THE BLOG
10/25/2013 08:39 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Love, Fidelity and Sex: French Style

When Americans move to France, they frequently find the French have different attitudes towards dating, love, romance, fidelity and sex. Marilyn Yalom, the author of How the French Invented Love: 900 Years of Passion and Romance, answered questions and responded to the following conversation between two lovers.

After a French man and an American woman had finished making love, she quietly said, "We've been seeing one another for over a year now." Shocked, he replied, "That's impossible, I'm fidele with my girlfriend." Confused, the American woman, who knew about his French girlfriend, asked, "How can you say you're faithful when you're in bed with me?"

Harking back to the days of Maupassant, he replied, "I'm emotionally fidele. This is cinq a sept." How would you explain cinq a sept to an American?

From 5 to 7 p.m. is the traditional time that French people consecrate to having an extramarital affair. Un cinq à sept -- literally "a five to seven" -- is when a man or woman slips out of work or home and squeezes in a sexual escapade. This can be one-time sex or a long-term relationship, and if a husband or wife is frequently late getting home from the office, or if the wife is regularly absent from the house between 5 and 7, you can be sure that the other spouse will have his or her suspicions. I wrote in my book, How the French Invented Love, about a wife who negotiated with her husband that she be out of the house from 4 to 7, with no questions asked.

Your book includes the story of Abelard, a Catholic monk and scholar, who literally lost his manhood because of impregnating Heloise, a 17-year-old girl, who was half his age and the niece of a powerful church bishop. Your last chapter deals with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who allegedly raped a hotel maid. As a result he lost his prestigious job and the opportunity to be the president of France. We can add Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and others. Why do these prominent and powerful men risk all for erotic love? Or is it just for good sex? Do the French distinguish between the two?

The French do distinguish between sex and love. The former is exclusively physical; whereas the latter can also be sensual and erotic, but must involve the "heart," which stands for the tender emotions one feels for the beloved. Just what Strauss-Kahn felt for his former wife, Anne Sinclair, is unknown, but he does seem to have been driven less by his heart than by another body part. She seems to have loved and supported him for a very long time -- over 20 years -- and put up with his extramarital affairs, but in the end, she had had enough and left him. But all of these high-testosterone men have major problems remaining monogamous.

You've discussed how many French women, unlike most American women, will tolerate her husband's mistress or affairs. A French woman said, "It is better to eat dirt with someone you love, than to eat chocolate cake alone." Does the fear of being alone and lonely override a French woman's attitudes toward sexual infidelity?

The French attitude toward marital infidelity has been colored by a very long history reaching back into the Middle Ages, when marriage was not an affair of the heart, but a matter of family alliances and property. In fact, the "invention of romantic love" in the 12th century was predicated upon the belief that love was not to be expected in marriage -- for a variety of reasons -- and could be found only in non-marital relations. Though French men have been known to indulge themselves more frequently than women in extra-marital affairs, French women, too, are no strangers to adultery. In fact, in literature the great myths of adultery -- from Tristan and Iseut to Madame Bovary -- are centered on women.

In your preface, you wrote:

"...the French accept the premise that sexual passion has its own justification. Love simply doesn't have the same moral overlay that we Americans expect it to have.... Morality proves to be a weak opponent when confronted with erotic love."

Where do the French draw the line between erotic love and irresponsible behavior?

This is a very good question, and probably unanswerable. If you truly care for another person, you try not to harm that person, which sometimes means foregoing your own pleasure. But morality and even deep affection often falters when one is in the grip of un amour passion.

Is it true that women are more emotionally involved in their relationships than men?

Statistically speaking, it is probably true that erotic relationships for women involve their emotions as well as their sexual appetites to a greater extent than is the case for men. Just read the letters of Héloïse to Abélard where she accuses him of having experienced lust rather than love. It does seem that men are more able to become sexually aroused than women without an emotional component, which is not to say that men are incapable of loving.

What can French and American women learn from one another about love?

We can learn from French women to maintain a certain mystery in a relationship and to pay more attention to the aesthetics of one's personal appearance and lovemaking. They can learn from us to be more direct in expressing our needs, whether they be in the kitchen, the bedroom, or the board room.