Thursday, June 19, 2014


I can't say I think of myself as a social conservative. On all the usual checklist items (same-sex marriage, premarital sex, contraception, abortion...), my stance would make it difficult for me to, say, vote Republican. And I wouldn't exactly classify myself as on the puritanical left, either. But I may have clutched some metaphorical pearls when reading the Prudie letter and response about wedding etiquette around plus-ones for the person with whom a guest is having an affair. A woman's "partner" happens to be a married man with young children - married-married, not even separated - and she's miffed that her partner hasn't been invited to her sister's wedding. While the sister sounds interesting as well - a thrice-married born-again Christian - this seems kind of irrelevant. Is society really so evolved that wedding hosts must include plus-ones who are, in theory, attending other weddings as their own spouses' plus-ones as well? And not even in a polyamorous sense, but in an adulterous one?

The idea, in this case, is that the wife has refused to have sex with the husband for five years, and is fine with him seeing another woman. These seem like kind of classic things a man looking to have an affair would claim, but Prudie goes with taking the letter-writer at her word. So, rather than giving the no-nonsense, telling-it-like-it-is answer one might expect (namely, this man isn't your "partner," but you're an old-school Other Woman bound to get hurt), Prudie gives her blessing to the relationship, on the grounds that if these things are true, the man is justified in looking elsewhere. No discussion of just what a major "if" that is!

But even if so, even if the man and his "partner" aren't doing anything wrong, why exactly does the man need to be the woman's date to weddings? Isn't the idea with the man staying married to his wife, despite her no longer being his real "partner," that they're maintaining a public façade of still being together? Doesn't the whole 'for the children' bit fall apart, not when the man sleeps with someone else (unless that someone else gets pregnant), but when dad is showing up at public events as a different woman's date? Why can't that sort of thing wait until the day comes (which it probably won't) when he actually leaves the one woman and full-on takes up with the other?

Where am I going with this? Where I'm going with this is, it's been my sense for a while now that a certain amount of old-timey, boys-will-be-boys behavior has been recategorized as the sort of thing that progressives - feminists! - must support. While I do think progressives must support consenting-adults-type choices insofar as, it's not progressive to suggest that the cops march in and bust the dude for adultery, is it really necessary, just because this is being presented with up-to-date terminology like "partner," to celebrate scenarios like the one described?


Flavia said...

Wow. I agree that it's hypocritical of the bride to blab-blah-blah about the sanctity of marriage, but the twin's "partner" is choosing to stay married to someone else, and that means his wife and kids have first priority for everything, including and maybe especially social events and leisure time.

Wasn't part of the point of a marriage of convenience back in the day (e.g., gay men married to socialites, a la Cole Porter) to guarantee each party an escort and a respectable public face for every social event?

I have doubts about the long-term future of many nonmonogamous relationships, but if it works for the two primary parties, it's none of my business. But it is absolutely not progressive if the nonmonogamous relationship involves one person--male or female, straight or gay--wielding most the power. I've got no patience for those who preachily decry heteronomativity while assuming all the privileges of midcentury het masculinity and expecting their partner to fill the role of long-suffering wifey.

Phoebe said...

"I've got no patience for those who preachily decry heteronomativity while assuming all the privileges of midcentury het masculinity and expecting their partner to fill the role of long-suffering wifey."


Andrew Stevens said...

assuming all the privileges of midcentury het masculinity

You may be watching a bit too much Mad Men. If you consider where all these women that the married men of the time were supposedly having affairs with came from, it's fairly obvious that those sorts of relationships just couldn't have been all that common. If it was common for men of the era to have been running around on their wives, they would have to have been doing so with other men's wives, which would have made the women of the time every bit as adulterous. Or prostitutes, of course. (And I'm sure some of that did go on, but I'd hesitate to assume that use of prostitutes has gone down since then.)

Phoebe said...

Can't say I've studied this, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if fewer men now go to prostitutes. And even if the women were "other men's wives," it could still have been just a few women sleeping with a greater number of men. Punishments for adultery (legal or social) haven't traditionally been gender-neutral.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't know if I would assert the ability to make use of prostitutes as a "privilege of midcentury het masculinity" though. I would also point out that, at the time, such men would have been denounced as cads if their behavior became well known.

It's far easier to cheat on your wife and avoid social repercussions nowadays than it was at the time. I don't believe this can be seriously disputed. (Granting that it's probably far, far easier for wives to cheat on their husbands nowadays.)

caryatis said...


My reaction was similar. Even if we assume that the man is telling the truth and isn't doing anything wrong, what about the other woman here? The problem for her isn't abstract morality, it's that she's giving up a chance to find a man who is able to be truly committed to her, who has time to spend with her and is able to live with her and devote himself to their shared life-- instead of a relationship that consists of stolen moments when his wife hasn't exercised her prior claim.

It's almost like being the junior wife in a polygamous marriage. (Whereas with divorce, there's a history but presumably the current spouse is the priority.)

I don't see why it would affect the children, though. Presumably they won't be at the wedding, and I would think they care more about living with their dad than about the dad's sex life.

caryatis said...

The latest Savage Love seems relevant:

"I've struggled to remain faithful in the past and don't want to cheat on anyone. I just want the rules to fit me so that I don't have to be considered a cheater."

So he wants to cheat, but he doesn't want anyone to disapprove of it. And "polyamory" means the rules will fit HIM.

caryatis said...

Andrew, have you seen the research suggesting that, while many forms of non-marital sex have become more acceptable over the past few decades, adultery is actually less so?

Miss Self-Important said...

In Cheever's short stories (of the midcentury), the married men mainly cheat with married women. There don't seem to be punishments involved or sought, although sometimes divorce is attempted.

But back to the point. Have you seen that pathetic Thought Catalog essay by a grad student who slept with a philosophy prof and was shocked and outraged when his promises to leave his wife for her did not materialize, and moreover, when she discovered that he had many previous grad student girlfriends to whom he had also promised these things and failed to follow through? (It made the rounds in my discipline due to proximity to philosophy, but I don't know where else it may have traveled.) That seemed to be a clear case of the wisdom of pre-feminism about the ways of men having been somehow lost in translation.

Andrew Stevens said...

Caryatis: I have seen that research, indeed that very link. I am concerned about the time frame involved. I assume the poll question wasn't asked before 1973 (the General Social Survey began in 1972, I believe) and so we have no data from before then, but I am doubtful that the steady rise has been going on since, say, 1950. That adultery has become less popular since 1973 doesn't surprise me actually, but I was comparing to "mid-century." An awful lot happened between the middle of the century and 1973 which changed attitudes (including lots and lots of drugs).

I agree with the whole "double standard" argument and so forth that Ms. Maltz Bovy and others have argued, by the by - it's an historically strong argument. I just think one of the places it did not apply is the pre-lateish-20th-century U.S. The U.S. has traditionally been strong on moral issues like that and condemned male adultery as well as female adultery, no matter what Mad Men pretends. We are not France. JFK got away with what he did because he concealed his adulteries.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

First off, I've never seen Mad Men (am meaning to, but Upstairs, Downstairs beckoned), so I'm pretty sure I'm not basing any of this off things I learned from that show.

The issue isn't whether these days are more libertine than those days (whichever days those may be), but double-standards. We continue to live in a society in which it's assumed that 'men have needs,' which, yes, is sad for the men who don't have these needs and are falsely assumed to have them, but also in terms of the false assumption that women lack 'needs.'

And part of the double-standard is just that - the assumption that men who cheat love their wives but are hardwired to seek variety, whereas women who cheat do so because they want out of their marriages. It's seen as caddish, yes, but innocuous when men cheat, but a big deal when women do. This pattern, and others - the whole Other Woman scenario - continue to play out. But whereas not so many years ago (and I'm talking my own memory, not highbrow period dramas), the progressive/feminist thing to do was to encourage women not to be doormats, or to find ways to restructure society to prevent doormat-ness from occurring, these days the idea is to celebrate these situations as clever forms of non-monogamy.


Yes, I thought of that Savage Love as well!

Back to Prudie, here's where the children come into it: The reason the dude has given for preserving an allegedly kaput marriage is 'the children.' What that means is, he sees a value in giving them the impression of an intact family. You're right that they may remain ignorant of dad's extramarital sex life (if the parents are both discreet about it), but this isn't about a sex life. It's that the girlfriend wants to make theirs a *public* relationship. If it's just the one wedding, somewhere far from where they live, maybe? But if the idea is, in effect, bigamy (one wife and one female partner), why wouldn't the children know? And if these children are the sort who'd know but be too sophisticated to care, why doesn't he just get a divorce?


Oddly enough, just read (and strongly disagreed with, which is another story) the Weekly Standard article about it. I wouldn't be so harsh on a young woman for being naive in a very ordinary way. Sleaze of that nature is obvious to those on the outside, or with a bit more life experience. But I'd definitely support a revival of the thing where women warn one another about this sort of thing. That said, I wouldn't necessarily call that "pre-feminism" - to me it sounds very much like second-wave feminism.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe: We are very nearly in full agreement, as you're probably aware. Of course, I would argue that neither men nor women have "needs" of that nature. What they have are desires. Any actual need involved can be met by either sex solo as long as one's hands are not broken. I have long believed that the push for non-monogamy is principally for the benefit of caddish men and of course they want a double standard and are just better about cloaking it. The same is true for caddish women. It doesn't shock me that everyone wants to cheat, but nobody wants to be cheated on. That's just human nature.

MSI: You probably are aware that Cheever's own actual affairs were with men, often other married men. I assume this plays a part in how he portrayed life at the time.

Phoebe said...


"It doesn't shock me that everyone wants to cheat, but nobody wants to be cheated on."

That seems to be the missing piece from Dan Savage's "monogamish" approach. Not necessarily the "everyone" bit, but that the number of people drawn to non-monogamy because *they* have a wandering eye is greater than the number who'd actually be fine with a spouse having the same. It makes sense that this would work better - if still not perfectly - in gay couples, not because gay people are magically not jealous, but because there aren't the same gender-related patterns of power imbalance, and because there isn't the same potential for children being conceived in the non-primary relationships.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, this article is in poor taste. I was thinking of the original essay; the woman sounds like she's about 12, but must in fact be closer to 30. And there seemed to be a sense in her complaint that her treatment was a new form of injustice or misogyny, when it was in fact the timeless tale of the Other Woman, as you say. Whenever this near-universal fact that, no, he will not be leaving his wife for you was discovered (and I have to think it was much earlier than 1970), it should now be re-incorporated into women's understanding of The World.

AS: Why would it make his depiction of hetero affairs inaccurate though? I suppose you don't have to have them yourself to know about or depict them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Why would it make his depiction of hetero affairs inaccurate though? I suppose you don't have to have them yourself to know about or depict them.

True, but I doubt he was trying to describe the world as it actually existed and, to the extent he was, he was most likely describing his own life and marriage rather than those of his friends and neighbors. This is part and parcel of my "all fiction is schlock" argument. It is not my experience that fiction authors (or anybody else) are even usually accurate observers of reality. Never mind the natural instinct of adulterous men to attempt to convince people (including themselves) that everybody is exactly like they are. E.g. I meet people all the time who are convinced that there is no such thing as a happy marriage. Their parents didn't have one and they have never had one either. Ergo, they don't exist.

But never mind me. I am almost certainly being exceedingly mathematical about this. I instinctively don't trust generalizations based on casual observations, even my own. I need to have it quantified. It's quite possible that heterosexual affairs of the time were most frequently between two people who were both married to other people. In fact, I suspect that probably was the typical affair since the single population was much smaller at the time. Part of the double standard was that women could complain about their husbands' affairs and be sympathized with while men could not. This would presumably have the effect of making the affairs of married women more invisible.

Phoebe said...


"Whenever this near-universal fact that, no, he will not be leaving his wife for you was discovered (and I have to think it was much earlier than 1970), it should now be re-incorporated into women's understanding of The World."

Yes, definitely before 1970! Where second-wave feminism enters into it is, the wife in this sort of scenario would be encouraged to kick the husband to the curb, and not to put up with his dalliances (and extramarital plus-one-at-weddings status!) 'for the children.' After second-wave feminism, there also isn't this assumption that a man in a failed marriage must stay (and better to cheat and stay than leave) because a woman would never be able to earn a living or exist in respectable society on her own. Relatedly, there might be some suspicion, on the part of the girlfriend, that if the husband isn't leaving, it's because his marriage is actually better than he claims it is.

As for the Thought Catalog essay, which I'm now realizing I think I already had seen... The woman could well have been 22-23 when this was happening, so yes, closer to 30 than to 12, but still young. I didn't think she sounded all that age-inappropriate. It's not strange for a grad student to lack the kind of life experience that - if no one's ever told you these things - might make you wary in that kind of situation. It's above and beyond typical 20-something dating dilemmas. I mean, we have to separate out that it's a Thought Catalog essay, and thus extra-earnest and confessional, from the core question of, was she a fool? And I kind of think the way she was foolish was to be expected for someone in her situation. While that was never my exact brand of foolish, I can identify with being around that age and foolish in other ways.

Miss Self-Important said...

AS: I don't offer Cheever-as-scientific-demographer, only as chronicler of mid-century life. This is in support of your point that the objects of suburban people's affairs would likely be other married suburban people, not underage girls (although that almost happens in one story...). It doesn't mean that affairs were the norm.

Phoebe: She may have been typically naive at the outset (though I ascribe extra naivety points to anyone who can seriously utter the phrase "my global justice hero"), but I think she entered plain fool territory by publishing the Thought Catalog complaint, which turns her naivete into a public charge of crime, and then confirmed her residency in the land of fools with that second blog post about how she is a sneaky detective, "pretending" to continue her affair (by actually continuing it!) in order to gather evidence. Now it's like a public comedy of jilted lovers, obe in which neither of the characters is at all sympathetic.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't offer Cheever-as-scientific-demographer, only as chronicler of mid-century life. This is in support of your point that the objects of suburban people's affairs would likely be other married suburban people, not underage girls (although that almost happens in one story...). It doesn't mean that affairs were the norm.

Yes, totally fair. I was already convinced I was being even more contrarian than usual today. Mea culpa.

CW said...

I've been surprised the last few years by how many otherwise very intelligent women I've known who claimed to believe lies told to them by married men about their wives ("she won't even touch me any more," "I'm in the process of leaving her, I just need to find the right time to tell her," "we have an agreement," etc.) Not that those things couldn't happen, but does it make sense to take such statements at face value? Ultimately, though, I've decided this phenomena isn't mostly about being naive. I think sexual desire and, in some cases, loneliness are the key factors. People can believe or pretend to believe all sorts of things if it will let them explain to themselves or others why it is okay for them to sleep with someone they find attractive.

Britta said...

CW: yes, that's been my experience. A woman in my grad program had an affair with my ex (which sadly is only one of the many reasons he's my ex, and not the primary one). I discovered the affair through emails, so there's a fairly extensive paper record. I haven't spoken to this woman in years, but from what I gather she is basically pretending like the affair never happened (AFAICT, she claims consensual sex involving an open relationship in which I agreed to allow them to have sex), and the biggest problem is I violated her privacy by telling other people about her romantic life. I was shocked at first, but thinking about it I realize the level of delusion otherwise smart people will go through to justify their behavior to themselves is pretty infinite. In fact, the smarter you are, the better you are at creating justifications or rationalizations for otherwise stupid or repugnant behavior. I know I am guilty of such for staying with my ex as long as I did. But, to use this same person as an example, one of the last things I knew about her was that she was desperately lonely and unhappily single. I don't know if she's found someone now, but certainly her methods of finding love were pretty counterproductive.

It's funny, because I can understand her motives far more than my ex's. If she hadn't handled the whole thing so terribly poorly, I would find it easier to forgive her than him, except that she's decided to deal with a pretty human mistake like acting like a total psychopath. I imagine this sort of behavior is what led to her being desperately lonely in the first place.