Does anything matter? The void a cheating husband creates is above all an existential one: It strips his wife of everything that did matter to her in their union—the pledges, the plans, the promise of bonding as a pair—and leaves behind nothing but heartbreak. And although this may sound retrograde—in theory, of course, women should always define their lives by more than mere conjugal commitment—at the level of raw emotion, it holds true.
How do I know? Well, as I’m presently going through a divorce, I cannot legally disclose any of my personal thoughts on the matter. As a professor of French literature and history, though, I can point out that even in a culture as consistently associated with mistresses as it is with baguettes, berets, and Birkin bags, a man’s faithlessness can be a shattering setback for his wife. Exhibit A: Maria Leczinska, Louis XV’s unhappy Polish-born queen. Less than a year after their marriage in 1725, the king took up with the first of his extracurricular favorites. In response, his once vivacious companion, according to a 19th-century historical account of Louis XV’s women, “hid herself away and gave herself over to sadness…she made a kind of virtue of starting to look old and indeed willingly let herself grow old; she eliminated from her wardrobe all the gay, flirty touches of the young woman she was…[she] trembled and stammered in her role as queen, like a frigid old nun who had fled from her convent to Versailles.”
For Exhibit B, I give you no less an enlightened figure than the French feminist author Simone de Beauvoir, who had the good sense to never marry her own famously skirt-chasing lover Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Sartre, de Beauvoir was interested in the question of how people create meaning for themselves in a universe that, from an existentialist perspective, is fundamentally absurd. For the eponymous heroine of de Beauvoir’s 1967 novella La Femme Rompue (The Broken Wife), the news that her husband has a mistress erases all the constructs and reference points that had previously enabled her to make sense of the world and her place in it: “I used to think I knew who I was, who he was, and suddenly I don’t recognize us, neither him nor me…My entire life, as I’ve led it up to this moment, has crumbled, like in those earthquakes where the very ground devours itself and vanishes beneath your feet while you’re making your escape. There is no turning back. The house has disappeared, along with the village and the valley in which it stood. Even if you survive, nothing is left. Not even the place on the planet you used to call your own.”
When we speak, then, of a home wrecker, this is what the woman in question is wrecking: a physical, emotional, and existential safe house that a wife inhabits with the man she believes she can trust, who indeed has sworn to honor that trust. Whether high-minded, like the Marquise de Pompadour, or lowbrow, like McGee, she takes the wife’s proprietary, connubial pronoun—“our” love, “our” future, “our” relationship—and makes it her own. Trust me: It packs a devastating punch. It feels, just as de Beauvoir writes, like utter defeat, like irreparable ruin.