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Excerpted from "The New Marital Boundaries" on HarpersBAZAAR.com.
In an era when anything goes, Kate Christensen explores the rules of remaining faithful. When do flirty e-mails and late-night drinks cross the line?
In my late 20s and early 30s, I had a male best friend I'll call Peter. We were both straight and sometimes even single at the same time, but the friendship was truly platonic on both sides.
With Peter acting as matchmaker, I fell in love with his best friend from high school. My friendship with Peter was unaffected; the three of us hung out in bars together, went to Coney Island, met for dinner. But then Peter and his lawyer fell in love. And our friendship was... over. She couldn't tolerate my close friendship with Peter, so she engineered its demise by bad-mouthing me to him. As soon as I heard this, irrational as it may have been, I no longer trusted Peter. I was heartbroken. They came to our wedding, just as we went to theirs, but there was no longer any sense of closeness between me and Peter.
After several easy, happy years, my marriage ran off the track and became bogged down in treacherous territory. Out of intense loneliness and a need for attention, I had a series of two or three ongoing e-mail flirtations with men I had crushes on - never sexual but highly charged and intense. I often drank too much at parties and flirted, sometimes outrageously. My husband was never jealous or possessive - in fact, he liked to flirt himself - but even so, I knew internally I was crossing lines, and it didn't feel good. Still, transgressing felt like a survival mechanism; it enabled me to stay in my marriage without imploding. Finally, I even had a brief, desperate affair. I was intolerably unhappy, of course, and I needed to leave, but instead I stayed, or tried to, and ended up behaving badly. Two and a half years ago, after 12 years of marriage, I finally left for good.
Given my history, I hardly consider myself a poster girl for marital etiquette. But I do have strong ideas about these matters, namely that platonic opposite-sex friendships are healthy, crossing marital lines out of unhappy yearning is painful and humiliating, and it's much better to leave a marriage, if it's over or close to it, than stay and stray. And controlling jealousy is lunatic and pathetic.
Three years ago, a friend of mine found herself suspected of having an affair with a married male colleague. His wife spied on them, reading their e-mails and texts, watching them together, and gathering evidence, or so she thought - even though my friend has been happily married herself for 15 years. "We were definitely flirting," says my friend, "and definitely hot for each other. But sleeping together? Never! To this day, she still thinks we were." His marriage ended because of it. When I asked my friend if she regretted flirting with her colleague, she answered, "No! A strong marriage would have easily withstood it. He didn't seem to love her. That was the point - not me."
But even in the happiest of marriages, a content husband has been known to do a bit of harmless flirting. My sister Susan would practically encourage it if she could get her everlastingly loyal Dutch husband to partake. "I love seeing Alan flirt and flirted with," says my sister, who runs a yoga center in Amsterdam. "He has a whole life in another town where he works as a high school art teacher, where God knows what goes down - we joke about the other family he has there - but I also deeply trust his dedication to our marriage. And given that the guy spends most of his time with ripe, hormonal, navel-pierced 16-year-olds, I never feel jealous, even when he spends a week in Rome each year with a giggling gaggle of them."
Obviously, none of these marriages are in any danger of running off the same rails mine did. These wives all sound committed, mature, rational, and accepting of the flatlining of passion and romance that happens in just about every long-term marriage I've ever heard of. And their husbands are all devoted and true.
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Now let me speak for the other half, as both a wife who did cross lines and a female platonic friend who was ousted by a possessive wife. I have developed, through these painful experiences, my own sort of inner compass. I understand that the urge to control - like the urge to cheat - often comes from a lack of true closeness with one's spouse. Feeling insecure and threatened by another woman - or, conversely, feeling drawn toward another man beyond the enjoyable innocent fantasy &38212; indicates that something is amiss in the union itself, something that needs addressing; the other person is often not the point.
Even secure, nonpossessive spouses want primacy with each other. "If Cam did have a purely platonic relationship with another female," says my sister Emily, who lives in New Zealand with her husband and their four kids, "I would want to have first place with him, even timewise, or I probably would end up resenting the other woman, even if there was nothing going on between them."
Six months after I left my husband, I fell in love with a much younger man. Now, after two years together, I feel this way about Brendan, as he does about me. Even though he and I are both guilty of misbehavior in prior relationships, we're deeply devoted to each other. Neither of us has any interest in anyone else, and that, as they say, is that. When he goes out with a female friend, I'm not threatened or worried. And with my male friends, I am extremely conscious of boundaries, and I never even come close to violating them. The thought of doing so literally sickens me now; the memories from the last years of my marriage are still raw and painful. It gives me immense pleasure to be trustworthy, faithful, and true, to have the kind of romantic bond that inspires this.
I've never felt more boring or been happier.
Kate Christensen's sixth novel, The Astral, is out June 14. Read the full story here.
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