Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are

Playing Around: Women and Infidelity - Linda Wolfe 1975

Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are

I began to gather the stories which unfold here by talking with a handful of friends and some of my former neighbors who had, in the past, described their extramarital sexual experiences to me. But I quickly abandoned doing interviews in this way. It seemed at once too close and too distancing; I felt I would be uncomfortable in my future relationships with friends and neighbors (and their husbands) if I knew too much personal history. For me, friendship equates with slow disclosure; I get to know friends gradually, at their pace and not at my insistence. So I determined to do my interviews primarily among women not known to me before the time I began formal work on this book.

But how to reach them? I did it by discussing the nature of my project in the wide circle of my friends, acquaintances, and professional associates. I had the theory that many women involved in extramarital affairs confided in someone; that without a friend who knew the ins and outs of her erotic life, an adulterous woman would feel divided, unreal, perhaps depersonalized. I suppose I had gotten the idea from Flaubert. Even Madame Bovary had a confidante, her maid Felicité, who ultimately knew all Emma’s sexual arrangements, and shared with her certain feminine sorrows.

The theory proved valid. There were hosts of women whose paths crossed mine who had friends, neighbors, colleagues who had confided affairs, and who urged their peers to speak with me. Everyone knew someone. A friend in suburban Connecticut, herself a faithful wife for twenty-five years, had nevertheless been the confidante and emotional barometer for two neighbors whose lives were less fixed than her own. A woman in a Midwestern city who was the friend of a friend called and said she knew four women in her town whom I might interview; I flew out and spoke with them all. At a party a woman I merely chatted with about my work responded with interest to the project. “I’ve never played around,” she said. “And wouldn’t. But my sister has been doing it for two years now, and I think she’d be grateful for a chance to speak with you.” My phone rang constantly. “I have a friend.” “There’s a woman I work with.” “My neighbor has been having a turbulent affair.” Following leads like these, I interviewed women in a miscellany of middle-class Manhattan neighborhoods and, ultimately, in unfamiliar, sometimes distant suburbs and cities.

I arbitrarily stopped collecting informants when I had conducted lengthy interviews with sixty-six women whom I had selected from a preliminary list of a hundred. The accounts I heard by then seemed to me sufficient for a presentation of the characteristic patterns of female extramarital sexual behavior—its causes, its outcomes, its pleasures, its pains.

I have not included every story I was told. Some were not related with enough detail for me to translate authentic character or the particularities of experience onto paper; some were too similar to accounts I was already determined to use and would, therefore, have made the book repetitious; some were not especially interesting or telling. But those stories I have used are the reports of individual women, not of composites or types.

The accounts are organized within under two major headings, “Marriage” and “Experimental Marriage.” Traditionally, marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman that requires two significant promises. One is that the participants to marriage will love each other for their lifetimes—the vow of permanence; the other is that they will love only each other—the vow of exclusivity. Most of us who marry, today just as in the past, make either ceremonial public or intimate private vows on these matters. Both vows are, however, often breached. What has happened to permanence can be observed in the ever-mounting divorce rate. Exclusivity is breached by extramarital sex.

In “Marriage,” I present accounts of women who, by virtue of traditional marriage vows, attempt to be secretive about extramarital sexual experiences. In “Experimental Marriage,” I present accounts of women who are committed to acknowledging such experience to their husbands. Marriages with this commitment are sometimes called open marriages or new marital life-styles or alternatives. In them, the vow concerning exclusivity has been revised. It avoids infidelity—the breaking of a faith or trust—but permits and sometimes even encourages adultery—extramarital sex.

Within the sections devoted to “Marriage” and “Experimental Marriage,” I have further subdivided the book into chapters that begin with the phrases “Staying Married” or “Breaking Up.” Both traditional adulterous marriages and experimental adulterous marriages sometimes hold—that is, the partners stay married—and sometimes cease holding and come apart; this is of course true for monogamous marriages as well. I have not made these subdivisions because I have found the answer to the perennial question of whether extramarital sex bolsters marriage or weakens it. The division merely reflects my interviewees’ marital status at the time of the interview.

Why were these women who spoke with me willing to discuss with a stranger so personal and usually secret a subject as extramarital sex? One friend said to me, “I should think the only women you’ll get will be the braggers and the exhibitionists.” But this wasn’t so. There were some of those, but there were shy women and embarrassed women as well.

What I discovered was that there was so often pain and confusion associated with women’s affairs that many women accepted, even welcomed, the invitation to discuss their feelings and experiences. I had promised to try to be as non-judgmental as possible and I believe this helped. I had also promised that I would use fictitious names in recounting their experiences, and that I would alter identifying details by choosing appropriate substitutes for such matters as occupation or residence. I think it helped, too, that I was known to be serious. I always used to chide myself for a certain brow-furrowing sobriety, but now my very failing served me well. Women who confided in me knew I wouldn’t mock.

Finally, the women who spoke with me came because they were interested in seeing a change in the pejorative atmosphere surrounding female extramarital sex. They felt their experiences, when known, were judged more harshly than were men’s, that there was no justification for this double standard hangover, and that opening up the subject might begin to clear the air.

When I was interviewing, I tried to give as much of myself as I could. All interviewers do. Many of my meetings with women took place over lunches and dinners; often I was invited to their homes; I met children, husbands, lovers. It was necessary to have dialogues, to be more than a questioner, more than a collector of monologues. In writing the results of my research, I again have tried to give something of myself, to include, wherever craft permitted, my reactions and response. I wanted to let the women speak. I love the authenticity of tape, but I often find mere transcribed and edited tape recordings dull and lifeless. Just as it is the interviewer’s reaction and response that determines whether an interview will come alive, so, it seems to me, does his or her reaction and response determine whether the final transcribed and edited version has life. The technique didn’t always work—sometimes my responses lay buried or confused—but it always seemed worth the effort, largely because I eventually realized that there was more than style at stake. It had become clear to me that the most important aspect of women’s stories of their extramarital adventuring lay not in the social explorers themselves but in how the rest of us observe, receive, and screen out their news.