Philandering for Dummies

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August 8, 2002 Browse the Lisa Files Archives |

Everyone’s a cheater. We vary only in the definitions we can live with. For me, it’s not really cheating if you tell your mate first. For others, it’s okay if you screw around with the gender opposite of your spouse; if you only do it upright; if you only do it in stairwells and truckstops; if it’s strictly above the waist; or strictly below (meaning you don’t fall in love). In a world filled with Rules books on getting a man and then pleasing him in bed, on creating the perfect wedding (and then how to quit being so demanding and thus save your marriage), a giddy treatise on the fine art of cheating should be refreshing. Should be. Sadly, there’s something oddly puritanical about The 50-Mile Rule: Your Guide to Infidelity and Extramarital Etiquette. Its pro-cheating author, Judith Brandt, supposedly opens the window to air out a taboo subject, but I found her view of extramarital affairs insidiously conservative. Or at least very French.


Brandt spends most of the book scientifically excusing affairs — supposedly you’re driven to them by your genes (a different combo of your DNA and another person’s might make better carriers than the crop of children you’ve raised with current spouse) — and never once actually shows us a juicy, science-free, sweaty, dark afternoon cheat. By page two, this how-to book on guilt-free philandering has made an illicit romp sound as intriguing as urinating in a bowl away from home.


I know that when you cheat, dear reader, it’s different. You’re an intellectual, you’re an anarchist, you’re on drugs. Oh wait, instead of “drugs,” I meant to say you’re “redefining the boundaries of love.” Brandt never met anyone like you, though. The 50-Mile Rule seems only to address one type of cheater — The Jerk. I can totally picture Brandt’s cheater. He loves to quote that line about why you shouldn’t buy the cow when you get the milk for free. He thinks the fact that his wife gained a little weight and no longer calls him “King” mid-act is just cause to despise and lie to her. I don’t know if this guy actually exists. If the impressionable female reader were to believe this scenario, then her husband must be That Jerk, because that’s the nature of man. Having learned from Brandt that love is a biological mirage, she will get insecure and angry and eat a lot of food, until she has become The Shrew that is every wife in the pages of The 50-Mile Rule.


Marriage, according to Brandt, follows a four-to-five-year curve of Infatuation, Attachment, Disillusion and Dissolution. Wives get fat and stop giving blowjobs mere days after the vows are taken; husbands start farting contests with their nephews. Still, this excruciatingly boring institution — this fat and farty and blowjob-free hellhole — must be preserved for the sake of the kids, the house and one’s standing in the community. So, if you’re going to have an affair — and really, do you have a choice? — you just need not to get caught. The 50-Mile Rule refers to how far, for safety’s sake, one’s lover should live from one’s spouse. Brandt’s other practical tips include, “take your used condom with you.” Why? So your conniving cheat partner won’t squeeze its contents into the turkey baster after you leave and “slap” you with a paternity suit.


Although the author claims her book is for male and female cheaters, she seems mainly concerned with reassuring married men that their desire to dally is perfectly healthy. In a postscript chapter, she warns women that although it’s acceptable to have an affair with these older, wiser fellows, you’d better realize he’s not going to marry you and thus preserve your
tremulous little heart. She doesn’t even consider that sometimes men might have shaking hearts. When married women cheat, Brandt would have us believe, it’s mainly to cuckold their provider-hubby.


It’s a dismal world, in Brandt’s eyes! These are her prototypical couples: Tanya is “average” and (here’s Brandt’s favorite descriptor) “boring.” Bob takes her out and “puts up with her yakking long enough to get laid.” Then there’s Tom, whose wife is “the best he could do at the time, but no great shakes.” He doesn’t leave her because of the children — despite the fact that they are “a little disappointing” — but he will try a new genetic combo with Tanya, and then try to escape responsibility for raising that baby. Tom or Bob will sleep with Tanya (despite her yakking), because their unconscious genetic map tells them that they must-spread-seed! This is followed by message number two: Must-escape-responsibility-for-sown-seed! Brandt reminds us — not twice, not thrice, but four times in one book — our children carry the banner. I’ve heard of cynicism, and I’ve seen people (Hi Dad!) blame the biological imperative for all their dumb, mean actions. But this little red-and-black book has got to be the ugliest example.


Like other instruction manuals, The 50-Mile Rule includes gray boxes of important information, such as: “Men get the best women they can afford, and women get the best men their looks can attract.” Hm. Both of my husbands made less money than me. Come to think of it, they were both better-looking, too. The 50-Mile Rule is as archaic and stereotypical as is The Rules, only it’s aimed at men — aging, cheap, dissembling, jerk men — instead of the wimps who love them. Perhaps Brandt’s conceptions of the sexes and how they interact does apply to people out there — but I don’t know any of them. Most of them no doubt died already, because they were born a hundred years ago. In real life, motivations are more perplexing. Look at Billy Bob Thornton. After he married Angelina Jolie, she got even skinnier — and I just
know she never nagged — and he still cheated on her.


I’m not against cheating wholesale. I am against such wanton misery in any context. I read The 50-Mile Rule in two afternoons of swinging on the hammock, my four-week-old clamped to my breast, patting me with her tiny hands, occasionally lifting her head to
spit up politely through the holes in the hammock netting. On the portable phone, my husband called once or twice each day to see if I needed anything. I can only describe the feeling on that hammock as: Yellow. A rich and dripping-down happiness that must have been meant for someone else, someone with bigger, browner eyes than mine and kinder intentions, someone more deserving. I love marriage! I’ve loved my affairs too. In the most buoyant moments of both — of doing very wrong and doing very right —
there’s a feeling of gratefulness and awareness that is more than simply giving in to a chemical/biological urge. I think the problem with Brandt’s premise (and the problem with Fein & Schneider’s The Rules) might be that cheating and marriage, like voodoo or underwear, is much more powerful when it’s not peered at with too clear a gaze. Does anyone really want total cultural acceptance of their own lie-filled rebellion (It’s not you, dear — it’s your genes.)? We don’t need a how-to book on being bad better. We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.


Lisa Carver is the author of the books Dancing Queen, Rollerderby, The Lisa Diaries and Drugs Are Nice. She’s written for Hustler, Index, Icon, Feed, Newsday and Playboy, among others. She lives in New Hampshire.


Lisa Carver and, Inc.