Marriage: The New Infidelity

When groups of married mothers get together, especially if there's alcohol involved, the conversation is usually the same. They talk about the kids and work--how stressed they are, how busy and bone tired. They gripe about their husbands and, if they're being perfectly honest and the wine kicks in, they talk about the disappointments in their marriages. Not long ago, over lunch in Los Angeles, this conversation took a surprising turn, when Erin, who is in her early 40s and has been married for more than a decade, spilled it. She was seeing someone else. Actually, more than one person. It started with an old friend, whom she began meeting every several months for long dinners and some heavy petting. Then she began giving herself permission to flirt with, kiss--well, actually, make out with--men she met on business trips. She won't have sex with anyone except her husband, whom she loves. But she also loves the unexpected thrill of meeting someone new. "Do you remember?" She pauses. "Do you remember the kiss that would just launch a thousand kisses?"

Erin started seeing other men when she went back to work after her youngest child entered preschool. All of a sudden she was out there. Wearing great clothes, meeting new people. Veronica, on the other hand, fell in love with a man who was not her husband while she was safely at home in the Dallas suburbs looking after her two children. Married to an airline pilot, Veronica, now 35, took up with a wealthy businessman she had met at a Dallas nightclub. Her lover gave her everything her husband didn't: compliments, Tiffany jewelry, flowers and love notes. It was, in fact, the flowers that did her in. Veronica's lover sent a bouquet to her home one afternoon, her husband answered the door and, in one made-for-Hollywood moment, the marriage was over.

Much has changed since Emma Bovary chose suicide with arsenic over living her life branded an adulteress--humiliated, impoverished and stripped of her romantic ideals. In the past, U.S. laws used to punish women who cheated; in a divorce, an unfaithful wife could lose everything, even the property she owned before marriage. Newer laws have been designed to protect these women. The reality is this: American women today have more opportunity to fool around than ever; when they do fool around, they're more likely to tell their friends about it, and those friends are more likely to lend them a sympathetic ear. If they do separate from their husbands, women, especially if they're college-educated, are better able to make a go of it--pay the bills, keep at least partial custody of the children, remarry if they want to--than their philandering foremothers. "It was just so ruinous for a woman to be caught in adultery in past times, you had to be really driven or motivated to do it," says Peter D. Kramer, clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of "Should You Leave?" "Now you can get away with it, there's a social role that fits you."

Just how many married women have had sex with people who are not their husbands? It's hard to say for sure, because people lie to pollsters when they talk about sex, and studies vary wildly. (Men, not surprisingly, amplify their sexual experience, while women diminish it.) Couples' therapists estimate that among their clientele the number is close to 30 to 40 percent, compared with 50 percent of men, and the gap is almost certainly closing. In 1991 the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked married women if they'd ever had sex outside their marriage, and 10 percent said yes. When the same pollsters asked the same question in 2002, the "yes" responses rose to 15 percent, while the number of men stayed flat at about 22 percent. The best interpretation of the data: the cheating rate for women is approaching that of men, says Tom Smith, author of the NORC's reports on sexual behavior.

Where do married women find their boyfriends? At work, mostly. Nearly 60 percent of American women work outside the home, up from about 40 percent in 1964. Quite simply, women intersect with more people during the day than they used to. They go to more meetings, take more business trips and, presumably, participate more in flirtatious water-cooler chatter. "I wasn't out there looking for someone else," says Jodie, 34, a marketing professional in Texas and mother of two. Her continuing affair with a co-worker started innocently enough. She liked his company. "We would go to lunch together, and gradually it started feeling like we were dating." At Christmas, Jodie asked her husband of 10 years to join her at the office party, and when he declined, the co-worker stepped in. "We just had so much fun together and we laughed together and it just grew and grew and grew until... he kissed me. And I loved it."

The road to infidelity is paved with unmet expectations about sex, love and marriage. An American woman who is 40 today grew up during the permissive 1970s and went to college when the dangers of AIDS were just beginning to dawn. She was sexually experienced before she was married and waited five years longer than her mother to settle down. She lives in a culture that constantly flaunts the possibility of great sex and fitness well after menopause.

At the same time she's so busy she feels constantly out of breath. If she's a professional, she's working more hours than her counterpart of 20 years ago--and trying to rush home in time to give the baby a bath. If she's a stay-at-home mom, she's driving the kids to more classes, more games, more playmates than her mother did, not to mention trying to live up to society's demands of perfect momhood: Buy organic! Be supportive, not permissive! Lose five pounds!

Ironically, the realities of the overprogrammed life make it easier, not harder, to fool around. When days are planned to the minute, it's a cinch to pencil in a midday tryst. And as any guileless teenager knows, nothing obscures your whereabouts better than an Internet connection and a reliable cell phone.

Unearthing infidelity is shattering to any spouse. David, 39, a government worker in Washington, D.C., discovered his wife was cheating the day she told him she wanted a divorce: "Never in a million years did I think it was possible." He found out later she had started seeing someone at work, someone David knew fairly well because the two couples often met socially. Beset by nightmares, he started taking antidepressants. "I felt shame for what had happened, like I couldn't keep a person happy enough to stay with me." Now, eight months later, David is beginning to date again. His divorce should be final this month.

The good news is that the wounds inflicted on a family by a woman's infidelity are not always critical. Therapists say couples often can--and do--get past it. Sometimes the husband sees it as a wake-up call and renews his efforts to be attentive. Sometimes, especially if neither party is too angry, the couple can use it as an opportunity to air grievances. Judith Wallerstein, author of "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," found that an affair did not necessarily damage family life--especially if it fell into the category of a one-night stand. "In good marriages this doesn't dominate the landscape, and the kids don't know," she says. She remembers interviewing a 30-year-old man who said that when he was 9 his mother had an affair, but his father assured him that they would stay together. The man said, "I learned from my father that anything worth having is worth fighting for." When lunch is over and the wine wears off, most women will admit that if they were the prize in a fantasy duel between an imperfect but loving husband and a handsome stranger, they'd root for the husband every time.