I don't think I could define what an "affair" is any more. I'm not sure at all what counts as an "affair" these days. Life is short, the Ashley Madison tag line runs. Have an affair. There's the question, though, of what an affair is these days.
I'm old enough to remember when some writers (John Fowles, I seem to recall) still wrote affaire de coeur when describing what their characters were doing. I remember being young--- in my teens, in my undergraduate days ---and reading novels where it seemed that "having an affair" was one of the clear markers for adult life, at least in educated professional urban circles. I can recall sitting in my rooms at home and reading--- Updike, Cheever, Anthony Powell, Louis Auchincloss ---and believing that in the cities and social circles I longed for and aspired to that it was simply taken as a given that educated professionals, married or not, had affairs.
Now I'll take a moment to note that I grew up far away from those cities, and probably a generation removed from the settings of those books. But I did grow up in a house where the shelves had all those novels, where there were comedy albums by Nichols & May and the young Woody Allen on the hi-fi. That world--- Fifties and early Sixties New York or London ---was the world I always thought was just outside my windows, just over the horizon.
I've never had any particular reverence for the institution of marriage. I always assumed that it was an institution that had clear and concrete purposes--- passing on property in a given bloodline, a mechanism for raising children and training them in cultural norms. Nothing wrong with that, and those two things are necessary in any society.
I'm a life-long bachelor, but I never had any particular feelings one way or the other about marriage as an institution. It was a necessary thing, but I was outside it. I suppose I still see it as a social marker I can't claim, a social expectation I haven't met. Whatever marriage did for society, I always saw myself as a bit apart. When I was in my teens or early twenties, I saw marriage as something one would probably do for a while to establish a certain claim to be thought a serious adult (and, yes, to establish a certain clear hetero status), but I don't think I ever ascribed any particular value to the married state itself. I'm sure it suits some people (my own parents were, as best I could tell, happily married for half a century), but I never had any reverence for marriage as such.
You've been reading along here, so I'll assume you know that I always say that I was Ruined By Books in exactly the way the Victorians feared. I did read Cheever and Updike and Auchincloss in my teens--- read books about worlds as alien as those in the sci-fi I used to read as well. In my undergraduate days I read Stendahl and Flaubert and the Big Russians. By the time I was ready to come down from university, I think I took it as a given that "having affairs" was something that gentlemen did, that "having affairs" was a customary part of the social worlds I wanted to inhabit. I don't know how to explain that any other way. By the time I was twenty-one, I took it for granted that in the professional classes, among people who lived in what they'd simply call The City, discreet affairs happened as part of the daily social landscape.
Alas, though. Despite my advanced years, and despite the credentials on my wall and the initials tacked on after my name, I don't move in circles where people have affairs. The closest I think I've come to an affair was in my middle twenties, with a married fortyish woman who was a food-and-wine critic. It was all very discreet and reasonably clandestine. I remember that she borrowed a place from a female friend for us to use for rendezvous--- a converted carriage house in what we'd have called Uptown, or "out on the Avenue". It lasted a couple of late-spring months, and the key thing I remember is how adult it all felt. Or at least literary. But that's as close as ever I've come to an affair. It's been liberal arts co-eds since then, not women of the professional classes, married or not. And there's a clear distinction between dating or hooking up and an affair. Whenever I read Anita Brookner or Louis Auchincloss about the very discreet and civilised affairs their characters have, I know that I'm out of the loop.
I don't know what counts as an affair these days. It also seems that, as the Ashley Madison hack is showing, the moralizers and shame-wielders are all-too-ready to attack the very idea of an affair. I miss the idea, of course. I miss the formality of it all. Like I miss the classic idea of the mistress, too. If you're following this, tell me what you think about the definition of affair and what the semiotics of the term are. And tell me what's happened in the last generation or so to give rise to the ranting (and rancid) moralizing and shaming that have boiled up since the Ashley Madison hack.