Controversial French psychologist Maryse Vaillant on why cheating on your wife can sometimes be for the best.
In Les Hommes, l’Amour, la Fidelité, you said it was very common for men to have affairs; one article said four out of 10 married men had affairs. Is that right?
Those are not my figures; the real figures are an unknown, but that sounds plausible.
Are men today are more or less faithful than before?
Not more, but perhaps not less. Today there are more opportunities, with the internet and text messages, but it doesn’t change a lot.
The British think the French are quite relaxed about adultery; for example, it seems it is not considered scandalous if a politician has a mistress.
I was surprised the double life of François Mitterrand was so well accepted. I thought the French were more rigid than they turned out to be, and I was glad. It seems the French, who allow themselves a lot, accept a lot as well.
You say a lot of men have a series of liaisons, but avoid falling in love. Is that more common than men who have a serious long-term mistress?
It is more typical. A lot of men would never leave their wife, because she is the mother of their children, represents their respectability, is a pillar of their lives.
Often they respect, love and admire their wives and she is indispensable, but they feel they need little flings to fulfil their lives as men. They don’t bother much with feelings in affairs; they keep them for their wives. For a lot of men, it is easy to make this separation.
However, that is a traditional model and, as men start to allow themselves to be freed from traditional male roles, they give themselves more permission to fall in love. Then we get a different set-up: a man who falls in love with more than one woman.
You think some men can really love more than one person at a time?
Yes, and women can as well. We can all love more than one person, but we don’t give ourselves permission. There is a taboo, linked to the idea of monogamy and the Catholic sacrament of marriage.
You have to accept who you are: some people are fundamentally faithful and others are not. To be healthy, you have to be yourself, which is different from morality; not the same outlook.
Are wives often unaware of their husband’s affairs?
Women are cunning and emotionally intelligent and have radar, and they know their husbands well. A woman washes the clothes, prepares family meals, she has an intimate knowledge of her husband. If she doesn’t want to know, she won’t know, because she is protecting herself, but a woman who starts to wonder about it, who wants to find out, will find a way.
There’s an unspoken agreement: the husband does everything to respect his wife and make sure she doesn’t find out, and she does everything she can not to know anything.
What usually happens when a wife discovers her husband’s infidelity?
It’s a drama, a heartbreak. It means, on the one hand, she wanted to find out and also that the husband didn’t have respect for her.
A husband who really wants to respect his wife gives himself the means to hide it.
If he sleeps with his wife’s best friend or his wife finds him in bed with his mistress, he wanted her to find out, maybe not consciously, but deep down he wanted to break up and didn’t dare to tell her, because most men don’t want to hurt people. He has given himself a way for his wife to break up their relationship.
Should women accept that affairs do not mean a man does not love them?
I am a feminist and still working towards women’s liberation, and I think women are often prisoners of an idealised version of love.
A woman should understand a man might cheat on her for reasons connected to his masculine identity, not because of any fault of hers. That helps her to suffer less.
Then she must take a decision. Each woman, depending on her personal history, can accept, forgive or break up. It’s up to her.
All I did in my book was explain what men do and it was more appreciated by men. Women said I did not say enough how much unfaithfulness hurts, but that wasn’t my aim.
Women can be unfaithful, too.
Women, traditionally, were unfaithful because they lacked love. However, as women have become more liberated professionally, they accept their sexual needs more and are also looking for extra-marital flings for pleasure and for a sense of danger.
There is starting to be less difference between how men and women behave.
Is that good?
I like people to feel free, but I am more prudent about it when there are children. I have worked a lot on the family and I really stress the security that is owed to children.
But between consenting adults I find sometimes morality stops you from living your life.
You have a new book about how to make your relationships last.
I want to understand why some people, notably women (because more women talked for this book than men, whereas in the last one I interviewed only men) said they always end up with the same kind of man and repeat the same painful situations. One of the causes of this is the idea that love should solve all your problems, that it is marvellous and magical.
That is true for maybe a year; after that, you have to build your couple and your family and that takes effort. It’s not so magical, it’s not the same approach.
What is the key to building a successful couple: communication?
Yes, and above all, when you have had a failure, take time to reflect, don’t throw yourself into the arms of another man. Don’t believe a new love will heal you from the wounds of the last one. Take time for tears, to analyse what has happened. If you don’t, you will repeat the same scenario with someone else.
If you want to give yourself the chance to make something last with someone, you have to take the time to know them, to love them, to talk and also to know yourself. You have to analyse your previous failures, or indeed successes, because you can have happy relationships that just come to an end: you loved each other for a while and then stopped. That’s life.
Are there special considerations when a couple is mixed nationality?
Differences are always a good thing in a couple: a woman who is older, different cultures, races, colours, religions. It obliges the couple to make an effort to get to know each other.
You don’t suffer from the illusion you know everything about the other person if you don’t know their language, their religion, their childhood memories. When you find they react differently to the same music or cooking smells, that they don’t have the same habits; you are forced to pay attention to them.
You say we live in child-centred times and mothers feel their role is a prison; they have not become as liberated as hoped.
French mothers would be very happy to be able to work and have their children looked after, but it is hard. The more society changes, the less progress there is in childcare.
Also, women have less success at work than men and are paid less even if equally able. With the economic crisis and high unemployment, some people tell women their place is at home, looking after their children.
Frenchwomen want to work, but everything combines to make mothers feel guilty.
There are fashions, such as continuing to breast-feed for a long time, or letting children into our beds, things that are a step back for a woman who wants to go back to work.
So her work is not valued, she can’t get childcare and then she’s told the child will be unhappy if not with its mother 24 hours a day.
Men still don’t help enough?
Children need a mother and father. A father coming home late because he’s trying to earn a lot is not a real father. We need women to have power and responsibility in society, and to leave room for men in the home. Men must accept this and take time to raise their children.
The ideal would be to give men more freedom: that they accept they don’t always need to be the strongest, that they accept their sensitivity and emotions. I think it is sexy for a man to vacuum or wash up or look after the children; it doesn’t make him less attractive.
Men are quickly drawn into a race, to gain possessions, to keep up appearances. We hoped feminist mothers would raise boys differently, but a lot of women who called for equality did not raise their sons and daughters in the same way: it is still common for parents to ask girls to do housework and not boys. Mothers still usually spend far more time with the children and household tasks than the father.
So you see some progress?
Yes, there is sporadic progress and it gives me hope. Often they are people who have decided to live a bit differently. For example, they have accepted to earn less money, they prefer to live in the countryside. In big towns, where it is a race to compete, it is hard. In the countryside, I see new family lives, more balanced, more intelligent, and children who have real fathers.
Do French parents get the balance right between being authoritarian or too lax?
No, it’s hard. We see some parents punishing and regimenting their children and others letting them do anything. At the moment, though, in France, there is a return to authority and punishments.
We see parents hesitating between the “friend” model, because they want to be loved above all, and at the same time trying to have discipline, punishments, rules. They are feeling their way towards a balance between the violent upbringing of previous generations, which scorned the child’s needs, and an overly lax, tender and affectionate one.
Since we have had the Pill, we have “wanted” children and we want them to be happy. That was not the concern of my parent’s generation; they wanted for their children success, money, a place for themselves in society, but not happiness. Because we want our children to be happy, it is harder to place limits on them and to ban things, because it might upset them.
How is seeing a therapist viewed?
Intellectuals in big cities go quite easily, but in the countryside people tend to think if you see a psychologist, it must be because you are mad.
Maryse Vaillant is an expert on relationships and the family. Her book, La Répétition Amoureuse (Albin Michel), is about how to make relationships last