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The Hacking of an Extramarital Affairs Site

Okay, I haven’t weighed in on this, and I’m a week or so late. The Ashley Madison website–of which I’d never heard but exists for millions of eager married folks interested extramarital sex — was hacked. When I first read the story, the hackers were threatening to reveal the names of the prospective wandering wives and husbands.

It got me thinking: Can this marriage– between secret behavior and the worldwide web –be saved? I don’t think so.  Among those millions of cheating hearts lies at least one who’s out for vengeance, either of the web visitors or the website itself.

Many years ago, when I was a guest on Oprah!, women all over the country who were having or who had had affairs were invited on the show to discuss a book I’d written,The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.  In they came,  thrilled to be flown into Chicago for their favorite daytime show.  “Don’t you care that you might be found out?” I asked several excited young women when they arrived in the studio.

“My husband doesn’t watch daytime TV,”  they answered.

But your friends and family?

No worries, they assured me. They would wear disguises–wigs and sunglasses and hats and other flimsy covers. Really? With a studioful of women in what seemed like fright wigs and groucho noses,we could have been on the set of  I Love Lucy, watching Lucy Ricardo in her endless attempt to try to hide something from Ricky.

So much for secrecy. While secrecy is the engine that fuels affairs, I think these women were ambivalent about keeping their affairs a secret–or they wouldn’t have come onto a national TV show. To tell or not to tell?: That is the question, and mental health experts (like me) disagree wildly. Some advocate telling all; others, going to the grave with your mouth shut.  These women, like those on the hacked website, feel two opposing impulses simultaneously after it’s over : the moral imperative to speak the truth to one’s spouse–being honest–and the moral imperative to hide it, so as not to hurt one’s spouse and jeopardize the marriage–being honorable. (Openness  usually wins, for better or worse: it is the American way. Discretion–the European way–is not popular here. As a nation, we believe “discreet” to be more like “deceit.”) Beyond the guilt that affairs engender, there’s a deep, deep ambivalence about keeping the secret.

Just as the Oprah guests can’t have been entirely psychologically committed to keeping their affairs a secret, so must many visitors to sites like Ashley Madison be ambivalent–and in denial–about the security and privacy of any such site, no matter how impenetrable they imagine them to be.  I have to believe that the millions of people willing to open their pocketbooks, fantasies and libidos to website managers and anonymous potential lovers are ambivalent–hoping subconsciously as much to reveal their secret desires for love and sex as to keep them.  It is a push-pull toward and away from safety, toward and away from freedom, toward and away from moral rectitude. And it’s an ambivalence as old as marriage itself.

Tell me your thoughts. (But please, no moralizing! This isn’t about good people vs bad people!)

–Dalma

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“I Have Your Back!”

It’s Women’s History Month, and while that sounds like a stroll down Feminist Lane (“Oh no, we’re going to hear unexpected hard-hitting news about Anne Bradstreet“), I want to talk about some women who are making women’s history. Women committed to women’s evolution–they have taught me a lot about the ways in which we must support one other–and how we’ve been raised not to. My friend Elizabeth Debold (Dr. Elizabeth Debold, for those who care), a brilliant thinker who talks a lot about the importance of not turning on one another; of being there for each other when we succeed or when we fail. It sounds obvious, but think about it: When Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook came out with her “Lean In” idea–exhorting executive women to sit at the table; to NOT sit on the sidelines–what was the first thing we heard from women? “Oh, easy for HER to say! She’s already rich and famous! Easy for HER to ‘lean in’. What about those of us who will never be executives?” And so forth.

Who needs men to ridicule and demean executive women when women will do it for them?

When my mother wrote a humor column , “The Wit Parade,” in the Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA), she wrote it under the byline, “E.E. Kenyon.” The initials suggested that she might well be a man. Why not claim her gender and put her real name (Ethel Elizabeth Kenyon)?– Because, she told me, “No one thinks women are funny. No one wants to see jokes picked out by a woman. No one would pay attention.” Granted, she wrote a hundred-plus years after George Eliot made a similar decision, but her point–that no one would have her back at JAMA if readers found out she was a woman and rejected the column, was well-taken. (When I had my first magazine column in Mademoiselle, under my own name, my mother said “Well, lucky for you to have the name Dalma. It could be a man.”)

“She’s right,” says the wonderful master improvisation performer and teacher, Holly Mandel. Holly, like Elizabeth (above) cares deeply about women’s evolution–hence, the name of her program, “Improvolution.” She insists that everyone in her classes go to the mat for each other–no matter how disastrously they may fail. In fact she wants them to fail–in a safe, caring, collaborative setting. “Women risk everything when they do stand-up, and the last thing they need is to take the huge risks they have to take, fall flat on their faces–as male comedians have long said they would–and then have other women turn away from them. I tell them, While you’re here, we have each others’ backs completely–or don’t be in my class.”

Look, we’re trained to be wary of each other. We’re trained to think we’re after each other’s men; we’re after each other’s jobs; we’re after each other’s friends, money, lives. Let’s make history. Let’s consciously bury the fear and envy that Patriarchy (yes, I know, but there it is) instilled in us centuries ago, and tell our colleagues and our friends, whether they succeed (and everyone attacks) or fail (and everyone attacks): You did good, sister. And don’t worry, whatever they say about you, I’m here. I have your back.”

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How Do You Categorize a Love Story?

It’s always strange when you finish a book, to see how it fits into the categories offered by publishers.  My three nonfiction books were, one by one, total misfits: Each is a serious book about women, or women and men, with the academic approval  I’d hoped for but with commercial appeal that made them popular, too. So, that’s a problem: Should they appear under the heading, “Women’s Studies”? Not really. That’s a bit more for academic books. “Commercial Nonfiction”? Better. But, as with “Self-Help,”  usually reserved for prescriptive books, not so much for thoughtful, less made-to-be-popular ones.  Nobody knew what to do; each was a Genre Problem. I don’t say this because they were so fabulous that no one could possibly fine the right category, but because they blended categories, or straddled them; they crossed genres.

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The Perfect Man

Big news in the Daily Mail Reporter: In a study of 2,000 British women, the search for Mr. Perfect seems to be a complete bust. “While many chaps have positive attributes, the majority are deeply flawed,” the hard-hitting study reveals. “In fact, in [this] study…. most ranked their partner as only 69 per cent perfect.”

NO! You mean….men have FAILINGS?  YES! says this study! And they are really really horrible ones, too, like “failing to make an effort with their partner’s friends, criticizing their driving and….” get this killer of a flaw: “ the inability to multi-task.”

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Fun

For a survey I was conducting some years ago in a woman’s magazine, I asked readers:What do you think the primary purpose of marriage is? Among the options offered were the obvious ones: To have a family. Monetary stability. Settling down. Sharing a life. I offered one, though, that stuck out in this roster of noble reasons for wedlock: “To have fun.” Of the 5,000 respondents, twenty-four percent checked that one.

I’d expected some resistance to the pleasure option, since, if marriage isn’t sobering, sanctified, and serious, what is? Ever since the Puritans turned the pursuit of happiness into a frenzy of righteous self-improvement, Americans have opted for betterment over pleasure. We are suspicious of enjoyment for its own sake (pleasure has to improve our blood sugar levels). It’s as though what’s good for you long ago won out over what feels good. But what was special about these readers who chose what we called “The Pleasure Marriage” is that, when I interviewed them individually some time later, they were still having fun. Their marriages, of the ones I was able to find out about, were the happiest.

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Hindsight

One of my favorite authors is the late Carolyn Heilbrun, whose wisdom about women still moves me when I pick up, as I often do, “Hamlet’s Mother,” or “Writing a Woman’s Life,” two of her books. The title of my blog, InHeynsight,  is a rewriting, but not a rethinking, of her words—words I used as a chapter epigraph in my book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife:

 “Men tend to move on a fairly predictable path to achievement. Women transform themselves only after an awakening. And that awakening is identifiable only in hindsight.”  

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Prenups

A woman who appeared on my cable show not long ago revealed, when I announced that fifty percent of all American women will live with or marry a man with children, the following (familiar, alas) story.

She’s close to retirement and has been saving for years. Her adult son doesn’t need money, so her small stash supports the household she shares with her boyfriend of five years, a twice-divorced man  whose money mostly goes to his two young children by his second wife. My guest agreed to this arrangement, feeling strongly that his children should be his first priority, and that they could manage their household expenses together.. BUT, she says, “in  this protracted downturn, none of his money goes to our household; it all goes to his (second) ex-wife’s. I’m wondering where to draw the line. He does, after all, live here. He did, after all, make a financial commitment, albeit a small one, to our life together.”

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The End of Marriage? No Way.

Marriage was once immutable, like forests and wild animals and clean air.  It was as inevitable and reliable as the tides. But it isn’t inevitable anymore, nor reliable. With the majority of the people in the United States now single people, not married ones, we’re looking at a clearly more fluid entity when we look at marriage. But, just as I hated that Atlantic cover that asks us to conflate the rise of women with the end of men, so do I hate being told that the rise of single people means the end of marriage. It doesn’t. Marriage is alive and well and being entered into by more couples now than it ever was, thanks to gay marriage. Has it changed? Yes. The forever marriage we aways idealized has gone the way of clean air, and the kind of wife we’ve always always idealized—the perfect one that made more wives unhappy than it did happy, may be mercifully gone. Because here’s the thing those scary magazine and newspaper headlines forget to say: Women changed marriage. We changed it intentionally.  

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Fear of Ending It? Get over it!

I’d rather talk about weightier issues than relationship etiquette, but I just heard for the second time this week about another person who ended a relationship by email. I can’t stand it: How rude and cowardly can you get? It was a woman, alas, so we can’t blame it on gender cluelessness.. She said she just “didn’t have it in me” to do it in person “after two years of being together”– which is clueless.

 You HAVE to do it in person. You just have to avoid these five pitfalls:

       1.   Don’t try to win his approval. You can’t reject a partner and simultaneously get his blessing. You’re here to do dirty work and you both know it. So do it without asking for reassurance.

         2.   Don’t ask “Can we just be friends?” Ick. You’re not in high school. Why pretend your offer of not sleeping with someone anymore is an exciting opportunity? Why pretend that cavalierly offering to take someone’s love but not his body is anything but a booby prize?  Have respect for your former lover’s comprehension abilities. You may end up friends, but it’ll be awhile if it happens.

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Sexy Parents, Sanctimonious Kids

 I wrote a long time ago, in response to the fact that so many women were leaving their marriages:  “In the past 25 years women have bloomed. How can we still be talking about fitting modern wives back into an ancient institution, rather than enlarging an ancient institution to make room for modern wives?” I said this on television shows, much to the horror of many hosts, who got so mad that women were leaving (and not men, as I suppose they thought was better). that they blamed me for writing about it.  

 Well they must be really mad now, because America isn’t even a married culture anymore.  That picture of ourselves talk-show hosts and politicians and so many others insist on—the happily married American couple–is a very nice picture, but it has little to do with us in the US. No, as I’ve said a million times, we’re now a dating culture. What’s more, the Pew Research Center points out that nearly four-in-ten survey respondents in the 2010 Census said they believed that marriage is becoming obsolete.

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