Can Affairs Make Marriage Better for Women?
Marriage and motherhood make it harder for women to focus on their own needs, to feel spontaneous and sexually expressive
Your spouse had an affair — can that benefit your marriage? According to renowned therapist Esther Perel’s new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, maybe.
Perel explores a lot in her book — much more than I can address here — but I was particularly drawn to her exploration of why more women are cheating nowadays, and we are.
Why? When women had few choices, we played it safer. Now that we are often financially secure on our own and expect a lot more from our marriage, we struggle with what domesticity and motherhood does to us — what Perel calls the muting of eros. Hubby thinks that his wife isn’t interested in sex — she keeps rejecting him, after all, or when they finally get around to having sex, she’s hoping it’s over soon — and so he’s stunned when he discovers she’s been having a torrid love affair. What the heck is going on?
Ceasing to feel like women
As Perel writes,
Home, marriage and motherhood have forever been the pursuit of many women, but also the place where women cease to feel like women.
Sound familiar? It does to me. We go from being a desired being to a domestic one.
Perel mentions the work of researcher Marta Meana on the enigma of female desire (Meana’s work is also referenced in Daniel Bergner’s book, What Do Women Want? and if you haven’t read it, put it on your list — now):
She challenges the common assumption that women’s sexuality is primarily dependent on relational connectedness — love, commitment and security. … Meana suggests that women are not just “touchy-feely” but also “saucy-sexy” — in fact, “women may be just as turned on as men by the novel, the illicit, the raw, the anonymous, but the arousal value of these may not be important enough to women to trade in things they value more (i.e., emotional connectedness). … We interpret the lack of sexual interest as proof that women’s sexual drive is inherently less strong. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think that it is a drive that needs to be stoked more intensely and more imaginatively — and first and foremost by her, not only by her partner.
And therein lies part of the problem — the stuff of domestic life doesn’t always make us feel all that sexy. So, even if we have a hubby who is romantic, cooks and cleans and adores us, we need to connect with our erotic self, too, otherwise …
From selfishness to selflessness
She quotes psychotherapist Dalma Heyn in describing the “deadening of pleasure and vitality” that happens to some women after they wed:
“A woman’s sexuality depends on her authenticity and self-nurturance,” she writes. Yet marriage and motherhood demand a level of selflessness that is at odds with the inherent selfishness of desire. Being responsible for others makes it harder for women to focus on their own needs, to feel spontaneous, sexually expressive and carefree. For many, finding at home the kind of self-absorption that is essential to erotic pleasure proves a challenge. The burdens of caretaking are indeed a power anti-aphrodisiac.
Monogamy just may not be a woman’s thing, as I’ve written before, and perhaps marriage and even intimacy — what we’re constantly told we need to have and maintain in a romantic partnership — isn’t working well for us either.
In again quoting Meana’s work, Perel writes there are three themes that work against women:
First, the institutionalization of the relationship — a passage from freedom and independence to commitment and responsibility. Second, the overfamiliarity that develops when intimacy and closeness replace individuality and mystery. And lastly, the desexualizing nature of certain roles — mother, wife and house manager all promote the de-eroticization of the self.
Managing love and desire
Yep, yep and yep. It sounds bleak, right? But as Perel notes, some couples can integrate the contradictions of love and desire, but first we have to acknowledge that we’ll never eliminate the dilemma — it’s not a “problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.”
And for the ones who can’t? Is an affair the only way to recharge our erotic selves, and maybe even bring that energy back to our — unknowing but no doubt appreciative — hubby? Maybe.
Want to learn how to create space in your marriage to own your erotic self? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.