Staying Married: Sporadic Affairs
Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are
Very few women I spoke with had long-term affairs. It was much more usual for me to meet women who had short affairs with men they saw only occasionally or sporadically for a year or two. Often such affairs seemed to flourish when women entered their mid-thirties. Suddenly wives who had previously perceived their marriages as comfortable and even happy, would experience a blossoming of fantasies and then attachments to men. These women talked of physiological changes that had occurred in their bodies as they passed certain chronological milestones. Or they talked of psychological changes equally related to the putting on of years.
Those who stressed psychological change had experienced a lack of direction as they had grown older. Their children had ceased to preoccupy them; if they did not work, they longed to do so or to go back to school; but if they did work, they found their jobs had grown repetitive or isolating. Sometimes these women felt their bodies and their beauty declining, and they could almost hear death’s klaxon at their backs. They knew there was nothing their husbands could do to stop life’s degenerative process. But they seemed to hope that by turning to men they didn’t yet know, they might discover in these men magical transformative powers. Sometimes they even did.
Regina Beaudeker / Is It Just the Fact of a New Body?
Regina Beaudeker, a thirty-eight-year-old school teacher who was one of the first such women I interviewed, had found a lover revitalizing. She had been married seventeen years and had just had her first affair the previous summer. She was deep into the throes of it when I spoke with her and had awakened on the morning of our interview—and indeed on so many other mornings lately—with a glow, a sense of pride in her appearance, that she had not felt in years. “Whatever the bad results of all this—and I want you to know I feel very guilty because I’m certain my husband has wanted to play around but has never done so—whatever the bad results, I think I will always feel this experience was worthwhile, just because it’s given me these days since summer of feeling young and beautiful again.”
She had come to see me in the office I sometimes work in, a dusty borrowed studio. Another writer and I shared it, and whenever I arrived the ashtrays were little pyramids of ground-down paper and ash. My colleague’s work must go badly, I often thought, and it seemed ominous to me the day Regina came. How would I talk to this stranger without making my own cigarette mounds? Regina herself was uneasy with me and smoking heavily already. Why was it that since the Government warnings against cigarette smoking ten years ago, more men than women have given up smoking? What self-destructiveness holds us in its grip?
Regina said, “When I was in college I was vibrant. A lot of why I felt good about myself in those days was having men seek me out. Even when I went steady with a guy there were always others waiting in the wings; other men to choose from. I was never pretty, but lots of people told me I was sexy.”
I was able to see her sexiness. She was small, olive-skinned, taut. She had a mouth too wide for her face, what used to be called a generous mouth. When she was not smoking, her fingers were at play on her lower lip. She was never still.
Regina told me first that she had been quite sexually experienced before marrying her husband whom she met at college, so it was not, she insisted, a feeling of sexual curiosity that had motivated her affair. For seventeen years she had been faithful to her husband, but, she explained, throughout those years she had felt herself growing wasted and old and dull. “There was something missing. I felt dissatisfied. End of life. Even at work, with the children yelling in the corridors, I would suddenly feel an unbearable stillness within me.”
Then this past summer at the beach she had found herself intensely attracted to a neighbor. He was also married but his wife, a narcissist, said Regina, used to spend hours and hours in the sun and he, fair and quick to burn, would wander away from her to visit friends. “My own husband was working during the week and just coming up weekends. This man, my neighbor, proposed we sleep together. The most important thing I have to tell you is how shocked I was when he said that. I literally had never given such matters a thought. Marriage was the closing of that door, the ringing down of that curtain. I knew that married men sometimes played around. But not married women. And I figured the men had their affairs with sex-starved office girls. So I was shocked. And even indignant. Who did this guy think I was? My opinion of him went down, not up. I rejected him.”
But after that, the idea was never far from her mind. She said, “I began asking myself ’Why not? Who would know? Why not once?’ It wasn’t as if I cared for my neighbor. I didn’t then and I don’t now. No, what happened was that just through thinking about it, something began to change. I began looking at myself in mirrors. Began asking myself, ’Does he really find me attractive?’ Began fantasizing. Began, in short, feeling better about myself.”
Regina moved constantly during our conversation. To the windows. To the couch. She wanted to be interviewed standing up. Whatever was going on with her, it was clear to me she was not really at peace with herself. She had come to see me at the prompting of a friend, and she told me she felt that investigating the subject of women and extramarital sex was, in her view, extremely important; yet, I felt throughout the conversation that she was ready to flee.
“I suppose,” she said in explanation, “that my ego had gotten flattened out during all those years of marriage. It swelled back up to normal after my neighbor’s proposition, I came out of a slump I had been in for years. It was classic. Of course, as I began to come out of the slump, I had the illusion that I was the only married woman in the world who had ever faced this conflict between duty and liberty. I had the insane illusion that nobody else had ever been in the same boat as me. Certainly nobody I knew admitted to adultery. So there was no one to talk to. I felt guilty, sick, angry at myself. But in September I called this guy and we met in a hotel after school. The Hilton, no less. And made love. It was really a joke. That first time, he came almost the minute he entered me. My husband was a much better lover. We always spent a lot of time in foreplay; intercourse was always long and slow; he knew what I liked and I knew what he liked. My lover was in an awful rush. Of course, he told me it would get better the next time.
“And to some extent it did get better. But he never took the time over me that my husband did. Never licked me, which is a thing I like very much. Didn’t even especially want me to go down on him though there was one time I insisted; he squirmed a lot.”
I found myself surprised at this description and told Regina so. Yet she continued to maintain that sex with her husband was better than with her lover. I concluded that extramarital sex had more significance to Regina as a balm for some emotional ache than for a strictly physical one.
“I had the feeling I was imposing on him,” Regina went on. “So it was never what you could really call good sex. And yet I felt I had to continue because a very strange thing happened to me, a sexual thing. I started to feel damp between my legs whenever I thought of him. Sometimes just when I’d be out buying clothes. Or just watching TV. Or standing at the blackboard at school.
“It seemed to have nothing to do with what was happening. And then I remembered that I was that way too, when I was young and in the early days of my marriage. So what I’m wondering is, is it just the fact of a new body? Is it something hormonal that happens when you’re with somebody new that just disappears within a long sexual relationship? And if that’s the case, what am I to do? Because if I haven’t made all this clear, my husband is the kind of man I can share everything with. All my thoughts and feelings, except of course about this. He’s my intellectual equal and a delicious man. My lover isn’t. And yet, for reasons I can’t explain, whenever I start feeling my familiar depression, the sense that life is pale, or even sometimes when I’m not thinking, I get this surge of sexual excitement and although it makes me feel guilty, it also makes me feel so pleased with myself.”
I didn’t know what to tell Regina and for a long time after our interview I felt confused by what she had said. She had been asking me for answers, but how could I give answers to questions that have but barely begun to be raised. I had read animal research that showed that male rats became more stimulated when a new female was introduced into their cage. But I knew of no comparable findings concerning female animal sexuality. Female animals, even those closer in the evolutionary scale to ourselves, are locked into their estrogen cycles in ways that human females are not. Students of human behavior, on the other hand, have suggested that women, like men, may experience greater arousal toward new sexual partners, or at least a deadening of sexual response toward the long-familiar. I had read Simone de Beauvoir’s devastating view of sexual relations in marriage in The Second Sex:
“Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, this is its essential character; but in the deep intimacy of the couple, husband and wife become for one another the Same; no exchange is any longer possible between them, no giving and no conquering. Thus if they do continue to make love, it is often with a sense of shame: they feel that the sexual act is no longer an intersubjective experience in which each goes beyond self, but rather a kind of joint masturbation. That they each regard the other as a utensil necessary for the satisfaction of their needs is a fact that conjugal politeness ignores …”
De Beauvoir is of course a pessimist, but even Masters and Johnson, marital optimists, had stated at a meeting in 1972 held by the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States that “Sex in a warm, committed relationship does tend to become diffused after a time and may not always reach the peaks of excitement that are sometimes experienced in early, experimental encounters between a man and a woman.” They had predicted that this diffusion was less likely to occur to couples who were not “goal-oriented” when it came to sex, couples who focused not just on orgasm but on the emotional value of their marital partner. Yet Regina did seem to be focusing on her marital partner and I felt perplexed by her.
Catherine Lewyt / Maybe I’ll Be President of the P.T.A.
Catherine Lewyt, a housewife from suburban New Jersey, had also turned to extramarital sex in her thirties—not because she found such activity more physically satisfying than the sex in her marriage, but because she found it emotionally satisfying. I had been given Catherine’s name by a mutual friend who knew several women who were conducting extramarital sexual affairs. Of all of them, Catherine interested her the most. When I had asked why, the friend had said, “Because she’s really not interested in sex at all.”
We met at Catherine’s house, a low-slung ranch set down in a maze of similar homes, all with picture windows looking out on a flattened landscape where only occasionally a tree was still standing on a lawn beside swings and ping-pong tables, barbecue pits, and croquet sets, and then only because its roots were too tenacious to be driven completely from the environment.
Catherine appeared to be in her early forties, a heavy woman, a blonde who was visibly graying. She must once have been voluptuous but now she had the massive sexuality of a Lachaise sculpture. I felt slight and childish beside Catherine. She enveloped me. She was not only big but garrulous.
She took me at once into her living room and began showing off to me the elements in the room that were the products of her husband’s skillful hands. There were intricate built-in cupboards, a custom-made hi-fi system, drapes that were electrically controlled. She seemed extraordinarily proud of her husband’s achievements, but at the same time she clearly resented his preoccupation with hobbies and objects. “He goes into his shop in the basement right after dinner and he’s there until bedtime,” she said, pouring coffee and shifting piles of comic books and records, the artifacts of her three children.
It was, she said, Henry’s reclusiveness that had led her to her first extramarital experience seven years ago. At that time her children, female twins and an older boy, had already entered school and her major occupation, besides the children, had been charitable work with the local Episcopalian Church, a church she had converted to after her early years as a Catholic. It was the church of her husband and of her very beloved mother-in-law. But her major conflict in the early years of marriage had been Henry’s unwillingness to participate in her various church-related activities. “He’s the kind of man who’s absent even when he’s present,” she complained, “and he’d much rather just be absent.”
Still, he was kind, and recognized her needs for activity. So at his urging, she had gone on a church-sponsored trip to Florida one spring. There were mostly couples on the chartered flight, and a few unattached wives and husbands. The first night away from home, relaxed by her sudden freedom from the children and by the spirit and friendliness of the group, she had gone to bed with one of the men who had been on the flight. It had happened suddenly and hastily after partying.
A neighbor and a friend, he had talked about it afterwards and told her to consider it a meaningless, isolated event. They knew each other’s spouses. They must not let the relationship continue. They agreed to consider it trivial.
But for Catherine, nothing was the same afterwards. For the first time since she had married Henry ten years before, a man had danced with her, been attentive, talked to her after lovemaking. She found that she had responded vigorously to the attention if not the lovemaking.
“When I came home the next day I felt like a different woman. I knew what I had done was wrong. But I couldn’t believe it was entirely wrong if it made me feel this good. I couldn’t hide from Henry how much more cheerful I was when I came home than when I went away. So I explained to him it had something to do with my having been able to get out. He, to my surprise, agreed. He urged me to get out more often, either with the church group or in some other fashion. ’Why don’t you take a night off each week?’ he said. ’I know I’m dull at night; I just like to get home and putter; and it’s boring for you.’”
“Didn’t that make you angry in a way?” I asked. I was searching her face for clues. Surely there had been anger toward Henry when she slept with the neighbor and felt herself reawakened.
But Catherine said, “No. I never felt angry. I started doing just that. Taking a night off. I like dancing, so I started going with girlfriends, later by myself, to a discotheque bar in the next town. And for a long while it was really true that just this business of getting out alone once a week kept me cheerful. Then one night some guy asked me to have a drink with him afterwards; which I did. One thing led to another and I slept with him. It was in his car. I felt terribly guilty afterwards. And yet, you know, there were some good feelings. I mean that when I looked in the mirror I didn’t see thirty-seven-year-old Catherine Lewyt, but a woman somehow much younger, much more appealing.
“It wasn’t just a sex thing. I’m not terribly keen on sex. I’ve only had two orgasms in my life and they were both with my husband, some years ago. But being with other men makes me feel better about myself.
“Henry is the kind of man whose idea of fun on weekends is mowing the lawn. And his idea of making love is you just do it, no preliminaries, no conversation. I’ve been turned off about sex for years. But I like so much to be where there’s music and action and lots of people.”
For Catherine, staying married was all-important. Her affairs were for her a way of smoothing out difficulties in her marriage, and she offered me an example of how her new freedom worked to accomplish this goal. “I think Henry is actually grateful to me that I’m willing to go out by myself to places where he would be miserable,” she said. “Before, if he wouldn’t go, I’d stay home and grump at him. Now I just go. We go to parties in our two cars so that he can leave when it grows boring for him.
“I’ve been going on this way for seven years,” she explained. “I go out a couple of times a month. I meet guys at the bowling alley, at bars near here, sometimes at parties. If I go to bed with them they always say, ’When can I see you again? Can I call you?’ and I say yes a few times. But if they start showing possessiveness, I say, ’No. No more.’
“I’ve come to realize that this is the best thing for me to do. Actually, I’ve had some guidance in this. About four years ago, you see, I had an affair with a guy who became very attached to me. And I let it happen. It was immensely flattering; he was younger than me, unattached, and very intense. I saw him a lot, and he even visited me at home when my husband was away. But then he got it into his head that if I was sleeping with him so regularly I ought to leave my husband and marry him. He kept bothering me about this, and I kept saying no.
“I felt I loved my husband. I had been a real nobody when Henry married me, a file clerk, a fifty-dollar-a-week clerk with an unpronounceable last name. And Henry, and Henry’s family, especially his mother, took me in and changed all that. My mother-in-law, when he called her to say he was marrying me and gave my name, which is Polish, didn’t say as I’d dreamed she would, ’Who? How do you spell it?’ She just said, ’That’s nice.’ And that was all there was to it. I couldn’t let her down by divorcing Henry. She’s been a second mother to me. Is it her fault, or my fault or his that Henry is uncommunicative and I like gaiety?
“So I told my boyfriend I didn’t want to marry him. Next thing I know, he goes around to the priest at my church and tells him the whole story. Only the way he told it was he said to the priest that we were going to run off together to make this thing all right with God.
“Next thing I know I get a phone call from the priest, I should come down and talk. Since he already knew so much, I told him my side of the story. I said I wasn’t in love with this fellow and didn’t want to run off with him but that I seemed to need men other than Henry, and I didn’t know what to do.
“I was very nervous at the time, very troubled and depressed. The priest made me promise to stop the relationship and not run off from my husband and children, or even take the children away from Henry. ’You’re a family,’ he said. ’Everyone here knows you, respects you. You’d be wrecking your life, causing yourself and the children misery.’ He said he could understand my wanting to sleep with men occasionally, and that I should go for marriage counseling with the church’s pastoral counselor.
“I did all that. I’m still getting counseling. When I told my boyfriend I wouldn’t leave my home for him, he left me. And from then on, I began looking for men I wouldn’t risk much with. I mean men who wouldn’t risk much of themselves for me. Wouldn’t fall in love with me.
“I’ve gotten so I’m good at this. I can tell the kind of guy who’s looking for an occasional fling from the kind of guy who wants a relationship, who maybe is in a bad marriage himself and thinks if he had a girlfriend he could work his way out. I avoid those like the plague. I feel now that as long as I don’t break up my family, don’t get divorced, don’t hurt anyone, what I’m doing can’t be too bad. I love Henry, but I can’t help myself because every once in a while I need to be sure I’m still attractive.”
She was settled. She was sure. The only time she showed any doubt as we talked, the only time her face clouded over, was when we discussed her children. It turned out she worried a lot about the possibility that as they grew older they would become suspicious of her behavior. She would feel ashamed if they found out.
She said, “I wouldn’t ever want my children to know about any of this. Part of what is so remarkable about Henry is that he silences my teen-aged son’s suspicions. The boy will say, ’Are you going out this week too, Ma?’ and Henry will say, ’Mind your own business. Your mother is as entitled to fun as anyone is.’
“But if it gets to the point where I feel my son is really suspicious—or if it gets to the point where I’m too old or unattractive to find men—well, I guess I’ll just take up hooking rugs or needlepoint. I’ll be the president of the P.T.A. or chairman of the church social committee and do all the things other people do to keep themselves from thinking about where they are. But I won’t ever let anything disturb my marriage. If we were bickering it would be a different story. But we almost never fight, and the children, no matter how old they get, will always need the both of us, their family. It would upset us all terribly if we were to divorce.”
Because of these initial interviews with women who stressed that the sex they experienced in their affairs was inferior to or no better than the sex in their marriages, I had at first assumed that women turned toward extramarital sex in their thirties because of boredom, of lack of direction, of a reduction in childcare duties or a despair over aging. But as I continued interviewing I met just as many women who presented a reverse experience: they enjoyed the sex in their affairs more than that in their marriages. Indeed, a number of women felt quite strongly that they had taken lovers because at some point in their thirties they had undergone a physiological change that altered their sexual needs. One cluster of these women felt that the sex they had in their early years of marriage, while good, was no longer adequate to their present needs; another felt that the sex in their marriages had never been good, but that prior to their thirties this had not presented a problem.
Sara Nichols / Am I Imitating the Behavior of Our Oppressors?
Sara Nichols, a prominent theorist of the women’s movement, a psychotherapist with two children and a husband with whom she has lived for sixteen years, belonged to the first camp. Sex with her husband had been fine and perfectly suited to her needs until a few years ago. Now, as a result of a sexual upsurge in herself, simultaneous with a lessening sex drive in her husband, she had taken as a lover a man considerably younger than herself, and had been seeing him for the past year.
I was introduced to Sara by a colleague who had warned me that while she thought Sara might be very interested in my project, she would probably be too busy to speak with me. But I remember how generously Sara said she would make time because the subject was so important.
She was always making time for people. Periodically during our interview in her office, the telephone rang and Sara Nichols was consoling patients, making speaking commitments, spreading herself enthusiastically across a thousand requests and interruptions.
We began by discussing the feminist position on extramarital sex. Sara said, “If there were such a thing as a feminist position it would probably be that if I take a lover, I am imitating the worst behavior of our oppressors.”
“Is that the way you feel about yourself?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” she said. “I feel I am looking for myself, for what will make me happiest, and that this is not only my necessity but my obligation. For one thing, women my age face real sexual difficulties. They are still at their sexual peak, while their husbands—assuming they married men around their own age—are on a decline.”
Sara’s husband, it developed, had not for years made love to her more than four or five times a week and, on those nights he did, it was only once per night, whereas in their past they had always had repeated sexual episodes. Sara had come to experience the change as a physical deprivation. “You see, these days if I have one good orgasm, then that’s the time when I want to go on and have three or four more episodes. The better the orgasm, the more I want to go on. And while my husband is potent, there’s no question but that my sexual capacity now is greater than his.”
Sara appreciated the fact that her husband wasn’t bored with her, either sexually or emotionally. “In fact,” she conceded, “he is even fun to sleep with. I mean sleep, and that’s terribly important. He’s affectionate in his sleep. He makes me feel that he really knows I’m there and that he appreciates my presence. He doesn’t turn off after sex the way some men do. But, as I said, he’s not really likely to perform again, the way young men can, or even the way older men can when they’re in new relationships.”
The sexual disparity between Sara and her husband had apparently started troubling her about five or six years ago. “The more I would feel sexy, the more I would go around feeling frustrated all the time. And then there was an additional problem. I meet a lot of men through my work. There were always other men approaching me. But I didn’t want an affair, so I turned my sexuality off altogether for a while, or so it seemed. It was a terrible dilemma. Some of my friends are very into masturbation and they think that’s the answer. They look terrific. They seem happy and healthy. But it’s just not for me. It’s a relief, but it doesn’t do for me what intercourse does. There’s something about a nice warm body next to you. Then of course, I’ve got friends who have recommended I try women. But I think I’m afraid to start a relationship with another woman. I’ve read and thought and talked about this a lot. I’m not sure I quite understand my hesitation. I think I’m phallus-fixated.”
Sara was very pleased with the man she had chosen as lover. “He’s beautiful,” she said, “with a face like the young Shelley. And for the first time in my life I can understand what men mean when they talk about young bodies—young, firm bodies. I used to get angry with men when they followed a bouncing young tuccus with their eyes and let whatever you were saying to them disappear into thin air. But I have empathy now.”
Still, there were problems. Sara’s husband was a firm believer in monogamy and Sara didn’t want to rock the stately ship of her marriage. She said with a subdued voice, toward the end of our interview, “I’m afraid I’m stuck right now, stuck just where I don’t want to be. I have to keep quiet about my affair, have to cool it down, even have to take the risk that because I can’t see my lover as often as he’d like, he’ll fall in love with someone else. I expect it every time I see him. Why should he hang on to me, a woman who’s so rarely available to him? I don’t look forward to this happening. I’ll be devastated. But at least at this point in time I don’t see I have any choice. The trouble is, I like being married.”
Prudence Phillips / My Body Changed after I Turned Thirty
Prudence Phillips, a thirty-five-year-old magazine researcher, felt that the sex in her marriage had never been adequate, but that this had not distressed her until, at about the time she turned thirty, she began to experience increased and specific sexual longings. When this happened she felt as if a pall had been cast over her life, and she became lethargic and subdued. But about a year and a half before I interviewed her, she had started an affair which was still going on with a lover who had, she said, resuscitated her. “It’s been like a youth treatment,” she told me. “Like a trip to one of those health farms.”
We met at Prudence’s house, about forty-five minutes out of New York City. She worked in the city, part-time, three days a week, and it was on those days, on her lunch hour, that she met her lover regularly. She couldn’t see me in the city, she explained; every minute of her time there was overloaded. But if I wanted to ride up to her house on one of her nonworking days, she’d have plenty of leisure. Her son, five years old, was in school in the mornings and that would be a good time to come.
The house was big and sprawling, a Victorian house, intricate with bay windows and fireplaces and strips of carved wood molding. Prudence was fair-skinned, sunburned, and wearing blond braids, a pretty woman on whom well-worn dungarees looked like a second skin. She had been working in her garden before I arrived, getting ready for a summer crop of beans and zucchini which she and her husband would clean, cook, and freeze for the winter.
I turned on my tape recorder and Prudence just sat and talked into it, quite unself-consciously. She said, “My husband loves me and I guess I love him. But making love was never our forte. In fact, when I was twenty-eight and we were married only four years, he used to talk about my growing old gracefully and not being as sexually demanding as I was when we first met; he wanted it that way. I really hated going to bed with him after a while and only did it because I felt ashamed to just masturbate, but actually being sexually dependent on him was humiliating. He’d touch me and feel me all over, get me all aroused, then enter and come one second later. Then he’d masturbate me. I never felt anything inside me, never felt myself caring while coming.
“Of course, I had nothing to compare it to. I had been experienced before we met, but I was so young then that intercourse meant nothing to me. I cared only about being masturbated and caressed. I came that way. Only when I got older did I have the feeling of something being missing. But of course it wasn’t until I actually started an affair that I knew what it was.
“It’s hard to explain it exactly, but I guess what happened was that after about eight years of marriage I started to feel frustrated. I started looking over every guy I met—at work, at parties, even in the street—wondering how a married woman like myself could ever get into an affair with one of them. I felt horny. Just a touch on the arm from a guy at work would arouse me. My mouth would go dry.
“I should point out that my son was born a year before those feelings started. It was four years ago; I had been married seven years and I was thirty-one. One didn’t see as much material then as one does now about women’s sexuality. It’s really astonishing and wonderful how this subject is finally being aired. But four years ago, when I began to feel so turned on all over my body, I had no way of knowing whether what was happening to me was something physical or something psychological.”
I asked Prudence, “Do you know that now?” and she said, “Yes, I do. My body changed around the time I turned thirty. It needn’t have been age. It could have just been that now I’d given birth. Let’s say it was both, or one or the other. These were physiological things and they did something to my body. Suddenly I had nothing on my mind but sex. I really understand now the way teen-age boys must feel, the way they’re led around by their cocks at seventeen. I could never again be angry at recollecting adolescent scenes of fighting off boys, never again agree with the complaints of some of my friends about how they were victimized by male sex drive. Once I turned thirty and once I had my baby, I was as led around by my genitals as ever any boy was, and if I could have had the opportunity to screw ’em and leave ’em, which is to some extent culturally permitted to boys, I assure you I would have.
“But no, it doesn’t work that way for a woman. For one thing, before you can screw ’em and leave ’em, you have to find them. And that was the hardest part for me.”
Prudence had, surprisingly, experienced a number of rejections once she began to look for a sexual partner. The men she met, now that she was in her thirties, men her own age or a little older, did not seem quite as enthusiastic about sex as the men she had known when she was single and in her early twenties. An old boyfriend, who had kissed her once after an intimate confiding lunch, had wanted just that, a kiss. A friend at work, with whom she rode to the railroad station one night after an office Christmas party, “got drunk, and he was caressing me in the cab. I was drunk too, because I found myself sucking his thumb in the cab and not wanting to stop for dear life. He said how sexy I was, and how he hadn’t been near a woman who turned him on the way I did for years, and that passion had been dead between his wife and him for years. But that was all he said. He didn’t seem to want to work anything out with me, to see me again. In fact, the next day I was at work, he apologized for having flirted with me in the cab. I said, ’That’s okay. It was as much me as you,’ and he looked at me unbelievingly and said, ’Oh, no; it was all my fault.’
“Things like this kept happening and happening. I was trying to transfer some of this sexy feeling I had to my husband, but he just wasn’t very interested either. Once a week has always been enough for him. I don’t know what I would have done if just around this time I felt really desperate I hadn’t met the man with whom I’m now having this affair. He’s a photographer who works for my magazine occasionally, an older man, close to fifty. He loves his wife and he made that very clear to me when we went to bed the first time in his studio. I told him that was just fine with me. And it is, that’s the finest part of it all. I don’t have to worry that he’ll get it into his head to shake things up in my life.
“The sex is really great with him. You name it, we’ve tried it. And we meet three times a week, as I’ve told you, on my lunch hour, which is really two hours, provided I stay a little later in the evenings.
“I do feel guilty about it. There have been times I’ve tried to break it off, tried to go without meeting him just to see if maybe by now the urgency in my body has subsided. But I can’t do it. If I skip seeing him for a week, I call him up and I’m practically shaking from my efforts to avoid him. I don’t know why he doesn’t get mad at me when I skip seeing him, but he doesn’t; maybe it’s because he’s older and wiser; he understands why I’ve stayed away; and he just welcomes me back and we start up again. Then, when I’m in bed with him again, everything rational goes out of my head. Once I was lying on top of him and I was ready to come and the thought crossed my mind that no matter what happened, if my mother, or even my husband, were to walk through the doors right now, I wouldn’t get up, wouldn’t stop, and wouldn’t even apologize. There’s an imperative in my body that means more to me now than almost anything.”
Prudence became thoughtful now and the flow of her words ceased. It gave me a chance to ask her a few questions: what was wrong in her marriage other than sexual incompatibility? What did she hope would happen? She said that nothing was wrong in her marriage and that she hoped only that she could keep her affair secret, since it would surely offend and drive away her husband, until she reached whatever age it was when the sexual urgency would dissipate as suddenly as it had arrived.
“If it started in when I was around thirty, surely it will begin to subside at some other age. I hope it does. I love my husband. We share a lot of mutual interests. I help him in his work, he helps me in mine, and now there’s our son. I just think the whole trouble between us is a matter of female, or at least my, chronology. I married him at twenty-four. That’s not considered a young age for marrying, and it isn’t, really. Emotionally, you’ve been a woman for a long time; you want to share your life with someone. But what you don’t know, can’t know at twenty-four, is what kind of woman you’re going to be sexually. If I were to marry today, I’d obviously look for a man who satisfied me in bed as well as in the head. But as I told you, even though I was experienced, and liked sex, I didn’t feel sex as a bodily craving in those days. Well, it is now, and maybe if I hadn’t gotten into this affair, I’d have had to leave my husband. But I don’t have to now.”
I found myself fascinated by the degree of marital satisfaction in this group of women. It is true that the women tended to be satisfied chiefly with only one area of their marriages—emotional or sexual. Still, I had expected a more florid and total dissatisfaction, perhaps an urge to separate. I had always believed that strong anger against a mate and a consequent but perhaps hidden desire for a new marital partner was what underlay extramarital sex—at least for women. But these women, and quite a number I talked with later, expressed preferences for their husbands over their lovers, and for their marriages over being on their own or in altogether new marriages.
I wondered whether there were many women like them today—women who seemed relatively happy—who were having extramarital affairs. Kinsey had touched on questions of marital satisfaction and dissatisfaction in his 1953 study of adulterous women, but had not used the responses to make any sort of statistical analysis on this point. But in the 1974 Bell and Peltz study, the researchers discovered that a surprising number of women with extramarital sexual experience reported high levels of emotional or sexual satisfaction in marriage. Such women did not have affairs as frequently as those who were very unhappy or very dissatisfied. Still, 20 percent of the adulterous said they were “happy most of the time.” Many of this 20 percent termed either the sex in their marriages “very good” or their marriages as a whole “very good.”
The fact of satisfaction with marriage—or at least with either the sex in marriage or the over-all emotional quality of marriage—did not, then, prevent a woman from having extramarital experience. It was less likely that such a woman would have an extramarital affair, but not unlikely.