But even in our equal-opportunity era, mistresses can and do have an earth-shattering impact on one notable, if far less visible, domain: marriage. Though infidelity is a spectrum rather than a fixed notion, with one-night stands at one end and sustained, clandestine relationships at the other, the latter are particularly crushing because they mimic the very bond they betray. Like a wife, a mistress develops erotic and emotional intimacy with her lover; like a wife, she participates with him in scheduling, making vacation plans, even real estate decisions; like a wife, she may also receive money from him and have babies with him. (Prime examples here are the Schwarzenegger and Edwards love children, as well as the secret longtime mistress and the adult daughter of the late French President François Mitterrand, who caused a stir when they appeared at his funeral alongside his wife and “legitimate” children.)
The discovery of a mistress, then, shatters the wife’s conviction that the privileges and commitments of conjugal life belong to her alone. Unbeknownst to her, her husband has spent months, maybe even years, ducking into and out of a parallel universe of love and support. What’s more, to sustain his shadowy pseudo-marriage, he has had to lie to his wife so often, so consistently, and so inventively that once his charade is exposed, everything he has ever said or done becomes retroactively suspect. This is why a mistress doesn’t have to be Helen of Troy to bring a whole world to ruin. With her lover’s complicity, she lays waste to that microcosmic but precious world in which spouses can rely on each other’s integrity, truthfulness, and mutual devotion.
In this sense, the physical destruction that Western literature’s betrayed wives so often resort to can be understood as not just a stand-in for, but an actual consequence of, their psychological devastation. This certainly applies to the women who, in classical mythology, made the mistake of marrying itinerant lady-killers, like Jason (of Golden Fleece fame) and Aeneas (the Trojan Prince Paris’s brother), for whom fidelity was as inconceivable as a day without armed combat. In his Heroides, the Roman poet Ovid, by adopting their spouses’ point of view, highlights the damage these serial philanderers wreak. Here, Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos and the mother of two of Jason’s children, hints at her own imminent demise when she asks him: “Where is your promised fidelity? Where are the marriage oath, the torches that might better be used now to light my funeral pyre?” Her death, she stresses, would merely be the logical extension of the emotional loss she has been forced to sustain. Referencing Jason’s new girlfriend, his distraught consort pursues this line of thinking: “Is it she for whom you left Hypsipyle and your wedding bed? While the bond that made me yours and made you mine was given chastely, she is yours in shame…But if sin means more to you than piety, and if she won you with a dowry of crime, then I ask, does anything matter?”