With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My husband had to nearly drop dead before I would be faithful to him.
I’d always loved my husband for his strength, but rebelled against his power. He was arrogant and controlling, and for years I had been unfaithful to him as a way of defying his control. He was always telling me what to do and what not to do. He would criticize the way I planted flowers, or washed my car, or fed the cat. So, when he was away on business, I would pick up men in bars, bring them home, and screw them in our bed, thinking, Take that! I sometimes even wished he would find out, so that he would feel the pain, the wound to his male pride.
I thought my husband was indestructible. He had survived Vietnam, a career in the Marine Corps, two previous hellish marriages, heart surgery, and numerous family tragedies. He seemed a man of stone — until the day his heart stopped.
When I got to the hospital, my husband was in a coma. I looked at him lying there with tubes running into him, breathing with the help of a ventilator, and for the first time since I’d met him I saw his weakness. He looked small and helpless in the hospital bed, surrounded by beeping machines and brisk doctors. I was giddy with love. I wanted to take care of him.
Now that I am in charge, I want nothing to do with other men. I have nothing to prove, nothing to rebel against. Every night, I lie in bed with my arm across my husband’s chest, feeling his heartbeat.
Aunt Bernice was huge — about 350 pounds — and was paralyzed on one side of her body. The family never talked about the accident that had caused her paralysis. She also had a speech impairment. The only words of hers that I could understand were “Gimme a kissh.” She terrified me.
My family went to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Erwin’s house once a year for a barbecue. Aunt Bernice was always wedged into the same chair in a corner of her living room; I never saw her any place else in my whole life. Uncle Erwin was the nicest man I knew. I thought it was selfless and noble of him to stay with and take care of Aunt Bernice all those years. I felt compassion for her, but I also resented her for being a burden.
Aunt Bernice died at the age of seventy. By then, Uncle Erwin had been married to her for almost fifty years. He amuses us at family gatherings twice a year now. Listening to his stories, I’ve discovered a few surprising facts. For one thing, though I’d always assumed Aunt Bernice’s accident happened while they were together, it actually occurred two years before they met. So he married her when she was already an invalid. Even more unexpected, though, was the revelation that, while Uncle Erwin was faithful all those years, Aunt Bernice was not.
I’m standing at a pay phone in the hallway of a gay men’s bathhouse, soaking wet and wearing nothing but a towel, talking to my partner about how her evening out with friends is going. I exchange nods and glances with the men who pass by en route to the sauna or the swimming pool or the private rooms. My partner asks me to speak up because it’s hard for her to hear me over the incessant disco beat. I’m describing to her the scene in the bathhouse and my prospects for the evening.
My partner and I consider ourselves bisexual, and describe our relationship as “gender monogamous” — we each have only one partner of the opposite gender. Many people, when they find out about our arrangement, assume we must be self-indulgent and oversexed. Far from it. We barely have enough time and energy for our careers and for each other. No, we have fairly “normal” sexual appetites; we simply don’t limit ourselves to one partner or one gender. And we trust our honest communication to guide us through this sometimes confusing maze of feeling, identity, and desire.
My partner was seeing a woman when we first met, and dated another for a short while earlier this year. I have had a few brief affairs with men since we’ve been together. We’ve had one experience together with a third person. It feels wonderful to have everything on the table, and to know that nothing I desire is too outrageous. Ours is a long-term, committed relationship — we are married, own a home, are planning a family, and love each other deeply — but one in which words like monogamy and faithfulness are subject to interpretation.
When I was thirty-two, a friend gave me a copy of the Koran, and it changed my life. Within a year, I abandoned my Italian Catholic culture and dove headlong into Islam. I married an Italian American Muslim with a long beard, a meticulous turban, and a Ph.D. from New York University. He was handsome, brilliant, fundamentalist, and exceptionally stingy. We lived in a loft in Chelsea, and at his insistence I wore a face veil and gloves whenever I left the apartment. I recall walking down Seventh Avenue at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, wearing my veil and overgarment, and ignoring the Hispanic workmen who told me to go back to Iran. Once, I became so infuriated at a bunch of boys who called me an Iranian whore, that I charged them, swinging my umbrella and screaming (through my veil), “I’m from Jersey, you assholes!”
One hideously hot summer day at a Muslim bazaar in Harlem, I encountered two women, also fully veiled, who were almost exact replicas of each other. They called themselves “co-wives.” The friendlier of the two was named Khadijah and, like me, had been born and raised in central New Jersey, and had forsaken a comfortable middle-class background — and her relationship with her family — to seek Allah. (Little had we known that, as women, we could do this solely by being obedient wives.) I was amazed to meet someone whose life so paralleled mine.
Two months later, my life imitated Khadijah’s when my husband rescued a battered and abandoned Muslim woman and promptly married her. (She needed refuge, he explained, and he could not live with a woman who was not his wife. ) My new co-wife was a Japanese native who had converted to Islam. Our common ground was our shared misery. “Our” husband was extremely fair: so as not to favor one of us over the other (and thus end up “lopsided” on Judgment Day, as tradition had it), he was inconsistent, stingy, cold, and kinky with us both. The arrangement lasted about six months before my co-wife and I packed our bags and together fled New York City for the protection of my mother’s house in New Jersey. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Japan to try to reconcile with her family. Nine months later, I gave birth to my first child, a girl who lived just two hours. I never saw my husband or my co-wife again.
Within months, I married an African American longtime Muslim with whom I thought I could live a sane Islamic life in the university town where I’d grown up. But the stress of poverty, two children born in rapid succession, and full-time work and school transformed this quiet, gentle scholar into a battering, raging, and acutely sad man. After fifteen years of daily violent arguments and frequent physical confrontations, I found a second wife for him; it was the only way to distract him from me and obtain some relief from the pressure cooker of Islam-style monogamy.
My mother has long since died and left me her house in central Jersey. My children are teenagers now, and I have divorced their father, who is still married to his other wife. I will not marry again.
Recently, at a party for a local theater company, I saw Khadijah, the woman I’d met at the market in Harlem. We were amazed and overjoyed to find each other. She, too, was single and back in her hometown, trying to figure it all out. She came to my house last Saturday, and we sat up all night talking. Eventually, the conversation turned to our shattered dreams of Islam.
“I don’t want to lose years of belief,” she said, “but I don’t know about Islam anymore.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “Especially not the Islam we learned. It was all about how much cloth you could wear on your head and how courageously you could embrace polygamy.”
We talked about all the other American Muslim sisters we’d known, all of us so wanting to get it right, so wanting to follow the example of the Prophet even to the point of suffocating, painful marriages. We were so . . . sincere.
Somerset, New Jersey
Because I have chosen to speak and write publicly about my life as a sex worker, I’m used to fielding pointed questions about private matters and handling the hostility of complete strangers. Recently, however, I was caught off guard by a comment from an audience member.
“Why bother getting married?” this woman asked. “I mean, I have no problem with your being a prostitute. I just don’t understand what point there is in your getting married.”
I was incredulous, not at the question, but at how much it hurt me. Over the years, my life as a prostitute and a married woman has been called disgusting, immoral, and a disgrace to everything civilized. Such comments are often hysterical and always devoid of sense. I can laugh them off. But this woman’s manner was calm, sensible, and lighthearted. She simply thought marriage and prostitution were so similar that it made no sense to do both at the same time.
I understand her point. Much of what passes for marriage or dating is similar to prostitution. For instance, it’s not unusual for women to equate the amount of money a man spends on them with how much sex he deserves. The only difference between that and prostitution is the level of honesty involved.
So, if I have such disdain for our culture’s courtship rituals, why did I bother getting married? The truth is marriage is not something I sought. If I hadn’t met my husband, I would not be married. But I fell in love with him and I wanted to have a semipermanent way of acknowledging that connection. I also believe that rituals like weddings can be deeply important, if you engage in them with meaning and intention.
I didn’t stop being a prostitute, however, when I married the love of my life, because prostitution is how I earn my living, and women stopped quitting their jobs when they got married a long time ago. Of course, if I’d been confused about some basic facts, I might have felt differently. One such fact is that love and sex are not one and the same. Another basic fact is that I’m not my husband’s property. I am an individual who has promised to love him and support him and negotiate life with him and grow older (and, hopefully, wiser) with him. Sex is an important and intoxicating part of how we relate to each other, but it’s hardly the main focus.
Since I have a degree in psychology, I consider myself more of a therapist than an “orifice for hire.” I suppose we could reduce therapists to “ears for hire” if we hated their profession. We might ask them how on earth they can pretend to care deeply about all those strangers’ problems all day at work and then have any authentic caring left to share with their families once they get home. We don’t ask this, of course, because we believe there is a profound separation between the professional and the personal — unless the profession is prostitution.
I’m not a traditional prostitute. I practice prostitution as a form of healing. I believe that sex is a basic human right and need, on a par with food and air. I also think sex is fun, and unlike this puritanical society, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having fun. And I like the money, too. Now, as everyone knows, it just isn’t right for a woman to have fun, money, sex, and her freedom all at once, especially if she is a married woman with children. It could be that I make a feminist statement just by getting up each day.
San Francisco, California
As newlyweds, my friend Judy and her husband got caught up in the wife-swapping fad of the sixties. A new young wife myself, I was appalled yet fascinated by the stories she told comparing her many lovers to her husband. (She never once told me — and I never asked — what she thought of Bob making love to other women.) Their marriage ended after eight years, and she has had two more husbands since then — and a string of affairs while married to each.
My friend Pat, who is sixty-two and has been married to the same man since she was sixteen, recently broke off a ten-month affair with her best friend’s husband. She doesn’t feel guilty; her husband had many affairs when they were younger — including each time she was pregnant — and her best friend has had several one-night stands with men from the Elks Club.
Five years ago, my friend Gail, a strict Catholic who attends Mass every week, confided to me that, after thirty years of marriage, she had “met someone” and was having orgasms for the first time in her life; her husband had never liked sex, and she was tired of begging for it. Today she is still seeing the man who makes love to her “for hours at a time,” giving her multiple orgasms.
Then there’s Glenda, whose much-older husband is suffering from dementia and doesn’t miss her on Thursday afternoons when she goes out “to have a little time to myself.” She spends those afternoons with a man she’s been seeing for three years. “A woman needs companionship,” she says.
As for me, the only man I’ve ever had sex with is my husband of thirty-four years. Talking to these women, I feel sexually inexperienced. Am I missing something? Recently, I hesitantly admitted to my friends that my husband was the only man I’d ever slept with. I thought they would laugh. Instead, one said, “Have you been sexually satisfied?”
“Yes,” I answered truthfully.
“If he’s good,” another said, “one man is enough.”
I lived with Robert for eight years before we got legally married to protect our children. Though I adored him, and still do, I didn’t want our marriage to restrict us from being with others, and I said so. I saw no reason to give up my sexual freedom as long as no one was hurt by it. Robert said one woman was enough for him, but he wanted me to be with him by choice, not by obligation. So we agreed to care for one another and our children free from sexual constraints. Despite this agreement, we lived monogamously for years.
Last year, my oldest friend, Steven, called me. His mom had just died, and he was feeling fragile as he faced the lonely task of taking apart his family’s lake-front home. As children, he and I had spent summers there at the lake, swimming, climbing trees, and fishing off the dock. I said I’d come and help him.
For nine days Steven and I made passionate, erotic, wonderful love while we disposed of his parents’ things. Part of the sweetness of the moment was knowing it would soon pass. Afterward, I went home to California to continue my life with my husband and our children. But when I told Robert the truth about those nine days, it changed our relationship.
“How many times did you make love?” he wanted to know.
“Ten, maybe,” I answered truthfully.
“How could you bring me this pain for ten fucks?” he said, tears streaming down his face.
He was devastated, and, though we’d always had great sex in the past, we couldn’t make love for almost eight months; he went limp every time he entered me. It still happens once in a while.
I used to view monogamy as a protective device for frightened people who needed to bolster their self-centered illusions. But now I see that my insistence upon sexual liberty was just another brand of self-centeredness. I’d give back those ten fucks, and much more, to restore peace between my husband and me.
My parents’ marriage was not a happy one. When it was over, my mother would declare the first five years the best: Their needs had been simple then. My father was attending law school, and they were caring for a new baby. Once a month, they splurged on a hot-fudge sundae.
After that came five more children and numerous sources of marital strife: money, gambling debts, chronic lying, alcohol. Despite this, they stayed together for thirty-six years. Why? When they weren’t arguing they shared gossip and had lively debates, often coming down on opposite sides of an issue. And, on some level, my mother liked my father’s instability and unpredictability. A calm, steady man would have bored her.
Finally, though, a number of incidents drained the last of my mother’s tolerance, and she filed for divorce. My father never tried to win her back. He represented himself in court, and Mom ended up with the house and the summer camp in Maine.
Since the divorce fourteen years ago, my parents’ lives have changed little. They still live in the same small town and run into each other at funerals and weddings, in the grocery store and at the dentist’s office. At social functions, they are apt to be seen out on the dance floor doing the cha-cha, or in the corner arguing about plans for another strip mall downtown.
My mother says she is getting calls from my father all the time. “How about going with me to the yacht-club dance, honey?” he’ll say; or, “I’ve got your poinsettia for you. I’ll bring it over this afternoon.”
My mother is appalled: “Doesn’t he know we’re divorced?” she asks me.
I guess not.
Diane S. Snow
I have loved my husband from the moment I first saw him thirty years ago. He is the only man I have ever wanted to marry. I love him with a passion far deeper than any I have ever even dreamed of feeling for anyone else. Yet I have a lover.
I met him after being married for eighteen years. He came into my life just as I was losing my sense of self. My husband and I had become so close, I was almost living in his body. I needed to keep a part of me separate.
When people turn eighteen, they reach maturity. Does a marriage do the same? Does a person who’s been married for eighteen years need to achieve a new level of independence, to break away a little, the way eighteen-year-olds break away from their parents? After eighteen years of fidelity, I learned that it’s possible to love more than one person at the same time, and that passionate sexual love need not be exclusive: just as the birth of my second child did not rob the first of my love, loving another man doesn’t make me love my husband any less.
My lover and I have built our relationship on an intense physical attraction. I liked him before I ever made love to him, but it wasn’t until sex entered the picture that like turned to love. I discovered that one person cannot satisfy me completely, and I am greedy enough to want to meet as many of my needs as I can, if I can do it without hurting anyone. One way I have sought not to hurt my husband is by lying to him. Though I don’t feel at all guilty about my infidelity, I do suffer pangs of remorse about lying.
For a long time I have suspected that my husband is aware of my double life and has allowed me to lead it because he knows I love him and will never leave him. If so, he obviously doesn’t want to acknowledge what he knows. I respect this, even though I often feel cowardly about not being more open with him.
My parents have been married for twenty-two years and are still in love. Sometimes I overhear them ask each other if they have made the right decisions. The question always baffles me. Here we are, living on a farm that, to us, is like a piece of heaven. My father fills the landscape with plants and flowers; my mother fills the house with music and laughter. Yet with all this to take care of — the farm, the animals, the bills, the children — they still find room to love each other.
So, when I hear them question their decisions, I tell them to look at all the beautiful things they have created: two children doing well in college, a house that will always be home, apples that send most folks into ecstasy, and a farm that’s like paradise. All these things are made possible by their love.
Rio Dell, California
I was married to a cocaine addict for eight years. We lived in an isolated rural community, two hours from the nearest town. Although the marriage was lonely and empty, there were some days when I actually felt happy, and my husband had spells of sobriety during which he made many promises (which he never kept).
Eventually, however, I began to realize that my husband’s only love was the drug. Though I’d once had an almost biological need for him, he began to repulse me, physically and emotionally, and we stopped having sex. In the last few years of our marriage, various men in our small community offered their “services” to me, an abandoned woman. My principles, though, would not allow me to accept their offers, no matter how well-intentioned.
So it came as quite a shock when, one day, my best friend informed me she’d been sleeping with my husband on a regular basis for many months. My first reaction was pain; then came anger; then finally glee as I packed up my kids and walked out.
She and I were product managers with adjoining cubicles, so we got to know one another pretty well. We’d strategize about our plans for product-line extensions, upgrades, and competitive conversions. We’d have lunch together, and occasionally dinner. Sometimes we’d even take joint business trips. On one long, boring flight, I found myself excitedly telling her about the topic of my master’s thesis in comparative literature: “Venus and Mars, Love and War, Together Down through the Ages.” I explained that, in ancient Rome, love and marriage did not go together: a man would carry out his familial duties with his wife, and express his passion with another woman.
This conversation turned out to have been a mistake. After we got checked in at our hotel, she invited me up to her room to “relax and unwind.” Her black hair seemed more lush than usual, her lips a more fiery red.
A married man, I said no. Then I went to my room and paced for hours like a caged animal.
Once he is inside me, we start to talk.
“Remember how Sharon looked at the Christmas party in that low-cut dress?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “and I saw her looking at you.”
“Did you see us sneak away during that boring holiday toast?” he asks.
“You did her in the copy room, didn’t you?” I say, feeling him grow stiffer.
“God, she was hot!”
“You nasty man.” I giggle. “Tell me more.”
“No, you first. I know you got some that night.”
“Hmmm,” I moan softly. “I got a great finger fuck from Tammy in the ladies’ room.”
As the talk goes on, our thrusting becomes more urgent. Afterward, we go to sleep quickly. We never speak of this outside of bed.
We have been together for many years, and have never been unfaithful in reality.
Is this monogamy?
At a young age, I learned that monogamy is for the birds — the swans, to be exact. Trying to impress on me the seriousness of “going steady,” my first boyfriend told me about how swans mate for life, pining away forever if their mate dies prematurely. Despite this lesson, I wasn’t any good at going steady with him. The real love of my sixteen-year-old heart was someone else.
I understand the societal reasons for monogamy: providing a stable home for children, arresting the spread of disease, insuring economic well-being. But I still believe it’s unnatural, not to mention damn hard. There are days — or, more accurately, times of the month — when my cells urge me to procreate with the man whose smell attracts me. I’m serious: I’ve heard that humans choose mates in part by smell; if we are drawn to someone’s smell, it means our genes are compatible. And I can believe it — I love my husband’s scent, and he and I have two beautiful, healthy daughters.
When my body ripens each month, however, it isn’t always my husband who’s on my mind. For years I felt guilty about this and tried to derail my thoughts, using that energy to organize my files or catalog five years’ worth of photographs. It helped when, one evening, I listened to seven other monogamous women acknowledge their sexual fantasies. Now I understand that humans just enjoy diversity.
Currently I yearn for a man I met years ago at a concert and saw again recently at work. Not only is he cute, funny, and a thoughtful father; he’s a good — really good — husband. In fact, he would never cheat on his wife. In essence, I yearn for the kind of guy who, if his mate died, would return to the graveside day after day, pining for his one true love. What plucks my heartstrings is a man who’s monogamous.
I never thought there was anything wrong with monogamy until I met Colleen, who said monogamy was limiting. She explained that we should both be able to love whomever we pleased; that loving other people didn’t mean we loved each other any less.
It was 1973. I had just moved to Honolulu and had fallen for Colleen as soon as I’d met her. Although I was interested in communal living and organic farming, I was a New England conservative at heart, and the new frontier that Colleen offered to guide me through was both scary and exciting. Though I resisted at first, we were soon attending workshops on letting go of jealousy and keeping communications honest while exploring sexual relationships outside our own. It wasn’t long before she persuaded me to take the plunge.
Colleen gave me plenty of opportunities to work on my “issues” with jealousy. Though she always asked if it would be OK for her to spend the day — or the night — with some new man, I never said no. I met and liked many of the men she slept with, and became close friends with some, especially Chris, a sailor and gourmet cook. Then there was Allen, a therapist who became my running partner and helped me through some tough emotional times; Jack, an unemployed librarian who masturbated four or five times a day and shared my passion for books and movies; Mark, a pleasant smooth talker who had held up the local Burger King at gunpoint and never gotten caught; Dave, a husband and father of four who had built the quaint little redwood beach house he rented to us; Tom, a physician who loved to strip naked and run through the pouring rain, and who led me on delightful forays into the mountains for mangoes, guavas, and avocados.
I, too, was free to sleep with other people — as long as I asked Colleen first and she gave the OK, which she always did. A late bloomer sexually, I was delighted to discover the joys of sex in my midtwenties, and I had intimate relationships with many women, most of whom became close personal friends.
Colleen and I eventually got married, but after three years it ended. She moved to Maui to live with Allen the therapist, and I moved to the North Shore to live with another woman. Colleen and I may have broken up in part because we weren’t monogamous, but mostly we just weren’t cut out for each other over the long haul.
After the divorce, I moved back to the East Coast, where I met Alice. When I moved in with her, I suggested that we keep the relationship open. She wasn’t at all interested, but I kept pushing. Finally, out of desperation, she followed my advice and had an affair. Much to my surprise, I was devastated. I’d forgotten how angry and hurt I’d felt in my relationship with Colleen. Alice had her lover, and I had mine — and we struggled to live in the wreckage. It’s a miracle the relationship has survived. Fifteen years later, still feeling the bone-deep bruises, I gladly embrace monogamy.
For twenty-one years of our marriage, my first wife and I had a non-monogamous relationship. We thought of ourselves as adventurers at the forefront of social change, stubborn in our belief that our love could survive the battering, and even grow stronger. Many who knew us warned of disaster.
Later, when we divorced, these naysayers assumed the inevitable had finally happened. But I disagree. After more than two decades of sexual freedom — two decades of learning the complexities of jealousy, generosity, possessiveness, and sensual joy — we parted over some of the same issues that have felled countless other marriages. The divorce had little to do with our fucking or loving other people, or risking too much. In these conservative times, it’s tempting to assign the blame to our “indulgences” or “permissiveness.” When the pendulum swings back again, as it inevitably will, expanding the boundaries of personal freedom will be valued once more.
In our early twenties, Annie and I were soul sisters. Sometimes we seemed to have the world by the tail. It was the start of the women’s movement, and we attended consciousness-raising groups together, rehearsed for theatrical auditions, and wrote poetry and songs chock-full of all the wisdom and insight our young minds could muster. We shared everything, even our secrets.
One winter, Annie left to travel abroad for three months. She took along a mystical man she had recently met through the theater. Her boyfriend didn’t know about her traveling partner, and I kept her secret as I listened to him worry about Annie being on the road alone. Occasionally he would come over for dinner or to share a treasured postcard.
One particularly cold night, Annie’s boyfriend confided to me that, before leaving, Annie had suggested that he and I might become lovers. She had sounded “hopeful” and offered him her “permission,” he said. A few too many hot buttered rums later, we wound up in bed together. While making love, I felt smothered by guilt and shame. Afterward, I told him so, and he said he understood. I thought we should tell Annie upon her return, but he protested, saying it was unnecessary. Finally, he agreed, but asked to be the one to tell her.
Spring came, and Annie returned. A couple of busy weeks passed before she and I had an evening to ourselves. When we sat down together, the magic between us hadn’t faded; our friendship was as strong as ever. As she went to leave late that evening, I asked if her boyfriend had told her about what had transpired in her absence. “No,” she said, puzzled. I spilled my guts. We both cried. An hour later, I was still saying how sorry I was as she walked out my door, brokenhearted.
Twice over the next few years, we met in an attempt to heal our wounds, but to no avail. Annie suffered a breakdown, gave up the mystery man, clung tight to her boyfriend, and directed her anger at me. I moved away. All these years later, though I am at peace with myself and happily married with a million blessings, I still miss that girl terribly.
Barbara K. Steiner
I found his spontaneity refreshing; he found my quiet rationality reassuring. The sex wasn’t great, but I had come to associate great sex with painful relationships, and was willing to sacrifice it to marry a nice guy who loved me.
Within a year, however, our different temperaments were driving us crazy. I said he was jarring and unreliable; he accused me of stifling his spirit. On those rare occasions when we made love, I was left feeling so empty that each time I would privately vow not to try it again. I could tell he felt the same way. Two things kept us together: our mutual love for our young daughter, and the conviction that the vows we’d made mattered.
Realizing that the way things were going I’d never be happy or feel loved in this relationship, I decided I’d damned well better try something. So I quit nagging my husband to change the things I found so unbearable, and I prayed for the wisdom to step outside my anger and behave as my best self would. I often didn’t succeed, but I was better at controlling my own behavior than I was at controlling his. He prayed with me, we got some counseling, and things slowly began to get a little better. We tried making love again, but it was still unsatisfying. I figured that, since the sex wasn’t doing anything for me, I might as well concentrate on making him happy. It turned out he’d arrived at the same conclusion on his end, and, with surprise and joy, we met in the middle.
We are amazed and grateful that neither of us slept with anyone else during those awful years. Now we eagerly anticipate going to bed together, and savor our daughter’s disgusted looks when she catches us flirting. Occasionally I’ll have an erotic dream about a former lover, and, after a few exciting moments, I’ll remember that I am married and have just dealt a devastating blow to my husband. It’s a huge relief to wake up and find that I haven’t been unfaithful.
In the seventh year of a loveless marriage, I met an older woman who was as lonely as I was, and we quickly developed a relationship. We shared a need for companionship, affection, and sex. She had recently escaped from an abusive, alcoholic husband of more than twenty years, and needed someone with whom she could be herself for a few hours and feel totally accepted. After years of living with a workaholic corporate climber, I needed someone to nurture me.
Our meetings usually took place in my office after business hours, or at her home in the evening, or on my days off. I particularly relished the occasions when I could leave the obligatory sterile holiday dinner at my in-laws’, or a cocktail party with my wife’s colleagues, to meet her. We passed the time drinking wine, making love, and talking about our lives. We never brought up the future. We both seemed to understand that this relationship was a gift meant to heal the wounds of our pasts, with no guarantee of permanence. The possibility that each meeting might be the last only added to the intensity of our time together.
This woman was the one loving companion I had during that marriage. Had it not been for her, I might have gone crazy, or worse. I really believe she saved my life.
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
I couldn’t help but notice that the Readers Write on “Monogamy” [June 1998] focused more on infidelity. Maybe monogamy makes for less interesting stories. One piece in particular stood out for me: the one in which Robert was traumatized when he learned his spouse had slept with an old friend of hers. His question to her — “How could you bring me this pain for ten fucks?” — assumed his pain was inevitable, not to mention her fault. So his spouse felt bad and regretted what she had done. His pain won out over her pleasure.
I realize that we hurt about what we hurt about, yet I find myself asking the flip side of Robert’s question: “Why is he feeling so much pain over ten fucks?” Regardless of the individual details, the same unexamined assumptions about pain and blame loom just behind all emotional reactions to infidelity. People don’t seem to realize that it’s not their partners’ actions that hurt them; it’s what they think it means about themselves. More importantly, it’s how they felt about themselves in the first place that determined how they’d respond to the infidelity. Conventional morality does nothing to encourage reflection or personal growth. Quite the contrary. The focus is kept squarely on the one who did “wrong” and must be punished for his or her transgression.
Your June 1998 Issue, with the Readers Write on “Monogamy,” described a wide range of sexual ideas and behaviors. As an active member of a religious community and a committed monogamist, I might be expected to feel righteous indignation toward such views, but I respect those who choose open relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual. I don’t think it works for most people, but as long as both parties are clear and honest about it, I say, More power to them.
I am deeply saddened and angered, on the other hand, by the anonymous Readers Write pieces about secret affairs. In most cases, this seems like nothing but betrayal. The person having the affair often hopes that the other secretly knows and approves — when, in fact, the other probably suspects but keeps quiet under a blanket of denial.
In the October 1998 correspondence, Paul McCarthy commented on the Readers Write about “Monogamy” [June 1998] — in particular, on a piece by a man who was hurt to learn his spouse had slept with another person. McCarthy wrote, “People don’t seem to realize that it’s not their partners’ actions that hurt them; it’s what they think it means about themselves.”
I agree that we are each responsible for our own mental well-being. To that extent, Robert, the author of the piece, bears some responsibility for his reaction to his wife’s infidelity. But I don’t see how that absolves her of all responsibility. If the person you love would be hurt by something you might do, why do it? McCarthy’s analysis seems more like a clever rationalization than a loving response.
Through my own infidelity, I have caused and endured a great deal of pain. My secret relationships with others sapped my emotional resources, leaving me with less to give the man I claimed to love. I always thought that if he didn’t find out, it wouldn’t matter, but he sensed I was not completely with him, despite my excellent lies (which I pretended were to protect him). In the end, I have to admit, it wasn’t the suffering I caused him that made me choose fidelity so much as the pain I caused myself — the erosion of my integrity and the lack of a long-term, loving commitment.