we don’t have

This my lover has what my life partner does not have - a position, a lot of money. Does that mean my lover is 100 percent?
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My acquaintance, let us call him Joe, had an enviable wife, but great though she was, she wasn’t quite perfect in his eyes. “If she was just 10 percent better she’d be perfect,” he told me once as if he was scrutinizing livestock or an Olympic figure skater.

Of course, she could not be perfect, she was human after all and so imperfection was always to be expected, but to him, it couldn’t be tolerated.

One day Joe ‘supplemented’ his 9 tenths of a perfect marriage with a woman who he thought could supply that magical, missing 10 percent. He was so focused on what his wife lacked and his mistress had that this made the new woman seem perfect in his eyes. But he was deluding himself.

His mistress was human too. She was not perfect, in fact, she was far from it. She may have had that mythical missing tenth that his wife lacked, but it wasn’t until later that he realized she was lacking the other nine-tenths too. “She was hardly even 11-percent,” Joe told me later as if waking from a dream. (I wondered what percentage these women would have given him? But I said nothing.)

I wondered if he’d thought it was truly worth the risk of losing all the blessings that he already had. He’d played with fire and risked sacrificing his long-term support, emotional security and the happiness of both his wife and beautiful young child just to chase this infatuation with perfection.

I think he understood what he’d done, but he seemed mystified at his own behaviour, like a gambler who has once again lost everything on the turn of a card and yet still doesn’t quite see how it happened.

I was mystified too. Why do relatively happy people have this urge to play with fire? Why do they risk the beautiful imperfection they already have for some beautiful ideal that isn’t real? How is it that even bright and seemingly sensible people seem blind to what they can lose?

Overgrown children

As children, many of us used to literally and metaphorically play with fire, sometimes obeying our parents, but sometimes going one step further than whatever line they’d told us not to cross, just to see how far we could push it.

That’s all part of the boundary testing that rightly goes on in the laboratory of childhood, a necessary push against the walls around us, just to see where they are and to learn the consequences of going beyond.

In our lives, we are always constrained. We are always able to do one thing and not do another because we lack something that allows us to. It is natural that some things will be beyond our abilities, or beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable, and we either decide to live within these limitations or we don’t.

A mature person weighs up the personal costs of doing something, both to themselves and to those they care about. The immature person, the one who still gets some thrill or satisfaction from going too far in doing what they’ve been told is dangerous only considers their own needs.

It’s a kind of greed or selfishness. The young child’s mind is constantly hunting for its own satisfaction. The child thinks that their needs should always take priority and they are often quick to avoid blame when it clearly belongs to them.

The perfect relationship is not about finding a perfect partner but a partner who accepts responsibility for their actions just as you do, and accepts your imperfections as you accept theirs. It’s not that either of you is complacent, it’s just that you both love and accept each other despite your faults.

When I wrote the 250 Laws of Love people laughed at the idea that people should establish rules for their relationships. But rules are what binds us together as a society, the commonly accepted standards that necessarily confine us. When you set rules, you define expectations and responsibilities and everyone knows where the limits are. In a happy relationship, why wouldn’t you want to preserve it with a set of sensible rules?

Today, Joe knows that he made a mistake, but like many people who step outside the lines he puts it down to human nature. It’s funny that people often blame human nature as if it is some automatic response that absolves them of blame. There is still part of him that thinks what he did was an automatic human action that he almost had no control over like it was as natural as breathing.

It’s a shame that his beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of his actions have changed, but he is much more cautious about playing with fire simply because he’s realized that playing Russian roulette with a woman’s trust is a huge gamble, where you only need to lose once to lose everything.

I suppose the problem is, his inner child still has a ringside seat in his head. There is a persistent little kid in all of us, sometimes daring us to step out of line, to take one more step, because it might get us what we want. Maturity just means having an adult voice that is louder.

So, how can we resist childish thinking? How can we summon the mindfulness to avoid a fatal mistake? Which thoughts are the red flags that should spur us to action?

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