In the rearview mirror, my affair, a one-week cataclysm that cracked open the winter of 2010, seems ludicrous and resistant to comprehension: It’s banal in its particulars, yet it was for me both shatteringly ecstatic and distressing. When I kissed Paul, it was the end of my first, frenzied semester as a doctoral student. I had only been married to my husband, Nick, since August. My panicked heart burned and sputtered.
I fell in love with Paul slowly, but easily. We met in a graduate seminar on nineteenth-century literature: I admired his artful, quick-witted mind and his velvety warm blue eyes. After collaborating on a class presentation, I was enthralled, but in a way that seemed chaste, even sisterly. I had never found it difficult to maintain platonic male friendships while romantically committed, so I assumed the band on my finger wouldn’t bar friendship now.
But once I acknowledge my attraction to a person, I am almost irrevocably distracted, my awareness totally reoriented by piqued desire and curiosity. Such was the case when, one fall evening, Paul and I grabbed a beer at a restaurant near campus. I had reassured myself that this outing was innocent—why not make friends with my new classmates? But as the night drew on and the beer eased my edges, Paul’s own form, though shadowed by the dim light, seemed to solidify before me, peripheries defined, precious matter within a nothing of space. I could hold him, and I wanted to. Some obscure voice at the back of my head admonished me to wave aside these thoughts, to excuse myself to the bathroom and douse my face. But I was as curious about my desire as my head was muddled by it. I hadn’t had a crush in years, and my affection for Nick had long lapsed into an antiseptic lull.
Later that evening, Paul walked me to the metro station. As we crossed a pedestrian bridge, we paused at the midpoint to look at the night. Always keen to imbue any moment with cinematic gravitas, I cast the two of us in my mind’s off-brand Nicholas Sparks flick. After we were married, Paul would tell me that, over the course of the evening, he had thought to himself, wryly, what a perfect date we were having. But in the moment, he betrayed not a trace of partiality or affection beyond the bounds of friendship. I left him at the train and returned home disappointed, though I muttered to myself punishing admonishments. It was ridiculous, not to mention hazardous, to dwell on this attraction. It was crucial—positively crucial—to get a goddamn grip. I tucked myself into bed and dreamily recollected the evening until I fell asleep.
It always begins this way, doesn’t it? Or so that is what the prevailing adultery narratives would have us think. Two people meet; one is attached, but they proceed without caution almost defensively, as if to say, “Why should I be careful when I would never dream of committing such a clichéd indiscretion?” I pawed at the very same excuse.
Then follow the swollen silences and lingering glances that you don’t entirely want to go unnoticed. Perhaps there is a crisis of conscience a mere half a breath before succumbing to passion—but this isn’t right!—and then, of course, the bittersweet, utterly rhapsodic consummation of desire. More often than not, these plotlines center around a woman who, despite some (never enough) effort, cannot stem the flow of sexual impulse, or one who is more unabashedly insatiable. And more often than not, the woman is punished—by man or by happenstance—for an indulgence that disrupts the harmony of a heterosexual pairing. Were women not so sexually greedy, were they not so lascivious or curious or mercurial, infidelity would not be the scourge upon matrimony that it has always been.
The Victorians, keen artists of stigma that they were, conceived of sexually excessive women in biblical terms. Women who committed adultery, divorced, made a living by sex work, or had a child out of wedlock—even if by rape—were branded as “fallen.” The Edenic origin of the term is evident, as are the implications of a higher feminine ideal that the so-called fallen woman has betrayed. Victorian literature is well-populated by these women, sometimes as cautionary tales, or in the case of less ideologically rigid writers, to emphasize the impossible standards to which women were held.
I recall the uneasy sense that I too was bound for “fallenness,” because I could never experience any meaningful emotion in a tempered way. It’s nigh well impossible to hide from yourself when your feelings seem to press against you from the inside and, somehow, the outside as well. For this reason, among many others, the crush that blossomed out of my first evening with Paul should have spurred me to distance myself from him. But it makes sense to me that I didn’t. Regardless of this burgeoning affection, I continued to rigorously deny that my relationship with Nick was askew. Marrying him—a respectable, sturdy, ambitious man—was, in retrospect, a way of disciplining myself, a way to suppress the timid but diligent whispers at the back of my brain. “Are you sure you’re attracted enough to marry him?” it asked in a very small voice, one year into our relationship. “Didn’t you used to love sex?”
I regretted marrying him, though I would not admit it to myself, and if he had not yet deduced that, he certainly sensed my resistance, my yen for separateness. His summons, by way of phone and text and Gchat, became more and more frequent, all of them prickling reminders of marital obligation. I would squirm as my phone rang, exhaling with relief when voice mail finally swallowed the call. We’d fight later, but for the moment, I cradled my delusion of freedom.
This denial, of course, rendered me eager for greater familiarity with Paul. If I accepted the premise that my marriage was not problematic—or simply chose not to think about my marriage at all—then there existed no discernible reason to avoid someone whose company I enjoyed. Romantic longing ripped a gaping maw in that logic, but I was not operating according to logic anyway.
Infidelity is no accident. It is a choice, and rarely a healthy one. However, it need not follow that sexual deception yields romantic and emotional Armageddon. We need not cleave to a narrative that pathologizes women who have had affairs as hypersexual, prone to hysteric fits of lusts. When the institutional strictures of heterosexual matrimony, rather than the empathy due to our human fallibility, become the organizing principles by which relationships and women are judged, we limit ourselves to forecasting catastrophe and meting out punishment. We have not yet learned how to respect monogamy without worshipping it. And in our idolatry, we shift the burden of matrimonial upkeep onto women, charging one and all with custody of Penelope’s legacy: to be patient and immaculately long-suffering, always waiting to serve our Odysseus. Gluttons for pat heteronormative romance, contemporary American society cannot recognize its own terrified devotion to what it understands as normal and natural, instead condemning women who deviate as the ones who cannot suppress our appetites for what we should not want in the first place.
Cheating wives rarely see a happy ending. Many, perhaps, would argue that they do not deserve one. Some, regardless of their sympathy, might see domestic tranquility as impossible when it has been so irrevocably destroyed in one domain. “A woman who cheats often ends up alone,” I recall being told—with, of course, the implication that I would never choose an unpartnered life. I expect some others might protest that for me to take such a defiant tone is both insolent and unremorseful. If I am not confessing my sins, what here is worth telling? And why should I, then, the perpetrator, be the one to tell it? How could someone like me—someone so at the mercy of her riotous emotions—be trusted?
I would never diminish the toll infidelity can take, but I also refuse to diminish myself for having been, as it were, unfaithful. No woman’s character begins and ends with a solitary oath, and her self-possession cannot be so swiftly denied. Our fingers were not crafted so that they could be cinched by wedding band; the union between body and the marriage industrial complex is one ushered by capitalism, not destiny. Whatever symbolism we embrace, or promises we utter, these are choices that must conform to our desires, fragmented, fraught, and contradictory though they may be. The long grind of history might declare that a woman can do no worse than change her mind, at least when that change signals a turn from heteronormative domesticity. I say that a woman’s volatility is her prerogative, and that her happiness is not for others to adjudicate.
Excerpted from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Vorona Cote. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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