After watching the excellent film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I had no choice but to pick up Dalma Heyn’s book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.
In the film, Pippa marries a wealthy man thirty years her senior when she is a young runaway living on the edge. She mutates from being an expressive human being with problems into the stilted and empty role of being the Perfect Wife. But underneath all of her prim lines, you sense the real Pippa lurking underneath. She begins sleepwalking, ending up at the mini-mart where she buys cigarettes. And then, out to lunch with her neurotic friend, Pippa begins to combust:
“You could be married to anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about. Marriage is an act of will. I mean, I adore Herb, but our marriage functions because we will it to. If you leave love to hold everything together, you can forget it. Love comes and goes with the breeze, minute by minute.”
When Dalma Heyn set out to write her book comprised of years worth of interviews with wives who committed adultery, she began with an armload of clichés, stereotypes, and societal views that had nothing to do with the feelings of actual women, their marriages, and their experiences. The problem that all of these women shared, was that they bought into the ideal of the Perfect Wife - she is selfless, giving, able to predict the needs of everyone else, without ever meeting her own needs. When these women don’t measure up to this idea of goodness (and no one ever does or should), they constantly feel bad – they are a failure, there is something wrong with them. In the process, they disconnect completely from themselves and go numb. They can no longer experience a fulfilling sex life either. They’ve become what they thought was their husband’s fantasy, but it has nothing to do with them. They are looking at themselves from the outside in.
“They spoke of a profound awareness that they were somehow no longer themselves, that they weren’t in a relationship but playing a role in one (Heyn, 103)…”
They wonder what became of the sexual outlaw they were before marriage. Some of the women had not even had premarital sex. Regardless, women from their twenties to their seventies, and all walks of life, experience adultery as a rebirth of self. They don’t experience shame or guilt – they experience life, total joy and an uninhibited place to reclaim their authenticity. They seek out men that have none of the prerequisites that they look for in a husband or even a boyfriend. They might not even be in love with these men, it doesn’t matter; the experience of total freedom is the same.
The women often have no desire to leave their husbands. But through the experience of adultery, they understand that they need to change the shape of their marriages, so that at last, their needs can factor into the relationship. There is no going back to the Perfect Wife. Some of the women never tell their husbands and fare well, while a large percentage of the women who do tell end up in divorce. But every marriage is different with different outcomes.
I never thought that I would get married because I loved being single so much. My sexuality was the ultimate adventure for me. So sometimes, I wonder, how did I end up married to a man whose sexuality is so vanilla. He’s turning fifty this year, and though he thinks of having sex all the time, it’s often the last priority. When it doesn’t feel like a routine, when he isn’t being too sensitive and careful, sex between us is wonderful, but rarely ever dark, or seductive, or unbridled. Can these things exist in a marriage? I always thought they could.
When we were dating he struggled to keep up with me. He stayed up late with me till the early morning hours and we had sex everyday. He was working three jobs and started to feel the pressure.
Around the same time, I decided to give him a fashion show. I went into my closet and put on all my old fetish gear – vinyl, thigh-high fishnets, towering platforms. When I paraded out, he was not aroused by it at all. He said I was playing the part of someone else. Maybe it was who I was before he met me, maybe I never was that role to begin with. It just wasn’t for him. He wanted me to put on a sleek and elegant dress instead. I’d never encountered a man who didn’t go crazy over artifice. For a week after that, he struggled sexually, and then unbeknownst to me, Viagra saved the day.
For him, the two events were unrelated, but after that week, I stopped taking risks. I started feeling nervous about making him uncomfortable. I left my kinks behind. He loves my strength in all facets of our life together. But he has a puritan side, a clumsy embarrassment over anything out of the ordinary.
The other issue is that he’s not the string bean-types that I used to date. He’s like one of those massive warriors that you see in movies like 300. Built like a rock, solid, stocky, with huge hands that don’t know their own strength. When I told him that I like to be choked, he gave it a try and almost broke my neck. When he sleeps with his arm across my chest, my ribs begin to feel like they’re crushing under the pressure and I panic, trying desperately to wake myself. I’m still learning how to live with our differences.
But life is also easier, happier, more content with him. We can’t get enough of being together - we work together, go out all the time, talk openly about everything, and share our passions. It’s always fun, even when we’re fighting. We don’t buy into the term “settling down” like many couples do. I play the role of the Perfect Wife more for my parents than my husband. When they show up, everything is clean and dinner is delicious. When they’re not here, our lives are chaotic and slightly out of control.
I don’t idealize our relationship. I didn’t marry a man for his status or money. I married a fellow outlaw, who lives by his own rules, and makes me laugh. I’m well aware that the future is uncertain. I’ll be surprised if our marriage survives for the rest of our lives, and I very much hope that it does. And does that only mean the rest of his life, since I’m so much younger? I make jokes about being a wealthy old widow, living like a gypsy and on the prowl. But really, it’s just to make myself feel better about the unknown.
I went through some confusing changes in the process of our growing closer. Like a rubber band snapping back and forth. I was caught up in the whirlwind, in the romance in the beginning. Then after our engagement I rebelled and fought and wanted to leave. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. But on our wedding day, it all made sense.
For a short while, I turned into an old lady, had no real friends, started to compensate for my husband’s reckless, accident-prone nature by being extremely anxious, nervous, overly careful. At times, the pressure of being a wife overwhelms me. I’ve often wanted to run back to when my life was more straightforward and simple – when I could just work, do my art, and have sex with random people every now and then.
Sex was self-discovery, mutual-discovery, empathic-discovery. Married sex is something completely different that I don’t quite understand. It’s like we need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and haven’t quite gotten there yet.
There is a strange role-reversal where in our relationship I am supposed to be more like the man and he is more like the woman. He wants to cuddle and be close, and I just want to get laid. He wants to work up to it for long periods of time, while I get bored waiting. He wants me to initiate, while I just want to feel wanted. And yet, he is enormously giving, patient, and selfless – which makes me feel like an impatient, selfish, taker.
No couple is perfect, and somehow our differences balance things out. My husband is the first man I was ever in a committed relationship with. I guess I got bored with everything else. Before we met, I had become an evil heartbreaker. The ego trip felt nice, but it didn’t feel right to hurt people and feel nothing. My husband didn’t buy all that crap. He saw right through it (though he admits to being scared of me at first). It was good to be seen at last. Really seen. It still is.
When I think of other men sexually, I wonder what would be the point, when there’s only one man who lets me be who I really am. Maybe not the dominatrix side, but every other side. Everyone else pales in comparison. Everyone else seems like they’re missing something. With everyone I dated before, I was never really myself, and was never accepted to begin with.
I am the subject of my husband’s life. He says that I give his life meaning. He even took my last name.
Yesterday was our 2nd Anniversary. I hemmed my wedding dress and surprised him by wearing it on our dinner date, along with my birdcage veil, and my grandmother’s jade necklace. We talked about our plans for building our future together. We talked openly and honestly about how we really feel about all of it. We raved over Sea Urchin, Veal Sweetbreads, Cavatelli with Morels, Chocolate Truffle Cake with Black Cherries. We even talked about this post, and how our memories are different, and yet the same.
This is the first openly honest thing I’ve ever written about my husband, stripped of all the idealistic tripe. I’m breaking my erotic silence.