Last week, a Portland, Oregan documentarist interviewed me about my feelings about open marriage. He’s making a documentary about marriage, and he wants to share his idea that couples should ditch sexual exclusivity and, moreover, be open and honest about it. A few days later I read Mark Oppenheimer’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (“Married with Infidelities,” July 3, 2011) quoting Seattle-based sex columnist Dan Savage, also a married man who believes in both sexual nonexclusivity and openness about it. I’ve spoken with hundreds and hundreds of people about infidelity, and I want to point out something I’ve learned over the years from women who tried being open about their infidelity: The “openness” playing field is not level. However free men feel to tell their wives about their indiscretions, wives should—and I mean this—shut up about theirs.
A brief romp through history reveals the story of men’s reactions to wives’ affairs. Think: Anna Karenina, Tess of the Durbervilles, Madame Bovary, Desdemona (who didn’t have an affair but whose husband, Othello, merely fantasized that she did and killed her in the name of his love). In art as in life, husbands are rational and dispassionate about their own infidelities but insanely irrational and dispassionate about their wives’. And in life as in art, the unfaithful heroine too often dies by her husband’s hand, or else finds herself on the street, marginalized and miserable and dispensed with. She no longer may take poison, hurl herself under a train, or find herself in a threshing machine as her fictional representatives did, but the legacy of their punshment lives on.
Because we live in a culture that still believe that a man’s infidelity arises from biology, we still tell wives not to take it personally. Because we also believe that wife’s infidelity arises not from biology nor need but from a moral failure, unfaithful wives simply cannot be heard. Maybe someday this will be different. But for now, it is a rare husband in a heterosexual marriage who can hear about a wife’s need for others. The cultural imperative that she be faithful is simply too entrenched in straight men’s psyches. The same men who tell women not to take infidelity personally because their own straying is meaningless and understandable, take their wives’ infidelity very personally indeed. They see themselves as cuckolded. It’s a double standard that lies deep in our collective psyches, and I beg women to take it seriously.
With no traditional wife in the picture, a wife bound by strict laws made centuries ago by men, married gay men and Lesbians might find openness and honesty easier. But in straight couples, wives will find it difficult to shed these laws, however much they want to, for the rules live deep within us. Pick up a newspaper. See the way unfaithful women are treated in the courts. See the dead bodies of women who tried to forswear sexual exclusivity and had tthe bad judgment to tell the truth. Honesty be damned.