The Secret Lives of Wives

When groups of women get together, especially if they’re mothers and have been married for more than six or seven years, and especially if there’s alcohol involved, the conversation is usually the same. They talk about the kids and work—how stressed they are, how busy and bone tired. They gripe about their husbands and, if they’re being perfectly honest and the wine kicks in, they talk about the disappointments in their marriages. Not long ago, over lunch in Los Angeles, this conversation took a surprising turn, when Erin, who is in her early 40s and has been married for more than a decade, spilled it. She was seeing someone else. Actually, more than one person. It started with an old friend, whom she began meeting every several months for long dinners and some heavy petting. Then she began giving herself permission to flirt with, kiss—well, actually, make out with—men she met on business trips. She understands it’s a “Clintonian” distinction, but she won’t have sex with anyone except her husband, whom she loves. But she also loves the unexpected thrill of meeting someone new. “Do you remember?” She pauses. “I don’t know how long you’ve been married, but do you remember the kiss that would just launch a thousand kisses?”

Erin started seeing other men when she went back to work after her youngest child entered preschool. All of a sudden she was out there. Wearing great clothes, meeting new people, alive for the first time in years to the idea that she was interesting beyond her contributions at PTA meetings. Veronica, on the other hand, fell in love with a man who was not her husband while she was safely at home in the Dallas suburbs looking after her two children. Hers is the more familiar story: isolated and lonely, married to an airline pilot, Veronica, now 35, took up with a wealthy businessman she met at a Dallas nightclub. Her lover gave her everything her husband didn’t: compliments, Tiffany jewelry, flowers and love notes. It was, in fact, the flowers that did her in. Veronica’s lover sent a bouquet to her home one afternoon, her husband answered the door and, in one made-for-Hollywood moment, the marriage was over. Now remarried (to a new man), Veronica says she and her friends half-jokingly talk about starting a Web site for married women who want to date. “I think there might be a market in it,” she says. There is. Wives who want extramarital sex—or are just dreaming about it—can find what they seek on Yahoo!, MSN or AOL.

Popular culture has always been full of unfaithful wives, but even today’s fictional cheaters share something that sets them apart from the tragic Anna Karenina or the calculating Mrs. Robinson. Their actions may cause their lives to unravel, but the new philanderers aren’t victims. When, on the HBO series “The Sopranos,” Carmela finally took a lover after putting up with her mob-boss husband’s extracurricular antics for years, audiences cheered. (Her lover was a cad in the end, but the dalliance gave Carmela a secret source of strength.) Sarah, the heroine of this year’s best-selling novel “Little Children,” falls in love with a handsome stay-at-home dad she meets at the playground; the affair doesn’t last, but it gives her the impetus she needs to leave her husband, a weaselly man with a fetish for the underpants of a swinger he met online. And with her role in the 2002 movie “Unfaithful,” Diane Lane created an iconic new image of a sexually adventurous wife. Beautiful and well dressed, Connie Sumner has what looks like a perfect life, and she fools around not because she’s miserable but simply because she can (a decision that soon makes her life a lot less perfect).

“Women always say ‘thank you’ for that role, and at first I wasn’t sure how to take that,” says Lane, who adds that the character was capable of far more denial than she could ever be. “I mean, she was cheating and lying. Then I realized it was because she wasn’t a victim. She made a choice to have an affair. It’s not something you often see.”

Where do married women find their boyfriends? At work, mostly. Nearly 60 percent of American women work outside the home, up from about 40 percent in 1964. Quite simply, women intersect with more people during the day than they used to. They go to more meetings, take more business trips and, presumably, participate more in flirtatious water-cooler chatter. If infidelity is an odds game, then the odds are better now than they used to be that a woman will accidentally bump into someone during the workday who, at least momentarily, interests her more than her husband does. There’s a more subtle point embedded in here as well: women and men bring their best selves to work, leaving their bad behavior and marital resentments at home with their dirty sweatpants. At work, “we dress nicely. We think before we speak. We’re poised,” says Elana Katz, a therapist in private practice and a divorce mediator at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. “And many people spend more time out in the world than with their families. I think sometimes people have the idea that [an affair] will protect the marriage.” They get a self-esteem boost during work hours and don’t rock the boat at home. “In some paradoxical sense this may be a respite, a little break from the marriage.”

“I wasn’t out there looking for someone else,” says Jodie, 34, a marketing professional in Texas and mother of two. (NEWSWEEK talked at length to more than a dozen women who cheated, and none of them wanted her real name used.) Her continuing affair with a co-worker started innocently enough. She liked his company. “We would go to lunch together and gradually it started feeling like we were dating.” At Christmas, Jodie asked her husband of 10 years to join her at the office party, and when he declined, the co-worker stepped in. “We just had so much fun together and we laughed together and it just grew and grew and grew until … he kissed me. And I loved it.”

It’s not just opportunity that fuels the impulse to be unfaithful; it’s money and power as well. American women are better educated than they’ve ever been. A quarter of them earn more money than their husbands. A paycheck and a 401(k) don’t guarantee that a woman will stray, but if she does, they minimize the fallout both for her and for her children. The feminist Gloria Steinem once said, “Most women are one man away from welfare,” but she recently amplified her views to NEWSWEEK: “Being able to support oneself allows one to choose a marriage out of love and not just economic dependence. It also allows one to risk that marriage.” In other words, as women grow more powerful, they’re more likely to feel, as men traditionally have, that they deserve a little bit of nooky at the end (or in the middle) of a long, busy day.

And like their fathers before them, these powerful women are learning to savor the attentions of a companion who is physically attractive but not as rich, successful—or as old—as they are. In his practice in Palo Alto, Calif., family therapist Marty Klein sees a rise in sexual activity between middle-aged women and younger men. “Forty-year-old women have more of a sense of entitlement to their sexuality than they did before the ‘Hite Report,’ the feminist movement and ‘Sex and the City’,” he says. A story currently circulating in Manhattan underscores his point. It seems that a group of 6-year-old girls from an elite private school were at a birthday party, and the conversation turned to their mommies’ trainers. As the proud mothers listened nearby, one youngster piped up: “My mommy has a trainer, and every time he comes over, they take a nap.” The wicked laughter this story elicits illustrates at least what is dreamed of, if not actually consummated.

The road to infidelity is paved with unmet expectations about sex, love and marriage. A woman who is 40 today grew up during the permissive 1970s and went to college when the dangers of AIDS were just beginning to dawn. She was sexually experienced before she was married and waited five years longer than her mother to settle down. She lives in a culture that constantly flaunts the possibility of great sex and fitness well after menopause. “Great Lovers Are Made, Not Born!” read the ads for sex videos in her favorite magazines; “What if the only night sweats you had came from a good workout?” ask the ads for estrogen therapy.

At the same time, she’s so busy she feels constantly out of breath. If she’s a professional, she’s working more hours than her counterpart of 20 years ago—and trying to rush home in time to give the baby a bath. If she’s a stay-at-home mom, she’s driving the kids to more classes, more games, more playdates than her mother did, not to mention trying to live up to society’s demands of perfect-momhood: Buy organic! Be supportive, not permissive! Lose five pounds! Her husband isn’t a bad guy, but he’s busier than ever, too, working harder just to stay afloat. And (this is practically unmentionable) therapists say they’re seeing more cases of depressed male libido. It turns out he’s too tired and stressed to have sex. An affair is a logical outcome of this scenario, therapists say: women think they should be having great sex and romantic dates decades into their marriage, and at the same time, they’re pragmatic enough to see how impossible that is. Couples begin to live parallel lives, instead of intersecting ones, and that’s when the loneliness and resentment set in.

Marisol can’t remember the last time her husband paid her a compliment. That’s why the 39-year-old grandmother, who was pregnant and married at 15, looks forward to meeting with her boyfriend of five years during lunch breaks and after work. “There is so much passion between us,” she says. “He tells me my skin is soft and that my hair smells good. I know it sounds stupid, but that stuff matters. It makes me feel sexy again.”

Ironically, the realities of the overprogrammed life make it easier, not harder, to fool around. When days are planned to the minute, it’s a cinch to pencil in a midday tryst—and remember to wear the lace-edged underwear—at least compared with trying to stay awake and in the mood through “Law & Order.” And as any guileless teenager knows, nothing obscures your whereabouts better than an Internet connection and a reliable cell phone. Amanda’s husband has no idea she has six e-mail addresses, in addition to an account specifically for messages from her boyfriend Ron. Amanda, a customer-service rep in L.A., uses e-mail to flirt with Ron, then turns to her instant messenger or cell phone when it comes to setting up a rendezvous. “Text messaging is safer than e-mailing,” says Amanda, 36, who’s been married for eight years. What would she do without her mobile or computer? “No cell phone? I can’t even imagine.”

Along with its 4 million porn sites, the Internet has exploded with sites specifically for people who want to cheat on their spouses—sites like “Married and Flirting” at Yahoo, “a chat room dedicated to those who are married but curious, bored or both!!” These sites contain all the predictable pornographic overtures, but also such poignant notes as this: “Ok, I know it is late almost 11:30 my time and I am still up on this pitiful Friday night. Hubby STILL at work.”

Online romances have a special appeal for married women. For one thing, you don’t have to leave the house. “You can come home from work, be exhausted, take a shower, have wet, dripping hair, have something fast to eat and then, if you’re feeling lonely, you can go on the Internet,” says Rona Subotnik, a marriage and family therapist in Palm Desert, Calif. On the Web, women can browse and flirt without being explicit about their intentions—if they even know what their intentions are. Clicking past porn, women prefer to visit sites that dovetail with their interests, such as chess, bridge or knitting, explains Peggy Vaughan, author of “The Monogamy Myth” and host of, a Web site for people with unfaithful spouses. “They find somebody else who seems to think like they do, and then they gradually move from that to an instant message, and then they wake up one day and they cannot believe it happened to them,” says Vaughan. Last year Vaughan did a survey of a thousand people who visited her Web site, and 70 percent of the respondents were women. Her results, though not scientific, are remarkable: 79 percent said they were not looking for love online. More than half said they met their online lover in person, and about half said the relationship culminated in sex. Sixty percent said their spouses had no idea.

John LaSage was shocked to come home one day and find his wife of 24 years had disappeared. No note, no phone call, nothing. He’d bought her a computer four months previously, he says, and he knew something was wrong: she’d stay up until 3 or 4 a.m., browsing online. She told him she was doing research for a romance novel she was writing, he says, and after her disappearance, he hacked into the computer to investigate. “She had set up a chat room that was called … gosh … ‘Smooth Legs.’ And so guys would come in there and flirt with her. I have transcripts. I can’t tell you how excruciating it was to read the e-mails from people supposedly speaking with my wife, but she wasn’t talking like my wife. That was just weird.” Two weeks later he discovered she had left the country, he says. “I wasn’t the perfect husband. I would have done a lot of things differently, but I never got the chance,” says LaSage, who has since founded an online support group for people with spouses who stray.

Originally from Newsweek