Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This is mostly just questions. Prompted by SATC and too much Tiger in the news.

In Sex and the City, a movie I’m still not sure I like, married couple Miranda and Steve go through a painful separation after he admits he had sex with another woman. According to Steve, he and Miranda had been through a distant period in their marriage with very little intimacy between them and “it just happened once” with someone else and “it didn’t mean anything.” He also shares these sad, plaintive statements: “Don’t know how I could do that to you.” “It just happened.” “I wasn’t thinking.”

I guess that’s exactly what someone says to the spouse they discover they truly love after straying into warmer arms for a night or two or twenty and then harboring guilt and regret. But here’s the thing. I don’t understand how something like this can “just happen.” It “just happens” only when one partner puts themselves in a situation where it can not only “just happen,” it’s very likely to happen.

I have a lot of friends who are men. Not once did I ever find myself in a compromising position with any of them. (I have no idea if any of them believe the “When Harry Met Sally” theory about men wanting a sexual relationship with just about every woman they know.) For me, I have two reasons I’ve never had an affair:

1. I’m married.

2. I have too much respect for my husband, my male friends – and their wives – to ever risk their friendship over an affair.

Many years ago, a (guy) friend of mine told me something profoundly simple: “The easiest way for a man to never, ever cheat on his wife is to never, ever be alone in a room with any woman other than his mother or his sister for any length of time.” [Needless to say, he was true to his word and he and I were never alone anywhere, anytime.] Did we meet to share a drink occasionally; or a lunch; or have a friendly phone call or even an out of town trip or two over the years? Yes; to all of those things. But don’t misunderstand this: his statement wasn’t protesting too much. I never doubted his commitment to his wife and family.

Maybe he sounds kind of extreme; maybe not. We’ve all heard stories about workday trysts in empty conference rooms or in deserted offices or parking lots, stolen moments in the meeting room, the church basement, or near the soccer field, not to mention in out-of-town hotel rooms. Sounds like a pretty good rule to me, for a married man or married woman.

But you know what line I never understand in this SATC scene between Miranda and Steve in the movie? It’s when Steve tries to comfort the distraught Miranda who is rejecting him and their marriage by saying, “It’s still me.”

Miranda answers in the only way that makes any sense: “Is it?”

I think she has exactly the right response to that odd little notion. I need an explanation of his explanation. “It’s still me?” What does that mean? What’s still him? He’s still the guy who will cheat on his wife if he feels lonely or neglected or – you’ll forgive the vernacular – horny? Or he’s still the guy who loves her and desperately wants his marriage to work but his extra partner just happened while he wasn’t thinking? Which guy is he? A lunkhead who couldn’t help himself, who doesn’t know how he could have done this or is he a loyal husband who was seduced by a temptress?

Maybe he means it’s still him, completely familiar and recognizable to his wife but for this one teeny tiny little thing he did that was so startling: cheating on her. In which case, to me anyway – he’s just a little bit different than she ever imagined him.

I’m not saying this is a deal-breaker. That depends on the couple and their own situation and many other variables I can’t begin to quantify or judge. I have friends whose marriages have endured after an affair. I have others who have ended their marriage for the same reason. Again, not my call and I can honestly say I don’t know what my reaction would be in that situation.

But I am saying I’m not sure how in the movie, Steve can be both men at once: the contrite louse who wants forgiveness and the clueless stag who found a convenient and warm bed, even for just one night, although that appears to be his contention. He confesses his indiscretion, an act he deeply regrets; he loves Miranda and wants her forgiveness. The question is: is cheating on her just part of ‘him being him?’ And she’s supposed to forgive it on that basis?

Let me go on record here with one sort of sidebar thought for any married men reading this. I can pretty much guarantee you that if your wife is out in the workplace, or involved in your children’s school activities or volunteers with the church group or has a weekly bowling night out with her girlfriends, a man has hit on her. Yes, it’s true. Read that again: your wife has in all likelihood had a guy approach her in a sexual / romantic way, flirt with her or in other ways send her signals that he was interested in her. Maybe he was even someone you know.

What’s that? She never told you? No kidding. You know why? Because the idea of having an affair was so nonsensical she couldn’t be bothered to share it. She declines (almost of the time, women do decline) and moves on with a little something she calls reality. Flattering? Maybe. Kind of intriguing? Sure. Tempting? I’m guessing at least sometimes, yes. Something she will act on? Maybe, but unlikely.

Tiger Woods and Ashley Madison.com notwithstanding, turns out that most men and most women don’t cheat on their spouses. A study by the National Opinion Research Center concluded that a mere 3% of married women and 4% of married men have cheated on their spouses. Alternatively, the “American Sexual Behavior” survey concluded that 22% of married men have cheated and 15% of women. I could go on here but you get the point. Studies are flawed and statistics are skewed. No one knows the real stats behind infidelity. But even with these wide disparities, we’re not finding a majority either way.

Look, I fully acknowledge that some marriages are loveless, distant, cold and unsatisfying to the partners for any number of reasons. I fully acknowledge that there is such a thing as “irreconcilable differences.” I know that some people enjoy the illicit nature of an affair and love the excitement surrounding new love and the romance of it all. This might be easier on everyone if we just acknowledged this: you’ll probably meet some fascinating, interesting, attractive people throughout your life – despite being a happily married adult. Even the most loyal among us have to acknowledge a fleeting “crush” that goes nowhere and then fades.
But when a marriage is broken and irreparable, staying together is pointless and debilitating to everyone in or around the marriage.

What I can’t work out is how one partner can do something hurtful, know that it’s hurtful, and then explain it with something as pathetic as “It’s still me.”

If that’s the case, then maybe you just gave your partner a really good reason to walk away. As they leave you behind, they can honestly say, “It’s still me…just without you.”


Steve Salerno said...

Very nicely done, Renee. As someone who appreciates good writing, I was impressed by the stylishness and passion.

I do think there are some seriously flawed assumptions built into your analysis. Forgive any typos that follow, I am majorly rushed.

"Me" is a compendium of whatever you are--and by that I mean whatever you are deep inside (for there are, I believe, numerous aspects of "me" that do not even show themselves until a certain combination of external stimuli weigh in. In fact, they may never reveal themselves: You may live a 75-year lifespan with major aspects of "me" that remained silent throughout and went unobserved by anyone, including yourself). For most of us--especially men--"me" includes character traits that are contemptible if not sociopathic. (Women as a class are much nicer than men are, period.) You do not know the man you are marrying. You cannot possibly know all of his latent idiosyncrasies (or worse), because even he doesn't know them. And if you know the man he is now, you cannot possibly know the man he will be in five years. (Have you read Stumbling into Happiness? This is why happiness is such an elusive commodity: because the goals that we pursue today in the name of happiness may no longer resonate with the new “me” we have become by the time we reach those goals.) Amid all this, of course, the other partner is evolving, and the marriage itself is evolving as a separate organic thing, perhaps in infelicitous directions.

I read your statistics on infidelity and I laugh. I don't say that to be disrespectful to you or dismissive of the studies you quote. However, if the time ever comes when every single human act is surveilled and recorded, I would be shocked—absolutely stunned—if just about any marriage of more than 10-15 years' standing remains untouched by male infidelity of some form. (Of course, by then we will have run into a variant of the Heisenberg Principle, i.e the mere act of having cameras everywhere may dissuade a certain amount of infidelity. But all things being equal...?) Do you think it's coincidence that just about every time a couple comes into prominence, the marriage is soon tainted by scandal involving the hubby? Do you think this is all about “celebrity” and the “Hollywood effect,” that these cheating “opportunities” exist only because the people involved are rich and famous? No. It's about the fact that once you become a public figure, you can't keep your demons hidden in the closet anymore. Tiger, Clinton, Mr. Bullock, Hugh Grant, Berlusconi, Pitt, baseball's Wade Boggs, Vanna White's ex, etc., etc., etc.

Sure, that's just anecdotal...but come on. John Edwards, Mr. Schoolboy, was stepping out while his wife was planning her next chemo regimen; his mistress was sitting there holding a positive pregnancy test while he was on TV, affirming his marital vows. There are tens of millions of John Edwardses out there, excoriating guys like Edwards and Tiger while breathing a quiet sigh of relief. They just don't have a press corps following them around, chronicling their every move. And their mistress isn't using them as a vehicle to her Warholian 15 minutes.

Finally, I don't understand why so many women have such a difficult time understanding “how he could do something like that...!” Imagine this: You walk into your home and hear your teenage daughter screaming; you discover that she is grappling with a rapist. What do you do? Animated by every ounce of Mama Bear instinct, enraged beyond all reason, you grab a knife and you do what needs doing. For many men, the desire for “strange” is at about that same level of emotional intensity. It is not a matter of ethics. It is a matter of irresistible impulse. Why else would a man sacrifice a shot at the presidency or literally billions in endorsements for a few hours with a new honey who, in some cases, isn't even half as hot as what he's got at home?

renee said...

Hi Steve - thank you for the thoughtful comment on the post.

I'm totally with you on a number of your points - including Stumbling on Happiness which I've read. It intrigued me in an airport bookstore one night and I read it on my flight.

I agree that you don't know your spouse; not really. You only ever know as much of them as they want to reveal at any certain point in time; only as much as they know about themselves in some cases. Reminds me of Springsteen's song, Leap of Faith. That has to be what most of us do when we marry and build a life.

Also think we would all live a lot more peacefully if we acknowledged without rancor or scorn or shame, that sometimes you can have an incredibly "successful" (whatever that means) marriage...that lasts for ten years. It wasn't a failure - it just lasted as long as it could as a healthy, nurturing relationship for both people. Then it had to end.

But here's the thing: I can't quite believe - although mountains of evidence indicate otherwise - that every man is destined to walk the path of his various and many "irresistible impulses" as you call them. (I grant you - you said "many," not "every.")

And why irresistible? When juxtaposed against the woman he calls his wife, and everything he has at home, assuming a modicum of sanity, happiness and contentedness, this is still irresistible? Really?

Are men that needy?

I just don't believe that women are that much more evolved than men. Or even "nicer," as you say.

I had a great chat with a (male) colleague today who told me he had an answer to the question I posed on Facebook when I posted this blog: Why did Steve say what he did to Miranda? The simple explanation was that the film is for women and that's what a woman would have the character say.

The longer - more serious explanation we discussed - was that the husband wants his wife to judge him not on his worst moment, but on the collection of real life, loving, more satisfying moments they've shared over the years. Maybe. I can see that.

All that to say - it's still a very tough call for me.

Thanks again for sharing your reaction and for your encouraging words about the work.

Steve said...

Renee, if you want to know the honest truth, I think many men (not all, but a number that would shock the average woman and/or psychotherapist; maybe 30-50%) struggle their whole lives to stay on a sane, orderly path. Not just with fidelity, but with other issues as well. We are one bad week away from becoming Charles Whitman. I am reminded of what that brilliant comedian (whose name escapes me) said: "If you knew what we were really thinking, you'd never stop slapping us." He applied it specifically to sex. I think it has much broader relevance. I mean, ask yourself, why are we so freakin' warlike? Seriously. We cheer as bombs rain down on Baghdad (and of course, our politicians have to find reasons to bomb/invade countries in the first place). We cheer as grown men beat themselves to bloody pulps in MMA matches. We love shoot-em-ups (which we euphemize as "action films"). What do you think all that's about? It's sublimated anger and vicarious release. We're effing nuts.

My wife wholeheartedly concurs in that assessment, btw.

Then again...she's been married to me for 30 years, God help her, so her perspective may be understandably skewed. :)

renee said...

Oh, wait a minute. If the question at hand is: Are men nuts? Why, yes! They are!

But real bombs that kill real people aside (I know; not quite that easy to set aside), thank God for MMA and 'action films.' God knows where that energy and anger would go without them.

Which begs the question: what did men do circa 1950-ish when the most violent film they could see was ... I don't know ... The Bridge Over the River Kwai? Were they more content or more repressed?