Let's hear it for the wife, sisters

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The Independent Online
I WALKED into the ladies' room of a fashionable London restaurant after lunch, to find two young women leaning up against the mirror, gazing narcissistically at themselves. They both looked about 19; definitely not a day over 21. One was applying luscious scarlet lipstick.

'Inn'e married?' she asked, through an exaggerated pout.

'Yeah. Wife 'n two kids,' replied the other. 'Thass'er problem, innit? She oughta take better care of 'im.'

'Like you do,' giggled the first.

I felt myself coming to the boil. I walked out, and spent the rest of the afternoon wondering whether I should have confronted them.

The young woman with the innocent air was evidently not married. Her adventures are no one's responsibility but her own and she was not necessarily the first to make the move in her new, seemingly adulterous relationship. But then, a marriage looks surprisingly invulnerable to outsiders. More probably the husband spotted her - office do at Christmas? someone's girlfriend at a New Year's Eve party? - and suggested a drink after work. Isn't that how these things usually start?

People say defensively that you can't undermine a solid marriage; if an affair begins, it's because the structure was already vulnerable. But what relationship is strong all the time? People are put under pressure by money problems, new babies, fractious toddlers, rebellious teenagers; by PMT, impotence, the menopause; by periods of overwork or unemployment; by moving house or the needs of ageing parents. All these are the everyday stuff of life; one or more is bound to occur in the course of a long relationship. They don't mean it's up for grabs.

But unhappiness makes anyone vulnerable to the offer of comfort, and flattery and admiration to the rejected or insecure are like water to a desert traveller. Happiness is opportunistic; grab it while you can. The most seductive line I ever heard was from a man who said: 'Is there so much love in your life that you can afford to turn the offer down?' 'No]' screamed the unhappy child within me; 'No]' said the neglected wife; 'No]' said the harassed young mother. 'No, I suppose not,' I said demurely, and the first step was taken.

'C'est le premier pas qui coute,' say the worldly wise French, and it's true. Just as the first cigarette after you have given up will lead to a second and third, so the first infidelity is unlikely to be the last. But how to resist the first: and why resist at all?

An established, banal, habitual relationship can rarely compete with the blazing sexual splendour of a new one; but in the end that one becomes, in its turn, habitual. Meanwhile, a huge overlapping circle of people is damaged, starting with the most tender and best loved: the children. After them come the parents, in-laws, siblings, and after them even neighbours and friends may be affected.

The pretty, self-absorbed young women in the ladies' loo can't be expected to believe all that. But those who have been wives and known the pain of adultery and divorce on both sides of the bed - we realise it.

We also know that, after the children, it is nearly always the women who pay the greatest penalty - the old wife and the new, the triumphant wife and the discarded mistress. So why don't women form mutually protective barricades against adultery, warning off those on the verge of an affair; making plain their disapproval of the intruder?

Sleeping with another woman's husband - which even if you discount lust, still involves theft and lying - could be treated as the moral equivalent of being overweight or unwashed. Why aren't there support groups to help young women give up married men: a sort of Weightwatchers for the heart?

If women respected each other's marriages and ostracised anyone who tried to undermine them, men would find adultery more difficult. If women meted out the same sanctions against unfaithful husbands as they do against wife- beaters, drunk drivers or child abusers, infidelity might lose some of its dangerous glamour and be seen instead as sleazy, irresponsible and immature.

The women's movement has never given much thought to this because feminism has tended to decry marriage as a master-slave institution, one not worth underpinning. To be ideologically correct in the early feminist Seventies, you would have been living in a women-only commune in north London or Wales. Political correctness in the Eighties permitted mixed gender households, but still frowned upon marriage. As a result, 18 per cent of men and women who cohabit in the Nineties are not married. For some this may result in a more equal relationship, but in the end most women still do most of the chores and child-caring. The man may decamp when it suits him, leaving the woman with fewer rights than if those years had been spent as his wife.

In this, feminism has done women a disservice. Divorce rates have risen nearly sevenfold in the past 30 years. Articulate feminists and opinion-forming women might have been more help to the rest of their sex had they buttressed marriage as an institution. Far better to have faced the fact that most men and women do still marry, and set about improving the lot of the wife.