One morning at breakfast, Cathy Gallagher told her husband she wanted to start a line of greeting cards for adulterers.
There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I think it’s a great idea.”
Lucky for him, Gallagher doesn’t plan on patronizing her own business. “You don’t have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery,” she says.
Nor, apparently, does one need to be unfaithful to write a Christmas card that says, “As we each celebrate with our families, I will be thinking of you.”
Gallagher says her Secret Lover Collection of 24 cards is the first line exclusively for people having affairs, and she expects hot sales. She says half of married people have had affairs (though some studies show the figure to be far less -- more like 15% of married women and 22% of married men, according to the University of Chicago). From former President Clinton’s relationship with “that woman” to shenanigans on TV shows like “Desperate Housewives,” affairs are out in the open.
“Look at the soap operas. It’s all about forbidden love,” Gallagher says in her Bethesda office, where the walls are painted red and pink. “Look at how many people on soap operas are having affairs. That’s real. And I think that’s why this is so scary -- these cards are real, and for a lot of people it hits very close to home.”
But is America ready to see cards for secret lovers rubbing elbows with cards for Grandma’s birthday? In these morals-conscious times, “Desperate Housewives” may be a hit, but one of its stars, Nicollette Sheridan, was chastised for a promotional spot in which she dropped a towel from her body in front of a pro football player. And broadcasters were hit with record fines last year for indecency on the airwaves.
Gallagher has felt part of that backlash. Some retailers have refused to carry the cards for fear of alienating longtime customers, while others think their clientele would be ashamed to purchase such a card. Gallagher has also received e-mails accusing her of endorsing bad behavior.
“She’s just making money out of other people’s misery,” says Robin Sawyer, a public health professor and human sexuality expert at the University of Maryland. “I think most of us would agree that infidelity is a negative thing, so we’re now selling cards to celebrate a negative thing.”
Gallagher, who won’t give her age but appears to be somewhere north of 40, doesn’t take a position on whether affairs are good or bad. She notes simply that they exist. And, like any good capitalist, when she saw a market opening, she went for it. She says consumers, not the morality police, will decide if her business succeeds or fails.
“People make choices,” she says. “I’m not making a choice for them. People make choices. And by the time they buy this greeting card, they’re already involved deeply in the affair.... This is an entrepreneurial venture. And this is an untapped market. That’s the bottom line.”
She has already printed 100,000 of her cards and is filling orders for retailers across North America, including boutique stores and hotel gift shops. And starting soon, the cards can be bought from her website, secretlovercollection.com. The site went up in May and has already received 60,000 hits.
The collection is not what one might expect from a woman of Gallagher’s background. She has two children and says she has always been faithful to her husband of 15 years. For 20 years, she worked in marketing and advertising for decidedly unsexy clients: car dealerships, utility companies, Lasik eye-surgery centers.
Then, a few years ago, she noticed how many people she knew, from friends to colleagues, who had been in affairs. She also realized there were no cards that adequately expressed their feelings. Being a big greeting-card fan -- she’ll often give multiple cards for a single birthday -- she sensed an opening.
The cards feature acrylic paintings on the cover, done by an artist in Virginia and predictably heavy on deep shades of red, with long verses by Gallagher inside. Some of them read as if they were written by a dropout of the Hallmark school of greeting-card writing: “My soul has been searching for you since I came into this world.
“All my life I have had this emptiness inside, like a part of me was missing and I was incomplete ...
“And now I can’t imagine my life without you ... Even if I have to share you.”
There’s a card for office romances that begins, “The weekend apart is finally over,” and an apology card that describes how hard it is not to be able to call and smooth over “our misunderstanding.”
There’s even a breakup card that says, “I can’t go on like this anymore ... I guess our timing just wasn’t right.”
But there’s also a card urging the receiver to leave his or her spouse. “Let’s live our lives together and finally be one,” it says. “I can’t imagine not having you in my life. Let’s start living our lives for ‘us.’ ”
“It sort of plays into the emotional, irrational side of affairs,” says Norman Epstein, a professor of family studies at the University of Maryland. “That language is very idealized. And one of the things that happens with a lot of people involved in affairs is they idealize their partner and make a comparison between them and the routine life they have in their existing marriage.
“This seems to be adding fuel to the fire. Maybe, instead of getting a greeting card, they ought to get some therapy while they’re at it. It sounds like they’re struggling and maybe should talk to someone.”
Gallagher says her cards express sentiments that people in affairs can’t express to anyone else, even their best friends. “These are not sex cards; these are emotional,” she says. “No other card reflects having to share someone or not being able to be with that person on the holidays.”
Hallmark, the nation’s largest greeting-card seller, says some of its relationship cards are broad enough that their meaning can vary depending on the situation, so it doesn’t see a need for an explicit line of cards for adulterers. The “Between You and Me” line covers a wide variety of relationships, says spokeswoman Rachel Bolton. She points to a card that says, “I love the private world that you and I share.”
“I look at that and I’m thinking of my husband. You might look at that and think of your secretary,” Bolton says. “The purpose of a greeting card is to make somebody feel good -- to solidify or further a relationship.”
What’s left unsaid is that greeting cards aren’t supposed to break up relationships. Isn’t Gallagher worried that one of her cards, if left in the wrong place, could lead to the end of a marriage?
“People are still buying their lovers cards and they’re still writing notes to their lovers and e-mailing their lovers,” she says. “They’re still calling their lovers on their cellphones. They’re still charging negligees on their charge cards. There’s always evidence.
“It’s not like somebody will see these greeting cards and say, ‘I’m going to go out and have an affair!’ There are people who make these choices, whether we agree with them or not.”