When groups of women get together, especially if they're mothers and have been married for more than six or seven years, and especially if there's alcohol involved, the conversation is usually the same. They talk about the kids and work--how stressed they are, how busy and bone tired. They gripe about their husbands and, if they're being perfectly honest and the wine kicks in, they talk about the disappointments in their marriages. Not long ago, over lunch in Los Angeles, this conversation took a surprising turn, when Erin, who is in her early 40s and has been married for more than a decade, spilled it. She was seeing someone else. Actually, more than one person. It started with an old friend, whom she began meeting every several months for long dinners and some heavy petting. Then she began giving herself permission to flirt with, kiss--well, actually, make out with--men she met on business trips. She understands it's a "Clintonian" distinction, but she won't have sex with anyone except her husband, whom she loves. But she also loves the unexpected thrill of meeting someone new. "Do you remember?" She pauses. "I don't know how long you've been married, but do you remember the kiss that would just launch a thousand kisses?"
Erin started seeing other men when she went back to work after her youngest child entered preschool. All of a sudden she was out there. Wearing great clothes, meeting new people, alive for the first time in years to the idea that she was interesting beyond her contributions at PTA meetings. Veronica, on the other hand, fell in love with a man who was not her husband while she was safely at home in the Dallas suburbs looking after her two children. Hers is the more familiar story: isolated and lonely, married to an airline pilot, Veronica, now 35, took up with a wealthy businessman she met at a Dallas nightclub. Her lover gave her everything her husband didn't: compliments, Tiffany jewelry, flowers and love notes. It was, in fact, the flowers that did her in. Veronica's lover sent a bouquet to her home one afternoon, her husband answered the door and, in one made-for-Hollywood moment, the marriage was over. Now remarried (to a new man), Veronica says she and her friends half-jokingly talk about starting a Web site for married women who want to date. "I think there might be a market in it," she says. There is. Wives who want extramarital sex--or are just dreaming about it--can find what they seek on Yahoo!, MSN or AOL.
Much has changed since Emma Bovary chose suicide with arsenic over living her life branded an adulteress--humiliated, impoverished and stripped of her romantic ideals. In the past, U.S. laws used to punish women who cheated; in a divorce, an unfaithful wife could lose everything, even the property she owned before marriage. Newer laws have been designed to protect these women. The reality is this: American women today have more opportunity to fool around than ever; when they do fool around, they're more likely to tell their friends about it, and those friends are more likely to lend them a sympathetic ear. They probably use technology to facilitate their affairs, and if they get caught, they're almost as likely to wind up in a wing chair in a marriage counselor's office as in divorce court. Finally, if they do separate from their husbands, women, especially if they're college educated, are better able to make a go of it--pay the bills, keep at least partial custody of the children, remarry if they want to--than their philandering foremothers. "It was just so ruinous for a woman to be caught in adultery in past times, you had to be really driven or motivated to do it," says Peter D. Kramer, clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of "Should You Leave?" "Now you can get away with it, there's a social role that fits you."
Just how many married women have had sex with people who are not their husbands? It's hard to say for sure, because people lie to pollsters when they talk about sex, and studies vary wildly. (Men, not surprisingly, amplify their sexual experience, while women diminish it.) Couples therapists estimate that among their clientele, the number is close to 30 to 40 percent, compared with 50 percent of men, and the gap is almost certainly closing. In 1991, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked married women if they'd ever had sex outside their marriage, and 10 percent said yes. When the same pollsters asked the same question in 2002, the "yes" responses rose to 15 percent, while the number of men stayed flat at about 22 percent. The best interpretation of the data: the cheating rate for women is approaching that of men, says Tom Smith, author of the NORC's reports on sexual behavior. When Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage counselor and founder of the Divorce Busting Center in Woodstock, Ill., started practicing 20 years ago, just 10 percent of the infidelity she knew of was committed by women. Now, she believes, it's closer to 50 percent. "Women have suddenly begun to give themselves the same permission to step over the boundary the way that men have."
A rise in female infidelity, though titillating, does not do much to clarify the paradoxes in American culture surrounding sex. Taboos about female sexuality are falling away; together, Dr. Phil and "Sex and the City" have made every imaginable sex act fodder for cocktail-party conversation. At the same time, Americans developed a lower tolerance for infidelity: 80 percent of Americans say infidelity is "always wrong," according to the NORC, up from 70 percent in 1970. Popular opinion is on to something: infidelity can be devastating. If discovered, it can upend a marriage and create chaos in a family. Nevertheless, in America, as in other parts of the world, a double standard continues to thrive: boys will be boys, but girls are supposed to be good. Even though women are narrowing the gap, men still do the bulk of the domestic damage. "Bill Clinton, who we're all loving on TV--he's a charmer. The poor, weak, wandering guy is kind of a cultural norm," says Elizabeth Berger, a psychiatrist in Elkins Park, Pa., and author of "Raising Children With Character." A weak or wandering mother is a scarier image, she adds.
Popular culture has always been full of unfaithful wives, but even today's fictional cheaters share something that sets them apart from the tragic Anna Karenina or the calculating Mrs. Robinson. Their actions may cause their lives to unravel, but the new philanderers aren't victims. When, on the HBO series "The Sopranos," Carmela finally took a lover after putting up with her mob-boss husband's extracurricular antics for years, audiences cheered. (Her lover was a cad in the end, but the dalliance gave Carmela a secret source of strength.) Sarah, the heroine of this year's best-selling novel "Little Children," falls in love with a handsome stay-at-home dad she meets at the playground; the affair doesn't last, but it gives her the impetus she needs to leave her husband, a weaselly man with a fetish for the underpants of a swinger he met online. And with her role in the 2002 movie "Unfaithful," Diane Lane created an iconic new image of a sexually adventurous wife. Beautiful and well dressed, Connie Sumner has what looks like a perfect life, and she fools around not because she's miserable but simply because she can (a decision that soon makes her life a lot less perfect).
"Women always say 'thank you' for that role, and at first I wasn't sure how to take that," says Lane, who adds that the character was capable of far more denial than she could ever be. "I mean, she was cheating and lying. Then I realized it was because she wasn't a victim. She made a choice to have an affair. It's not something you often see."
Where do married women find their boyfriends? At work, mostly. Nearly 60 percent of American women work outside the home, up from about 40 percent in 1964. Quite simply, women intersect with more people during the day than they used to. They go to more meetings, take more business trips and, presumably, participate more in flirtatious water-cooler chatter. If infidelity is an odds game, then the odds are better now than they used to be that a woman will accidentally bump into someone during the workday who, at least momentarily, interests her more than her husband does. There's a more subtle point embedded in here as well: women and men bring their best selves to work, leaving their bad behavior and marital resentments at home with their dirty sweatpants. At work, "we dress nicely. We think before we speak. We're poised," says Elana Katz, a therapist in private practice and a divorce mediator at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. "And many people spend more time out in the world than with their families. I think sometimes people have the idea that [an affair] will protect the marriage." They get a self-esteem boost during work hours and don't rock the boat at home. "In some paradoxical sense this may be a respite, a little break from the marriage."
"I wasn't out there looking for someone else," says Jodie, 34, a marketing professional in Texas and mother of two. (NEWSWEEK talked at length to more than a dozen women who cheated, and none of them wanted her real name used.) Her continuing affair with a co-worker started innocently enough. She liked his company. "We would go to lunch together and gradually it started feeling like we were dating." At Christmas, Jodie asked her husband of 10 years to join her at the office party, and when he declined, the co-worker stepped in. "We just had so much fun together and we laughed together and it just grew and grew and grew until... he kissed me. And I loved it."
It's not just opportunity that fuels the impulse to be unfaithful; it's money and power as well. American women are better educated than they've ever been. A quarter of them earn more money than their husbands. A paycheck and a 401(k) don't guarantee that a woman will stray, but if she does, they minimize the fallout both for her and for her children. The feminist Gloria Steinem once said, "Most women are one man away from welfare," but she recently amplified her views to NEWSWEEK: "Being able to support oneself allows one to choose a marriage out of love and not just economic dependence. It also allows one to risk that marriage." In other words, as women grow more powerful, they're more likely to feel, as men traditionally have, that they deserve a little bit of nooky at the end (or in the middle) of a long, busy day.
And like their fathers before them, these powerful women are learning to savor the attentions of a companion who is physically attractive but not as rich, successful--or as old--as they are. In his practice in Palo Alto, Calif., family therapist Marty Klein sees a rise in sexual activity between middle-aged women and younger men. "Forty-year-old women have more of a sense of entitlement to their sexuality than they did before the 'Hite Report,' the feminist movement and 'Sex and the City'," he says. A story currently circulating in Manhattan underscores his point. It seems that a group of 6-year-old girls from an elite private school were at a birthday party, and the conversation turned to their mommies' trainers. As the proud mothers listened nearby, one youngster piped up: "My mommy has a trainer, and every time he comes over, they take a nap." The wicked laughter this story elicits illustrates at least what is dreamed of, if not actually consummated.
The road to infidelity is paved with unmet expectations about sex, love and marriage. A woman who is 40 today grew up during the permissive 1970s and went to college when the dangers of AIDS were just beginning to dawn. She was sexually experienced before she was married and waited five years longer than her mother to settle down. She lives in a culture that constantly flaunts the possibility of great sex and fitness well after menopause. "Great Lovers Are Made, Not Born!" read the ads for sex videos in her favorite magazines; "What if the only night sweats you had came from a good workout?" ask the ads for estrogen therapy.
At the same time, she's so busy she feels constantly out of breath. If she's a professional, she's working more hours than her counterpart of 20 years ago--and trying to rush home in time to give the baby a bath. If she's a stay-at-home mom, she's driving the kids to more classes, more games, more playdates than her mother did, not to mention trying to live up to society's demands of perfect-momhood: Buy organic! Be supportive, not permissive! Lose five pounds! Her husband isn't a bad guy, but he's busier than ever, too, working harder just to stay afloat. And (this is practically unmentionable) therapists say they're seeing more cases of depressed male libido. It turns out he's too tired and stressed to have sex. An affair is a logical outcome of this scenario, therapists say: women think they should be having great sex and romantic dates decades into their marriage, and at the same time, they're pragmatic enough to see how impossible that is. Couples begin to live parallel lives, instead of intersecting ones, and that's when the loneliness and resentment set in.
Marisol can't remember the last time her husband paid her a compliment. That's why the 39-year-old grandmother, who was pregnant and married at 15, looks forward to meeting with her boyfriend of five years during lunch breaks and after work. "There is so much passion between us," she says. "He tells me my skin is soft and that my hair smells good. I know it sounds stupid, but that stuff matters. It makes me feel sexy again."
Ironically, the realities of the overprogrammed life make it easier, not harder, to fool around. When days are planned to the minute, it's a cinch to pencil in a midday tryst--and remember to wear the lace-edged underwear--at least compared with trying to stay awake and in the mood through "Law & Order." And as any guileless teenager knows, nothing obscures your whereabouts better than an Internet connection and a reliable cell phone. Amanda's husband has no idea she has six e-mail addresses, in addition to an account specifically for messages from her boyfriend Ron. Amanda, a customer-service rep in L.A., uses e-mail to flirt with Ron, then turns to her instant messenger or cell phone when it comes to setting up a rendezvous. "Text messaging is safer than e-mailing," says Amanda, 36, who's been married for eight years. What would she do without her mobile or computer? "No cell phone? I can't even imagine."
Along with its 4 million porn sites, the Internet has exploded with sites specifically for people who want to cheat on their spouses--sites like "Married and Flirting" at Yahoo, "a chat room dedicated to those who are married but curious, bored or both!!" These sites contain all the predictable pornographic overtures, but also such poignant notes as this: "Ok, I know it is late almost 11:30 my time and I am still up on this pitiful Friday night. Hubby STILL at work."
Online romances have a special appeal for married women. For one thing, you don't have to leave the house. "You can come home from work, be exhausted, take a shower, have wet, dripping hair, have something fast to eat and then, if you're feeling lonely, you can go on the Internet," says Rona Subotnik, a marriage and family therapist in Palm Desert, Calif. On the Web, women can browse and flirt without being explicit about their intentions--if they even know what their intentions are. Clicking past porn, women prefer to visit sites that dovetail with their interests, such as chess, bridge or knitting, explains Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth" and host of dearpeggy.com, a Web site for people with unfaithful spouses. "They find somebody else who seems to think like they do, and then they gradually move from that to an instant message, and then they wake up one day and they cannot believe it happened to them," says Vaughan. Last year Vaughan did a survey of a thousand people who visited her Web site, and 70 percent of the respondents were women. Her results, though not scientific, are remarkable: 79 percent said they were not looking for love online. More than half said they met their online lover in person, and about half said the relationship culminated in sex. Sixty percent said their spouses had no idea.
John LaSage was shocked to come home one day and find his wife of 24 years had disappeared. No note, no phone call, nothing. He'd bought her a computer four months previously, he says, and he knew something was wrong: she'd stay up until 3 or 4 a.m., browsing online. She told him she was doing research for a romance novel she was writing, he says, and after her disappearance, he hacked into the computer to investigate. "She had set up a chat room that was called... gosh... 'Smooth Legs.' And so guys would come in there and flirt with her. I have transcripts. I can't tell you how excruciating it was to read the e-mails from people supposedly speaking with my wife, but she wasn't talking like my wife. That was just weird." Two weeks later he discovered she had left the country, he says. "I wasn't the perfect husband. I would have done a lot of things differently, but I never got the chance," says LaSage, who has since founded an online support group (chatcheaters.com) for people with spouses who stray.
In 1643 Mary Latham, who was 18 years old and married, was hanged in Massachusetts with her lover James Britton. Since then, adultery has been a crime in many states. A woman accused of adultery could, in divorce court, lose her home, her income and her children. All that changed in the 1970s, when most states adopted "no fault" and "equitable distribution" divorce laws, in which nearly all the assets accrued to either partner during the marriage belong to the marriage and, in a divorce settlement, are split evenly. And unless a woman (or man) has been flagrantly or inappropriately sexual in front of the children, or has, in the frenzy of an affair, neglected them, infidelity does not legally affect settlements or custody. In researching her book "The Price of Motherhood," journalist Ann Crittenden found, however, that an implicit bias against female adultery still prevails in the country's predominantly male courtrooms--and that when it came to settlements, that bias was costly to women. "There may be no fault as grounds, but fault has not left the system," she says.
Unearthing infidelity is shattering to any spouse. Men can be as traumatized as women by such a revelation; they can also be more surprised. David, 39, a government worker in Washington, D.C., discovered his wife was cheating the day she told him she wanted a divorce. "Never in a million years did I think it was possible." He found out later that his wife had started seeing someone at work, someone David knew fairly well because the two couples often met socially. Once the reality set in, he couldn't get images of his wife and the other man out of his head. Beset by nightmares, he started taking antidepressants. "I felt shame for what had happened, like I couldn't keep a person happy enough to stay with me." Now, eight months later, David is beginning to date again. His divorce should be final this month.
Just over half of all cases of female infidelity end in divorce, says Susan Shapiro Barash, a professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and author of "A Passion for More: Wives Reveal the Affairs That Make or Break Their Marriages." But that number may be shrinking. The conservative-marriage movement, as well as recent books like Judith Wallerstein's "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," have created a backlash against separation and raised consciousness about the seriousness of its effects on children. Therapists who see the overworked professional set say they've noticed an interesting trend: people who have children and marry late in life tend to be less interested in cheating than their contemporaries who married earlier--and more willing to work it out when a woman (or man) does stray. These women have spent a lot of time alone, and they're wise to the benefits of companionship. They've also waited a long time to have families and have a realistic sense of what's at stake. "I think people try to stay together," says Alvin Mesnikoff, a psychiatrist with a private practice in New York. In spite of the temptations, "women want a relationship, and they're willing to work hard at it."
Divorce or no, how do responsible parents protect the hearts of their children when they're in the midst of heartbreak themselves? Therapists say kids don't care whether it's Mom or Dad who fools around--all they care about is knowing they're safe and that their lives will remain stable. It's difficult, but parents who are dealing with a revelation of infidelity need to protect young kids from the facts of the case, as well as from their own anger. "There are very few things I will be absolute about, and this is one of them," says Katz. "Everything [children] ask for is not something they want. And if they ask, you should say, 'Yes, you're right. Things are tense around here, but this is between Mom and me'."
Explaining infidelity to older children is somewhat more complicated. If a 15-year-old turns to his mom and asks, "How long has this been going on?" a truthful answer may be in order, says Berger, the Elkins Park psychiatrist. And if he asks, "How could this happen?" "It may be reasonable for Mom to say, 'You don't understand, dear, that Dad has been cheating on me'," Berger says. Sometimes correcting the record is all right. "There's nothing gained by one parent being a martyr to the other parent's mistreatment." What parents need to avoid at all costs is to wrap the children into the drama by treating them as confidants.
Nadine grew up in a small, Midwestern town, and when she was 13 years old, her mother cheated on her father, moved to a town two hours away and married the other man. "There weren't any fights, nothing crazy," says Nadine, who at 28 lives in a big city and works in finance. "We sat down at Christmas. We discussed that Mother was leaving; it was nothing we had done." She and her siblings continued to live with her father; her mother went to school conferences and games as she had always done. Her parents remained, as she puts it, "best friends." But Nadine's teenage years were difficult. She never warmed up to the new man. She felt abandoned.
In retrospect, Nadine understands what pushed her mother to be unfaithful. Beautiful and intelligent, her mother was stifled by her life's low horizons, and her father, a stand-up guy, was probably a little bit boring. The new man promised travel, wealth and adventure; her father was the kind of guy who'd say, "Why go around the world? You'll get plane-sick." And although she and her mother have made a kind of peace--"I got tired of making her cry," she says--she thinks the affair eroded any kind of trust she has in marriage or love. She can't stay in long relationships. "Ever since I could date, all I could think was, 'I will never, ever, ever do what my mom did.' I will never have a man take care of me. I have been called an ice princess in the past. I feel in some way my mom sold out and kind of fell for something."
Who said being married and raising kids was easy? The good news is that the wounds inflicted on a family by a woman's infidelity are not always critical. Therapists say couples often can--and do--get past it. Sometimes the husband sees it as a wake-up call and renews his efforts to be attentive. Sometimes, especially if neither party is too angry, too defensive or too far out the door, the couple can use it as an opportunity to air grievances and soothe old hurts. Sometimes the woman sees the dalliance for what it is, a fling, and takes it with her to the grave. In her study of good marriages, Wallerstein found that an affair did not necessarily damage family life--especially if it fell into the category of a "one-night stand." "In good marriages this doesn't dominate the landscape, and the kids don't know," she says. She remembers interviewing a 30-year-old man, who said that when he was 9, his mother had an affair, but his father assured him that they would stay together. The man said: "I learned from my father that anything worth having is worth fighting for." When lunch is over and the wine wears off, most women will admit that if they were the prize in a fantasy duel between an imperfect butloving husband and a handsome stranger, they'd root for the husband every time.