In light of the recent revelations about Tiger Woods and Jesse James, the age-old topic of fidelity has once again come into the news, big time. Its timing is especially interesting for me, since I went through my own troubles with it, and have just written my memoirs (A Ticket to the Circus, Random House) where I discovered that even after 19 years — and I would imagine after 50 years, if I were to live so long — the feelings are still raw and bloody underneath the scar that I thought time had formed. My heart aches for Sandra and for Elin, and for all the other less-public women who are going through this. It’s almost as bad as discovering your father is a child molester — the person you thought you knew the best in the world turns out to be a stranger. You have put your trust in the wrong person, bet on the wrong horse, chosen the wrong turn in the road. How could you have been so stupid? And blind? And wrong?
As my husband said, “It’s not hard to fool someone who loves you and trusts you.” We want to be fooled, we want to believe things are fine. Nothing has changed since the caveman days, when the man hunted the giant mammoth and the woman cleaned it and cooked it and took care of the kids. They were a team, they needed each other. If some other woman came sniffing around the man, it was to take him away from his woman so he could provide for her, and that was life threatening because the wife’s food source was taken, as well, and she and her children likely might die. It’s still the same. There is always some woman who wants what you have, who wants your man, your house, your car; your life. If the door is opened a little bit, a predatory woman will not hesitate to kick it in, and let’s face it — there is a bit of the predator in all of us, as well as the good and decent woman we are. It’s often said that men in happy marriages don’t cheat, but that’s not true. Pretty much all men will cheat, given the right circumstance and the right woman. They are wired differently than us, at least my husband was. He thought he could really separate his feelings into “Love for Wife and Family,” and a little slap and tickle on the side. (He just never understood that none of his paramours were only interested in slap and tickle. They were interested in being wife No. 7.) He once said that none of the women meant anything to him. I used that line in a play I wrote about an unhappy marriage, and added, “None of the men I had meant anything to me, either. And then we meant nothing to each other,” which struck me as a sad truth. If you are going to give your most intimate body fluids to a person, put your reputation and your health, your career, and your future into their hands (why does Bill Clinton come to mind here?), they should at least mean a little something to you. But there comes the rub. If they do, then the door is cracked to move them in totally and move the wife out. It happened to my husband five times before he met me, and in his convoluted way, I suppose he thought he was protecting our marriage by only being with women who were totally unsuitable, in his mind, to be his wife. He was never close to leaving me for one of them.
Then I, on the other hand, had a short affair with someone to retaliate; to hurt my husband, I suppose, and it didn’t work. Hurting him didn’t give me the pleasure I thought it would. I discovered in short order that I didn’t want someone else’s rhythms in my body, someone else’s scents and habits to contend with. I wanted the ones I was familiar with. It turns out that my husband didn’t want to break up our marriage, either, and was ready to give up the other women, so it was easy for me to agree to stay and give it a try. When women say, “Oh, he cheated on you, why didn’t you leave him?” it is too simplistic. You don’t just leave the man, you leave the kids (at least the kids as you know them now) and the house and the friends and the habits of years. You have to slash and cut the thousands of threads that make up the cords that bind you together; all the memories, the stories of your past; you have to cut your history away, like an amputated limb. It’s not so easy, especially as we get older and there are more years behind us than there are years in front of us, to leave the past behind and start all over, with a new environment and children who are shattered; to probably live less well and have a different daily life. So I stayed, and while it never was the same as it was in the happy, wild beginning, it never is after a few years of marriage, even if the couple is totally true to each other.
A tragedy happened to a friend of mine. Her husband was killed in a car wreck when he was in his 60s. They had been boyfriend and girlfriend since they were 12 and married while they were teenagers; I doubt if they had ever even kissed anyone else. And their marriage was not a happy one. So here was my friend, in her mid-60s, who only had one man in her life, who more than likely won’t have another one and who never really had the confidence that comes with knowing you went through a few guys and picked the one that was right for you. I’m not so sure that is a good thing, either, although it is what we all say we want, isn’t it — one man who loves us and is totally true to only us forever and ever? Maybe there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. It does give one food for thought.
Editor’s Note: Norris Church Mailer is the author of A Ticket to the Circus, a memoir of her marriage to literary lion Norman Mailer, as well as two novels.