The famous first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is “Happy families are all alike….” I believe he is right, the basic formula of treating each other with respect and gratitude are the foundation for a good relationships all over the globe. I think it would be impossible to stay married to a person that you don’t respect, or whom you feel doesn’t respect you.
That said when it comes to sex, the attitudes between Italy and the United States are very different.
When I was first married to my Italian husband, I was having lunch with an American girlfriend and her Italian friend. This young Italian woman was elegantly dressed, had a very successful career and a beautiful family. She then added laughing “Yes, I have the perfect life, the only thing missing is a lover.” At first I thought she was joking. Then I realized that she wasn’t joking… at all. “Why do you want a lover, doesn’t your husband satisfy you in bed?” She looked at me as if I were daft and said “Of course, but a lover is different.” I realized then that I had a lot to learn, I asked her “Aren’t you afraid of ruining what you have?” Again she looked at me as if I were a simpleton. ” No, of course not.” Then she looked at my friend as if to say “Doesn’t this girl understand anything?” and we changed the subject.
I went home and talked to my husband about it. He wasn’t shocked, but reassured me that he was not going to have an affair, that one women was more than enough for him, and the idea of taking a lover he found very unappealing because then he would have TWO women in his life to deal with. We laughed and let it go.
Two decades later, I see even more clearly the differences in attitudes towards sex between Italy and the States.
In Italy you get married once, you have your children, and that is your family. Alpha and Omega. Anything else is an extracurricular activity. Or as my husband jokes “recreational sex.” In Italian they refer to extramarital sex simply as “una storia.” Not every Italian is unfaithful. I believe that my husband has always been faithful to me, but maybe not. He is a very private person.
The idea of sex for sex does not scandalize anyone…. maybe that is why we have Berlusconi. Maybe Italian’s look up to him because he gets away with it on a grand scale? My husband hates Berlusconi, as do all serious Italians. If there is a pothole in the road, our kids say “It is Berlusconi’s fault.” Growing up with my husband as their father Berlusconi = Beelzebub, but can you imagine any other country in the world where the Prime Minister has bunga bunga parties and sex with an underage prostitute and stays in power?
In the States things are different. Sex for sex scandalizes even liberal people. Look at how Bill Clinton was nearly crucified. Look at poor David Petraeus. So what happens in the US when a man or woman feels very hormonally attracted to another person? Instead of acknowledging that they simply have the hots for someone, they dress eros up in a Victorian lace gown, and call it “love” to justify the sexual act. They divorce, get married to the person they were simply lusting after, possibly have more children, and the potential for this repeating leads to all of the serial marriages that you see in the US. I have never known of anyone who serial married in Italy. I know of lots of people who have been unfaithful in Italy. People do get divorced and occasionally remarried, but definitely not to the degree that you see in the States.
Talking to my Italian friends, I have observed that if one is going to have an affair, it is important to really consider one’s motivations and also the other person’s. The most successful affairs that I have heard of are ones where everything was clear from the get go. When hitting on me, Italian men have clarified their terms with me saying things like “I don’t want to change your life, I just want to make you happy.” “Or, I am not a man who steals another man’s woman.” meaning that right from the beginning I should understand that if I were to get involved, I need to understand this is only for sex. As one Italian man said to me when I responded to his proposal with “I am married.” His reply was “Meglio.” Better. Meaning less problems.
The biggest nightmare of taking a lover would be if they were to fall in love with you, or as the grand American morality film teaches us, they were to go to your house and boil your pet rabbit in your wife’s cooking pot.
Another horrible scenario that I have witnessed, and sorry, but I have only known this in men, is that the man is frustrated and pissed at his wife and goes and has an affair. Then he comes back home sobbing to his wife and telling her every detail about it. Having observed this on more than one occasion, I find this incredibly stupid and in poor taste. After years of living in Italy the idea of an affair doesn’t scandalize me anymore, but rubbing it in a spouse’s face I find abhorrent. Then the kids get involved and oh what a mess! Total emotional splatter. If you are so unhappy in your marriage, why not just leave? Or if you are feeling frustrated, why not talk about it?
A very successful business man once said to me “I give 70% of myself to my family, the other 30% is for me.” I have come to think that is healthy for men and women. Or as a woman said “Kids come first, but I am a very close second.”
A Catholic friend once described the sexual impulse as “life seeking to manifest.” I like that definition. It makes sex seem to be, what I believe it is: a healthy, creative impulse.
Dan Savage – monogamy