Katharine Lloyd, left reeling when an acquaintance angled for an affair with her husband, discovers she is not alone in finding herself victim to a new, highly predatory female.
My husband and I walk into the drinks party. “There you are!” our hostess trills, “Let me introduce you.” She does the rounds, escorting us from one group to another, introducing us as “the Lloyds”. It is clear we are a married couple. OK, we don’t hold hands and gaze rapturously into one another’s eyes; but the shared surname and the fact that James gets me a glass without needing to ask whether I prefer red to white send out a pretty clear message. There is no excuse, then, for what happens next.
A glossy, smiley woman approaches my husband. She asks a question – about what he’s just said; or is it a professional query? I don’t listen and am only vaguely aware of her openly flirtatious manner: I’ve spotted a friend and make my way to him. It takes James, who extricates himself after a while, to bring home to me the predatory nature of the exchange: “Phew!” he raises an eyebrow, “that was something. I thought she was going to wrap me up and carry me home.”
My surprise turns to anger when I learn that the following day she rings his office to invite him for coffee, “to carry on our discussion of politics”. My husband is not a politician. I’ve been married for 13 years and I trust James, but I suddenly feel we’re under siege. It takes three more thwarted attempts at setting up another meeting before the woman backs off.
I’ve survived a smash and grab. That woman – about my age (43), about my size (12), with mutual connections – was ready to smash my marriage and grab my spouse. I don’t know if she sought an affair or something more – but her determination was clear.
That brief encounter left me reeling, as if I’d witnessed rioters looting in my street, drawing closer and closer to my home. So I decided to research this modern phenomenon. Friends, psychotherapists, agony aunts agree: the lone-wolf women have long been the scourge of the dinner party; but the predator who was once a rogue agent is now part of a trend. A huge increase in the number of women living alone has contributed to this state of affairs – as has a culture that promotes competition and entitlement.
When I shared my unsettling experience with friends, I joked that I was probably being paranoid. Instead, the anecdotes poured forth, fast and furious.
A happily married woman recalled being invited to dinner by a friend she had not seen in years. The hostess, a good-looking divorcee in her forties, complimented the husband repeatedly, and twice told the wife how she envied her having such a man in her life. After dinner (and a couple of glasses) the hostess enthused that she and the husband were “soulmates” and suggested to the assembled dinner party that the husband stay behind: “You can leave him here,” she told the startled wife, “he’s in safe hands.” She was not joking.
Another anecdote involved a male friend who worked in television. A married man, he found himself targeted by an attractive married woman. She bombarded him with texts following their ?first meeting. When he agreed to meet her for a drink, she asked him to accompany her to a lingerie shop: “I need a man’s opinion. You’re in television, you must have an eye for these things.” When the man demurred, she suggested that he drive her home instead: “The husband is away on business, and I hate going to an empty flat.” When her very embarrassed victim hemmed and hawed, the woman snapped: “For a creative person, you’re incredibly boring.”
Then there was the married man whose single, 30-something female colleague kept sharing details of her disappointing love life – before concluding: “Let me know if your wife’s ever ready to lend you out.”
After surviving such acts of aggression, can a woman be blamed for carrying a sign that reads, in capital letters, “Hands off: he’s mine”?
The demographics are not reassuring. In Ireland 392,000 households -- up from 62,500 just five years ago -- are single occupiers “While for many this is a choice,” warns Irma Kurtz, the ‘Cosmopolitan’ agony aunt, “for others, it’s not. They don’t feel independent, they feel lonely. In the past, those of us who lived on our own felt we were connected to our parents, children, friends. But now… Who works in the same place they grew up in? Whose family is intact? As for chatrooms, can they replace a lifelong friend? As a result, women feel isolated in a way they never did. And a lonely woman tips easily into a desperate woman.”
Not all lonely women live on their own. Plenty of married women indulge in man-hunting. Boredom, domesticity, a workaholic partner: many women turn predatory as escapism. “This is especially true of women who’ve had children,” psychotherapist Fergus Greer explains.
“Suddenly they’ve stopped nursing and started trying to reclaim their body and reawaken their sexuality. They may seek validation – do you think I’m sexy? – from their husband. But sometimes they want it from other men.”
Greer stresses, too, that our culture promotes selfishness. “Extreme narcissism, where nobody else really exists, used to be roundly condemned. Now, women (and men) are being told from all sides, 'Indulge yourself’, 'Because you’re worth it’, 'Be good to yourself’.
“Marketing men tell the consumer she should only consider her own needs and wishes. To some degree, this has freed women to forge their own lives and attain their dreams. But it has also killed off empathy: no one else’s feelings (or relationships) matter.”
The woman raised with a L’Oréal morality takes entitlement seriously. In the professional arena, this comes out in a wholly fitting demand for equal pay and equal treatment with her male colleagues. But in private life, a healthy sense of “it’s my due” can mean that if a man appeals, prior claims count for nought.
It helps that the traditional brakes no longer apply. Religious strictures forbidding adultery and even coveting another woman’s man don’t command respect today. Divorce, single parenthood, cohabitation have dented the notion of marriage as a sacred institution, while the increase in serial monogamists shows that relationships don’t necessarily lead to commitment. Depending on where you stand, relations between the sexes either have grown more fluid, or downright chaotic: the walls that once kept intruders out have shrunk to insignificant steps, easily cleared by a determined woman.
She need not fear the old taboos. Passing judgment is frowned upon as a narrow-minded attitude; guilt is a mental health problem rather than a legitimate sentiment; trust, a naive ideal rather than a universal value.
And what of feminism? Surely absconding with a “sister’s” man is copycat machismo, the kind of divisive behaviour that would sabotage the cause? Not necessarily, according to Irma Kurtz. “I call it 'sisterly vice’.
“Envy is an important and dark force running through women’s friendships. That bloke of yours is attractive, I must have him.”
This is all the more common now that women have adopted a masculine, me-first mentality. Competition motivates alpha females in the bedroom as well as the boardroom. Single women, according to a recent survey, are four times more likely to find a married man attractive than someone who is unattached. The fact that he already has a partner simply increases his appeal.
“There’s no denying that some women see stealing someone else’s man as point-scoring,” Fergus Greer acknowledges.
“They’re saying look at me, I’m more powerful/attractive than you.”
Ironically, the more they admire the woman in question, the greater their appetite to grab her man. This explains why often the victim of a predator’s selfish behaviour is a close friend.
Irma Kurtz explains: “I get letters from younger women who are very distressed because a friend is going after their man. It’s an aggressive act, and cruel: but increasingly common.”
Men indulge in this betrayal too – think of footballer Ryan Giggs, exposed for having had an affair with his brother’s wife. Perhaps it is because men have got away with this reckless behaviour with impunity (beyond some embarrassing headlines and tittering tweets, in Giggs’s case) that women think destroying a “sister’s” relationship is acceptable. (One exception was Angelina Jolie, who in shacking up with Jennifer Aniston’s former husband, Brad Pitt, earned the fury of “Jen fans” around the world.)
Popular culture used to punish female marriage-breakers. In ‘Midsomer Murders’, rich bitch Melissa Townsend paid for her adulterous behaviour by drowning in her own swimming pool. And in Hollywood, women who went after someone else’s man were portrayed as hard and desperate – viz. Glenn Close in the film ‘Fatal Attraction’.
No more. The women and girls in the ‘Twilight' series and the bestselling ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ are consumed by passions, and act on them, even if to do so they must break the rules (and other women’s hearts).
So what is a married woman to do? However much she may want to, she can’t lock up her husband, or shadow him lest he become the target of a smash and grab. (This said, the private investigation industry is booming, and while many gain access to personal data for financial scams, a number are paid by their clients to snoop on their husbands.)
Psychotherapist Fergus Greer places the responsibility on the prey: “A man has to be on guard against this kind of attack. It helps if he knows his Achilles’ heel: it might be professional pride or fear of losing his virility.”
“The best weapon”, counters Irma Kurtz, “is a sense of humour. If the husband and wife can joke about attempts to break up their relationship, and turn the episode into a farce, that helps keep everything in perspective. And if the wife is clever, by making fun of the aggressor, she can paint her as a rather desperate and rather ridiculous figure. Which is very unattractive.”
True. I remember attending a birthday party at the Groucho Club in London, and spotting a well-known newspaper columnist surrounded by young female fans. Hovering a few paces away stood his wife, warily watching the competition lest it draw too close. When one long-legged admirer seemed to chat a little too intently, for too long, the wife pounced.
Then, I inwardly winced for the “loser” who lacked the self-confidence to give her spouse a bit of space. Today, I’m not so quick to dismiss the fears of a worried wife. A reckless kind of woman is out there, for whom any man is fair game, whether he’s yours or not.
Eternal vigilance sounds stressful, time-consuming and can be demeaning. Better to send out a clear message to Smash ’n’ Grab Woman: beware! I’m on to you, and I’m ready to fight you for what’s mine.
Some names have been changed