Let’s get something straight: You are not some fedora-tipping Man of the House who comes home from the office expecting the rump roast to be on the table. Nor are you an aging frat boy who sits in front of the flat-screen with an Icehouse while wifey irons your Red Wings jersey. You are sensitive. You were raised by a working woman. You wipe down the counters after you make the kids’ lunches. No decent woman would cheat on a man like that, right?
That’s what Rob (not his real name) thought, anyway. The 41-year-old financial analyst had a house in the D.C. suburbs, two kids, and in his own words, a “goody-two-shoes“ wife from a nice Catholic family. Last fall, Rob’s wife began to seem depressed, “like something was bothering her and she wouldn’t tell me what it was,“ he says. In December, after stumbling across some e-mails, Rob found out exactly what was bothering his wife: She had reconnected with an old flame. She’d been reconnecting with him for five months.
“It’s far worse than you can possibly imagine,“ he says. “It’s like, What the fuck? The person you thought you married isn’t that person anymore.“
The tired old paradigm of the buttoned-up father who comes home late with the secretary’s Revlon on his collar has reached the end of its shelf life. Statistics vary, but it doesn’t look good: According to a study published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy in 2002, 55 percent of married women engage in extramarital sex at some time during their relationship (compared with 60 percent of men). And here’s a far scarier number: After interviewing more than a hundred adulterous wives for her 2001 book A Passion for More, Susan Shapiro Barash found that 90 percent of them didn’t feel guilty about doing it—they felt entitled to do it. Somehow, the 21st-century husband’s noble attempt to be provider and nurturer—a Superdad duality his father probably never attempted—seems to have backfired. Rob is the perfect example. He grew up watching his dad’s philandering wreck his parents’ marriage and vowed not to make it a legacy, only to find himself a cuckold a generation later. And he didn’t suffer alone. He had a nice support network on the website survivinginfidelity.com of guys who had gone through the same thing. “It’s so common, I wonder how many affairs go undiscovered,“ Rob says.
“There are a lot of reasons why women cheat now, and the simplest is that they can,“ says Diane Shader Smith, the author of Undressing Infidelity: Why More Women Are Unfaithful. “Nowadays women have jobs. And if they’re home, there are gardeners, there are pool men. They have opportunities and they feel empowered.“ They also feel sexual. And while your prowess with a Dyson is commendable, it’s hardly titillating.
Make no mistake: Women can be just as driven as men are in pursuit of a fling. One woman Smith met used cheating as a weight-loss incentive, telling herself that a certain guy would sleep with her if she dropped a particular number of pounds. Once she succeeded, she was on to the next quarry. Another one waited for her husband’s Ambien to kick in so she could go across town for the night and be back by the time he awoke.
“Women have become, in many ways, as predatory as men,“ says Judith Brandt, the author of The 50-Mile Rule: Your Guide to Infidelity and Extramarital Etiquette. And the prey is abundant. We grew up with the bejesus scared out of us by Anjelica Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The libido-withering moral was clear: It’s just not worth it, man. But where’s the male equivalent? Your wife’s potential playmate probably has no interest in annexing your emotional territory.
And he’s accessible: Today’s wife knows nothing of the isolation of her mid-century counterpart. She has Internet chat rooms and cell phones. She has personal trainers, yoga instructors, and mommy groups. Mommy groups? Why would any man think he had reason to get twitchy about his wife’s going to a mommy group? Jerry, a 32-year-old engineer from Atlanta, certainly didn’t. After the birth of his son, his stay-at-home wife joined one and met a woman who soon became her best friend. She’d go to her new friend’s house for barbecues, and occasionally she’d end up sleeping over in the spare bedroom. After several months of this, Jerry began to suspect that his wife was being unfaithful. He started snooping—looking at her cell phone when she wasn’t around and using Google Desktop to comb for damning e-mails. One day he found a message referring to a certain lapse in judgment that occurred on the hallway floor with the husband of his wife’s girlfriend. When he confronted his wife, she told him when it had all started: six months before, on the day after Father’s Day. They were staying with his parents because they’d put their home on the market. Jerry had the day off. His wife told him to relax with their son while she went to clean up their house for prospective buyers—a tidy little cover, it turned out, for a secret meeting that had nothing to do with real estate. “She said she was shampooing the rugs,“ Jerry says. “I never suspected anything. I mean, she did shampoo the rugs. My attitude was, she’s my wife—I’m supposed to trust her.“
Like Rob, Jerry opted to stay in the marriage. According to studies conducted by Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist and the author of Private Lies, more than a third of marriages in which infidelity occurs end up surviving. “It doesn’t make you stop loving her,“ Jerry says. But it could inspire you to install spyware on your computer and go to marriage counseling—two measures Jerry took. “In Georgia she’d get half my salary, and she’d probably get custody of the child,“ he says. “I would probably lose my house, and I lose my son—and I didn’t do a damn thing to cause it.“
A therapist might beg to differ. He might tell the cuckolded husband that he did do something to cause it. That Superdad/Superexecutive/Superhomemaker role you’re cultivating? That takes time. “I think for many families there’s still the expectation that women who are pursuing careers are also going to be attending to the traditional roles of being the nurturer and the mother and the attentive wife,“ says Dr. Brian S. Canfield, president of the American Counseling Association. “Contrast that with [what] women [encounter] in the workplace—male colleagues who are dealing with them on a very adult level—and it’s only natural that she’s going to be attracted to them.“ In other words, the pinot she shares with Peter from consulting over lunch is getting her hotter than the coffee you hand her before she drops the kids off at preschool is.
For the jittery, overworked husband whose blood chills at that image, there is some comfort: His wife’s would-be paramours might be worn out by the time she gets tempted. “Let me tell you something,“ says Steve (not his real name), a 23-year-old personal trainer in New York City whose sessions with a married female client last fall blossomed into one-on-ones at the Midtown Hyatt. It was he—not the woman—who broke it off. The clothes, the cologne, the constant phone calls—“it just got to be too much,“ he says.