April 23 2007


April 23 2007


QYOU world about talking extramarital to over people affairs, and discovered that each culture has its own unwritten rules for these relationships. What’s the North American script?

A: Americans tend to believe that the most important value in a marriage is honesty, and that couples should be completely honest with each other at all times. One consequence is that affairs are so taboo that sometimes people treat them as more serious relationships than they actually are.

Q: You mean by dressing up what are essentially sexual flings in the finery of high romance?

'In Russia even those who were circumspect about affairs said they were a harmless vice, like an occasional drink'


A: Exactly. Men who cheat feel obliged to tell their lovers they have problems in their marriages. The same is true for women. You even get situations where people who are in happy or happy-enough marriages wind up talking to their affair partners about getting married because they feel obliged to convert the relationship into something socially acceptable. The mistress is in the worst spot, because who wants to be the Other Woman? Everyone’s going to tell you you’re making a mistake. The mistress is almost obliged to aspire to the position of wife, even if she doesn’t really want to marry the guy. Americans were also the most hung up on the technicalities of affairs, and managing the level of guilt they felt while they were cheating. It was the only place people said, “Well, we had oral sex, but we didn’t have intercourse because that would be so much worse.”

Q: Why do North Americans have this idea that the revelation of an affair automatically entails trauma in the marriage, or instantly triggers divorce?

A: Because in the North American context, it very often does. Honesty is such an important value in relationships in America that when someone discovers their spouse has lied, they often compare it to post-traumatic stress syndrome. What you hear over and over again is, “It’s not the sex, it’s the lying.” In fact, a lot of people believe that recovery from an affair involves telling the spouse every single detail of the affair.

Q: That sounds like torture. It’s a relatively new approach, isn’t it?

A: Starting in the 1970s, North Americans came to believe that the forum for resolving marital problems is couples therapy. Partly this was connected to the introduction of nofault divorce, at which point our expectations of marriage changed radically. Marriage was no longer something that could contain problems like infidelity; suddenly people had very high expectations of their marriages and at the slightest infraction, including even a onenight stand, they were willing to end it all. Countries all over the world have marriage therapy. England has a lot of it for example, but the U.S. is the only place where after an affair people almost automatically assume they have to seek professional help. In the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a surge in all kinds of couples therapies. Now there are adultery gurus, church leaders, online therapy and all kinds of support from what I think of as the marriage industrial complex.

Q: Doesn’t some of this therapy, particularly if it entails going over the details again and again, actually make people feel even worse?

A: The problem with evaluating therapies, including the truth-telling cure, is there’s very little scientific evidence for what works.

Q: What effect, if any, has feminism had on North American women’s script for affairs?

A: I think the women’s movement has definitely raised women’s expectations, just as no-fault divorce did, of what marriage will bring to them. It’s certainly made them less tolerant of cheating. A one-strike rule has developed, where women say to their husbands, “If you cheat, it’s over.” I think the feminist script is that you’re entitled to a storybook marriage, and if your spouse cheats, the whole story is ruined. On the other hand, because cheating was traditionally seen as the purview of men—you have the image of the husband sneaking off with his secretary— there’s some subtle cultural message that when women cheat, it’s some kind of exploration, or expression of their liberation.

Q: Do Europeans think North Americans are nuts for not understanding why, for instance, Hillary Clinton remains married to the man who cheated on her?

A: Europeans think Americans are a bit naive for thinking that a president of a country, especially, wouldn’t cheat on his wife.

At least that’s true in France.

Q: You’re an American living in Paris. Is it true that the French have more affairs than anyone else?

A: That’s certainly the stereotype. We often hear about French presidents cheating, and think that’s evidence that everyone in the whole country is running around. But in fact, ordinary French people cheat a bit less than Americans do, which is to say that about 3.8 per cent of married French men and two per cent of married French women say they’ve had an affair in the past year. In America, it’s 3.9 per cent of men and 3.1 per cent of women. So in real life, Americans and French people behave much the same. The big difference is in the way they treat adultery, their attitudes towards adultery, not in what they actually do behind closed doors.

Q: What happens after an affair in France?

Ain powerful once America, assumption an affair there’s is discovered, a very that the couple will have this heated fight and probably the cheater will be banished from the house. In a place like France, there isn’t an assumption that if you find out your husband is cheating, you immediately march into his study and demand to know what’s going on. You might prefer not to know what’s happening, and to resolve it in some other way. That could be by having an affair yourself, a revenge affair, or it could be by trying to make improvements in the marriage that will bring him back.

Q: You write that France was the most difficult place to find people willing to talk about affairs. Why?

A: I think the French believe—in all aspects of their lives, but especially when it comes to adultery—in discretion. Certainly there are some talk shows, but there isn’t the culture of confession that exists in North America, where there’s also a sense of joining together to combat a social issue. In America you have alcoholics coming forward to talk about their problems with the idea that if they tell their story, other people will be helped. There just isn’t that idea in French culture. One thing about French affairs is they tend to last longer than in the U.S., so they do a very good job of creating this zone of privacy around them. People don’t want to jeopardize what may be, for them, a very good thing.

Q: What’s the best country to live in if you’re hell-bent on having an affair?

A: Togo, probably, if you’re a man. For sheer statistical likelihood of cheating, Togo tops the list, though the figures do include men who are polygamous. In terms of having a quality affair, and also if you’re a woman, I would say France is the place.

Q: And the worst place to live?

A: I would say North America, because there’s this idea that the revelation of an affair entails trauma.

Q: With some interesting exceptions. You write about the groupie culture surrounding major league baseball players in North America. Why do their wives put up with it?

A: I think part of it is that they feel that if they don’t play along with the team’s rules, they’ll threaten their husbands’, and their own, livelihood. The rules are part of the team’s adultery culture, and one rule is that wives can’t go to the back of the chartered airplanes the players travel on; that’s a private zone where the players are allowed to flirt with the stewardesses. Once they get to the hotel, wives are absolutely not allowed to enter the hotel bar, which is the place where groupies gather and even married players are allowed to do whatever they want. It gets to the point where the wives are so worried about seeing something they’re not supposed to see, that some of them described standing in an elevator with players and their mistresses, and just facing the wall so they wouldn’t see it. They’re afraid that if they’re viewed as talkers, as someone who tells other wives what they’ve seen, they won’t be allowed to travel with the team anymore, and they won’t get to see their husbands.

Q: Did you become more broad-minded as a result of doing all this research?

A: I got the idea for the book because I was a foreign correspondent in Latin America, and I actually was approached by some foreign men. I was surprised by my own reaction, which was, I’d have to say, puritanical. I was horrified, I lectured the men on their responsibilities to their wives, and this streak in me, which wasn’t so much religious as cultural—the force of it really surprised me. I would say travelling around the world, talking to so many people, hasn’t made me believe less in fidelity, but it’s made me have less of a storybook idea of how marriages go.

Q: You always hear about the export of American values through movies and TV. Given that affairs are a staple of American media, why hasn’t the American script shown up in other countries?

A: The sexual culture of a country, I found, is informed by so many local factors, anything from the price of real estate, to the ratio of men to women, to the history of a country: have they permitted polygamy?

Q: Wait a second. How does the price of real estate affect infidelity?

A: Russia was an interesting place to visit, because even psychologists told me it was “obligatory” for people to have affairs in order to have healthy marriages. Even those who were circumspect about affairs said they were a harmless vice, like having an occasional drink. Part of the problem in big cities like Moscow is that people often live in two bedroom apartments, with their in-laws in one bedroom and their partner and children in the other, and everyone’s arguing while the neighbours and their in-laws are shouting in the hallway. So in that context, psychologists said the best solution is to have a lover. A lot of Russians have affairs on vacation, because often men and women vacation separately, with their friends. These don’t even really count as cheating, they’re just considered amusing holiday flings.

Q: Do you have a favourite cheating story that didn’t make it into the book?

A: One person I didn’t have a chance to include was a middle-class banker in London.

He was 39, married with two kids, and had been faithful to his wife until two years ago. Now he’s like a kid in a candy store. He’d created what was basically a spreadsheet, the way you would for a merger and acquisition or something, with his targets for the year.

He wanted to sleep with two black women, a Japanese woman, an Indian, and he wanted

to be sure to have a threesome and anal sex. He was very concerned that he hadn’t found the Japanese woman yet, but he had had the

threesome and was pleased about that. M


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