Staying Married: Adulterous Personalities and Adultery-Provoking Marriage - Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are

Playing Around: Women and Infidelity - Linda Wolfe 1975

Staying Married: Adulterous Personalities and Adultery-Provoking Marriage
Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are

Despite the many pages of psychological and sociological literature devoted to extramarital sex, there are in fact only two theories about what makes people adulterous. One is that they are adulterous by nature—either by virtue of human nature itself (this from sexual utopians who consider monogamy a departure from a biological norm) or by virtue of their individual nature (this from sexual conservatives who consider monogamy the norm and see departures from it as the result of personality quirks). The other theory about what makes people adulterous is that they are so by virtue of their marriages—their situations. Impressive voices and formidable arguments have been raised on both sides, with Strindberg stating the nature argument the most succinctly. He wrote, “… some people are born monogamous, that is, faithful, which is not a virtue but a quality, while others are born polygamous, that is, unfaithful.”

Most members of the psychological professions are divided as to whether nature or situation produces adulterous behavior. Many psychologists and psychiatrists believe that people are adulterous because they were conditioned by childhood experience to be unable to form deep commitments or because they are so immature that they can acknowledge no limit to their needs or can acquire no perspective on what realistically to expect from marriage. Others stress the situational as the cause of adultery and believe that people are adulterous because they live in adultery-provoking marriages—those in which interpersonal intimacy has become disturbed. Dr. Leon Salzman, the psychoanalyst who has written frequently on the psychiatric and clinical aspects of extramarital sex says, for example, “Infidelity may be part of a neurotic or psychotic development, but more often it represents a rational and comprehensible piece of behavior in the so-called normal person.”

I found that many women I spoke with wanted to ponder the question of whether their personalities or their marriages had led them to adultery. Usually, they were women who felt bad about themselves for having had extramarital sexual experiences, and who had even attempted to change either their personalities or their marriages so that they might cease being adulterous. To change personality, they sought individual psychological counseling; to change their marriages, they sought either the repair of marriage available through marital counseling or the termination of marriage available through legal means.

The question of personality versus situation was most interesting to me when it cropped up in interviews with women who had renounced marriages in which interpersonal intimacy was disturbed and who had undertaken new—presumably more satisfactory—intimate relationships with men. I always asked whether they were still adulterous and if so, why, and if not, why not. The stories of two such women are presented here. One believes she has an adulterous nature even though she is no longer adulterous; to change her behavior, she provided herself with a socially-approved form of loving more than one man. The other believes she was adulterous only because of her marital situation and that, indeed, one can tell in advance which kinds of marriages will lead to adultery: among her clues are sexual incompatability; financial insecurity; and divorce-phobia.

Approaching the personality or situation question through individual lives can’t possibly provide a universally applicable answer. But perhaps this debate is best left answered by individual lives; the generalizations have too many exceptions.

Irene Brakhage / Two Men to Love

Irene Brakhage had been married twice and had been adulterous in both her marriages. The first time around she had used extramarital sex to help her find a rescuer who would untie her from a marriage in which she felt chained. The second time around, married at last to the man who had taken her out of that first unhappy marriage, she had continued to use it because, she said, her second husband had taken too long about marrying her and had thus provoked her anger. “Use” was her expression. “Being a product of my times,” she said, “I used extramarital sex as a weapon. I didn’t have the guts to tell either of my husbands what was wrong when things they did made me unhappy. I simply would have lovers. And then, when my husbands would continue to behave in ways that troubled me, I would sit back and let this sphinxlike expression come over me and say to them silently, without real words, ’So there!’ That was my revenge. Affairs were the flowers that bloomed in my deserts.”

I would have assumed that with a pattern so ingrained, Irene would have remained adulterous her entire life. But no, she had finally given up affairs, and not because she was no longer beautiful, no longer enticing. She was forty-five now, but she had given up affairs when she reached thirty-one. What had made this happen? How was it that a woman who had relied on extramarital sex as a weapon for survival, could change and become monogamous? Irene tried to explain it to me over a meal in an Italian restaurant where no waiters turned their heads, no lunching executives stopped to stare at a woman who had once thought of herself, or so she told it, as Cleopatra and Scarlett O’Hara rolled into one, a Vivien Leigh with a small-town New England accent.

“I married my first husband because I had an affair when I was seventeen with a boy I couldn’t marry, a boy who didn’t care much about me, and when my family found out about it, my father laid a whole whore trip on me. I lived in a small town. My father was convinced that I was going to be a whore, that no man would ever marry me, so I knew I couldn’t ever save face unless I heard my wedding bells ring. These kids who talk about the generation gap today, what do they know? There’s no generation gap today. Their fight was fought by people like me, twenty, twenty-five years ago. Those were the days when if you slept with a boy before you were married, you were considered trash. But the awful part about those days was that the wounds you got from other people’s opinions of you didn’t just hurt and make you bleed outside. You got internal hemorrhaging. You got to take it all into your inside. So I thought I was trash, was a whore.

“Of course I wanted a husband. What else was there for a woman in those days? So I set about proving my father wrong. I became as seductive as could be, and I wooed the next boy who came along and got married by the time I was nineteen. But I think I never got over the idea that I was whorish, and I decided that if that was the case, I was not just going to have all the disadvantages of being a whore but some of the benefits too. I would be a courtesan and have men falling at my feet my entire life. Maybe part of it was to show my father how wrong he and his whole old-fashioned world were about just what it was men wanted in women.”

I asked Irene about that long-ago marriage. It was twenty-five years ago, 1947. Some sociologists contend that adultery among women is on the increase today because married women have more opportunity—being out in the working world—to meet men with whom to have affairs. Twenty-five years ago, at home all day in a small Connecticut town, Irene had no difficulty meeting men. Necessity was the mother of opportunity for her.

“I met men everywhere. I was very dramatic-looking. I had long black hair and I made up my eyes to look exotic, foreign. I weighed only ninety-two pounds and I used to wear chiffon dresses in very clinging styles. Mostly black dresses. Black was considered sophisticated then, at least on young girls, and just a little bit wicked. I was always giving out signals. So if I was on a train, I’d meet a man. Or if I walked in the street, I’d meet one.” She giggled, a high, girlish, flirtatious laugh. In recounting her memories, she had become youthful again and I could imagine her thin and delicate and childishly wicked.

“Were they married men?” I asked.

“No. As a matter of fact, in those days I avoided married men. They were always young men, unattached.”

“Did you meet with them at your house while your husband was at work?” I asked.

“No,” Irene said, “I saw them at hotels. Never motels, either. I’d make them take suites with big opulent bathrooms. And we always called room service and had white meat chicken sandwiches, seventy-five cents extra, thick as paper-bound books. And sometimes even champagne.

“I didn’t do one-night stands. I never did that, if I could help it. I was out looking. Looking for romance and adventure, on the one hand, but, after three or four years in my marriage, for another husband too. My first husband was irresponsible. He spent whatever he made, and he gambled a lot. My folks had to support us. Since occasionally I’d had offers of marriage from some of the men I’d slept with, I began to realize I could probably find my next husband while still with the first one.”

This is indeed what happened, although the process took longer than Irene had anticipated. It began on a night she was visiting a female friend in the city and went with her friend to a late night jazz club. While there, Irene was introduced to a friend of the friend, a “very handsome, very smart-assed, very young poetry lover who had just gotten divorced.”

She didn’t like Gus at first. “He kept correcting my grammar.” But he said to her, when the music ended, “Do you want to watch the sun come up?” So they rode to the river and watched the dawn and they talked about poetry and when she offered herself to him in the front seat of his Oldsmobile convertible, he told her, “You’re not my physical type. I like ingenuous faces. Not Egyptian princesses. Not ladies with make-up.” Irene had been crushed and saddened. She was twenty-three and now, at last, here was a man who did behave exactly as her father had said men would—a man who turned her down because of her sexual sophistication. She could get nothing out of Gus in terms of a future appointment. He didn’t want to go one night to Lewisohn Stadium. Not with her. He didn’t want to see her quaint little Connecticut hometown. He did mention in passing that he liked hand-knitted socks, and Irene had noticed he was wearing a pair of store-bought argyles. The socks were the only thing she could fasten on as a way of having anything whatsoever to do with him in the future.

“I went home and I bought yarn and I started knitting. I knitted him twenty-eight pairs of socks. My then-husband found the first three pairs and assumed they were for him and got all mushy and thanked me and I screamed, ’They’re for my brother!’ and got them back. And when I had twenty-eight pairs, I took them to New York and looked up Gus.”

He was touched by the hand-knitted argyles and by the simplicity of her dress the day she came to see him. He went to bed with her in his ground-floor garden apartment, and she didn’t leave there until almost two weeks later. “He cancelled all his appointments and we spent eleven days together. In bed, mostly. We really had terrific sex. But we talked more poetry too, and he corrected my grammar, and once I got drunk and I told him my father had said I would always be a whore and he slapped my face and I thought, ’Okay. That’s it. The first time any man hits me, it’s the last time,’ but as if he was reading my thoughts, Gus said, ’I did that to give you the punishment you go around begging for. And now that you’ve got it, it’s going to stand for all of it, all you ever wanted. You won’t ever need any more, because you’ve had it.’ And then, he held me, and he said, ’Look, Irene. It’s one thing for a woman to be chaste when she isn’t beautiful. But when a woman looks as good as you, it isn’t all her fault.”

Irene called her husband from Gus’s apartment and told him she was never coming back. She moved into her own tiny apartment and got a job as a travel agency representative and got divorced and saw a lot of Gus.

But he didn’t marry her. It was, after all, just as her father had said. “The relationship went on, but Gus wasn’t the marrying kind. He was very attractive, very comfortable, and he didn’t want to get married. I tried to get interested in my career. I figured it was crazy to count on Gus. I was getting on in my twenties. I figured that one day Gus was going to up and marry some eighteen-year-old girl and that I would be left, neurotic and morbidly dependent, like one of Tennessee Williams’ heroines. So I decided I’d better make sure I had other guys waiting in the wings for me, just in case things with Gus didn’t work out.

“I began to take up skiing. I’d leave Gus on weekends and go do my own thing. And of course as soon as I started to move away, Gus started to miss me and got afraid that I would find somebody else. He proposed to me in a dark movie. I got angry and I said, ’I don’t think I want to get married. I really love what I’m doing, and I sort of like the way I’m living now.’ He said, ’Forget it then!’ But quick as a wink I said, ’Well, I suppose you don’t want to waste the best years of my life?’ And we hugged in the movie and we got married two weeks later.”

Having gotten what she had worked so hard to get, Irene had thought at first that she could finally give up always keeping one man in the wings while her main act was on stage. But to her own surprise, she couldn’t. Gus had kept her waiting too long, was how she put it to herself at first, and she resented him now almost as much as she had her first husband. She couldn’t be sure of him even though he had married her. She had to worry about her future. And so little by little, she began the same pattern of seduction she had used earlier.

“I was older now. About twenty-nine or thirty. Now the men I met were married men. I had longer affairs. Two were intense, sustained relationships. We met during lunch a lot. Sometimes in the evenings. I got quite bold about one of them. It was a real love affair, and I wasn’t sure which way I was going. I didn’t really want to leave Gus. It wasn’t that I’d stopped loving him. I just felt I could love more than one man. I also felt I needed to, because I always needed shoring up. The only thing I was ever sure of about myself was that I was good-looking. Nothing else. I had no confidence in myself as a person of intelligence. Whatever intellectual veneer I had was polished onto me by Gus. I didn’t even really have confidence in myself as a lover. So I went thrashing about, always providing extras for myself. And one night I stayed out all night.

“It’s one thing when you come home at four in the morning and you are drunk. You can always say you were with the girls, and you had to wait for one of them to drive you home because you were afraid of even taking a taxi by yourself so late. But it was another to stay out all night. Gus packed his bags and left. You see, I got what I had always expected I’d get.”

She just let Gus go. She felt she deserved what had happened. She says she was never so miserable in her whole life and that she went without make-up for the first time in fifteen years and that one weekend she took forty aspirin in the hopes of ending her life. She couldn’t ask Gus to come back to her. She couldn’t even try. She felt like nobody, a person who had vanished.

But Irene always managed to have men protecting her, advising her, cherishing her for her very self-doubts. One of her lovers began to urge her to make at least a stab at regaining Gus. Who knows? Perhaps it was because he did not want the responsibility of this now drawn-faced, pitiful woman on his hands, but he said to her, “Get Gus back. You can still get him back. And this time just make up your mind to stick with him. Otherwise, you’ll be a three-time loser in the divorce court. I know your type. You’re never going to find any man better than Gus.” Irene recalls that this lover, to whom she was to be infinitely grateful, took out his wallet, gave her a hundred dollars, and said, “Go buy a bottle of champagne and some caviar and call up Gus.” She relishes that part of her story; it was the last time she used one man to gain another.

“I did what he suggested. I called Gus up and I said, ’Let’s not talk about the past. Just come home tonight. Let’s fuck our heads off and not talk.’ And it worked; he came over; we spent the night in bed; and in the morning he was going to leave and I said, ’Try me; just try me this once more.’ He said he didn’t know if he could ever trust me again, but he agreed to try.”

This time Irene determined to have only one man. She wanted to change. She had, finally, gotten the punishment she had expected all her life. She had almost lost Gus, and she loved him, even if she couldn’t love herself. She wanted to keep her word.

“Still,” said Irene when I interviewed her in the restaurant, “I don’t really think I could have kept my word, given my past. Don’t forget, we were all brought up on romance in those days. I wanted to be Cleopatra and Scarlett O’Hara and all those wonderful ladies in the movies. It’s hard to be romantic in marriage, hard to be romantic when somebody’s got a cold and a red nose and you’re worried about money and you hate your mother-in-law.”

“So what happened?” I asked. “How did you keep your word?”

“I got pregnant,” she said flatly.

“That was it? That was all it took?” I was incredulous. And Irene laughed, with the sprightly seductive giggle she had used when she spoke of her lovers, and she said, “It was a boy. I fell madly in love with my son. Maybe if it had been a girl, it would have been different. But now I would always have two men to love, and to love me.” Her son is fourteen now, and only once during these fourteen years has Irene had an extramarital affair. “It was only once,” she said, “once when Gus was very sick, and I felt all alone in the world again. Otherwise, I’ve been a faithful storybook wife, loyal as Penelope to my husband and my son.”

Shirley Randolph / You Can Tell in Advance

Shirley Randolph, an actress I met through a friend who runs a theatre, was adulterous during her thirteen-year marriage but, divorced and living for four years as if married to a fellow actor, had not had any extraneous affairs or been tempted to do so. “It is true,” she said, “that this new relationship with Ridge is only four years old, and that I didn’t have an affair in my marriage until after my husband and I had been together about that length of time. But I can tell you with absolute certainty it won’t happen this time around. I won’t have affairs. Neither will Ridge. You can tell in advance which kinds of relationships are going to include playing around. They are the ones with people who are afraid to leave each other.”

We were sitting in Shirley’s apartment, an elegant East Side duplex purchased by her former husband for Shirley and their four children right before the divorce. Occasionally, Shirley made disparaging remarks about some of the expensive furnishings in the apartment. “I cared more about material objects in those days,” she said, sitting casually, sandals tucked under her, on a plush white sofa.

What bothered Shirley about her possessions was that she felt they reminded her constantly of how her husband’s success and prestige as a furniture corporation executive had tied her to him for long, strenuous years of marriage.

Shirley had been married when she was twenty-one and she was a virgin when she got married. “I’d had the usual struggle in the back seats of cars” she said, “but in my day—I was married in 1956—you had to avoid sex when you were tempted by it because otherwise you might not be marriageable. You also got married, in my circle, to someone you thought would be a success. I knew from the minute I met Simon—he was at college with me—that he was going to be successful and that I was going to have an easy ride. These things were drummed into me in Queens in 1956. Marriage was an economic investment. I was only twenty-one but I felt so old then. I was awfully glad to have found a husband like Simon.”

But her gladness had evaporated rapidly. “My honeymoon was a nightmare, an absolute, utter nightmare,” she said: “We were both of us naive and very uptight. All the excitement we had felt beforehand just seemed to disintegrate under the pressure of having to make love. The last thing we wanted was to be alone with each other. While we had good, affectionate feelings for each other, we didn’t know what to do with them. Sex seemed to be something we just had to do, had to plow forward and do; it was really horrible.

“That first night was in the Plaza, and we made it, if that’s what you want to call it. It was very painful. I wasn’t excited at all, so of course it was painful. But the sexual thing really didn’t ever improve. I felt passion in stops and starts. Sometimes something would happen and I’d get excited but I never really became orgasmic until after we divorced. If I had been screwing before I married I might have had a better chance in marriage. Or even if I’d let Simon do a hand-job on me. But in my circle you didn’t do that. In my circle the idea was that you had to be penetrated and have an orgasm during penetration and that’s what we kept trying to accomplish for years and years.”

After only four months, Shirley had begun to suspect that neither she nor Simon could stand their marriage. But she could think of no solution. She began having fantasies about other men and sometimes she would have secret lunches or early evening drinks with friends of Simon’s or the husbands of friends of hers. Once she almost went to bed with one of them, but she had stopped herself, fearful that somehow knowledge of the liaison might get back to Simon. Four years later, she was sorry she had not had the encounter, for Simon came home one night and told her he’d been having an affair and wanted to separate. Shirley pleaded with him not to do so; she was, she said, terrified of economic insecurity. “I pleaded with him and he said it wasn’t the affair that was making him want to leave me. In fact he had broken it off. He said it was me, our marriage. I couldn’t see what to do about it, and we decided on a trial separation.”

They stayed apart for four months and tried dating and marriage counseling and finally Shirley tried conception. “It was classic, I guess,” she said. “One weekend we left the kids with a housekeeper and went off to a motel to see whether there was anything between us that was at all salvageable. And that weekend I got pregnant. That was what we salvaged. Six more years. We stayed together another six years until Simon had a big affair which broke us up for good.”

After the first separation and their reunion, Shirley also had affairs. “Two small ones. One with an old boyfriend; one with a therapist I was seeing. And one big one, with an actor. I never told Simon about my affairs, whereas he insisted on telling me about his. It’s something men do; they have to tell, because they always need either to be forgiven for them or admired because of them. I kept mine secret, even the big one, which went on close to two years. By that time I’d decided to study acting so I could at least pretend I had a little independence. But independence doesn’t spring out of a fear of losing security. You just walk into water up to your knees, turn around, and come right back. I did a couple of commercials, and several times I was offered big parts out of town. But I had a great fear of not being with Simon, so every time a chance came along, I’d turn it down.”

Her “big” affair with the actor had started while she was acting in an off-Broadway show. “This guy and I were working together,” Shirley explained. “That’s what made it so good, made me feel so good. We would rehearse in the afternoons, and then get together in his apartment before a show; we had a lot of time, especially in the summer when Simon was out in the country with the kids on weekends.

“I felt all the things an affair makes you feel. Beautiful again. Less afraid of growing old. I’d visit this boyfriend in his apartment. In reality it was a dirty actor’s pad in the Village, but I’d come out of there feeling glowing all over, like we’d just been to the beach. There are many places that people search for their egos and unfortunately, one of the popular places is in somebody else’s eyes. We all know it shouldn’t be that way. You shouldn’t have to depend on someone else to make you feel good about yourself. You should be able to arrive at self-love yourself. But it just doesn’t work that way. There’s no great self-image in changing dirty diapers and keeping the house, and sometimes the only thing a woman’s got to her image is her body, and the only rewards she can get are with it or for it.”

It was hard to believe that Shirley, a striking-looking redhead with high cheekbones and pale skin, had ever had a poor self-image, and yet perhaps, as she said, she had believed only in her body and her beauty and they hadn’t been enough. I was finding that many women complained of their need to establish their worth, or re-establish it, no matter how attractive or even how competent they appeared to me.

Shirley, who had been quite animated earlier, reflected this by sounding depressed and flat as she approached in her story the break-up of her affair. “But then, I did what I was raised to do. Simon got transferred to the West Coast and I just said good-bye to my lover. Just like that. I felt very bad about leaving him, but I had never expected it could last; that hadn’t been my intention. We had always known one day it would end, and so it did.”

Out West her life was worse than before. She spent her time furnishing a house, working doggedly on it. She said, “It’s always seemed to me that when my life is crumbling, when inside I’m dying, that’s when I have the most possessions and the most elaborate facade. I lived up to everything I was supposed to live up to. I met and entertained all Simon’s associates and made friends with mommies so the kids would have friends. And then towards the end of that year, Simon started going off on frequent business trips. As I’ve said, he could never quite keep it a secret when he had a girlfriend. I was pretty certain he had one now but I didn’t know who she was. I told a few of my friends my suspicions and they made inquiries. Finally, at a party, one of my friends produced her. ’I’ve figured out who Simon’s seeing,’ my friend said, ’and if you want to take a look, I’ll have her over to a party.’ I got pretty drunk before the party. But I went. As soon as I arrived, my friend pointed out this young girl to me, a girl who couldn’t have been much more than nineteen. I remember going up to her and saying, ’My name is Mrs. Randolph.’ And I remember her looking at me a little nervously and then saying pathetically, ’How are the children?’ It was touching.

“Anyhow, then there was another young girl. And then another. And then finally there was one Simon said he wanted to marry. I felt terrible, just as I’d always known I would. Not about him. I don’t think I’d ever cared about him, or that he’d ever cared about me. I had just cared about staying married. And once we divorced, I could see why I’d cared so much about that. Divorce was worse than my worst fantasies of divorce. When you’re left, you feel horrible for a long time. You’ve been left. You’re just no good.

“But I survived it and surviving it was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. It taught me that if I could live through that, I could live through anything. I knew I’d never be afraid of anything again. And one piece of courage stood out above all the others. I knew I’d never again live in a situation with a man where I let him play around because that alternative seemed better than his leaving me or where I would play around because it seemed safer than leaving him.

“Lots of things have happened to me since then. For one thing, I met Ridge and fell in love. For another, I finally have become successful as an actress. Forgive me if I take an economic view. The truth is, money is even more important than people ever admit. I’m no longer scared about money. Simon gives me lots of money for the kids. I make money for myself. So I’m hardly dependent at all on what Ridge makes. It’s made me into a new person. It’s made me someone who would never again be willing to sustain a relationship that was a lie.

“I met Ridge after more than a year on my own, a lonely, freaky, desperate year. But a year in which I saw a lot of men. I picked Ridge because we have a great sexual relationship. We tried it out for eight months before we moved in together. And I picked him because he’s sweet and sensitive and loving. Since I’ve been with him I’ve never thought of another man, which you have to admit is really a sign of how special what we have is, given the life of an actress. But I’ll tell you something. If I did start dreaming about someone else, it would mean I wasn’t getting everything I needed from Ridge and if that happened, I’d just leave. I’d do that because it takes two to tangle and if I was thinking about someone else, chances are he’d be too, and I might as well just end it or else one day he would.”

Shirley Randolph had touched on one generalization about women’s affairs that I found accurate. Affairs, when they started, were usually undertaken not to disrupt but to preserve marriage by women who were, at least initially, somewhat phobic about divorce. Often they hoped to stave if off through extramarital sex. Nevertheless, a surprising number of divorced women told me that they had had extramarital sexual affairs prior to making conscious decisions to divorce, or prior to having their husbands decide to divorce. It appeared that even though an affair did not arise as a step in the direction of divorce, it nevertheless often led there.