Fidelity With a Wandering Eye

Love is noble, love is hard, and women cheat just as readily as men

It's official: the conventional wisdom is false. It's not men who leave their wives for younger, blonder temptresses; it's women who leave their husbands for—well, just about anybody. Or nobody. The fact is, women initiate 66 percent of divorces between partners over forty. That, at least, is what they reported during a major AARP study, released last year. That is also the impression one gleans when contemplating a new spate of books and shows, from ABC's already classic Desperate Housewives to hot spring titles including most notably Undressing Infidelity: Why More Wives Are Unfaithful.

This is refreshing news—in some senses, at least. It puts a great big dent in sexual stereotypes with which we have been too long saddled: the security-besotted, marriage-angling, nest- squatting female and her counterpart, the freedom-loving, wild-oat-sowing male Steppenwolf. They made for an insipid image all along, but everybody seemed to conspire in it, from self-help authors (who assumed that their female readers wanted nothing more than tips on how to "catch" and "tame" a husband) to family counselors, magazine pundits, and, of course, evolutionary psychologists (who say it's all biology: girls are made to sit in the straw and warm their eggs; guys are made to fly through the heavens and spread their seed). Women have been told they are helpless and dependent for so long that we have begun to believe it—and to object vociferously when we are not treated as such. If men whose company we enjoy don't assume we want to be their wives and thus propose in short order, we consider it "an insult" (in the approving words of the sexpert-rabbi Shmuley Boteach) and declare ourselves aggrieved. The result? Women have grown dull while men have grown smug, offering their hands (when they do) as one might bestow a winning lottery ticket: "There you go, honey, I guess I've made your life." Having given that, they too often feel they have given all; they've done their bit in the kingdom of relationships, and their companions may now live happily ever after.

Only they generally don't, as the books and studies make all too clear. Women need more than security to thrive, it seems. In fact, they often court the square opposite of security, as Diane Shader Smith learned when she began interviewing women for Undressing Infidelity. They court risk; they court intensity, variety, novelty, and disaster—very much like men. It is a peculiarity of our age to portray one sex as nature's safe and law-abiding partner—to cast it as the erotically muted, risk-averse nanny to man. A few hundred years before Jesus Christ, Aristophanes presented women as rowdy and ebullient sexual predators, fighting uninhibitedly over access to handsome boys. Utopia, as described by Aristophanes' Congresswomen, consists of "free fornication," with no grandma left behind. Nubile young girls can legally be seduced "only after the male adolescent has first applied his resources to the full satisfaction of a bona fide senile female." Ovid expends many lines in his Art of Love warning men against underestimating the ladies' amorous adventurism. In Dante's Inferno the circle of hell for sins of the flesh is populated in great part by women. It is the lust of a mother (not, say, an uncle) that so tortures Shakespeare's Hamlet ("Frailty, thy name is woman"), a girl's sexual fickleness that takes out the hero in Troilus and Cressida, a queen's love for an ass that brings down the house in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The greatest adulterers in the Western canon—Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Molly Bloom, Carmen—have, in fact, been adulteresses. Each had a faithful husband at home.

Why do women leave? "Verbal, physical or emotional abuse" is the first reason cited in the AARP study by wives who initiated divorces. And yet "abuse" played little role in the decisions of Smith's interviewees to risk their unions, most of which sound altogether more docile than violent. So why did they do it? Smith herself is remarkably unhelpful on this score. "The reasons women cheat," she concludes, "are as varied as the women themselves." Fair enough. But surely more-provocative hypotheses might be floated. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, proffered a few as early as the end of the eighteenth century, and her words still resonate today. Women, she declared, are reared for love: the novels they read, the fairy tales they hear, all prepare them for a future of fiery sentiments and gallant attentions. But "a husband cannot long pay those attentions with the passion necessary to excite lively emotions, and the [female] heart, accustomed to lively emotions, turns to a new lover, or pines in secret."

Is this so far wrong today? Don't women even now harbor romantic ideals that are tangibly more central to their lives than to men's, and thus more easily (and disastrously) disappointed? A man may dream of a passionate soulmate, as a woman does, but if he does not find one, he will rechannel that desire into his work, his sports, his substance abuse, his war-making—all things that define a man's identity more commonly than do his emotional efforts. A woman has these occupations open to her as well, but rightly or wrongly (and I think rightly) they are often subordinated to the love plot in her life. This is something a certain kind of feminist has lamented—and a certain kind of moralist might reasonably find dangerous, since it does indeed make women more sensitive to marital dissatisfaction. But on balance it is a noble hierarchy.

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Cristina Nehring is at work on Women in Love: A Feminist Defense of Romance. Her essay "Domesticated Goddess," about Sylvia Plath, appeared in the April 2004 Atlantic.

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