Men are supposed to fight. I’m not saying they ought to—just that our culture expects them to. Men fight for all kinds of reasons, sometimes for no discernable reason at all, and while we may say we don’t like it, no one calls it unnatural. Women, on the other hand, are allowed—even expected—to fight about one thing, and one thing only: Men.
OK, I can kind of understand it. When women fight over men, they are typically fighting over resources as much as anything else. We all, men and women alike, will fight for what we need to survive. And even in this liberated age, a woman’s economic well-being suffers from divorce. But why are men considered, for women, the only thing worth fighting about? It seems to me that a lot of the men women fight over aren’t worth a red cent, let alone bloodshed.
Then too, there’s something especially nasty about two women competing for a man. You see it in the way such fights draw an audience. In the public fascination over what should by rights be a private tragedy. These fights are devastating to the individual women involved, and they are demeaning to all women, collectively. Pitting women against women is one of those male fantasies that become uniquely repulsive in real life. Why on earth would women buy into it? Ladies, do we really have to do this?
I’d like to think women are better than that. That we don’t have to feed the stereotypes that give men unwarranted power over women. That our worth as human beings shouldn’t be judged by philandering men or readers of Us Weekly. I’d like to think we can allow ourselves some dignity.
Part of me wants to push Rielle Hunter down a long flight of stairs.
Part of me is amused by the thought of Tori Spelling, doubled over from a punch to the solar plexus, unable to breathe.
Part of me would like to see Monica Lewinsky forced to wear that same dumb hairstyle for the rest of her life.
Part of me—a pretty big part, honestly—just wants to slap these women who have affairs with married men. And I don’t even know them. Yet I still feel an almost primal urge to punish them. Please understand that I’m not advocating public stoning or scarlet letters. Societies that humiliate women for sexual transgressions are barbaric. I know that. I also know that the married men with whom these women were “carrying on” (as my grandmother used to say) deserve equal contempt. I’m trying very hard to act like a grownup about this. But on some level I still think it would be really satisfying to see, for example, a bucket of pig slop dumped on Maria Chapur, Mark Sanford’s Argentine mistress. Wouldn’t it?
Maybe it’s just me.
Somehow, though, I don’t think I’m alone. I suspect there’s something in each of us that resonates in sympathy with the anger of betrayed women. How can we not feel it? Discovering that you have unknowingly shared the most intimate part of your life with a stranger has to generate profound rage. That sort of anger spills over in lots of ways. I remember a case in Houston years ago where a lady dentist caught her dentist husband with his mistress in a hotel parking lot, and ran him over three times in her Mercedes. Three times. That’s profound rage. And if you think she overdid it, consider this: When they were seating the jury at her murder trial, they had to eliminate two potential jurors because they’d basically done the same thing. One was a guy who assaulted his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. The other was a woman who admitted that, when she found her husband with his mistress, she hit him with her truck.
Elizabeth Edwards didn’t run over anyone, not even one time. I think that’s pretty damned classy.
I have a lot less self-control than Elizabeth Edwards. I look at her situation and thirst for justice, or at least a little vulgar satisfaction. But when you come right down to it, is any punishment sufficient for someone like Rielle Hunter? You can only stare slack-jawed at a woman who would walk up to a famously married man and invite him to have an affair. I can’t fathom the tremendous, roaring vacuum in the soul of such a person. So what would I hope to accomplish by slapping her? I might as well slap a mailbox. It’s not going to change her. It’s certainly not going to help Elizabeth Edwards. Yet I still have this urge to slap, to strike, to make a loud and painful statement in defense of fidelity. Why do I feel this way? And more to the point, should I feel this way?
If I understand feminism at all (and maybe I don’t; I’ve been hit in the head a lot), it affirms that women are able to make their own choices and take personal responsibility for their actions. They do not need to be controlled by society. My instinct to shame and persecute adulterous women doesn’t seem like something a good feminist should feel. It isn’t rational. It’s tribal. It springs from a deeper, older bond more female than feminist; from an intuitive recognition that we need to watch our sisters’ backs. Betrayed women arouse our protective instincts because they remind us of the vulnerability we all share.
There’s also the sheer unfairness of it. I’m all in favor of a good fair fight. But betrayed wives never know they’re fighting. They are, if you’ll pardon the term, cold-cocked. Sucker-punched. Stabbed in the back. Their betrayal is simply, massively unfair, and unfair situations really piss me off.
The way I see it, a good marriage is a lot like a good sparring match. It’s a formal partnership, an agreement between two people who promise to challenge, protect, and nurture each other. That may seem like an odd analogy but sparring—as distinct from fighting—is very much a teaching and learning process. In marriage as in sparring, you have to agree on certain boundaries, because you are entering into a relationship that leaves you very vulnerable. You have to trust your partner. It’s risky, but the assumption we make when sparring or marrying is that the risk is acceptable when compared to the potential rewards of trusting our partner.
From a self-defense perspective, this is completely backwards. You shouldn’t make a habit of relying on someone else to protect you; you need to be able to protect yourself. But life requires us to strike a balance. We cannot remain forever on defense, however safe it might make us. It’s bad for the soul. We aren’t fully human if we never trust. When we marry, we acknowledge that safety isn’t the most important thing. We celebrate the value of vulnerability. We declare, before witnesses, that we will trust this person and be worthy of their trust in us. What kind of a shitbag takes advantage of that conscious, public vulnerability?
John Edwards, for example. This is a man whose marriage endured the death of a child. A man whose wife supported his high-powered, very public career throughout their marriage. A man who had, apparently, resisted what must have been pretty substantial temptations until this point in his life. His therapist will no doubt spend a long time listening to white noise before anyone understands how he managed to fail so spectacularly. But we know he couldn’t have done it without Rielle Hunter. She was the one who somehow made it all seem worthwhile.
That’s the special talent of the other woman: to make utter moral failure and spiritual betrayal look like an exciting new summer movie. Flashy! Fun! Dramatic! Sexy! Also cheap, performed in the dark, and forgotten about within hours of leaving the theater, but still—what a thrill ride!
Other women represent the opposite of everything a wife stands for, including the idea that people stand for things. They are the reverse, the negative, the relief image of the woman who took the vow. We look at them and imagine what we might turn into if we aren’t careful: The Whore of Babylon to the wife’s Virgin Mary; Darth Vader to her Obi-Wan. In a perverse way, other women are partners of the betrayed wives—partners the wives do not choose. The men and their mistresses make all the choices. The wife’s hands are tied by the promise she made to trust.
And that, perhaps, is why my own hands itch to strike for her. I crave some kind of punishment, a ritual act to cast the other women out of the sisterhood. Because just as surely as wives need to be able to trust their husbands, women need to be able to trust other women.
I know I’m not alone in wanting to punish women who can’t be trusted. Plenty of people act on that urge. Women who break up marriages are called unsavory names; their pictures appear in the tabloids; their former friends share intimate details of their lives, previous relationships, and emotional stability. Less civilized punishments are sometimes meted out as well, from screaming matches in grocery stores all the way up to vehicular assault.
Such fights may be cathartic and they may serve a ritual purpose, but unfortunately they also serve as entertainment. And it’s the kind of entertainment, moreover, that plays to some of our ugliest instincts: Moral self-righteousness, sexism, and violence. So while punishing adulterous women may be justified, and it certainly can be satisfying, it is—alas—wrong. This saddens me, because I would be really good at it. I’ll tell you, sometimes being a black belt feels like a complete waste of effort.
Then again, we can’t simply ignore infidelity, can we? Aren’t we sometimes too quick to forgive cheaters, women and men? To let them “move on” from the messes they’ve made, whether they clean them up or not? Adulterers get to remain in office or star in their own reality TV shows, because we find redemption, or the appearance of it, almost as entertaining as sin. But real redemption isn’t dramatic. It’s dull and grueling and it doesn’t make good television.
I think anger and revulsion are perfectly legitimate responses to adultery, even if violence isn’t. So I don’t plan to slap anyone, but I don’t expect to stop wanting to, either. But I also want to make sure my feelings about other women don’t distract me from what really matters: The betrayed women. They are the ones who deserve our attention and regard. The women who said “I do,” and meant it, shouldn’t be left standing alone and forgotten, like rejected players in a sandlot baseball game. I don’t give a damn who the men choose. I choose the wives—all of them. I’m on their team. And I’ll tell you something else: We aren’t playing a game. I don’t know what kind of fight we’re in, exactly, but I know we’re not going to lose.