Ed note: This story was originally published in the March 2007 issue of Best Life.
Jane and Thomas were high school sweethearts, and now their own kids are in high school. About a year ago, Thomas, 47, a financial officer at a large corporation, suddenly started volunteering to take his son to soccer practice on Sunday mornings and began using his laptop at home. Jane noticed he seemed to hide the computer from her, and he never used it in front of her. He sought excuses to be alone; she became uneasy. One night, he made a hushed phone call downstairs while she was in bed. When he came upstairs, she asked who it was. He said it was no one, told her she was “hearing things,” and said it must have been the TV. His denial was all she needed. She asked right then if he was having an affair, and soon enough he admitted he was. Their world came crashing down.
The other woman is a fellow employee who reports to him. She is 14 years Jane’s junior and possesses, in Jane’s words, “a Victoria’s Secret body.” Thomas agreed that he must end the affair, but for the past four months the evidence says otherwise. Jane has discovered cryptic text messages on her husband’s cell phone and there are regular hang-up calls from a blocked number. Jane considered telling the other woman’s husband about his wife’s affair, but then the woman—out of revenge—could sue Thomas for sexual harassment. This has the potential to bankrupt the family. So would divorce. Every time Thomas stays late at work, Jane can’t help but accuse him—even if it’s silently, just with a look—of having been unfaithful again. In their own home, Jane and Thomas are now deadlocked in marital misery, fighting tearfully and viciously.
Does it have to be this way? Must an affair lead a couple inexorably to divorce court or bankruptcy? Do other cultures handle the circumstances of infidelity with different protocol and ethics? I asked these questions of Anna, 30, an American with a European background and a 1960s Italian art-film look: a decadent face, a slim, curvy body in a tweed pencil skirt. One night exactly a year ago, Henri, a Parisian client of Anna’s company, came to town for a professional event. They flirted unapologetically throughout the evening. When she invited people to her place for late-night drinks, Henri stayed. Before they even kissed, he held up his finger. “You see I’m wearing this ring,” he said. Anna said she did. “You know nothing will change,” he continued. She answered that she did know that.
“It was adult,” Anna says. “It was respectful to me, in a way, and to his wife, to ask that, and to make that statement. The next morning, he was sweet and open. We hung out for hours. He didn’t run in shame.”
Henri is the fairy-tale adulterer: European, sensual, guiltless. He is a figure we Americans look upon with wonder and terror, wanting to believe and desperately not wanting to believe that he (or she) exists. Because when we go too far at that bachelor party in Vegas, or at the office holiday party, or with the milkman or the butcher or the baker, we go into hysterics. We drink a bottle of Wild Turkey and drive onto our own lawn and confess, bawling, to our spouse. We cut our thighs with an X-Acto knife. We quit our job and work full-time for free at a soup kitchen. We enroll in specialized infidelity therapy. We hate ourselves. We fall apart.
We end up at Jane and Thomas’s address. According to writer Pamela Druckerman, author of infidelity, Lust in Translation, “Americans are the worst, both at having affairs and dealing with the aftermath. Adultery crises in America last longer, cost more, and seem to inflict more emotional torture than they do anyplace I visited.”
For several years Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, surveyed married or committed couples all over the world, and she not only charted the international styles and frequency of cheating, but also looked at each country’s capacity for guilt and shame (or anger and vengeance, depending on the party’s role) regarding infidelity. It seems no other population suffers the same magnificent anguish that we do. The Russians regard affairs as benign vices, like cigars and scotch. The Japanese have institutionalized extramarital sex through clubs and salaryman lifestyles. The French, who don’t cheat as much as we thought they did, prize discretion above the occasional lie. In sub–Saharan Africa, even the threat of death by HIV hasn’t created a strong taboo on cheating. And God, well, he’s tried. Like a father gently lecturing his adolescent, using the monogamy-is-cool approach, and then resorting to “You’re grounded for life if you disobey me.” But to no avail: Even God-fearing and devout Muslims, Christians, and Jews are still cheating and having affairs, still double-parking on their spouses.
Why are Americans destroyed by affairs, I wanted to know. Over half the marriages in this country end in divorce, with infidelity blamed for 17 percent or more. In 1970, the United States claimed about 3,000 marriage and family therapists. In 2005, we had more than 18,000. And yet in the grand scale of infidelity around the world, the United States remains junior varsity. We have affairs at about the same numerical rate as the French. According to the General Social Survey, the most recent statistical examination of marital infidelity, about 4 percent of married men polled claimed at least one sexual partner outside his marriage in the year prior; around 3 percent for married women. Compare this with Africa’s Ivory Coast, where 36 percent of married men strayed, according to Druckerman.
Why is the fallout here so brutal? In most other countries, an occasional affair is tolerated and even sanctioned (at least for men). Why do we Americans want to get caught, confess, cry? Compared with fellow mammals, only 3 percent of which are monogamous, we’re doing great. And as research in the wild becomes more and more forensic, even animals we counted in our small alliance for fidelity have recently been proved fallible. Swans, that elegant emblem of faithfulness, glided away from the hallowed statistical minority; it has come to light that they cheat and divorce too. Red-winged blackbird couples thought to be devoted surprised scientists that had given vasectomies to the males for population control; the females kept laying eggs that hatched. Somewhere, there’s a blackbird Holiday Inn with a discreet parking lot.
I try to imagine allowing space in my ideology for both love and infidelity. Tariq, 29, has Middle Eastern parents and grew up in the United States, but he has lived an international life—in Lebanon, the Caribbean, and South America. Throughout, he has maintained a relationship for eight years with a strong, professional woman he loves and respects—and he cheats on her all the time. “It bears no reflection on her,” he assures me, and when I search his face, he looks guileless, earnest.
“I compartmentalize,” he says, shrugging. We’re at lunch, and he’s cutting up a steak. He apologizes for his constantly buzzing phone, which keeps going off because, on this bizarrely warm winter day in New York City, he’s organizing a rooftop dinner party for this evening. Most cultures where Tariq has spent time—besides ours—conform to the system in which one’s wife, sister, and mother are treated one way and “spared” what a man saves for his mistress. We discuss appetite. He claims that he is, in fact, satisfied by the simple things, but a “complex mosaic of simple things.” He has been raised to enjoy a big life.
Tariq is vigorous and alive, and he thrives in a big world in a big, extravagant way. Before we finish lunch, he points out that everything he has talked about is one-sided. He’s well aware that most women in the cultures he has described don’t have a sliver of this freedom. He believes this isn’t right, but he doesn’t apologize.
It is important, too, to pay attention to why infidelity can be thrilling. Lily, a single 31-year-old with a powerful job in the media, has a history with infidelity and an open mind about cheating. She has been the other woman, and she has strayed in her own relationships. She has also engaged in something she calls “emotional cheating,” relationships with men that are not physical but can feel “more intense than sex.” Occasionally, those platonic but heated affairs can open her up to the man she’s actually seeing. Emotional cheating makes her feel alive, and she brings that home, where it translates to amazing sex.
Cheating broke up one of her longest and most important relationships, but the power of taking something that doesn’t belong to her still enthralls. “Both people feel that, and they’re desperate and animalistic and somehow strangely honest,” she says. Lily compares infidelity to drugs, where there’s a thrilling ride but an emptiness at the end. “If you win that man you’re cheating with, and you both make each other the primary person, you’ve lost the sense of danger, you’ve lost everything that fueled the experience.”
I ask if she will always cheat. “I hope not,” she says. “I would like to find someone I could commit to. It’s a sacred bond, isn’t it?” She asks the question almost apologetically, and then waits as though I might have the answer. Her tone is wistful, as if she both wishes there were such a thing as a sacred bond and simultaneously believes such a bond is a sacred trap.
So how did Americans come to be so rigid and demanding, not just of our partners and ourselves, but of the marital relationship itself? The typical American—if there is one—has “lofty ideals” about marriage, according to Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a family and relationships expert. These lofty ideals have grown from simple seeds, in his opinion. He points to the colonial beginning of this country, to the genesis of the New World. As part of the desire to reduce the power of the throne and religious institutions, our forefathers emphasized that marriage and divorce should be governed by legal institutions rather than religious ones. In the 18th century, people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners independently. Prior to that time, marital partners were chosen by the families for economic and political reasons, the same reasons that people had been getting married for centuries throughout the world.
In the ideal American marriage today, we are told to look to one person for everything—sexual, spiritual, financial, intellectual, emotional—we need. Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote recently that more married Americans have begun “to cocoon in the nuclear family.” We have dangerously few friends, she warns, and the “atomization” of society means losing touch with others. Coleman points out that as recently as the 1960s, Americans held different, lower expectations for marriage, requiring the marital partner to play fewer roles than at present, and studies show that—logically—marriages with more moderate expectations are more resilient.
It might be that the way our perception of marriage has evolved leaves little room for marriage to thrive. Adam Phillips, a London-based psychotherapist and author of Monogamy, said in an interview with Salon.com that to bear jealousy is important in a relationship. He claims it’s essential to understand that “other people are independent of our desires for them.” This statement celebrates autonomy as a virtue, a key factor in seductiveness. Why do most Americans think of a heightened sense of autonomy as a threat or an abnormality?
Karen could have used more autonomy at the beginning of her married life. She and Tony started out as high school sweethearts. She caught him cheating during their engagement, but she forgave him and hoped things would change once they said their vows. Three kids later, with a newborn in the crib, Karen found out—at a party when Tony got drunk and slipped up in front of friends and family—that he had been “hanging out” and doing drugs with Karen’s 27-year-old niece. The way his face froze after he slipped let everyone in the room know he was guilty. Without any resources, Karen stayed with him for five more years.
She started cheating on him too, and she hasn’t broken that cycle. She’s now with another man she doesn’t trust, and for leverage, she taunts him with the idea that she might also be straying. She went into his AOL account a few weeks ago and found correspondence with dozens of women. He meets them through the business he owns, puts them on his “joke list,” and then heightens the e-mail exchange to invitations for drinks and dinner. So Karen is pulling away from this one too. But with children to take care of, she’s tempted to put up with it and stay. When I asked if she could have done things differently, she says, “I recommend people get their own life. Be financially independent. If good things come to you or pass through your life, good. But you don’t need it.”
During my first trip to Paris, I found myself intimidated by everyone’s sense of composure. I was amazed at how people—who didn’t otherwise seem crazy—talked to themselves. Someone explained the European psyche; they have a developed capacity to “converse” with themselves. Now, I wonder if that confidence, that ability to reckon with one’s own soul, is something Americans lack. We compulsively look to media, to society, to our partners for our own self-esteem, without ever stopping to wonder how our self-worth ended up in someone else’s hands.
We in the New World are rookies of sorts. Human beings elsewhere seem more aware and less terrified of the fact that a person is born alone and dies alone—as though people become accustomed to that notion after many hundreds of years of civilization. We Americans are like a senior class about to graduate into the real world, socially green enough to think we’ll all be friends forever and that nothing will change.
Lust in Translation author Druckerman calls the vast landscape of therapists the “marriage industrial complex,” and she claims it needs adultery the way the military industrial complex needs war. This particularly American idea—that all marriages can and should be fixed—has spawned hundreds of Web sites where e-books, counseling services, and tip sheets are sold, and some of the literature spreads a contagious paranoia. One book presents 829 “telltale signs” of cheating—about 820 more signs than anyone needs. “Classes” of affairs are broken down like strains of meningitis. Everything goes under the magnifying glass; even Christmas presents. Certain gifts, we’re told, will always give a cheater away (perfume to a coworker).
The so-called experts reinforce this near-prejudice against privacy or sovereignty. They promise that if you, the betrayed spouse, read this e-book, “you will know him better than he knows himself.” There are strict rules in the marriage industrial complex. Almost all these sites demand the adulterer confess every act of sex, every telephone conversation, and every detail of every assignation. The principle is utter and unveiled transparency, which is antithetical to ancient ideas of love—at the heart of which is a little mystery.
Adam Phillips says relationships are “nontechnological.” Like trees, they have an independent life that can be nurtured; unlike cars, they cannot be fixed with a jack and a wrench. But Dave Carder, a pastor of the counseling ministries of the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, and author of Torn Asunder: Recovering From Extramarital Affairs, proudly packs a jack and a wrench.
Carder has counseled families and couples in the U.S. and around the world. He’s prominent in the therapist throng that Druckerman decries, and it’s easy to smirk at his elaborate, almost algebraic formulas for recovering from infidelity as well as the alarmist tone in his writings. But it’s hard to argue with some of his points.
For example, when I ask if the thousands of dollars spent on infidelity therapy are worth it, he suggests the money is better spent there than on divorce and custody cases. If issues can be resolved before going to the courthouse, it’s better for the couple and for the children. He states that remarriages have worse statistical chances than first marriages: a result of our neglecting our own psychological foundations and blundering on.
When I ask why we’re the only country whose relationships often collapse immediately under the weight of a discovered infidelity, he says that in other countries women have fewer rights. Men cheat, and women have no leverage to stop them or to complain. It’s not a matter of tolerance but of unequal freedoms. He reminds me that in some countries, women are stoned to death for adultery.
“So is it not possible for couples and individuals to handle this crisis on their own?” I ask.
“It’s possible,” he answers. “In Singapore, where there’s no support system, they do handle it on their own.” I ask how. “With a staggering rate of suicide,” he replies.
Two years ago, when Bill discovered his wife, Eleanor, was having an affair with an old friend from high school, he was forced to admit that he, too, had been unfaithful. They were both devastated.
A year after the discovery, the couple was still waist-deep in a hellish marital swamp of discord, distrust, regret, and despair. They came across an infidelity therapist, whose workbook and 12-week program “saved our lives,” says Eleanor. On top of the 12 sessions, they undertook hours and hours of what the therapist called “dirty work”: letters of forgiveness and apology and restitution. They confessed all the details of their respective affairs. They did trust exercises. “Luckily, we’re retired,” says Bill, as it was an enormous time commitment. They took “love-language tests” and now speak of each other’s “love language” as if that’s a common phrase. According to both of them, their marriage is thriving, and it’s better now than it ever was before.
As much as I sometimes run from the ruddy-cheeked, cowboy philosophies of the self-help world, it’s part of the rigging for this country’s civil-rights progress. Carder’s plainspoken and earnest instructions are somehow the (possibly illegitimate) great-grandson of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. These treatises both belong to the American identity.
Progress can be unglamorous. Anna heard from Henri six months ago, when he e-mailed that he was coming to town. And then he e-mailed again. And again. His ardor crossed the line from spontaneous to premeditated. When he arrived, he kissed her in front of someone they both knew; this triggered a buzz-kill of liability. His body language betrayed an agenda and a twinge of guilt.
She took him home, but it wasn’t the same. Neither party admitted it, and they were still affectionate and open afterward, but the affair was over. According to Druckerman, if he’s the prototype of a Frenchman, he’ll walk away from this without a need to confess, without a burning conscience, without a need to turn to therapy for absolution—and most important, free of any subconscious desire to be caught. As Tariq said to me: “No one is caught if he doesn’t want to be caught.” Henri will know that what he did wasn’t entirely right, but he won’t thrash his soul, believing that what he did was entirely wrong. He won’t see it as a reflection on his wife and how much he loves her, and perhaps then it will never become a reflection on his wife and how much he loves her.
And thus, for Anna, Henri faded, glimmering away like a mirage that disappears when the heat finally lets up.
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