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Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

In Praise of "Boyfriends"—for Married Women

How having boyfriends on the side can save your marriage.

In her new book The Secret Lives of Wives, Iris Krasnow interviews scores of longtime married women to unearth the keys to marital longevity.  Thankfully, these women do not gush about their endlessly handsome, talented, romantic mates, nor do they wax poetic about commitment, destiny, or the bonds of holy matrimony. Instead, each reveals how she tolerates, year after bloody year, the everyday irritations that accompany living in close quarters with another human being. Many discuss managing bigger issues, such as clashing values, conflicting perceptions, opposing priorities, and insurmountable tribulations, not to mention the stress introduced by raising babies, and then adolescents.

 Besides "marry the right guy in the first place," Ms. Krasnow discovers that the common denominators of tolerance and survival are (a) carving out your own life, (b) pursuing your own passions, and (c) having a husband who is flexible, not controlling, and willing to stretch and grow alongside you.

One chapter in particular summed up these denominators-- and struck a chord with me: "The Man Next Door." It points out my own secret to success: Having a slew of "boyfriends" to supplement my emotional life.  

Now, before you get your knickers in a tidy twist-- or hie thee to bed with your handsome coworker/neighbor/ handyman/yoga instructor/ dance partner/bowling team captain-- let us define "boyfriend."

What Boyfriends Are

photo by Gwen Phillips
My friend Nanci calls them "woo boys".  They are the men in your life with whom you share a spark--that warm feeling of camaraderie that comes from common interests and shared experiences.  The best boyfriends tickle your fancy and in turn are captivated by you. It's extraordinary when there is a smoldering attraction and super fun when there is flirting, witty banter, and physical affection. Boyfriends can be bright spots in your life, rejuvenating you with attention and mutual positive regard. Boyfriends are also meant to be platonic.

I began valuing boys as friends at the beginning of sixth grade. I was mortified by the precociously pubescent girls in my class, behaving so silly and ingratiating toward the boys. Oh the drama, the fussing over looks, the "do you think he likes me?" angst. Gawd, just go hang out with him, act like a normal human, and maybe he will!

A late bloomer, I was uninterested in dating until my second year of college and I happily cultivated friendships with boys throughout adolescence. I enjoyed them on the tennis court, the backpacking trip, the climbing rock, and the beach.  I continue to have loads of fun with them on the volleyball court, the dance floor, the mountain hike, and the dinner table.  It was in college that I coined the term "boyfriend" as distinct from a lover, significant other, or partner, and I've had to explain myself every time I've used the word.  Imagine my double take when I found the same usage in Krasnow's book. Either she owes me a small portion of her royalties, or great minds think alike.

I'm thinking it's the latter, as also, we both disapprove of the term "emotional affair". For goodness sake people, any friendship worth having is an emotional affair. However, part of the secret to having boyfriends is not carrying a torch for any of them. The torch is for your spouse, even if it's sputtering at the moment. If you feel the torch leaning toward a boyfriend, consider this a sign that you need to tend to the home fires, pronto.  Address the connection that's lacking in your marriage so you can make clean connections with your boyfriends.

Another part of the secret is that you and your boyfriends must be able to draw that line between emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy. Emotional intimacy with your boyfriends can involve sharing thoughts and feelings, ideas, hopes, and dreams, but not bodily fluids. As Krasnow points out, only a foolish woman would have sex with a boyfriend. If sex is the magic ingredient that places your marital relationship above and beyond all others, once you've become sexually intimate with another man, you've pierced the bubble of your marriage. Perhaps you have other rituals that put your primary relationship "above and beyond," but sex is definitely at the top of the list for most people.

Can Married Men Have Girlfriends?

This is an equal opportunity concept. My guy has a slew of girlfriends, and I love how they fawn over him, especially on the dance floor. I can see that it's good for him, which makes him better for me.

Photo by Gwen Phillips
Occasionally someone will inquire how it feels to see him in close embrace with another woman, cheek to cheek during a sultry tune. Besides the fact that I too am enjoying a close embrace, likely with one of my boyfriends to the same sultry tune, I derive great satisfaction from the fact that I am the one he goes home with. We always save the last dance for each other and joke about our rule that we must go home with whomever we share the closing number. It's our ritual for reconnecting after "working the room" for several hours.

What Boyfriends Aren't

Boyfriends are not for sex and you alone must determine how much physical affection keeps you toeing that line. For one woman, a touch of the hands might cross over; for another, a sensuous close embrace is clean and clear. The bottom line: Know thyself.

The trouble with crossing the sensuous/sexual line is that you won't be able to do it "just once". When you switch from the friend zone to the lover zone, biology steps in.  Love-making is a pair-bonding activity, which puts you on the bullet train to Attachment and Mating. Even if you know you're heading for a dead-end with a deadbeat, sex bathes your brain in oxytocin, the hormone triggered by soothing, skin-to-skin contact. Oxytocin makes you feel devoted and bonded, and it's an integral part of our chemistry that propagates our species. On the power of sex-induced oxytocin for most human females, psychologist Diane Witt posits, "You first meet him and he's passable. The second time you go out with him, he's OK. The third time you go out with him, you have sex. And from that point on you can't imagine what life would be like without him." You might try to ward off the effects of oxytocin, but resisting is like trying to fall asleep after ten cups of coffee. You cannot fight Mother Nature.

Another problem with crossing the line is that your life becomes irretrievably messy and complicated. Besides dealing with a waning interest in your marriage, you lose your carefree, no strings attached friendship. Peer into the future and understand that if a boyfriend turns into a lover, you and he are guaranteed to be accompanied by all your baggage specific to sexually/emotionally intimate relationships. Eventually, you will encounter eerily familiar train wrecks and derailments and disappointed expectations. You will also face the hot-button issues that plague all couples, including money, sex, in-laws... and perhaps the complications of raising children in a blended family. Rarely is the grass truly greener on the other side.

Would "Boyfriends" Work for You?

This path is not for you if:

  • You always relate to men sexually.
  • You value a relationship with a man only when it has potential for romance.
  • You don't enjoy the company of men.
  • You don't believe that men and women can be "just friends."
  • You adhere to a culture or belief system that discourages or forbids cross-gender relationships.
  • Either you or your mate tend to be jealous and possessive or controlling.

photo by Katherine Gee
Even if having a bevy of boyfriends is inconceivable to you, "The Secret Lives of Wives" carries potential for saving your marriage, and I recommend it to any woman who's considering divorce or simply wondering "Is this it?" Along with carving out your own interesting existence, the key advice with plenty of supporting evidence is that if you can get past the high-stress years of adjusting to marriage, establishing careers, securing finances, and raising those babies and teens, you stand a good chance of rediscovering what you like about each other-- and yourself. So hang in there through the doldrums and the stormy seas, and remember, your first choice is to stay married as long as he is also willing-- and able to grow too. Why? Because "till death do you part" is the simplest path, it doesn't wreck your finances, it honors your commitment, and it holds together your precious family.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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