'Good wives' who cheat are a silent presence in America, author says

July 10, 1992|By Ruthe Stein | Ruthe Stein,San Francisco Chronicle

On Larry King a few nights ago, a caller screamed into the phone line that Dalma Heyn was a witch. She has been accused on other talk shows of advocating affairs for married women.

This angry response strikes Ms. Heyn as blaming the messenger for the message.

She insists she is neither for nor against extramarital affairs, but has simply reported their occurrence in her new book, "The Erotic Silence of the American Wife."

"We've known since the Kinsey studies [in the late '40s and early '50s] that women have affairs. But the idea is still so threatening to so many people," she says.

They are sure to be even more threatened by her accounts of these affairs. Unlike fictional wives, who invariably were ostracized or killed for their transgressions, the women who talked to Ms. Heyn -- though she doesn't claim to have done a scientific study, she says she talked to several hundred women -- came out of adulterous relationships in better shape than they were in before.

Ms. Heyn, a former magazine editor in her 40s who writes "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Sex" column in Mademoiselle, believes these women had strained too hard to be a "good wife," giving up their sexuality in the process.

One woman told her that, like many wives, she cut her hair and started wearing longer skirts and high-neckline blouses after she married.

"Women with rich sexual histories go into marriage and find that they diminish how much experience they have had," she said. While having sex with their husbands, "They won't say, 'A little to the left, honey. I used to do it that way and I liked it' because it implies that they had sex before."

By having an affair "not only did they take the big risk and survive, but they also recovered their sexuality, what they were before they became 'good,' " Ms. Heyn said.

The men they chose to have affairs with did not conform to the glamorous image of the "other man."

"They were very nice and very loving, but not necessarily powerful," Ms. Heyn said.

Because these women weren't looking for "husband material," their lovers did not have to be good providers. Many were younger than they were or colleagues who had started out as friends.

"They felt they could tell these guys anything, that they loved them exactly as they were. It was sometimes the only egalitarian relationship with a man these women had had," she said.

It was also the opposite of their other personal relationships, where they were concerned with doing everything for the other person, whether it be a husband or child. Their lovers were the ones who strove to please them.

Still, with the "good woman" image in mind, it wasn't always easy for them to plunge into an affair. Many reverted to the pattern of their premarital relationships and avoided coitus, thinking it wasn't really an affair without it.

Therapists often counsel people having an affair to confess to their spouse because to keep it a secret will poison the marriage.

However, Ms. Heyn believes confessing is not always a good idea for women.

"This advice presupposes a concern for the husband and children, but not the woman, because so many women who tell find themselves without a home, money or their children."

Wives are more likely than husbands to forgive a spouse who has strayed, she said.

Because they couldn't be sure how their husbands would react, most of the women who talked to Ms. Heyn decided to keep their affair a secret. Often, they didn't talk to anyone about it, which is where the term "erotic silence" in her book title comes from.

In most cases, the women eventually ended the affair with their husbands being none the wiser.

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