What Walter Mitty Really Thought About

In the last few months, two couples close to The Fabulous Wife and me have broken up. One was together 20 years, the other 36. Both break-ups were sudden. And in both, the man was the jerk.

I have a theory about that.

Yes, I realize I’m a cis-gender white male privileged in every possible way and therefore not entitled to theorize anything about anybody, ever. My apologies for imagining there might be universal aspects to the human condition and forging ahead.

It’s my belief that male sexuality is a no-win proposition. That’s because men desire two irreconcilable things, best summarized by Ernest Hemingway in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his heaven, Hemingway wrote, he would have two houses, “one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors.”

Assuming they’re capable of attracting women, men are torn between pursuing a love-of-their-life relationship with a single partner and engaging in a series of exciting but temporary conquests. Whichever they choose, they will be happy. But they will also be unhappy, because they can’t fulfill that other desire.

(If they get neither, they turn into the miserable shits who troll websites — or much, much worse.)

I’m convinced that every faithful husband, no matter how loving and meek, harbors an inner Don Juan who adds an element of uncertainty to even the most stable long-term relationship. If the rewards of monogamy grow murky, or if he’s sufficiently tempted, what Mr. Right hasn’t got may loom larger than what he has.

Which is why I think these two men, who had their issues but were otherwise decent, respectable citizens, abruptly betrayed their wives.

The binary nature of male sexuality is likely a product of convergent evolution. From a survival perspective, both choices work. The dutiful husband who stays close to his wife and offspring increases the likelihood his genetic heritage will continue. The player who impregnates multiple women also increases the likelihood his genetic heritage will continue. Over the epochs, both strategies embedded themselves in the male psyche, inhibited only to the degree societal norms discouraged them.

When men get smart, they realize their dream of having it all sexually is a delusion — and knowing they can’t have it all can ease their frustration. At that point, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, it becomes a matter of getting what they need. If their one true love gives them that, smart men recognize that their fantasies of other women are laughably one-dimensional. They don’t stop having those fantasies, but they do stop mistaking them for possible realities.

That’s where I am. I can’t deny that my eye wanders from time to time. I’ve confessed as much to The Fabulous Wife. But I’m so amazed by all the big and little things she has done for me over the last 35 years that I can’t imagine doing better with anyone else. So why in the world would I choose to make a fool of myself (which I do well enough in this blog) and cause pain to the woman who means more to me than anyone on earth?

But that’s me. I suspect a lot of other aging husbands decide the smart move is to grab for all the gusto (yes, that’s a euphemism) while they can. And who knows, perhaps that’s what Thoreau really had in mind when he talked about men leading lives of quiet desperation.

Please note that I offer this theory not to excuse the behavior of the male partners in these relationships, but to explain it. I understand that couples often grow apart over time. I can see them recognizing that and mutually agreeing to separate. But for the guy to just suddenly bail after decades together? I still have trouble wrapping my brain around it.


As a follow-up to last week’s post, a shout-out to this article in the Atlantic Monthly by Shadi Hamid arguing that parliamentary systems make it harder for authoritarian minorities to consolidate power in other democracies as they have in the United States.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.