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The Wanderlust of Married Women

December 13, 1992|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Laura seemed to have it all. She was smart and beautiful. She had an intelligent, loving husband, two beautiful children and an interesting career.

But that was not enough. She wanted excitement and passion. So for 11 years she carried on an extramarital affair with a longtime friend, a married lawyer. It was during their forbidden, secret moments together that Laura (not her real name) got "the rush" she was seeking. And it wasn't just sex.

"The secretiveness and the lust of the affair alone became addictive," she recalls. "It was risky and it was exhilarating. It was an incredible high--like when you first fall in love."

Laura's story of betrayal reflects in many ways what author Dalma Heyn observes in her controversial book published this year, "The Erotic Silence of the American Wife" (Turtle Bay Books, $22).

More women today, Heyn says in the book, are rejecting the role of the forever loyal, self-sacrificing "perfect wife" and are finding pleasure and escape through extramarital relationships.

Far from ruining a woman's life, an adulterous relationship can actually enrich it, contends Heyn, a former editor-in-chief of Family Health magazine and executive editor of McCall's.

Although Heyn insists she is not advocating adultery, her research and interviews with hundreds of women who had strayed outside their marriages led her to conclude that in some cases, infidelity in the '90s may even enhance and save marriages.

However, many, including experts in the field of marital relationships, warn that adultery isn't all fun and games. It's a dangerous violation of trust that shatters marriages and causes enormous pain to children. Some women who have been unfaithful say that after the thrill is gone, their lives are left in shambles.

Cathy, an Orange County doctor's wife who fell in love with one of her husband's colleagues, disagrees that adultery can improve a marriage.

"My advice to married women is: Don't fool around. Having an affair and living two lives may be fun at first. But you pay for it later. Too many people get hurt."

Even Laura admits she deluded herself for years into thinking she had the best of both worlds--a great marriage and a lover on the side.

But eventually the fantasy began to crumble and her marriage was left in tatters.

"An affair does not enhance your marriage, it detracts from it," she now believes. "It was an escape. A way for me to avoid facing things in my relationship with my husband."

Some marriage and family experts, as well as divorce lawyers, agree they see more women today who admit they have been unfaithful to their husbands.

Women have always had affairs, they say. So it's debatable whether an increasing number of women are actually doing it, or they are just more willing to talk about their indiscretions.

San Juan Capistrano psychologist John Paul Gray, who is president of the Orange County Psychological Assn., believes "more women today are giving themselves permission to have affairs when they think they have a dead relationship (with their husbands)."

"They are beginning to view it as men do," observes psychologist Everett Jacobson, who counsels married couples at his Yorba Linda and Long Beach offices.

"If men can do it, why can't women?" is a refrain he sometimes hears from clients. In what he views as "one of the more negative aspects of women's movement," Jacobson says some women believe they "can act out and do all the terrible things men can do."

"There seems to be a breakdown of trust and commitment in marriages and it's a reflection of what is happening in society," says Jacobson.

The statistics on infidelity among women vary greatly depending on the study.

The latest report from the Kinsey Institute in 1990 estimated that 29% of all American wives have had extramarital sex at least once. Whereas, in 1987 researcher Shere Hite surveyed 5,000 married women and found that 70% of them had been unfaithful to their husbands.

Most women who are having dalliances are doing so for the same reasons men do--they feel neglected or their sex lives are not good, according to Claremont psychologist and family therapist Marcia Lasswell.

As more women enter the work arena and begin reaching equal status with men, they have more opportunities to meet professional men they find interesting and with whom they may share career goals and interests, according to Shirley Glass, a Baltimore psychologist noted for her national research on issues involving marriage and sex.

An affair, whether it is strictly emotional or sexual, is bound to bring some excitement because "you don't have to live with the realities of life," points out Glass. "An affair is fantasy." Lasswell, president-elect of the American Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists, agrees, saying, "You don't have to deal with backed-up garbage disposals, kids with measles or paying the bills."

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