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A Memoir of Marriage (And Other Affairs)
Wendy Plump had four affairs during her 18-year marriage. Now she has written a controversial account of her experiences
After Wendy Plump confessed to her husband Bill that she had been having an affair, she suggested they go on holiday to the Caribbean to try to reclaim their sex life. Plump bought lingerie that she hoped would be alluring and sweet. "Fishnet stockings, for example, were out," she writes in her powerful memoir Vow. "I wanted innocence back again and was just delusional enough to think that might be possible." Even now, some 20 years later, she buries her head in her hands as she describes her husband's reaction as he saw her in satin and lace. "The colour drained from his face and he just looked very old all of a sudden," she says. "He exhaled, turned away, lay down on the bed and went to sleep. I didn't have to ask why because I knew why."
Plump's affair with Tommy, an Errol Flynn look-alike, had lasted six months. They had met in a bar. "Tommy had a wicked smile that flashed a message. It said: forget your husband and come with me. We ended up later that night drunk on vodka and crazy to get at each other," she relates. She felt guilty but not so guilty that it stopped her from embarking on a second affair a year later and then a third before their two sons were born. The couple's 18-year marriage finally crashed and burned in 2005 after a girlfriend blurted out: "I've got something to tell you." Bill had been having an affair for the past ten years and he and his mistress Susan had an eight-month-old son.
Adultery breaks up families, wrecks finances and destroys careers so why do people go on having affairs regardless? Writing from the position of being both a betrayer and the betrayed, Plump, a journalist, tries to answer some of those questions in Vow. She says most people don't stray because their marriages are terrible -the causes are more complex than that. Some people are hard-wired to cheat and some people aren't. She finds monogamous people admirable but puzzling. She argues for a less black-and-white condemnation of infidelity. "Affairs are like a seventh day. They are a break from all duties and obligations and responsibilities. I'm not saying this is right and I’m not saying it lightly. It's just the way it is," she declares.
She thinks that some marriages can survive adultery. "There is a lot lost in trust," she observes, "but it is a smaller scope of loss than you will endure with a divorce. And the family gets to stay a family."
Plump, 51, admits her reasons for cheating were predictable: she craved the thrill of someone new. "I can't say that I was unhappy, miserable, lonely. I was probably a little neglected romantically but that’s not why I had affairs," she says. "I did it because I was selfish and I wanted that thrill again. Yes, it was about the sex but I felt all that energy you get when you meet someone new. It's almost like reinventing yourself."
She and Bill had met at college when they were both 19. When she cheated with Tommy, they had been married for 18 months and had been together for nine years. Bill worked for a Wall Street bank and travelled abroad. That made deception easier. She would build just enough truth into her excuses that they would be easy to remember. After six months of assignations with Tommy, however, she was tired of the "whirl of lies and pleasure. You're lying all the time and there's also the strain of longing for this other person while you're having dinner, going to the movies, watching television," she says.
She describes in Vow how she could hardly bear to look at herself in the mirror after she became addicted to the "snapping electrical charge" of sleeping with Tommy. Sex with her husband became an act of crushing obligation, through no fault of his. "This is not the way for an adult to live," she notes, saying that she became adept at lying casually, showering quickly and dragging friends into the deception.
She chose what some would say was a selfish and cruel way to end the affair. She told her husband, believing that she would be unable to break off her infatuation on her own. "Early in our marriage I chose to tell Bill when I was having an affair partly because I couldn't stand the stress of him not knowing," she writes. "Bill chose to wait it out when he was having an affair, I assume because he just did not want to be the one to tell me. I don't see that it makes much difference in the end. You've already given up the moral high ground once you start screwing around."
Outgoing and confident, Plump clearly has no trouble attracting men. She is slim, has great legs and a bouffant and highlighted blonde hairdo. Sitting at the kitchen table of her parents' house in Pennsylvania - she and her teenage sons are living there because the split caused money problems - she says that when you are newly infatuated with someone, joy and recklessness rule the day.
She met Steven, a married man, on holiday in South Carolina. "He was tanned, 35, curly-haired and sunstreaked, as handsome as a Marlboro Man ... his voice all southern honey," she recalls in the book. His shirt was off because he was working on his boat and she found her eyes drawn to the flatness of his stomach. "Oh, he was a beautiful man," she sighs now. "Not just physically but mentally too. He was super-smart, very masculine, and a wonderful raconteur. His stories made me scream with laughter." He'd hinted he had a family and told her when they were in bed together. Her lack of remorse as the Other Woman surprises her now, she says, but her attitude then was "it can't be helped". They had an idyllic few days but she had to get home and Steven had to return to his life. She woke up in the middle of the night and her lover, without prompting, said: "It's not fair is it?" She cried like her heart would break. They tried to keep the affair going but it petered out because of the distance between them.
In 1991 she had a third affair with a local man called Terry. He used to hunt a lot and she describes the affair as an "outdoor adventure from start to stop". Her fourth affair happened years later, in 2001, when an old college friend called Declan reappeared on the scene. "I had two young boys and I felt about as sexy as a hatchback," she writes. She and Declan had a single "astonishing night" in a hotel in Philadelphia. He was, she says, "the last, most poignant affair". The end of affairs always made her sad but she still remains friends with Terry. In fact, he was one of her friends who found out about Bill's other family, checked the details, and agreed that she should be told.
She insists that Bill's infidelity was not enough to shatter the marriage. "I was eager to forgive him because I understood it," she says. "I did once ask him if it was my fault because I drew first blood but he said no. I don't know if he'd still say the same thing now." Of her affairs, she said, some she told him about and others he discovered. "I confessed for the same reason as the first time," she says. "I really wanted to stop and I knew that telling him was a way of making sure that they would stop. Bill's reaction was intense fury the first time and after that he was angry but more resigned."
She was blindsided, however, by the extent of Bill's deception: the length of his affair and his child. Her rival's house was only about a mile away, "Not surprising - most shark attacks occur in just a few feet of water." She went to stand outside Susan's house and "half expected it to be shrouded with a massive tarp - like a crime scene". Realising that Bill and Susan had been together through all their life changes, including the birth of their second son, moving house and changing jobs, was, she says, shocking.
Plump thought the marriage could be salvaged, but for the next ten months he lied to both women and flitted between the family home, hotels and his lover's house. Plump describes a Jerry Springer moment when she found the couple's cars in a local hotel car park. She got the room number from reception and banged on the bedroom door. Bill refused to come out.
The discovery of infidelity is like no other pain, Plump says. Spouses who seem incapable of violence will want to break a chair, smash the television, claw at their own face. Someone who is a screamer will be shocked into a dead calm. She says that in the months after discovering Bill's affair she barely functioned. "I wanted to bang my head against a wall, rhythmically, for comfort," she said.
"It infuriates me still that I had to be so careful about everything I did when I found out about her because people said don't do this, don't do that, you could lose custody of your boys. I had to be so restrained when what I felt was this horrible anguish and feeling of such injustice."
She does not think infidelity is a gender issue. "I think it's an individual issue," she says. "There are people who cheat and there are people who don't. If the numbers are a little higher for men, it might be that women are less likely to risk a marriage, especially if they have kids." She and Bill, she believes, were hard-wired to fail at monogamy. "I think the fact that we were both willing to forgive and move on for so long shows that it wasn't the most important vow we took." They finally separated in 2005.
She says if she found out that her sister or a close friend or family member was being cheated on, she wouldn't necessarily tell them. "I wouldn't want the responsibility of that. I would probably go to the person who was having the affair and say: 'You have to stop this - what are you going to do now that I know about this?'" On the other hand, she would not tell someone not to have an affair. "People do sometimes have affairs for the right reason. Maybe they are desperately lonely or maybe their spouse hasn't had sex with them for years, Are you supposed to forego that essential human contact for the rest of your life because you're married?" she says. "Everyone has to make their own decisions and live with the consequences."
Happily, she is now in a monogamous relationship: "Now I realise that it's OK when passion subsides a little and you've got someone you just love to hang out with."
Bill and his new family still live a mile away. Things are civil for the children's sake but Plump says the husband that she once adored is a stranger to her now. Married love for the two of them followed the same dispiriting trajectory of many marriages. "There was a storm of attraction, passion and love followed by calm, followed by too much calm, followed by 'Hey, can we get some passion around here?'" she writes.
Some lucky couples find a way to make it work, she agrees now. "It's the final mystery in every marriage, I think, the question of where that feeling goes. Sometimes, for the lucky ones, it circles back . . ."
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