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Married to the Market


“I never saw daylight,” he goes on. “I never knew what seasons were. When I got to work it was dark, and when I got home it was dark.”

It drove him crazy that his wife and daughter had the audacity to sleep in on Saturday mornings. “Any free time, I wanted to be outside,” he explains. “I’d say, ‘Let’s get out. We’re burning daylight.’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of these warriors don’t have a lot of time or patience to attend to their wives’ inner lives. “My friends do feel stress in their lives, but they can’t talk about it with their husbands,” Susan explains. “Their husbands think they have it made. They think all they do is wander around and take naps and read novels and eat lunch out with friends.”

Ironically, the wives don’t think of themselves as rich, even though their spouses earn hundreds of thousands of dollars if not several million a year. The awful truth is that a million bucks a year makes you middle-class on Park Avenue these days. Subtract a few private-school tuitions, the mortgage on the apartment and the obligatory home in the Hamptons, Christmas and spring vacations skiing in Colorado or sailing in the Caribbean, and there isn’t a hell of a lot left over.

“So you get this big bonus, and it is all spent just trying to survive,” sighs a woman whose husband brought home a $1 million bonus in February. “We are getting ahead slowly.”

It’s not as if the women weren’t shrewd enough to realize it would be tasteless to complain. “We just talk about whether to go to St. John’s or St. Croix and how much of a bonus to give our baby-sitters at Christmas,” Susan says, self-loathing creeping into her voice. “It’s just dither.”

On the other hand, it’s painful to watch your husband conquering the world -- his claims of sacrifice notwithstanding -- while your life is focused on the minutiae of child-rearing: getting the kids off to school, arranging play dates (though in many families that role seems to have been subcontracted to the nanny), and meeting with teachers and tutors when Buster’s grades take a nosedive.

“It’s a schlepper’s life,” acknowledges a Wall Street power broker when his wife is out of earshot.

Paul Spector, a psychiatrist who counts some of these women among his patients, doesn’t consider their situation enviable, despite appearances. “Whether they have a lot of help or not doesn’t change the manner in which they feel abandoned and often devalued,” he observes. “The kind of tension that develops is that the husband is financing everything. There’s no way of putting concrete value on the work that’s being done by the wife.”

Dana, another Park Avenue housewife, could probably use a support group like Susan’s. After twelve years of marriage, she and her husband, Mark, a takeover specialist, are filing for divorce. Dana recently discovered that Mark was routinely cheating on her. But it’s not Dana who’s seeking the divorce; it’s Mark. His wife apparently no longer presents the sort of challenge that brings out the best in him.

“Investment bankers always use the term of a deal being ‘sexy,’” Dana explains as she sits in the library sipping a cup of herbal tea, dressed in tight black slacks and a silk shirt that accentuates her dancer’s body. “They talk about women and deals the same way. They ‘want it.’ They ‘go after it.’ There’s the negotiation back and forth. Once the deal closes, the excitement’s over and it’s on to the next one. That’s the way he is with women. It’s not the sex. It’s the newness, the conquest.”

Every flat surface is covered with fairy-tale pictures of the family skiing out west, sailing, or just looking good. Books are few, but built-ins with TVs or computers are everywhere.

The phone rings. It’s Dana’s real-estate broker. She and Mark are selling their co-op, and even though it’s a Park Avenue starter apartment in the rear of the building, with so little light it’s impossible to tell whether it’s sunny or cloudy outside, it’s awash in marble -- in the foyer, in the kitchen, in the showers -- and two families have already bid it up to $1.4 million.

“I do think control is a huge part of the personality of an investment banker,” Dana continues when she’s off the phone.

The investment banker with the sleep-deprived wife and daughter agrees with Dana’s characterization of his breed. “The very best are control freaks,” he says unapologetically. “Most of us who are doing it at the very top of the game are very creative people. We like to build.”

Their seven-figure bonuses apparently only reinforce their feelings of infallibility. “If you meet one of the big traders on the Street,” he goes on, “he will lecture to you on every single subject -- because he’s made that money, he’s entitled to.”

His wife adds, “I’ve never met a person who works on Wall Street who doesn’t think he’s a superstar. I’ll ask my husband, ‘I don’t know who he is -- is he amazing at what he does?’ The markets are the markets. Most people think it’s them doing it. They think they’re God.”

Therapy doesn’t help. “They run it like a business deal,” explains a psychoanalyst who saves Sundays for franchise players at top-tier firms. (Her first appointment on weekdays, at 7 a.m., already comes too late in the day for them.)

The therapist cites one high-roller who insisted on dragging in the wife and kids even though the shrink told him their presence wasn’t necessary. “Instead of dealing with his intimate feelings and surrendering to the process,” she observes, “he wants me to do it like a consultation on a company -- meet the key players, evaluate the employees, and tell him which direction to take this group. He has controlled the entire treatment. He berates me for not intervening enough, but he hasn’t given me a chance to talk.”

However, the wives aren’t entirely without blame for selecting these self-starters in the first place. “I have a patient who’s considering marrying one of these guys,” the shrink says. “So I keep talking to her -- ‘Why do you want to marry him? You tell me you never see him.’ When he’s not working, he’s exhausted and needs to recover. She said, ‘I love him.’ I think they’re kind of like the cowboys of today. There’s something powerful and macho and sexy, almost, about them.”

Even now, Dana concedes that Mark “was great at what he did -- even though I didn’t fall all over him because he did it.

“I was working on Wall Street, too,” she continues, remembering their romance. “We had common interests. I just wanted a family. Mark used to say the most important thing was family.”

But living on Park Avenue was also a shared dream. “I thought we’d be successful,” Dana concedes. “We wanted our kids to go to private schools, wanted to take vacations when and where we wanted, have a home in the Hamptons. We didn’t necessarily have aspirations of being a Ron Perelman.”

The phone rings again. Dana checks the caller I.D. and lets the answering machine take it. It’s another investment banker’s wife, who wants to set up a play date for their sons. Even though Dana has known her since their kids were in kindergarten, she says she’d never discuss her marital problems with her.

“People get nervous,” she explains. “They think I’m attractive. So if my husband would leave me, it makes them feel vulnerable that it could happen to them. People kind of disassociate themselves from you because it comes too close to home.”

Sarabeth’s at the Whitney -- not Le Cirque 2000 -- is the watering hole for the new, utilitarian breed of ladies who lunch. It’s conveniently located; mothers can drop off their toddlers at preschools such as Episcopal, meet their friends for lunch, do some damage at the shops along Madison Avenue, and still be back in time for pickup.

“The biggest difference between the city and the ’burbs,” says Barbara, a recent emigrant who reluctantly moved to Darien after her sons almost razed their Upper East Side co-op and permanently alienated the downstairs neighbors, “is that at least three days a week I’d meet friends for lunch. We’d sort of sit around and commiserate until pickup time about the fact that your husband hadn’t been home in a week and what dinner party were you missing because you didn’t want to go out by yourself.”

Barbara, who nonetheless still manages to make it back to town for a couple of lunches a week, places her fellow mothers into two general categories. There are resentful first wives such as herself who married their husbands before they became successful and who watched helplessly as they got swallowed whole by their careers. Then there are the second, third, and fourth wives who met their mates after they made managing director and may be less resentful about their martyrdom -- as long as the blow is cushioned by a Fifth Avenue duplex and a staff that may include a personal secretary to coordinate the wife’s extensive social, charitable, school-related, and perhaps postgraduate commitments; at least a couple of caregivers; a housekeeper; and a driver. Butlers are reportedly also making a comeback.

A prime source of these women’s resentment is the docility their husbands exhibit in the name of career and company loyalty, leaving the country without complaint on an hour’s notice and limping home on weekends exhausted and virtually useless as parents.

“He has no argument against them at all,” says a wife who, unbeknownst to her husband, placed a protest call to the president of his company after the CEO had cavalierly transferred the family abroad one too many times. “It might have cost us dearly, but he just thanked me and they gave him another job.”

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