My boyfriend is married to another woman. Yes, he’s in the process of divorce right now, but for much of the past year that I’ve been dating him, he’s been legally married and informally separated. Dating a man with a wife tars me as a hussy, a vixen, a minx—all the stereotypes of the devouring woman. And since I’m blonde and a quarter of a century younger than my boyfriend, I become a walking cliché, a symbol of the mid-life crisis, a threat to marriages everywhere.
People assume I’m a homewrecker, which I’m not. I can see it in their eyes. There’s a certain look that you’re given when your recently separated boyfriend introduces you to his friends, a look that suggests with little subtlety that you are a stain on the pristine fabric of society. That you have dared to entered into a relationship with someone who is still legally married to someone else is still a socially fraught act, even in this supposedly progressive America. Sure, fewer people are getting married, but make no mistake about it, Americans still revere marriage. Gays are clamoring for it. Women are Pinteresting the shit out of it. Parents continue to pressure their children about it. In this matrimonialist culture, I’m cast as the villain to my boyfriend’s soon-to-be-ex-wife’s martyr.
I’m used to being judged for studying sex or having controversial viewpoints, and I’m fine with it because I’ve made a choice to devote my life to helping to change attitudes about sex. But being judged for falling in love with a married man is a different experience because falling in love is not a choice. I guess I could have not acted on my feelings. I could have walked away. But that would have left me and my boyfriend miserable. And his marriage would still be over.
Like our taboos against age differences, our taboos against dating the married are not only accepted but encouraged. But they’re rarely examined. Say I were dating a man who had never gotten married, who simply lived with a girlfriend, moved out, and began dating me. Even if he had lived with his girlfriend for decades, then I would not be a homewrecker. Even if they felt their commitment were as strong as marriage, or even stronger because it was voluntary, sustained by love not law, then I would not be a homewrecker. So much of this disdain for the homewrecker comes from not from any rational argument, but from matrimonialism, the uncritical worship of marriage, our deifying of a contract endorsed by state and church (at least in the USA).
The homewrecker poses a threat to matrimonialism, but only if marriage is a good in and of itself, regardless of the happiness of either parties. But marriage is not always good. In fact, it’s frequently soul-crushing, and good marriages aren’t destroyed by third-parties. However, if we go from the premise that happiness is a good, then being considered a homewrecker should be considered positive because it helps a person out of an unhappy relationship.
Although Americans like to think of ourselves as enlightened, we’re not so liberated. Sure, we’re opposed to forced marriage in Afghanistan or child brides in India, but we still remain wedded to the idea that marriage, a flawed institution that has been used to oppress women for centuries, is sacrosanct. Before ostracizing the homewrecker, we should ask ourselves which we value more highly: individual happiness or antiquated social institutions. –Hallie Lieberman