How to Pick a Lover

The chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to bear them, and sometimes three.
—Alexandre Dumas: fi ls, L’Esprit d’Alexandre Dumas

As Val, whose blog I highly recommend (valentinelogar.com), noted in her comment on my last post, the double standard of sexuality has always been more tolerant of the husband who strays than of the wife who strays. Nevertheless, a large proportion of married woman do have extramarital sex, at least once, during the course of their marriages. Quite a large proportion take a lover and have an affair which continues over time on a number of occasions. Some have more than one affair at a time. How large are these proportions? No one knows, but they would seem to be an increasing minority.

Back in 1948, Kinsey and his associates reported in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female that about 20 percent of all wives had had extramarital sex at least once. In 1972, Hunt published a survey done by Redbook magazine, which suggested approximately the same ratio, with rates slightly higher among young women. In her book The Monogamy Myth, Peggy Vaughan estimates that 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair while married. The rate is likely to vary depending on the type of women interviewed, with the highest probably to be found among younger wives working in urban areas. While extramarital sex is still a relatively secretive activity, it’s becoming more and more of an open secret. Elaine Denholtz provides an account of women who are Having It Both Ways, based on a series of very intimate anonymous interviews. Mary Anne Wollison does much the same thing in her discussion of Affairs: The Secret Lives of Women, as does Linda Wolfe in her book Playing Around: Women and Extramarital Affairs.

Cover of "The Monogamy Myth: A Personal H...

Cover via Amazon

Some people who commit adultery do incur most unfortunate results, just as the folk literature tells us. However, in real life, many women have affairs which no one knows about except the participants. Many women have affairs which are eventually discovered but which don’t automatically bring destruction and ruin about their heads. Many women have many affairs and live to tell the tale and, eventually, live happily ever after.

The real message may be that it’s not an extramarital connection per se that is bad for one’s mental health, but the wrong extramarital connection, undertaken with the wrong person for the wrong reasons and managed in the wrong way. There isn’t a whole lot of instruction given wives on the important subject of how to have a successful affair, with the result that there’s a lot of on-the-job training. As a married friend of mine told me after she had a disastrous affair, “The trouble with on-the-job training is that you can make so many mistakes.”

Help may be on the way, as women become more circumspect about their sexual needs. In the early 1980s in Los Angeles, psychologist Cynthia Silverman began to offer workshops for married women who are having—or thinking of having—extramarital affairs. While such groups may offer some psychological support and may be useful in dealing with guilt, they are most noteworthy for the changing attitudes they represent.

A married woman who contemplates an affair should take into account all of the rules of safe conduct discussed in my previous blogs. In addition, however, she needs to contend with two other factors: the risk of exposure and the special problems of pregnancy. More to come on that later.

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“Come, come,” said Tom’s father, “at your time of life,
There’s no longer excuse for thus playing the rake.
It is time you should think, boy, of taking a wife.”
“Why, so it is, Father—whose wife shall I take?”
—Thomas Moore, “A Joke Versified”

Thomas Moore wrote these ironic lines at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They illustrate a paradoxical aspect of our views of adultery. On the one hand, it is supposedly a very serious affair, a major sin, and a cause for outrage and retribution. On the other hand, it’s incorporated into the jokes and wisecracks of everyday life in such a way as to suggest that it’s not really all that serious.

Rodney Dangerfield's comedy album No Respect.

Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy album No Respect. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People laugh at the prospect of adultery in ways they do not (yet) laugh about things they regard as more beyond the pale, such as child abuse or incest. “Do you suppose,” the comedian wonders, “if infants have as much fun in infancy as adults do in adultery?” “A man can sleep around, no questions asked,” quips Joan Rivers, “but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes, she’s a tramp!” Marty, a comic, reports a conversation with his friend Art. “Your wife is gorgeous! Tell me, is she faithful?” asks Marty. “My wife is too good to be true,” replies Art. And Rodney Dangerfield jokes, “I have good-looking kids. Thank God, my wife cheats on me.”

The ubiquity of humor about adultery suggests that it is quite a commonplace occurrence, in actual fact as well as in fantasy. It implies an ambivalence about it which softens the sense of prohibition.

It does not matter whether or not you happen to find jokes about cuckolds and horns funny. What is significant is that adultery is often seen as being, literally, a joking matter.

 

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Adulteress as Villainess

A hundred years ago Hester Prynne of “The Scarlet Letter” was given an A for adultery; today she would rate no better than a C-plus.
—Peter De Vries

Throughout history, women who were caught in adultery have suffered grievous punishments. In India, they might have been burned. In Persia, men favored beheading adulterous women. In Turkey, the traditional punishment was the lash, a painful prospect but one offering more hope than in traditional China, where errant wives might be imprisoned for life.

Under Sharia law in a number of Islamic countries, all it takes is two male witnesses swearing that the woman is an adulteress, and she can be stoned to death even if she never committed adultery.

Countries with Sharia rule.

Countries with Sharia rule. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the literature of the Western world, women who are, as they say, “taken in adultery” are not punished as blatantly, but they don’t fare well. The world’s literature is, of course, written primarily by men and may, consequently, reflect more the position of an outraged husband than it does the sentiments of the outraged wife.

In Dante’s Inferno (ca. 1300), Francesca loved not only her husband but also his younger brother, Paolo; and when they were discovered, both were put to death. This sad tale, repeated in other literary versions, is unusual in that both guilty parties were punished. Usually, the double standard results in the errant woman being the focus of concern and punishment.

In Hawthorn’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was forced to wear an embroidered scarlet letter on her dress to show that she was an adulteress and then required to stand in the pillory holding her illegitimate child. In Tolstoy’s tragic story of Anna Karenina, the social disapproval of the lovers is so pervasive and extreme that Anna disintegrates and ultimately throws herself under the wheels of a train. There are a plethora of other examples of the same ilk, conveying the message that crime does not pay and that the woman who strays from the domestic hearth will come to a tragic end.

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The Seventh Commandment

If wishing damns us, you and I,
Are damned to all our heart’s content;
Come, then, at least we may enjoy
Some pleasure for our punishment!
—Thomas Moore

Marriage in our culture is defined traditionally by the Judeo-Christian ethic, an ethic which is quite unambiguous on the question of adultery. Moses brought down the Word carved in stone and the word was “no.” It is written clearly in Exodus: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

skeletons in love

Photo credit: Dreaming in the deep south

To underline the message even more strongly, one was not even supposed to want to commit adultery. The tenth commandment goes on to specify: “Thou shalt not covet . . . thy neighbor’s wife.”

“Covet” is an evocative word. It means to desire inordinately. Perhaps desiring ordinately is all right. (My neighbor’s wife has been generally unappealing to me, but I have lived in neighborhoods where I could have been said to covet my neighbor’s ass.)

But in fact, even ordinate desire isn’t acceptable, for the Bible then goes on to prohibit even quiet longing. It’s written in Matthew: “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Remember Jimmy Carter’s interview in Playboy where he quoted that passage and admitted that he had lusted in his heart?

If you take these prohibitions literally, then my upcoming posts are not for you. There is no provision to be made for negotiation about extenuating circumstances. If you do proceed anyway and decide you would rather commit your sins in bed than in your heart, then you can expect a certain amount of moral outrage from the more devout. Remember that in the Bible, it’s also written: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Watch out for anachronistic Pilgrims!

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If you cannot have your dear husband for a comfort and delight, for a breadwinner and a crosspatch, for a sofa, chair, or hot water bottle,one can use him as a cross to be borne.
—Stevie Smith

Adultery: democracy applied to love.
—H. L. Mencken

It’s one thing to reflect upon your life and to decide that you would like to have a lover in it. It’s quite another thing to do that when you are already married. A woman’s husband is, theoretically, supposed to eliminate the need or the desire for a lover; unfortunately, very often he doesn’t. The lover of a married woman is by definition an illicit lover, although he may not be a secret one. The special term for illicit lovers of either sex is “paramour.” The French par plus amour means “by or through love.” The role of paramour seems to have evolved simultaneously with the roles of husband and wife. In some cultures, the paramour was more blatant than others, but he has always hovered provocatively in the background.

Sexual encounters outside of marriage have such a negative connotation in our culture that it’s difficult even to discuss them in neutral and objective terms.

The technical term “adultery” means sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than a spouse. It’s often illegal and is generally considered to be a sin as well by most major religious groups. In addition, the term isn’t very precise, for it doesn’t include the wide range of sexual experiences other than conventional intercourse.

The Seventh Commandment

The Seventh Commandment (Photo credit: pasukaru76)

The verb “to adulterate” means to debase or to make impure by the addition of inferior materials. It conjures up negative images such as contaminated food. People who have extramarital involvements are said to be unfaithful or to betray their vows or to cheat. The common phrase “sleeping around” implies a very casual and promiscuous behavior, presumably involving more than two beds. “Playing around” has a connotation of something other than serious intent. The most neutral wording to refer to the relationship of a married woman and her paramour, or a married man and his, is simply as an “extramarital relationship,” meaning one which exists in addition to a conjugal one.

Technically, you can only commit adultery if you are legally married. Moreover, if you are legally married, then any sex with anyone other than your spouse is adultery. In the spirit of the law, the relationship inherent in an “extramarital relationship” could be considered the same for any two people who cohabit as husband and wife, whether they are legally married or not. Being unfaithful to a common-law husband is a lot like being unfaithful to a legally married husband, if the couple’s understanding is that they are in fact in a “husband-wife” relationship. “Married but not churched” is how my grandmother would have described it.

The situation is less clear when you have two people who are lovers but are not married or living together as husband and wife. They don’t have the same obligations to each other as would formalized couples that are legally married, living common-law or are registered domestic partners, in that they have not promised to forsake all others forever and ever. They have almost no legal privileges involving the relationship, but they also have almost no obligations. In that context, value-laden words such as “unfaithful” are even less appropriate.

Anyone discussing the virtues and vices of contemporary marriage usually brings up the importance of monogamy. The term “monogamy” does not refer to relationships at all but to a certain kind of marital structure involving one husband and one wife: “mono” for one, “gamy” for marriage. An alternative to monogamy would be bigamy, in which one person has two husbands or two wives, and bigamy is considered illegal everywhere in the Western world. The
person with an extramarital connection is not, usually, a bigamist. He or she has one spouse and one or more other relationships with the opposite sex. Erica Jong does not exactly clarify the issue when she explains, “Bigamy
is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.”

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Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.
—William Feather

In general, men are more achievement oriented and career conscious than are women, although the gap has narrowed significantly. Men, especially young men, spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to get ahead
and to build a secure niche for themselves. Their priorities are often in terms of work; and often, that work is an end in itself, as well as a means to money and success.

Many women don’t understand the drive that propels some people to work sixty-hour weeks. They believe there should be a balance between work and other priorities and frequently complain that their men don’t spend enough time with them. They feel they are wasting their time as they languish hour after hour, waiting for the man of the moment to stop working and pay attention to them. The best kind of lover is one who takes time to savor a love affair and who considers time with you to be a high priority.

Young Couple Sleeping

Photo credit: epSos.de

Men may be more likely to be short of time and to tend to hurry from one thing to the next than are women, but they are not the only ones who make this mistake. Women may also find their lives so full that they have little time to pause and reflect and enjoy. Career women may be workaholics, obsessed with the knowledge that, as a woman, if she is to go half as far her male counterparts, she must be twice as good. Young mothers may virtually martyr themselves to their children’s real and imagined needs. Housewives may work twelve-hour days in a futile attempt to keep everything perfect all the time.

If you want a lover and if you want a love affair, then take the time to enjoy it. Think of the importance of watching a sunset versus getting a report done or ironing the towels. You don’t have to stop and smell the roses, but you should. And if your lover doesn’t yet know this, then you should teach him to slow down as well.

Journalist David Grayson expresses this sentiment well: “Many times in my life I have repeated Rodin’s saying that ‘slowness is beauty.’ To read slowly, to feel slowly and deeply; what enrichment! In the past, I have been so often greedy. I have gobbled down books—I have gobbled down work (I have even gobbled down friends!)—and indeed had a kind of enjoyment of all of them. But rarely have I tasted the last flavor of anything, the final exquisite sense of personality of spirit that secretes itself in every work that merits attention, in every human being at all worth knowing.”

Love takes time. Make time to enjoy it.

 

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The less of routine, the more of life.
—A. B. Alcott

In a love affair, or in any relationship which is valued intrinsically, one needs continually to guard against that monster that devours everything, the monster of habit.

A blonde and glamorous and much married movie star was once asked   why she had divorced her latest husband. Waving a bejeweled and lacquered hand, she exclaimed, “But, darling, he made love to me on Wednesdays.” “And what is wrong with Wednesdays?” inquired the reporter. “Nothing is wrong with Wednesdays,” she exclaimed. “But, darling, he made love to me only on Wednesdays and always on Wednesdays. It was all just too predictable.”

When life’s great moments become just too predictable, they cease to be great moments. When people have to face great adversity, from physical handicaps to prison camps, they console themselves with the cliché that you can get used to anything.

Alas, you can also get used to anything that is good. If every night you have caviar, lobster, and champagne, eventually you groan, “Oh god, caviar again!” The jet-setters have learned, if nothing else, that contrast is everything. That cold of the ski slopes is crisper if you are still tanned from lying on a beach, the luxury of a grand hotel is grander if you have just returned from safari, and wallowing in a hot Jacuzzi is more relaxing if you have just survived ten days of testing your limits with Outward Bound.

The joy of a love affair is often that it’s something different from your ordinary life. The death of a love affair often begins when the difference becomes a routine part of one’s daily life.

The most exciting kind of lover is one who is aware of the somnolent effects of routines. Whether he has this sensitivity or not, you should yourself make sure that the habituation effects in an affair are minimized. Make it a
point to vary the experience, not just in terms of how you make love but also with regard to what you eat, what you talk about, where you go, whom you see, and where and when you see each other.

Someone once observed that young people love to take a vacation because it is a break in the routine, and old people hate to take a vacation for the same reason. In a love affair, try to maintain the youthful attitude and punctuate your routine as often as you can.

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