Being a mistress isn't a rhapsodic gallivant that begs for an etiquette manual.
I recently stumbled over "The Golden Rule," a piece written by Whiskey Tortoise for Huffington Post last month. It purports to offer advice for mistresses, aspiring and otherwise, and it concludes thusly: "Dear mistresses, here is the golden rule: keep it casual." But for reasons I'm about to lay out, that's dangerous advice. But let me start at the beginning.
"… One of the most appealing aspects of an affair is its casual nature. The subtext is not to fall in love or become too attached," she writes by way of an introduction. This gave me pause, because I think the real subtext of an affair (as with any subtext) isn't that simple. It's a mess of different complications, and if I had to boil it down, I'd do so in a way considerably less glamorous than Whiskey Tortoise did: being a mistress is just shitty.
Most affairs, when defined as, "an ongoing relationship in which you are cheating on a partner with one consistent person," are not ventures generally devoid of feelings. Sure, a one-night stand could be a brief transgression during which neither party is invested or harmed. But an "affair," especially one where the mistress knows about the person they're cuckolding, generally loses that sense of casualness quickly.
What really bothers me about the whole "golden rule" concept is that Whiskey Tortoise seems to have no remorse or guilt about her affair, which she calls a "thrilling memory." She claims everyone's still really good friends, because the girlfriend never found out. But just because the person being cheated on is none the wiser, doesn't mean the trust in the relationship hasn't become a farce at her hand. I'm sure the "hurt" that the lover's girlfriend "didn't" feel is latently cropping up throughout the relationship, whether it's in his distant touches, wandering looks, or her surreptitious phone monitoring. Maybe the girlfriend has been cheated on again since it worked so well the first time. But "keeping it casual" doesn't allow for nuanced reminiscing, or even empathy, apparently.
Whiskey Tortoise also draws a false parallel between the communication involved in an open relationship with that of an affair. Open relationships, polyamory, and nonmonogamous relationships can (and do) work, but only through honesty and openness. That's what's so grating about picking "keep it casual" as the Golden Rule for Mistresses. It's not honest about what being a mistress actually is: it's a lie to someone you don't know, and it's a lie to yourself. If you are a knowing, informed mistress, you know you're trying to achieve something you most likely will never get.
I'm not speaking from the pearl-clutchers gallery, either. I'm speaking from a place of reluctant experience — my parents broke up because of an affair, I've been cheated on, and I've been in the same position as Whiskey Tortoise herself. I would never put myself in that position again, because now I understand that an affair continually demands choices. You choose to stay up way too late waiting for somebody to come over, you choose to sit in the backs of restaurants, and you choose to pretend not to know one another in shared social circles. A mistress, just like the cheater, is buying into a fantasy with repercussions felt in reality. The intimacy and communication that she describes as singular to a mistress-cheater relationship might feel real, but it's grounded in deception.
Being a mistress isn't a rhapsodic gallivant that begs for an etiquette manual; it's a sure-to-fail, dishonest relationship, and more often than not, it aches. Though culture has glamorized the role of mistress with the likes of Monica, Marilyn, all the way back to Madame de Pompadour, we now live in a society that's (begrudgingly) accepting nonmonogamous relationships, and we need to put the image of the fancy-free mistress to bed.
The essay finishes by sounding like the Oprah of dishonesty. "If you need to re-imagine new ways to keep your affair casual as the intimacy deepens, and if you want to keep this thing going, talk about it with your lover. Find ways to keep things adequately unattached. Stay free." That's right, go commando, sing in the rain, run through a meadow, and stay free, instead of having your heart broken. No one can tell you how to gauge when the intimacy of an affair becomes too difficult to manage, because that threshold doesn't exist, and if it does, we rarely register it. Emotions aren't like a bicycle ride; you can't just peddle backwards and suddenly be where you were moments before.
Maybe "The Golden Rule For Mistresses" was supposed to be controversial, super sex-positive, or empowering for women who find themselves in a mistress position. But really, let's be honest and say that there is nothing empowering about consciously betraying others and hurting them. I mean, maybe there is, but it's kind of sociopathic. Affairs don't exist in vacuums, or in intellectual abstracts where you can dissect them without getting blood on your coat. They exist everyday, and the consequences of the damage can be sudden or insidious, but they're always real. That's the only golden rule for cheating I can think of.