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Sarah Hampson's Generation Ex

He cheated. His wife must be a frump Add to ...

A wife school, founded by a famous mistress.

That was the funniest - and most telling - bit of news unearthed from my investigation into the eternal triangle of wife-mistress-husband, started when I heard that the world (at least the world according to hot Google trends) was searching for a picture of Marni Phillips.

Ms. Phillips is the soon-to-be-ex wife of Steve Phillips, the 56-year-old former ESPN baseball analyst who, it was revealed last week, had a bunny-boiling-type affair with 22-year-old Brooke Hundley, a co-worker. The affair cost him his job, his marriage and his reputation. (Ms. Hundley was also fired.)

The Internet facilitates the spectator sport of marital infidelity - a prurient distraction from the more mundane business of cubicle life, arguably, but the fascination with participants in the soap opera As The Heart Cheats speaks to a persistent cultural assumption about wife and mistress that is retrograde and ill-founded.

We believe that a husband's infidelity is always a reflection of his wife. (Whereas if a wife cheats, she is often seen as an incorrigible harlot, period.)

We believe (and, often, so does the wife) that she bears some responsibility for her husband's wandering, and that if his mistress is too hot to resist, well, that helps explains his behaviour in the public conscience, or at least makes it more understandable.

Which is why Ms. Hundley's picture shocked so many people. You could practically hear the incredulity of the masses: He threw it all away for her?

The New York Post described her as "a portly production assistant." Ms. Phillips, whose picture seems to be unavailable on the Web, has been described as a green-eyed blonde.

The wife/mistress dynamic is one of "pitting women against each other," explains Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Mistresses and the upcoming A History of Marriage .

"The institution of mistress ... was accommodated by society and by the law that protected the wife," she explains. "The law shored up the wife's position as wife, and kept the mistress in a very insecure position."

Historically, the mistress came into being at a time when marriage was not about love matches, and divorce was taboo, Ms. Abbott points out.

Still, the modern culture appears to have embraced the cat-fight tension.

It's why Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who was the mistress of Prince Charles while he was married to the dewy Diana, was routinely called Cow-milla by Brits.

She confounded the concept of mistress, who is supposed to be younger and more beautiful.

It also helps explains the fascination with the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie-Jennifer Aniston triangle. Ms. Aniston is beautiful, of course, but has a dimmer sexual incandescence than Ms. Jolie.

Which brings us to the wife school idea.

Sarah Symonds is a 38-year-old blonde (pictured on her website in a slinky animal-print dress, natch) who claims to have had a seven-year affair with married celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as well as a relationship with Lord Jeffrey Archer.

She has written a handbook for mistresses as part of a multi-platform business about the perils of infidelity. (One nugget: "Get out of it, or if not, get the most out of it.")

She has also gained insight for wives, she says. "Men have told me that their wives don't have time for them, or have made 'the kids their life,' or they have just grown apart," she tells me in an e-mail.

Call me a cynic, but do younger women really think that an MM (her term for a married man) would hit on them by explaining that they just need more sexual variety and the thrill of a risk, even though their wives are fantastic, sexy, loving people?

Because if they did, would the mistress - often a single woman - agree to just being his sexual dalliance? Big duh.

Disturbingly (albeit unwittingly), Ms. Symonds encourages a retrograde wife identity that has persisted despite advancements for women in other areas of their lives.

"Women think, 'If I make myself attractive enough and I dress nicely and keep the house tidy and make nice dinners' - all these 'must-do' wife behaviours - then she will hold onto her husband.

And if she does all these things, she is often searching for the missing element in herself that she thinks caused her husband to cheat," explains New York-based Ruth Houston, an infidelity researcher and author of Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs.

Ms. Houston encourages wronged wives to get therapy to rid themselves of that idea. Happy husbands cheat, too, she says.

And "if it were all about looks, then no one would cheat on beautiful women," she points out, listing a number of celebrity wives with philandering husbands, such as Christie Brinkley and Jerry Hall.

It doesn't help that most of the self-help books - read largely by a female audience - perpetuate the idea that a wife governs her husband's fidelity. To wit: M. Gary Neuman's bestselling The Truth About Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can do to Prevent It.

Infidelity is most often about an emotional connection men have lost with their spouse, he tells me.

But why should a wife be solely responsible for nurturing that connection?

"A victim should never be blamed," says Mr. Neuman, a marriage therapist. "But it's very clear [male infidelity]is preventable, and you as a wife, by understanding a man and what his needs are, can help him feel emotionally connected."

And then he adds: "Men are less given to self-analysis."

Oh, please. If I were a man, I would want to start up a movement to protest against the entrenched belief that they are incapable of introspection, not to mention resisting a flash of cleavage.

When Eve offered the apple, guys, you could have said no.

As for women, when will we all shed the notion that we are totally responsible for others' emotional well-being - forever metaphorically pregnant, containing and nurturing the emotional life of our loved ones?

Hubby can think for himself - just as he can pick up a dishtowel.

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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