Daring wives: why women cheat.
For one thing, women's sexuality has shifted, as have their choices. The changing roles of women have evolved over a rich, historical, and political landscape. Oppressive eras, draconian double standards, artificial ideals, and unrealistically rigid moralities have taken their toll. Women today are saying, "Enough!"
In the sexually repressive 19th century, the vibrator was developed for male doctors to induce orgasm in female patients. I wonder who benefited the most--the physician or his patient? Back then, women had little voice. Feminism finally gave them one, however. The movement awakened women's consciousness of their desires, needs, and intentions. They found their agency and the will to make choices for change. A curtain ushered in a stage of female actors, diverse, yet united, in their desire for recognition, autonomy, equal power, and the right to express their sexuality. Feminism heralded the inextricable bond between the personal and political, and entwinement of individual psychic selves with sociopolitical constructions.
The workplace gave women greater financial independence, along with a better sense of self-worth. Instead of losing themselves in the role of mother and wife, women have found their mole capacious selves. At work, they get respect. Feeling more competent and autonomous, women are less apt to stay in bad marriages. Not all women have the tools to negotiate a good marriage, communicate needs and desires, resolve differences, be good parental role models, work through their inner demons, or make marriage work. Some women, however, do take a step for change in the marriage. They have an affair.
While not a prudent choice, for some, the affair is daring and desperate--a daring catalyst for change and a desperate plea for help. In the sexually permissive 1960s and '70s, women engaged in promiscuous, casual sex. The conservative 1980s and AIDS changed all that. Many women no longer have affairs just for fun, but for fulfillment.
The pop culture shapes us as we shape it. The popular television show "Desperate Housewives" featured a married woman in her late 20s dallying with her teenaged gardener. In the movie "Unfaithful," an older Diane Lane has a fling with a sexy young hunk. In the film "Closer," wives and husbands engage in multiple affairs. Pop culture is full of sensational stories of women who cheat, but what about the real world? What about regular people? Let's take a peak at a few wives I know.
Debra, a stay-at-home mom, appears to have it all--a handsome, successful husband, two adorable children, and a beautiful home on two acres of land. Actually, home sweet home is not so sweet. Humdrum days spent food shopping, cooking, cleaning, and carting her kids around seem to go on and on forever. She feels trapped, bored, powerless, and lonely. To top it oft, Debra's husband does not get it. He is too busy trying to get ahead to get into her. Along comes an attentive, sexy admirer and bingo!
Sarah, a devoted mother and loving wife, has carved out a successful career. She seemingly has the best of all worlds---only she does not feel that way. "I'm stressed out and ready to explode," she confides. Her guilt about the possibility of leaving her children propels her into overdrive at home. To top it off, our effective firecracker at work cannot get a charge out of her husband. He does not help, nor does he understand her desires or needs--but her co-worker Larry does.
Mary, a scrappy and sexy member of Generation X, is determined not to follow in her mother's footsteps. Her martyr room settled for a secure, dependent, and devoted--but dull--husband. Mary refuses to do the same. She desires committed love in marriage, security, children, and comfort--all the good things. A little like her mom? Not exactly. Mary wants more from her marriage. Along with love, she longs for lust, romance, excitement, and passionate sex. She clearly sees that her husband is not doing it for her. So, what is a restless young wife to do? She finds a sensitive, sexy lover who promises all.
Farrah's flame had died. Wrinkles, sagging skin, backaches, and memory lapses signaled unwanted age-related changes. With aging comes mortality. Farrah's infirm mother heightened her existential angst. Turning to Liam, her husband of 25 years, was a turn off. He had his own midlife crisis. Things looked bleak. Suddenly. the dark cloud that hovered overhead for months gave way to a ray of sunshine. The tall, stocky, matronly looking Farrah was replaced by a willow, curvaceous, youthful one. The smile on her face was outlined with a bright shade of lipstick. The formerly slouched body now was on proud display. The transformation was stunning! Her flame was lit. Mr. Wonderful, a younger man, had everything to do with it.
As these vignettes demonstrate, some women have affairs primarily because they are not getting their needs and desires met in their marriages. Try as they may, wives often are unable to reach their husbands. Rather than remaining stuck in dead or frictional marriages and existing in quiet desperation, discord, and anguish, these wives choose to live more fully. Despite the potential pain, the affair often is a far better option than a life not lived. An awakening and regent cry for change, the affair has multiple meanings. Above all, it is a desperate move toward a fuller, richer life.
Feeling stifled, unfulfilled, frustrated, and helpless in their marriages, women may step outside of their wedding vows. Taking the step is in itself empowering. The affair is a an active choice, not a passive, more-of-the-same response. It screams out, "Something's got to give--either the marriage or me!" However, that is only the first step to autonomy and power. It takes a daring wile to have an affair, but an even more daring one to go into therapy to repair her life and marriage.
What about the children? Couples often stay in unsatisfactory marriages for the sake of the kids. However, parents in miserable marriages usually make for miserable children. The legacies for these offspring are blighted models of marital relationships.
A common myth is that the affair is about sex. It is not. For the most part, sex was better at home before romance eroded. Screaming fights or silent, simmering hostility erodes romance and extinguishes the flames of passion. Chances are that problems in your sex life are not about the quality, but the quantity. Fighting to the death or suffering in silence kills sexual desire for most wives. Consequently, there is less and less sex in the marriage.
If insufficient sex is the result of unsatisfactory marriages and affairs the result of unhappy marriages, what are the causes? What do wives want? Besides emotional engagement, sexual passion, safety, protection, autonomy, and independence, they desire mutuality, equal power relationships, and recognition from their husbands. Devotion, love. and commitment without passionate sex, fun, and excitement is the steak without the sizzle.
Can real love, raw lust, and romance endure over time? Does love last and lust die? Not necessarily. While it may not seem so, we do have choices. We can keep the flame alive or let the fires of passion die. The former is not an easy chore, but what meaningful life experiences are? An understanding of why the flames get snuffed is the first step. Only then can we relight those red-hot flames with slow-burning embers.
Romance and passion fade over time. The common thinking is that familiarity, comfort, and security take over. A newer, more hopeful theory is that we unwittingly degrade romance and passionate sex, place it in the background, and bring security and safety into the foreground. We squeeze the life out of the relationship. The reason this theory is hopeful is that. once we understand why and how this happens, we can see our self-defeating patterns and change them.
Safety in numbness
So why sabotage passion and desire in the first place? It does not make sense. A closer look can be surprising. Let's say you have everything, both sides of the coin in one partner. Be careful; danger lies ahead. You may become dependent on your partner. His loss and its consequences may start to loom large in your mind. Unwittingly, you diminish the sizzle and sparkle, seeking a more secure relationship. Instead. the marriage becomes dull and boring--but sate.
Affairs, interestingly enough, are safer than a real, full love in marriage. You have less to lose. Chances are you have built a life together with your husband: you have history. The affair usually signifies passion, fun, adventure, and novelty, while leaving the marriage even more depleted and weakened. So, now there are even more reasons to have an affair. The cycle is complete. Lust and love are split between your lover and your husband, your affair and your marriage.
Once you see that deadening dynamic, you will have to look at your role in it. Action begins in the mind, in the imagination. Begin thinking what it would be like to desire and be desired by your husband. Play with those thoughts. The fantasies of a romantic evening, a romp in the afternoon, a hot weekend escape, just the two of you. There are no children, chores, or commitments--just fun and games. Once the engine's running, who knows what will happen? Not knowing, the uncertainty of the ride, is part of the adventure. You and your husband are headed in a different direction. Instead of a split between love and lust, your new path lies in the tensions between opposites--committed love and wild sex, security and excitement, continuity and novelty, safety and adventure, comfort and passion. Maintaining balance is central.
Too many people say they love their spouses and then try to change them to be like themselves. Differences signify separateness, which can give rise to fears of abandonment. If we are separate enough, we are alone. On the other hand, control of the other is sameness and seems sate. The irony is that control of the other is not safe. In fact. when one controls someone other than one's self, one is alone. So, if your husband controls you, you disappear in him. and cease to exist, and he is alone. If you control him, he ceases to exist, and you are alone. It takes two separate people, with differences, for a relationship to last. We all are different and unique. Yet, at the same time, a common humanity unites us.
Above all, fight fair. Stay with the issue. Do not demean, belittle, or insult your partner. Most of all, do not lay blame on this individual. Instead of blaming each other, search yourself for your own role in the relationship. What is more important, being right or getting along? That appears to be a no-brainer. Very often, though, brainy people are invested in being fight and blaming others. Blaming your partner may be perceived as exerting power, but that is not so. When you blame someone else, you are asking the other person to change. Then you are at his or her mercy, rendered powerless and transferring the control on to your partner. The only one you can change is you.
Underlying most discord is the wish for power and control. So, disagreements about the small stuff often are a cover for the wish to dominate the relationship--to control the other. Historically, women have submitted to male domination. Now, alter 30-plus years of feminism, women have been empowered--at least somewhat. Yet, I too often see skewed power relationships in my practice.
Is this part of what is going on in your relationship? If so, can the two of you discuss this problem without blaming each other. Not only does the partner who dominates bear responsibility, the partner who submits does so as well. Martyrs are bad for marriage. Abuse of power is fatal to relationships. Each has a role in this dynamic of power and control.
Raise the issue with your partner. Explain how you feel without blaming, attacking, or demeaning. Speak openly about your discontent, anguish, and longings. If you have just had a fight, let things settle down. He can hear you better when you have cooled off. Strike when the iron is cold.
When the fighting gets dirty, understanding and empathy are sullied. Empathy is different than sympathy. When we sympathize with people, we feel sorry for them; we pity them. When we empathize with someone, we understand that individual and can put ourselves in his or her place. With empathy, you stroll in your partner's slippers, you feel his or her pain. In heated battles, empathy is lost.
Try this exercise: Listen to what your partner has to say without interrupting or defending yourself. When he is finished, paraphrase what he has said. Ask him if that is what he meant. If not, let him explain it further. Again, do not defend yourself. Paraphrase again and see if you have gotten it. When he agrees, it is your turn to respond. Go back to the top--only now it is your turn to explain yourself and your feelings. He now has to listen and paraphrase your response until he finally gets it. As you continue, you will understand where he is coining from and he will get a handle on where you are coming from. That is the basis of empathy. As you listen to each other's pain, healing and love will follow.
I believe that where we err, we can repair. Coming to terms with our demons may be difficult, but it can be done. Women's suffering over the years has served to make them stronger. Women can reach out to their spouses and help them to enter into the process of change. Examining the strands of our interior and exterior forces can be daunting but, above all, it can be a fascinating life-enhancing experience.
Frances Cohen Praver is a psychologist and author of Daring Wives: Insight into Women's Desires for Extramarital Affairs and Crossroads at Midlife: Your Aging Parents, Your Emotions, and Your Self.