I’m dating a married Frenchman. He’s 25 years my senior, has been with his wife for 30 years, and has three children in their twenties. It may not be possible to justify our liaison, but what I have learned about the French approach to love, lust, and marriage from it is far more nuanced than our tired clichés about French infidelity.
After a decade of dead-end dating, I’m ready to meet Mr. Right. Instead, I’ve met Mr. Right now. We were introduced by chance over the summer while on vacation. At first, the thought of getting into a relationship with a married man seemed dicey. Yet, so far, we are safe bets for one another. I’m in a transitional phase while my career progresses and am considering a move back to the United States. He has a successful career, a family, and an entire tribe of friends built around his marriage. For not one single moment am I jealous of his wife, believe there is a future for us, feel guilty, or want to wreck his home. Quite the contrary.
Instead, I am very lucid. About the shelf life of this relationship. About the reasons I entered into it. And more importantly, what I am learning from it.
All told, the French aren’t as tolerant of affairs as American clichés may lead one to believe. Most French women I know don’t want their husbands sleeping with someone else. The difference, as Jo Piazza points out in How to be Married, is that only 47 percent of the French say that infidelity is unacceptable in a marriage compared to 84 percent of Americans.
Why such a stark difference? It has a lot to do with (no surprise) the French mindset around seduction and sex. What has astonished me the most is their ability to separate desire from love from monogamy. This is, I believe, what has kept my relationship with my older French lover within a set perimeter.
It is clear he loves his wife. It is equally clear she has no idea about us. Although I cannot speak to the state of my Frenchman’s marriage, leaving an unhappy relationship in France is far more complicated than it seems. The French have extreme social pressure to stay in relationships for the simple reason that they function in tribes. When a relationship ends, it has the power to effectively break up entire clans that have known each other for anywhere from 10 to 50 years. My Frenchman was introduced to his wife by his best friend, whom he’s known since he was 7. That same best friend went on to officiate their marriage. In America, our social systems are not that tight knit. The pressure we face to stay together is not the same.
Still, the French hold no illusions. To them, lifelong monogamy is more unrealistic than it’s made out to be. This is especially true when you consider that we are now expected to sleep with the same person for longer than our ancestors ever lived. Perhaps French pragmatism is at the root of their higher tolerance for infidelity.
While the French understand that extended monogamy is tough, they do not think it impossible. Cue the art of seduction. Seduction goes above and beyond the bedroom in France. Indeed, it is a way of life. It’s less about jumping someone’s bones than it is about putting in the work to keep each other interested so that neither person wants to stray in the first place. Romance is the result of effort.
As French women would say, infidelity is overrated and the key is to be your husband’s mistress. So, once I trade Mr. Right Now for Mr. Right, I’ll be pulling a few plays out of my mistress playbook. French women have taught me that remaining mysterious is key to setting up one’s marriage for long-term success. They never underestimate the power of flirting with other men in front of their significant other. These ladies never underestimate the power of lingerie either, and they’re more than happy to let their husbands pick it… and pay for it. Last but not least, they would never dare leave the door open when they pee. Banality and complacency are sure and slow killers of desire.
So, Mr. Right. I don’t know where you are out there. But I’ve learned from the French what I think I need to learn to make sure we keep it sexy.
Ready when you are.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article chose to publish under a pseudonym. Missy Braddock is not her real name.