Anna David is the executive editor of The Fix, as well as being the author of Party Girl and Bought. Her newest book, Falling For Me, wherein she tries to follow the advice in Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, is due out October 11th. She’ll be telling us about some of her adventures in this new column, Sex and the Sixties Girl.
Helen Gurley Brown perpetuated certain ideas about marriage in Sex and the Single Girl: namely that married men are fair game. When I was growing up, I had my own ideas about marriage: namely, that the two people in it remained faithful to one another. I also assumed that they weren’t all that happy together but I didn’t think those facts were related, necessarily. They were just what I concluded, I would imagine, through some combination of obsessive Brady Bunch viewing, Judy Blume reading and observations of my own parents.
My parents were, I sensed, not happy together. My ideas about happiness weren’t fully formed yet—I graded the days in my diary and only handed out automatic A+’s when Mom took us to McDonald’s—but I was fairly certain that two people who rarely communicated and seemed to have nothing in common simply couldn’t be.
They didn’t fight, really. They didn’t really interact long enough to fight.
Dad worked, all the time. That’s what we were told. And it was true. But it was also true that he had affairs—usually with women who worked for him. I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned about this, but I recall wishing I didn’t know. Mom, at a certain point, began referring to Dad’s paramours by their last names with a Ms. tacked onto the front, her trademark sarcasm on full display. “Ms. Beamen is coming to the party,” she’d say. Or “Ms. Mulvey is now running that office.” She smirked when she said it and I always suspected that my older brother, who seemed to be privy to the vagaries of the adult world in a way that I wasn’t, understood what was going on better than I did. The fact that these women were never nearly as attractive or intelligent or funny as my mom—and this isn’t some delusional my-mom-is-amazing thinking, this is straight-up inarguable fact—confused me. I couldn’t understand why Dad would want someone besides Mom. But since he did, why did he pick women who were so clearly inferior to her?
And now that I’ve traipsed down my own path with a married man, I’m really not any clearer. When I was a child, of course, I didn’t know that there were studies claiming that 80% of men were unfaithful. There were no Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner scandals. Ronald Regan seemed to be pretty good to Nancy, I never heard about my friends’ parents cheating and, growing up outside San Francisco, almost all my teachers were either female and single or male and gay.
I do know this: Helen and I agree on the point that no man or woman is going to be attracted to only one person for their entire lifetime. I’d love to say that I think healthy, boundaried flirting should be the solution to this but what do I know? I’ve never been married. Part of me questions the very notion of fidelity and thinks we set ourselves up to fail. I mean, romantic love—that is, marrying for reasons other than property and familial obligations—is a relatively new phenomenon and the way the women’s lib movement has shaken down (that is, leaving everyone overwhelmed by both career and familial obligations) hasn’t exactly left any of us living under ideal circumstances. We’re all supposed to be overworked, exhausted and only attracted to the person who may be overworking and exhausting us?
Still, I don’t exactly endorse the views on married men that Helen puts forth in Sex and the Single Girl. Her suggestion that you “use them to add spice to your life” as they use you “to varnish their egos” isn’t entirely possible for someone like me. With remarkably few exceptions, I really don’t know how to do anything casually. I am someone, after all, who took up knitting, set up a business with a friend selling hand-knit scarves and was at the chiropractor for knitting-related neck and shoulder pain all within a month. So treating a married man like, say, cumin or harissa—something to be added to an otherwise less interesting chicken recipe—just isn’t within the realm of possibilities. There’s also the matter that I saw first-hand the kind of unspoken but pervasive pain infidelity caused, not to mention the fact that the married man I fell for pummeled me—though certainly not intentionally. But, arguably even worse, I suddenly became aware that one could live an entire life this way: afterwards, you see, I suddenly found myself doused in a sort of secret perfume that seemed to attract other married men. I’d never really had a married guy so much as ask me to lunch before and suddenly they were all around, blatantly hitting on me. Was the fact that I’d considered being the other woman once suddenly emanating from me? Was it going to be like cocaine—did my willingness to try it out mean I’d end up falling past a trap door that would land me in permanent Ms. Mulvey-land with a rehab and radically different way of life my only ultimate solution?
As it turned out, no. I managed to extract myself from those dicey situations and move into a phase that didn’t involve men who were already committed to other people. I ended up concluding that there are women who know how to keep married men as “pets” and I’m simply not one of them. And this isn’t become I’m some excellent person or even because I believe in karma. It’s just that I think life is complicated and difficult enough without all that. Besides, a simple trip to McDonald’s isn’t enough to give me an A+ day anymore; as a matter of fact, I’d say that the few days I have been over the past decade would have received quite low grades, were I still in the business of day grading.
But what if marriage—the right marriage—could inspire the kind of happiness I once felt certain those milkshakes and fries provided? Despite my cynicism and doubts, I can imagine this is possible. If only, of course, I’m not selecting married men off my own personal spice rack.