Since 1990, notes the psychoanalyst and writer, the rate of married women who report they’ve been unfaithful has increased by 40 percent, while the rate among men has remained the same.
More women than ever are cheating, she tells us, or are willing to admit that they are cheating — and while Perel spends much of her book examining the psychological meaning, motivation, and impact of these affairs, she offers little insight into the significance of the rise itself.
So what exactly is happening inside marriages to shift the numbers? What has changed about monogamy or family life in the past 27 years to account for the closing gap? And why have so many women begun to feel entitled to the kind of behavior long accepted (albeit disapprovingly) as a male prerogative?
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These questions first occurred to me a few years ago when I began to wonder how many of my friends were actually faithful to their husbands.
From a distance, they seemed happy enough, or at least content. Like me, they were doing the family thing. They had cute kids, mortgages, busy social lives, matching sets of dishes. On the surface, their husbands were reasonable, the marriages modern and equitable. If these women friends were angry unfulfilled or resentful, they didn’t show it.
Is my husband having an affair?
Then one day, one of them confided in me she’d been having two overlapping affairs over the course of five years.
Almost before I’d finished processing this, another friend told me she was 100 percent faithful to her husband, except when she was out of town for work each month. Not long after, another told me that while she’d never had sex with another man, she’d had so many emotional affairs and inappropriate email correspondences over the years that she’d had to buy a separate hard drive to store them all.
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What surprised me most about these conversations was not that my friends were cheating, but that many of them were so nonchalant in the way they described their extramarital adventures. There was deception but little secrecy or shame.
Often, they loved their husbands, but felt in some fundamental way that their needs (sexual, emotional, psychological) were not being met inside the marriage. Some even wondered if their husbands knew about their infidelity, choosing to look away.
“The fact is,” one of these friends told me, “I’m nicer to my husband when I have something special going on that’s just for me.” She found that she was kinder, more patient, less resentful, “less of a bitch.” It occurred to me as
I listened that these women were describing infidelity not as a transgression but a creative or even subversive act, a protest against an institution they’d come to experience as suffocating or oppressive.
In an earlier generation, this might have taken the form of separation or divorce, but now, it seemed, more and more women were unwilling to abandon the marriages and families they’d built over years or decades. They were also unwilling to bear the stigma of a publicly open marriage or to go through the effort of negotiating such a complex arrangement.
These women were turning to infidelity not as a way to explode a marriage, but as a way to stay in it. Whereas conventional narratives of female infidelity so often posit the unfaithful woman as a passive party, the women I talked to seemed in control of their own transgressions. There seemed to be something new about this approach.