‘Americans love marriage. By which I mean of course that Americans hate marriage…’
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway, Secretary, Lionsgate Entertainment, 2002
From The Smart Set:
There are mistresses, and there are homewreckers. We often believe that the only thing distinguishing one from the other is revelation. The mistress is the hidden, secret lover, but the homewrecker is the same woman splashed on every tabloid cover with her baby — his or not — suddenly labeled “love child” in alarmingly large and yellow type.
Secrecy is the mistress’s goal — a removal not only from the covers of magazines but also from the way we wear our marriages in our jobs and social circles and community. But the homewrecker wants this exposed chaos and splintering. And the tabloid culture is all too happy to assist. The public loves the shock of the unveiling, loves comparing and contrasting the other woman and the wife. Is she prettier? If not, what the hell was he thinking? How could he step out on his wife with her? And while the politician/athlete/musician/actor is shamed into the obligatory press conference and follow-up, post-“treatment” television interview so that we can tsk-tsk about men’s collective inability to keep it in their pants, none of it comes as a surprise. It’s considered to be in men’s nature to whip it out and photograph it, or stick it in places that we the people have decided it should not go. But as for the other woman, there’s something parasitical, something succubus-like about our perception of her. There are rational human beings who are still angry at Angelina Jolie for stealing Brad Pitt and who need to talk about this online. The woman is supposed to tend to her own nest, that’s her nature, and so with the mistress there must be something damaged, something sick, some as-yet unknown or diagnosed personality disorder warping her feminine desires, or else why go after another woman’s husband?
Because if we believe that monogamous marriages that produce children are the strongest units of our society — and we do — then the mistress becomes the termite gnawing at the foundations. And we don’t much care if pests have feelings; we simply want them dead. Americans love marriage. By which I mean of course that Americans hate marriage. Lisa Appignanesi reports in All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion that Americans are the marrying-est of all the countries. “Americans have the highest divorce, romantic break-up and remarriage rates in the world: 10 percent of American women — a far greater proportion than their European sisters — will have lived with three or more husbands or domestic partners by the age of 35.” Even after the shine wears off and we’re disillusioned about that “til death” stuff, we fight to find new spouses. And yet, when we are married, all we can do is complain about it. How stifling it is. How boring, how dull, how sexless and dispassionate. It’s because of these opposing feelings that we defend the institution of marriage so vigorously. Underground ambivalence often presents itself as vicious certainty.