Undressing Infidelity: Why More Women Are Cheating
Fidelity With a Wandering Eye
A review by Cristina Nehring
It's official: the conventional wisdom is false. It's not men who leave their
wives for younger, blonder temptresses; it's women who leave their husbands for -- well,
just about anybody. Or nobody. The fact is, women initiate 66 percent of divorces
between partners over forty. That, at least, is what they reported during a major
AARP study, released last year. That is also the impression one gleans when contemplating
a new spate of books and shows, from ABC's already classic Desperate Housewives
to hot spring titles including most notably Undressing Infidelity: Why More
Wives Are Unfaithful.
This is refreshing news -- in some senses, at least. It puts a great big
dent in sexual stereotypes with which we have been too long saddled: the security-besotted,
marriage-angling, nest- squatting female and her counterpart, the freedom-loving,
wild-oat-sowing male Steppenwolf. They made for an insipid image all along,
but everybody seemed to conspire in it, from self-help authors (who assumed
that their female readers wanted nothing more than tips on how to "catch"
and "tame" a husband) to family counselors, magazine pundits, and,
of course, evolutionary psychologists (who say it's all biology: girls are made
to sit in the straw and warm their eggs; guys are made to fly through the heavens
and spread their seed). Women have been told they are helpless and dependent
for so long that we have begun to believe it -- and to object vociferously
when we are not treated as such. If men whose company we enjoy don't assume
we want to be their wives and thus propose in short order, we consider it "an
insult" (in the approving words of the sexpert-rabbi Shmuley Boteach) and
declare ourselves aggrieved. The result? Women have grown dull while men have
grown smug, offering their hands (when they do) as one might bestow a winning
lottery ticket: "There you go, honey, I guess I've made your life."
Having given that, they too often feel they have given all; they've done their
bit in the kingdom of relationships, and their companions may now live happily
Only they generally don't, as the books and studies make all too clear. Women
need more than security to thrive, it seems. In fact, they often court the square
opposite of security, as Diane Shader Smith learned when she began interviewing
women for Undressing Infidelity. They court risk; they court intensity,
variety, novelty, and disaster -- very much like men. It is a peculiarity of
our age to portray one sex as nature's safe and law-abiding partner -- to cast
it as the erotically muted, risk-averse nanny to man. A few hundred years before
Jesus Christ, Aristophanes presented women as rowdy and ebullient sexual predators,
fighting uninhibitedly over access to handsome boys. Utopia, as described by
Aristophanes' Congresswomen, consists of "free fornication," with no
grandma left behind. Nubile young girls can legally be seduced "only after the
male adolescent has first applied his resources to the full satisfaction of
a bona fide senile female." Ovid expends many lines in his Art of Love
warning men against underestimating the ladies' amorous adventurism. In Dante's
Inferno the circle of hell for sins of the flesh is populated in great
part by women. It is the lust of a mother (not, say, an uncle) that so tortures
Shakespeare's Hamlet ("Frailty, thy name is woman"), a girl's sexual fickleness
that takes out the hero in Troilus and Cressida, a queen's love for an
ass that brings down the house in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The greatest
adulterers in the Western canon -- Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Molly Bloom,
Carmen -- have, in fact, been adulteresses. Each had a faithful husband at home.
Why do women leave? "Verbal, physical or emotional abuse" is the first reason
cited in the AARP study by wives who initiated divorces. And yet "abuse" played
little role in the decisions of Smith's interviewees to risk their unions, most
of which sound altogether more docile than violent. So why did they do it? Smith
herself is remarkably unhelpful on this score. "The reasons women cheat," she
concludes, "are as varied as the women themselves." Fair enough. But surely
more-provocative hypotheses might be floated. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author
of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, proffered a few as early as
the end of the eighteenth century, and her words still resonate today. Women,
she declared, are reared for love: the novels they read, the fairy tales they
hear, all prepare them for a future of fiery sentiments and gallant attentions.
But "a husband cannot long pay those attentions with the passion necessary to
excite lively emotions, and the [female] heart, accustomed to lively emotions,
turns to a new lover, or pines in secret."
Is this so far wrong today? Don't women even now harbor romantic ideals that
are tangibly more central to their lives than to men's, and thus more easily
(and disastrously) disappointed? A man may dream of a passionate soulmate, as
a woman does, but if he does not find one, he will rechannel that desire into
his work, his sports, his substance abuse, his war-making -- all things that
define a man's identity more commonly than do his emotional efforts. A woman
has these occupations open to her as well, but rightly or wrongly (and I think
rightly) they are often subordinated to the love plot in her life. This
is something a certain kind of feminist has lamented -- and a certain kind of
moralist might reasonably find dangerous, since it does indeed make women more
sensitive to marital dissatisfaction. But on balance it is a noble hierarchy.
Romantic love has suffered a demotion following the wars of the sexes in recent
decades, with the result that we've forgotten it is the source of some of our
civilization's greatest acts of heroism and genius. For what else did knights
slay dragons in the Middle Ages, did Petrarch write poetry, did Dante take on
The Divine Comedy, Zeus turn himself into a swan, and Penelope weave
her gorgeous web? Even evolutionary psychologists say we are never so strong
as when we are in love, never so poised for high achievement or fierce battle.
(It has to do with dopamine levels, apparently.) Instead of trying to curb the
power of this love plot in one of the sexes, as feminists like the late Carolyn
Heilbrun have done, might it not be better to re-sanction it in both?
But why re-sanction romantic love if it leads not merely to maladaptive perfectionism
but also to a propensity for homewrecking? The easy answer is that it doesn't.
If women initiate 66percent of divorces, they also initiate probably 96 percent
of marriage counseling. For every new door they open to love, they have made
several attempts to fix the old. That's what you do when you care about eros:
you work on all fronts. The hard answer is that sometimes it's okay to wreck
a home. Sometimes divorce is the brave and not the cowardly option. We all know
couples who shouldn't be together but stay together anyway -- excruciatingly,
eternally, disastrously. The human animal is no more frivolous and irresponsible
than fearful and lethargic. For every person who throws out a sublime relationship,
there are two who masochistically cling to a visibly destructive one. (Note
the wild success of books like He's Just Not That Into You and How
to Break Your Addiction to a Person.)
Further, women are more frustrated with their marriages than men for myriad
reasons -- and only one (albeit a big one) is romantic idealism. Another is
family culture. If the customer is supposedly king in American stores, the child
is incontrovertibly king in American families. Of the women Smith describes
in her book, many are overworked soccer moms. She interviews one as she drives -- interminably -- around
town dropping and fetching her kids at after-school enrichment activities. Smith
herself mentions in passing that she cooks and serves not three meals a day
but three or more dietary regimens.
Mediterranean for my husband Mark; red meat every two hours for our fourteen-year-old
son, Micah; and four hot meals a day for our twelve-year-old daughter, Mallory.
And then there are the kids' friends, who show up almost every day with their
insatiable, and often picky, teenage appetites.
How can one doubt that these women -- all of them attractive, we hear, and
not long ago accustomed to lavish attention themselves -- fantasize about
escape? A place where they can be not just cogs in the domestico-pedagogic machine
but colorful individuals, sexual entities, and romantic agents? A woman "cannot
an upper servant after being treated as a goddess,"
Wollstonecraft observed. And in today's superchild culture the typical wife
is not what Wollstonecraft (with her French maid, her cook, and her habit of
calling children "animals") would have considered an "upper servant";
she's a lot more like a galley slave.
Abjection to children often correlates directly with churlishness to mates.
Children are extensions of our egos, so we dote on them, but spouses are often
merely co-managers of a home business. As such, they are part of the same unsentimental
consumer culture that defines our relationship to, say, submarine sandwiches
or coffee drinks. The explosion of Internet dating, in which you announce the
traits you want in a lover as you'd announce the ingredients you want in a latte,
and remorselessly exchange him if he's not made to specifications, has hastened
still further the commodification of romance -- and its desanctification.
This, alas, is the worst of the many reasons that modern women trade partners
at such a clip: not because they are into ethereal romance but because they
are into eternal choice. The mystery and the altruism of love have been subsumed
into the ruthless commerce of self-gratification. "I was looking for three
things when I married Don," says one woman Smith interviews. "I wanted
children, I wanted a house, and I wanted someone I could talk to. Don said he
would give me all that
" We are intended to admire this self-knowledge,
because it gets the speaker off compulsive affairs and up to the altar. But
it does not do so in a way that could ever be moving -- or flattering -- to
her mate. She might as easily have said, "I wanted a South Seas cruise,
a masseur, and someone to keep me in Chanel" -- and the person in her
arms would have been another man entirely (as, for that matter, the man who
fulfilled her domestic and maternal wishes could have been too). Most of the
extramarital relations in Smith's book are, in fact, shallow, opportunistic
affairs. What makes them cut so deep is the price at which they come.
Almost all affairs, or all that don't occur in what used to be called an open
marriage, are cause for deception. And deception -- far more than extracurricular
sex alone -- is the cardinal relationship killer. If a lover has a single
vast advantage over a spouse, it is not that he is newer or more attractive
to the woman who takes him; it is that she can be honest with him. He knows
about her husband; her husband does not know about him. Result: she feels closer
to the person who knows her most fully -- her lover. With the man at her hearth
she feels the way one feels with all people one tricks: either superior, because
of one's imagined cleverness, or inferior, because of one's ostensible guilt.
Or both. But what she rarely feels, either at the moment of deception or afterward,
is joined. (All this, of course, is equally true when the sexes are reversed.)
Lightly started, affairs become heavy barriers between partners. If they do
not destroy a marriage, as they did for several of Smith's subjects, they take
the sap and spark out of it. They turn a soulmate into a dupe, a friend into
a jailer, conjugal pleasure into conjugal duty.
At its best, matrimony is a quixotic proposition. The odds that it will go
well -- or, at least, very well -- are slim. The best minds over time (and
also the worst) have studied alternatives to it, official and unofficial, public
and private. The medieval courtier wed one person and wooed another. Such Romantic
writers as Shelley and Byron inaugurated a high-minded promiscuity that took
little notice of who was joined to whom. A generation later the long and quietly
married Emerson came down hard against formalized vows: "No love can be
bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love." Emerson's
wilder-eyed contemporary, the utopian Charles Fourier, spent decades formulating
theories of democratic sex -- as non-possessive as it was non-marital. Even
today social scientists who, like Helen Fisher, inform us that amorous loyalty
does not naturally exceed twelve to thirty-six months predict a transition to
different kinds of unions -- for example, marriages contracted for one to
five years and, like magazine subscriptions, renewable.
And yet for all the rational appeal of such a proposition, no one who has ever
been in love, who has ever felt the transformative wand of passion tap his or
her shoulder, wants to go to the altar and say "For better or worse, until
the next Olympics do us part." The very concept of love brings with it
intimations of eternity, even allusions to death. Lovers don't want only to
live together; they want to die together. How diminishing it is to let our prudent,
miserly reason trump our brave-hearted, generous passion. Perhaps in this case
we should let instinct prevail over argument.
A second marriage, as Samuel Johnson observed, represents "the triumph of
hope over experience." The experience of marriage is one of conflict between
ideals: the ideal of loving companionship and that of erotic intensity; the
ideal of unflagging devotion to a single person and that of emotional responsiveness
to many. And yet some of these ideals are not as irreconcilable -- or as irreconcilable
with marriage -- as they appear. Unshakable loyalty to a central partner does
not preclude passionate responses to other people. If it seems that way, it
is only because of the puritanism, the pious emotional parsimony, of our American
Diane Shader Smith's book provides, ironically, a perfect example of this.
Her introduction is an alarmist confession of her attraction to a man other
than her husband. She recounts in detail her nervousness around him, her supposedly
dangerous fascination with his charm. She criminalizes her feelings. And so,
one might add (albeit more understandably, since she has led the way), does
her husband. In a different culture her attraction would be viewed by her readers,
herself, and her husband as perfectly natural and even commendable. What sort
of a creature would you be if, having once found a human being who stirs your
heart (and whom you marry, if you follow Rabbi Boteach's example, by age twenty-one),
you were never stirred again?
The key is to incorporate chemistry into our marital lives, not to snuff it
out. We are erotic and emotional animals, and when we react most fully to people,
we react to them erotically and emotionally. We react this way to teachers and
to students; to pop stars and to politicians; to interns, novelists, and waiters;
to our elders and our juniors. It is a part of what allows us to relate to human
beings across the social, political, and cultural spectrums. To demonize this
responsiveness is to truncate our sensibility, our humanity. Better to share
our passing fancies with our mates, to turn them like colored glass in the light,
lest they become blades in our pockets. For this we need magnanimous partners.
And we need an 18-karat commitment to those partners, who over the years will
inevitably seem less perfect than those glinting shards of novelty in the corner
of our sight.
"To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god,"
said Jorge Luis Borges. To love truly is to stay in love after the fall. It
is to love more gratefully, more potently, because our god has come down to
earth: the spirit has been made flesh and now walks -- and slips, and flounders,
and slouches -- among us.
It's a delicate proposition -- counterintuitive, presumptuous, heady, unreasonable.
And yet therein lies its nobility and, perhaps, its necessity.
Cristina Nehring is at work on Women in Love: A Feminist Defense of Romance.
Her essay "Domesticated
Goddess," about Sylvia Plath, appeared in the April 2004 Atlantic.
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