Desperate Housewives: The Kennebunk Episode

The Sleepy Little Town

Until recently, the seaside enclaves of Kennebunk, Maine were best known as the upscale locale of former president George H.W. Bush's summer vacation home. This picturesque setting has traditionally been viewed as a great place to dig for clams, eat lobster, and forget about the worries of the day. Note the town description, as quoted from Kennebunk's website:

From our vibrant villages (three in all!) to our beautiful sandy beaches, Kennebunk offers a truly wonderful place to live and visit! ... From Sea Captain's mansions on Summer Street to the beautiful flowing Mousam and Kennebunk rivers, there is certainly something in Kennebunk for everyone to enjoy!

Anyone who's had the good fortune to spend a few days in this part of America's idyllic Northeastern coastline would likely acknowledge this as a pretty accurate description -- except they left out the bit about the Zumba-workout-gym-turned-prostitution-ring.

That Sweaty Little Secret

So now we all know there is indeed "something in Kennebunk for everyone to enjoy." According to the local police, the local dance-fitness studio has been offering, in addition to cardio enhancing, buttocks tightening dance classes, horizontal mambo sessions in the back room. Ditch the workout, join the party! (In case you don't already know, that's Zumba's tagline.) I suppose these secretive "private lessons" might explain why so many of coastal Maine's middle-aged men seem to have recently developed a surprising fascination with the pounding beats of Latin music.

Of course, as all of America learned from Monica Lewinsky and her now infamous "little blue dress," no good secret goes untold for long.

The story broke -- quietly at first -- with the arrest of tall, brunette, 29-year-old fitness instructor Alexis Wright and her business partner, 57-year-old Mark Strong, Sr. Wright was charged with 106 counts of prostitution, violation of privacy (she videotaped the sessions!), tax evasion, and other charges. Strong was charged with 59 counts of promotion of prostitution and violation of privacy. Police have also begun the process of issuing summons to Wright's many local customers. The salaciousness of Wright and Strong videotaping the encounters for posterity (and blackmail?) coupled with the purportedly high-end, soon-to-be-released client list has turned a small and purely local story into an international topic du jour.

The "Johns"

Kennebunk scuttlebutt tells us that doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officials, a television personality, and numerous other prominent individuals are among Wright's extensive clientele. (And, in case you don't know, small town scuttlebutt is nearly always accurate. See: Wisteria Lane, Desperate Housewives.)

So what causes prominent, married, community leaders to seek out a local prostitute? Don't they understand all that they have to lose?

The simple fact is during the intensity of the search for casual sex (at any local strip club, adult bookstore, or house of prostitution), most men feel pretty invulnerable. They are literally not thinking that their compartmentalized sexual secrets will end up being discovered by a spouse, the police, or the media. Consider the cases of Tiger Woods, former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner, and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer as typical examples. When such a man is in the neurochemical tug of emotional/sexual arousal that occurs during the search for an illicit encounter, he feels invincible, lacks judgment, and truly believes he is unlikely to get caught.

Oftentimes these men actually feel "entitled" to cheat, believing it is their God-given, biological, evolutionary right to have sex with as many women as possible. Other times a man will justify his actions by blaming the "inadequacy" of his marriage -- even though it is usually his secrecy, lies, and behavior that have caused the marital problems. Some are sex addicts, who feel pulled and driven to recreational sex as a means of self-soothing and dissociation. Any and all of the above men will rationalize their actions by saying to themselves, "What my wife doesn't know won't hurt her." Little do they realize!

The True Victims

Like it or not, a whole town of likely trusting women are about to find out their husbands have been unfaithful -- many of them repeatedly. For these women, it will be the betrayal of relationship trust caused by a pattern of secrecy and lies that causes the deepest sense of pain. And the pain these women are going to experience is indeed profound. In fact, recent studies show that wives who unexpectedly learn about their husband's infidelity often experience acute stress symptoms similar to and characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder! And understandably so, when their whole world is turned upside down in just a day or two.

One has to also wonder how much worse this very personal trauma will be when it's plastered all over the national media. It's bad enough when only you, your spouse, and perhaps a few other well-chosen and supportive people know what's going on. Unfortunately for the wives and girlfriends of Kennebunk, their dirty laundry is about to be aired to a worldwide audience. In addition to their own embarrassment, many of these women also have to worry about how their children will be affected when daddy's hurtful behavior gets broadcast on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.

In part, the trauma-betrayed wives and loved ones experience stems from being blindsided by information they never expected to get. And even if a woman has not been fully deceived and has some prior knowledge of the cheating, it is still overwhelming to learn the full extent of a supposedly committed partner's infidelity -- after all, cheating is usually an ongoing pattern rather than an isolated incident. And it's not just anyone who caused this pain, loss, and hurt. It's the woman's "best friend," the person she lives, sleeps, and has sex with, the person with whom she is raising children, sharing her finances, and sharing her most intimate emotional self. No wonder the wounds inflicted by infidelity are so deep!

Sadly, betrayed wives are usually angry not only with their husbands, but with themselves. In part this stems from our culture telling them that if they'd just been more sexual and/or kept themselves thinner or younger, etc. that their husband wouldn't have done this. Sometimes, having become used to living with an inconsistent, unavailable, secretive, and dishonest man, these women turn to alcohol, overeating, compulsive exercise, spending, or other potentially self-destructive behaviors. Occasionally a woman will even "cheat back" to get even -- only to hate herself later for doing it.

Another common response is to blame "the other woman," in this case Alexis Wright. This way the cheating husband can be seen as the innocent victim of someone else's unscrupulous behavior. Cheating husbands are very happy when this occurs, as it lets them off the hook. In reality, though, branding the "whore" with the scarlet letter of adultery helps no one. And the husband, having "gotten away with it," is likely to engage in more of the same behavior down the line, expecting the same results.

The Future

The Kennebunk wives have good reason to feel angry, mistrustful, hurt, and confused. And at the very least these women need validation for their feelings, empathy for how their lives have been disrupted, assistance in processing the shame of being cheated on, and support to move forward. Many of these women will need guidance with day-to-day issues such as managing emotional turmoil and rage, approaching potential healthcare issues (STDs), setting appropriate boundaries, and dealing with the constant desire to question their cheating husbands in detail about past and current behaviors. We can only hope these women are directed toward licensed clinicians who are skilled at helping people recover from the traumatic betrayal of relationship infidelity.

For the women who choose to remain in their marriages -- and most of them will -- it is likely to be quite some time before they are able to reestablish relationship trust; usually this process takes a year or more, and that's when the husband is completely honest about both his past and present behavior. (If he continues to engage in a pattern of lies and secrecy, trust might never be regained.) For the women for whom the wound of betrayal is too deep, ending the relationship may be the best thing they can do to for their emotional wellbeing and their long-term future. Either way, what is most important is moving on from the loss of trust in a healthful way and growing as a person.

Happily, the women of Kennebunk can help themselves by helping each other. Since so many of them are having the same basic experience they can band together to share their thoughts and feelings, cry on and/or provide an understanding shoulder, and generally be supportive of one another. They needn't go through this alone!