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Married to the Market

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Another woman hit the ceiling when her spouse’s company called during Christmas week and told him to be on the next plane to Asia. Even though her husband’s boss abjectly filled their apartment with flowers as a peace offering, she remained unmoved.

Barbara of Darien says her husband’s million-dollar bonus isn’t worth the 22 weekends he had to travel last year. “We were happy when it was half that, and maybe even two-thirds less we were even happier,” she says wistfully. “I think there’s a direct inverse relationship between that and happiness.”

Her husband agrees that his absences haven’t helped their marriage. “You’re not quite clear what the rules are anymore,” he observes. “Your son misbehaves or he does something that you think is amusing, and your wife goes, ‘He’s forbidden to do that.’ It creates these conflicts.”

Ironically, when the husbands divorce and remarry these days, they’re not going for the trophy wives of the eighties, according to Harriet Cohen, a divorce lawyer who represents her share of successful husbands and spurned wives, but to female peers of the sort their wives were before they abandoned their careers for motherhood.

“It’s two high-powered people who are getting together, and there’s not a disparity in age,” Ms. Cohen observes, adding that these days, men are as likely to find their follow-up wives across a conference table as at the bar at Cipriani. “The wife is doing what she was told to do, and she’s not stimulating anymore.”

Barbara says she’d forsake her husband’s bonus, or a substantial portion of it, anyway, for a more normal family life. “But nobody has asked me to,” she notes wryly.

Indeed, at lunch, the question the women most want to ask one another is the one that never seems to come up -- how much their husbands earn. “You’re dying to know,” Barbara confides. “I was joking with a friend that I was happy about my husband’s bonus and I couldn’t tell anybody. She had the same feeling. You really don’t know if their husband earns $300,000 or $3 million. The range could be that big. The wife might be thinking he’s making a lot of money; all of a sudden, it’s awkward. There’s a real hierarchy in terms of how much you make and are you with a top-tier firm or a second-tier firm.”

Another popular conversation starter is sex, or more specifically finding a handsome surrogate for an indifferent, globe-trotting spouse. “We have our lifeguard fantasies,” one woman concedes. “I have a friend who thinks the young trainers would be fun for a roll in the hay. We’d be supportive, certainly.”

However, the allure of an affair seems less about sating one’s sexual lust than about taking measures to restore the balance of power in relationships that have turned lopsided in the husband’s favor. Everybody seems to know a personal trainer or coach who will do the deed in case of emergency.

“I used to threaten him with a divine tennis instructor,” says Kate, the wife of a $1-million-plus-a-year executive. “He adores me,” Kate goes on, referring to her coach, not her spouse, “and my husband knows it. We’re not too old to have an affair with somebody else, and I’d do it in a minute if I wasn’t satisfied.”

But she is. In fact, Kate reports that her husband’s business trips have added a tantalizing new dimension to their sex lives. She points to one memorable encounter at the Savoy in London where they rendezvoused when he was on his way back from a business trip to Thailand.

“I took off all my clothes and got into bed,” Kate recalls. “It was almost like having a liaison. He arrived in the middle of the night. We were all over each other. We get away from our kids quite a lot.”

She agrees with the shrink who calls them cowboys, and draws a correlation between the size of their libidos and their swelling bonuses. “If anything, it increases their sex drive,” she observes.

Dana meets so many flirtatious married investment bankers, not to mention doctors and lawyers, on her nightly dog walks along Park Avenue that she has sometimes wished she’d paper-trained her pet. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten hit on by guys walking dogs,” she reports. “A couple of times, I’ve had to change my routes because these guys are relentless. Mostly men do the night walks, so it’s a woman’s market out there.”

The challenge is finding one you won’t run into at the next Wall Street dinner party or at one of those charity balls at the Pierre or the Waldorf celebrating your firm’s senior partner’s contributions to humanity. However, Barbara doesn’t see it as a big problem. “You just have to go outside your circle,” she says breezily. “You don’t stay on the Upper East Side. You go to SoHo or the Upper West Side.”

It should be said of investment bankers that they don’t have a monopoly on a commitment to career that verges on religious fanaticism. In fact, it wasn’t a money manager but someone in the movie business who announced to his wife, weeks after the birth of their child, that he was heading off to Morocco for half a year.

“I said, ‘Six months?’” recalls his usually supportive spouse. “‘Are you going to come back in between?’”

He told her he couldn’t. “It’s not Concordable,” she explains with uncalled-for understanding, “and they were shooting six days a week.”

It was his next comment that pissed her off. “He said, ‘Just think of me as going off to war.’ Of course, I found that hard to do. War doesn’t usually come with hotel suites and assistants and movie stars -- unless you were drafted with Elvis.”

In defense of these topflight players, having a family couldn’t come at a worse time -- just as their careers are catching fire, as beautiful women who wouldn’t give them the time of day back in high school suddenly find them alluring, and as they experience that first euphoric rush of fame when strangers they meet at cocktail parties have heard of them.

One wife, whose husband attributed his long hours at work to the need to guarantee his family’s financial security rather than to his quest for glory and his corporation’s top job, finally challenged him when his salary approached $10 million.

“Is there a point where he would say that he had reached financial security?” she wondered. “I tried to commit him to a number. It turns out it’s not really a number.”

Kate doesn’t buy the husbands’ explanations that it’s all for the family. “It’s like a drug,” she says. “They’re addicted. They never wish they could make the kid’s Christmas play. If I absolutely make him, he comes. If not, he doesn’t give it a second thought.

“I fight very hard,” she goes on. “He took a two-week vacation last summer -- but don’t put that in print. I just booked a dude ranch in Wyoming for two weeks and said, ‘Be there.’ It works.”

Sarah, the wife of an executive, the mother of two teenagers, and an artist, says that a friend recently described her as a “beacon” because she refuses to give up her career, even if her family might run a little more smoothly if she did. Her paintings are often-lonely, Hopperesque Manhattan landscapes that sell well whenever she has a show.

“The husbands make you feel guilty about taking a course or doing something that’s not directly related to taking care of him or the house or the other house or the travel plans,” she says, nodding toward a businessman sitting across the restaurant where we’re eating who’s talking on his cell phone. “I think most of the guys get to a certain point and say, ‘I missed the whole damn thing.’ They go to the jamboree at school and they bring a video camera.

“My own personal feeling comes from that Clairol commercial -- ‘If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks about the time I had the babies. I do have only one life. It can be miserable or nice, and I was goddamned if I was going to let it be miserable. I’ve arranged for myself a very gratifying life, and fuck ’em.

“My mother also raised two good children, but it didn’t allay her discontent in the end,” she goes on. “When she died, we had a nice memorial and all her friends came -- she was very glamorous and funny -- and talked about her. You couldn’t pin down what everyone adored about her, and I felt the wonderfulness of her evaporating like smoke.

“I don’t mean I want to make paintings that live for 500 years. But I want to feel some satisfaction in a sustained effort. Raising the children is a big sustained effort, but that’s like smoke, too. In a minute they’re off at college, and if you’ve done a good job, you don’t hear from them.”

The seeming cause of her bitterness -- which her thriving career hasn’t quite conquered -- is her belief that women remain, first and foremost, in her opinion, sex objects. “Once you’re past the age of being a sex object, you have no function,” she argues. In fact, she admits that one of the reasons she’d never move out of Manhattan is that she gains sustenance from the looks men give her on the street.


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