WE GATHERED ON A FRIGID WEEKEND at the Embassy Suites in a city nobody visits in winter; four best friends flown in from each of the four compass points to rally around the lovely M. She had caught her husband in an affair.
Watching her approach the check-in desk, we were each seized with loyalty and devotion to this woman we’d loved half our lives. At that moment any of us would have marched out and stabbed the bastard with our butter knives—and we hadn’t even heard her story yet.
We spent the weekend hearing it: his high-stress job, his fetching new colleague, temptation, consummation, secrecy, suspicion, lies. Look-his-wife-in-the-eye-and-deny-it lies. The particulars—where they did it, how they got away with it, what finally tripped them up—were kind of boring: Other people’s lust actually makes pretty dull reading. We’d heard it all before on the Lifetime channel.
But the fact is, we’d all been hearing more about infidelities in real life—and not just the ones cinematically detailed in gubernatorial press conferences and by former presidential candidates’ cancer-riddled wives. That’s being in our 40s, we supposed—the way of things, as marriages ripen and rot in places, and opportunity crooks a winsome finger.
“But, it’s just so…male,” one of us grumbled. “So irritatingly cliché.” Indeed every one of the infidelities that had intruded on our social circles was the doing of the husbands. “Gee, stop the presses,” deadpanned one. “At this point in our lives”—and to what point is she referring? I thought defensively, stealing from the lobby mirror a blurry eyeful of a woman who looked like me, only with crow’s feet and several chins—“we’re all vulnerable. We’re getting older. The Other Woman never gets older.”
Now there’s a happy chew toy for a fortysomething wife with advancing wrinkles and retreating vision to gnaw on a cross-country flight. Until that weekend I hadn’t spent many brain cells on the subject of infidelity; now, I couldn’t stop thinking about M.’s tearful admission that she shifted daily between what ached worst: the emotional betrayal, the sexual betrayal, or the lie.
A week later, still consumed, I brought the subject to my writing group. Like so many women’s circles—book groups, Bible studies, quilting bees—our little assemblage was about its ostensible purpose strictly in the most tangential sense. As in, we never wrote anything.
Instead we ate chocolate ganache cake and talked, secrets spilled in direct proportion to wine swilled. I unfurled the whole spellbinding diorama of my middle-age angst, and then a woman I’ll call S. spoke up. “I think this might be a good time for me to tell you all something,” she said quietly. “Something that can’t leave this room.”
S. was a whip-smart Ivy League English major–turned–human resources exec who married an equally heavy hitter but retired with her first child. Now she had three young children, a beautiful home, a busy roster of volunteer commitments, a devoted husband who traveled widely on business—the whole sparkly package—and, best for her many friends, a wry and quiet wisdom that made her a great confidante. She looked at her empty wine glass, then picked up a bottle of cabernet and swigged straight from the bottle.
And blurted: “A few years ago I took a lover.”
Every eyebrow in the room shot into a hairline. Every fork stopped in midair.
“And he’s…still my lover. But first you need to know that I really love my husband. Adore him. I have no intention of leaving him. He and the kids are my world.” We must have looked confused. “I just discovered—and was stunned to discover—that my lover satisfies me in a way that doesn’t take anything away from my relationships at home.”
“I’m not saying this would be true for anyone else,” S. continued carefully. “But for me, having a lover has made me feel more alive. It’s made me feel sexier. It’s made me feel younger.” Instinctively my hand flew to my chins. “And here’s the thing: Bringing all that to my marriage has made me a better wife. It’s reduced the unreasonable expectations I once had of my husband. It’s not his job to make me happy, it’s mine. This is me making myself happy.” S. looked around contentedly. “It actually has nothing to do with my husband at all.”
Wait a sec…like a new hobby? A really, really secret new hobby? I waited for her to drop the D-bomb. But she didn’t—far from it. Her conversation bobbed from happy hearthside tales of her family vacation at an Okanogan dude ranch to a romantic midsummer idyll with her husband—to her scorching reunion with her lover.
As S. described him—tall, check; dark, check; handsome, check check check—every one of us inched to the edges of our chairs. One, licking chocolate ganache off her fork, seemed to be licking the silver plate off with it. (That thing about other’s people’s lust being uninteresting? Apparently not true across the board.)
S. wasn’t out to influence anyone, but her listeners, married women all, were looking pretty influenced. A survey I saw not long ago revealed that fully one-third of the 30,000 American married moms sampled had stepped out on their husbands. One-third. I didn’t really believe it at the time. I know a lot of moms, I am a mom, and I didn’t know a single cheater. I don’t think I did. Now the numbers were beginning to seem plausible.
Even reasonable S. made it sound so French, taking a lover—not tawdry and low-life, like having an affair, but positive and renewing, like a brow-lift. And even pro-family, as in the way the French tacitly condone the practice. Why destroy whole families for one partner’s petite, discreet diversion? If a tryst can remain a secret, the way S.’s had… well, why not?
For the briefest of fleeting seconds I actually went there: Maybe cheating isn’t wrong if the cheatee never finds out. Maybe the betrayal delivery system known as the lie could be seen not as a marriage wrecker but as a marriage saver. And then I pictured M., her shattered heart the fallout of a tryst, or dozens of them, that did not remain a secret. S.’s self-worth had soared to the very proportion M.’s had plunged—simply by being on opposite sides of someone’s cheatin’ heart. What lesson was a group of married women, women who weren’t getting younger fast, to take from that?
Around me, I could see that the women in this particular room had gone all dreamy-eyed and faraway. Maybe they were judging S. as no different from the walking Y-chromosomes who typically do the cheating. Or maybe something new and troubling and thrilling was dawning on them. The Other Woman may never get older, true. But the woman with the Other Man? Why, she can age all she wants.