‘The Secret Lives of Wives’: Is Cheating the Secret to a Happy Marriage?

In The Secret Lives of Wives, more than 200 women reveal to Iris Krasnow how they keep their relationships together, from separate vacations to 'boyfriends with boundaries.' But can a man on the side really help your marriage? By Jessica Bennett. 

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In the literary classics, the woman who dares betray her husband suffers a predictable fate: death, suicide, social condemnation. Anna Karenina famously threw herself in front of a train. Emma Bovary, from the 1856 Flaubert classic, was driven to swallow arsenic. And then, of course, there was poor Hester Prynne—branded with a scarlet letter for mothering a child with another man.

Today’s modern femme philanderers, if you believe a new book on the topic, seem to take it all in stride.

“If you avoid getting caught, a little affair can perk up a marriage,” says Lucy, a 50-something Californian.

“My husband is only capable of doing so much, and it’s not enough,” says Shauna, who keeps a garden landscaper on the side.

“A husband is your costar and a rock in your life,” says Lana, a 59-year-old actress. “But if you’re a multidimensional person, you need a lot of different colors on your palette.”

Meet the women of The Secret Lives of Wives, the latest from journalist Iris Krasnow. Over the past three decades, Krasnow has documented marriage and family life—her first book, Surrendering to Motherhood, was a New York Times bestseller. Her later works have delved into the battle scars of matrimony, raising children, and family. But after 23 years of marriage and years listening to the complaints of long-married wives, she wondered: how do the successful ones keep it all together?

Part of the answer, it turns out, may not be what you might have expected—particularly when it’s the men, not the women, who seem to be constantly caught with their pants down. Through interviews with more than 200 women, and two years of research, Krasnow discovered the individual and often taboo ways that many women have managed to stay married for the long haul—some for as long as 70 years.

A few of their secrets? Take separate vacations. Get a bikini wax. Have sex—even when you don’t want to. (“A romp in the hay can heal anything, at least temporarily,” says Krasnow.) Have hobbies. Rekindle old flames. Cheat, if you must. Or take the approach Krasnow employs at home: find yourself a “boyfriend with boundaries”—a male flirtation, without the sex, to keep you on your toes. “To expect one person, man or woman, to make you happy for the rest of your life is a ticket to divorce,” says Krasnow, a professor at American University. “The happiest women I interviewed have a sense of purpose and passion outside of marriage.”

For some, that means career or other interests. But for at least a handful of those willing to admit it, it means that and more. In her chapter on "Naughty Girls," Krasnow introduces us to Mimi, the prim owner of a catering business, who says that swapping partners—she and her husband consider themselves swingers—has held her marriage together. We meet Shauna, who is involved in a two-decade-long affair with her landscaper. (Of her husband, Paul, she says, “I can’t see ever leaving him.” Of her boyfriend, she says: “I can’t see ever leaving him.”) We hear from Reed, a 48-year-old gym teacher and mother, who describes how a quick brush of the lips with another man has carried her marriage for some time: she can conjure up this man’s musky smell on a moment’s notice; the fantasy of what could have—but didn’t—happen is an instant turn-on to keep in her back pocket. When she needs to, she can channel that sexual tension, as Krasnow puts it, “right back into [her] marital bed.”

Whatever these women’s stories—and there are many of them—one thing’s for certain: a life centered around one man is simply not enough. “For some women,” a Florida sex therapist tells Krasnow, “having more than one love relationship can make the difference between contentment and depression.”

On some level, none of this should be particularly surprising: as far back as the 1950s, Kinsey noted that 26 percent of women had cheated on their husbands, and an additional 20 percent had engaged in petting without sex. Of those women, 71 percent said their marriages were perfectly healthy—even though their husbands either knew or suspected something was going on.

The difference today, of course, is that these trysts have come to the fore. Research shows that 65 percent of women—and a whopping 80 percent of men—say they’d cheat if they knew they could avoid being caught. With stats like these, its no surprise that cultural critics have declared marriage dead.

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But Krasnow quickly learned that there are plenty of men and women in long-term marriages that are working just fine—albeit through creative methods. And, hell, with men and women living longer than ever—don’t we need all the advice we can get? “Marriage is hard,” Krasnow says. “My goal, truly, is to liberate readers to understand that there’s no gold standard for it. Every woman should feel free to create her own marriage.”

If that means necking in the back of a Cadillac with an old high-school flame—so be it. Having a long-term affair with your gardener? If you must. Krasnow doesn’t condone this type of behavior—and she and her own husband are strictly monogamous. Yet while the repercussions of cheating can be nasty, she knows they’re hardly as threatening as they might once have been. Today's affairs can be worked through, even tolerated, she writes. And if you want a glimpse of what many of today's modern unions look like, consider these statistics: 21 percent of men and women happily identify as in an "open" marriage, according to a survey on (of all places); some 4 million Americans, meanwhile, consider themselves swingers. “If some of these women can stay married, anybody can,” Krasnow says.

Krasnow considers herself pro-marriage, and has been monogamous for 23 years. Her husband, Chuck, is an architect she describes as “wise and fun and sexy.” They have four children, and have gone through their share of soul searching—particularly when the kids were young.

But she, too, needs more than just her husband to be happy: she has girlfriends, hobbies, but she’s also integrated ex-boyfriends into her life (as friends) and says that her husband loves it. She readily admits that there are times when she gazes out her kitchen window, longing for a glimpse of Derrin, her next door neighbor—so that she can gush about her day. It’s not cheating; Derrin is simply the kind of close platonic friend that Krasnow thinks every woman should consider (and every husband should encourage.) “Sure, I find him attractive—his dog is attractive, too,” Krasnow laughs. “I love Derrin. And Derrin is a relief for Chuck, because when he doesn’t want to talk to me, he says, ‘Isn’t Derrin home?’”

It surely beats the thought of a partner at a swing club. But how realistic is it? Many of Krasnow’s subjects glide through their affairs unscathed, save for a guilty or moment or two. But others don’t have it so easy. And, let's be honest, how much can a husband really love having your ex-boyfriends around?

“I have to say it was a little weird at first,” Chuck says. “But once we got to know each other, it was fine.”

Everyone in a relationship has likely wrestled with that nagging question: can one person really satisfy every need? If Krasnow has her way, we'll all realize we don't have to.