Affairs: Never Has Marriage Been Under So Much Strain
By Kate Figes
Relationship expert Kate Figes spent 3 years finding out why adultery is now so worryingly common.
Where’s your mobile phone? On the kitchen table? Still in the pocket of the jacket you just took off to mow the lawn? And what about your computer — did you remember to log off after paying that bill?
Perhaps you’re thinking: I’m at home — there’s nothing to worry about. But how would you feel if, at this very moment, your loving husband or wife was trawling through your private texts and messages?
Astonishingly, 44 per cent of spouses do this, according to a major research study, conducted by the Internet Research Institute at Oxford University.
Not only that, but there’s a 65 per cent chance that if a husband’s messages are being read by his wife, he’s also reading hers. However you interpret these figures — and there may be some innocent explanations — there are clearly an awful lot of husbands and wives who are prepared to spy on each other. And what they hope — and dread — to find, of course, is evidence of an affair.
Sexual fidelity is one of the most important symbols of commitment in a relationship. Yet it is increasingly under attack from new pressures, and few of us understand why people have affairs or how best to recover from them.
As a writer on relationships and family life for 20 years, I felt it was time to put attitudes to infidelity under the microscope if we want to strengthen our love lives and families.
For the past three years I have examined all of the research, interviewed hundreds of experts such as marital therapists, divorce lawyers and people working in ‘the infidelity business’ and talked to 45 men and women who have lived through the experience of an affair themselves.
The results were often surprising.
Although precise figures remain elusive, surveys in the UK and the U.S. suggest that between 25 and 70 per cent of women — and 40 and 80 per cent of men — have engaged in at least one extramarital sexual encounter.
Therapists told me that approximately three-quarters of men and one-quarter of the women they see individually in their consulting rooms are going through marital difficulties in part because of an affair.
Indeed, infidelity appears to be so common in Britain today that it’s now more likely than not to occur at some point in a long relationship.
Yet all too often, it leaves a tsunami of desperation in its wake. It’s more likely to lead to divorce than any other problem — such as aggressive, controlling behaviour or drug and alcohol abuse. And the final parting is likely to be more acrimonious, even vengeful.
One possible reason behind people engaging in affairs is that we’ve come to expect far more of marriage
It’s not even as if most adulterers end up with their exciting new lovers — in fact, quite the reverse. Studies have shown that roughly 90 per cent do not marry their lover. Of the remaining 10 per cent who do marry them, 70 per cent will eventually separate.
So why do so many people risk everything for the sake of a fleeting affair?
One major problem is that, over the past few decades, we’ve come to expect far more of marriage. Our husbands and wives now need to be not only our best friends, intellectual equals and co-parents but also sexual athletes who are constantly thinking of new ways to delight us.
However, if we expect to get everything we need from one person for a ‘happy marriage’, we are more likely to feel that our partner is failing us when we’re not getting what we want.
A man whose partner puts on weight after the birth of their children and loses much of her ‘go’ and vigour for life may feel justified in satisfying his needs elsewhere.
A woman whose husband works extremely long hours to provide for his family may feel entitled to seek emotional solace from someone else.
Yet each betrayal also kicks their partner squarely in the gut for not being everything to them all of the time.
Jean had two short affairs when her husband ran into severe financial trouble with his business. The problem was, she says, that he refused to discuss any of his problems and cut himself off for days on end.
‘I found it very difficult,’ she says. ‘When I told him we should be sharing this, he said he had to sort it alone and that he didn’t want to worry me. I just worried more and I felt he wasn’t noticing me.
‘I remember saying at one point: “I could move out and it would be a week before you’d realise.”
‘I kept telling him that I had to feel a part of this marriage and not just the person who gets up at the crack of dawn to get the kids off to school, does a day’s work, all the shopping and cleaning, and is then expected to be gagging for it when we go to bed.’
Looking back, she says her husband was actually a better lover than either of the men she was briefly involved with — ‘But at least they were totally focused on me when we were together.’
Her husband suspected she was being unfaithful, though she denied this. ‘He broke down in tears once and begged me not to leave, which meant I could tell him that I had to feel a part of this marriage.
‘Did I use the affairs as a weapon? Maybe. I shouldn’t have done it but I had tried to speak to my husband and this felt like the line of last resort.’
Love & Passion
The trouble with the soul-mate notion of romantic love is that when a relationship begins to go wrong, we decide we must have chosen the wrong person. It wasn’t True Love. After all, with the right person, surely all of our dreams would have come true.
Romantic love also allows people to make excuses for their moral choices, avoiding responsibility for their actions: ‘I fell madly in love with him/her,’ they say. ‘I couldn’t help myself.’
At the same time, they tell their wives or husbands: ‘I’m not in love with you any more’ — which is rarely true, for the emotions associated with a committed relationship are seldom this cut and dried.
Nor does it help that we live in an ‘I want, therefore I can have’ culture where we are greedier, fatter and consume more than ever before. Just as we seem to need dozens of handbags and shoes, even several houses, to feel whole, so do we increasingly regard ‘good sex’ as a commodity.
At the start of a marriage or relationship, the early frenzy of extreme sexual passion has a drug-like, intoxicating quality that makes couples feel cut off from reality. Such excitement, however, cannot last because it is based on an idealised illusion rather than on the flawed and ordinary human being we love.
The first passionate throes of eroticism cannot help but change into a very different kind of sex within a long, loving relationship, and many find this equally or even more nourishing. But there are likely to be periods — perhaps after the birth of a child, or with illness — when desire wanes.
This is natural, yet rising numbers of men and women are going to their doctors, complaining of lack of sexual desire.
According to some studies, we are growing less satisfied with our sex lives. In one survey, for instance, couples who were interviewed over the space of ten years admitted they were less happy as time went on.
This wasn’t because their sex lives had deteriorated; it was because their expectation of sex had risen.
Sexual boredom is now considered unacceptable — the sign of a failing relationship. To be truly happy, the unspoken message goes, we should all be enjoying the kind of sex we see in porn or in films. Not just occasionally but around three times a week.
This sense of sexual entitlement is new. In 1949, the Mass Observation survey found that only one-third of people believed that sex was crucial to a relationship. Most people never saw each other naked, and pornography still had to be hidden in brown paper bags.
Today, of course, pornography is increasingly seen as just another form of entertainment, to be consumed without consequences. Accessible on every iPad and smartphone, and viewed by 66 per cent of men aged 18-34, it cranks up expectations of ‘great sex’, at the same time narrowing our understanding of erotic desire.
Pornography works by detaching sexual acts from loving relationship and real people. It’s utterly unlike real sex, with its tenderness and capacity for joy that comes from giving pleasure to someone you love.
Laura only discovered that her husband Tim had an addiction to porn — films and a stream of premium-rate calls — after they’d separated. This came as a complete surprise.
‘I knew our sex life wasn’t ideal, but if anything my libido was higher than his,’ says Laura, who has two small children. ‘You’d think watching porn would make him a more adventurous lover but actually it did the exact opposite’.
She assumes now that he must have put his new-found knowledge to use with his secret lover.
It was only after Tim admitted he was having an affair that he told Laura he’d never been satisfied with their marital sex life. If he came back to her, he told her, she’d have to agree to perform a particular sexual practice that features in some porn films.
‘I had no idea what it was!’ says Laura. ‘I had to ask a friend, who said she didn’t think that was healthy in a normal, loving relationship.’
Predictably, those who complain about porn are labelled strait-laced prudes, hell-bent on ruining other people’s fun. But there’s substantial evidence that watching it tends to make us not only feel inadequate about our own bodies but also less happy with the real-life bodies of our partners.
In one study, men and women exposed to non-violent porn in hourly sessions over six weeks ended up being less satisfied with their partners’ appearance and sexual performance. In addition, both sexes who’d watched porn subsequently placed increased importance on sex without emotional ties.
What happens when we watch the sex acted out by porn stars, complete with fake orgasms, is that it invades our sexual fantasies. Meanwhile, thousands of self-help books, magazines and websites emphasise performance, techniques, novelty and spontaneity as the key to great sex, and offer instant solutions to problems we never knew we had.
Consequently, many of us have come to believe that as soon as the sex stops being good in a marriage, it’s perfectly legitimate to seek it elsewhere — or at least understandable.
This is not just a classic problem of middle age. Research carried out between 1991 to 2006 on 19,000 people found a rise in the number of both under 35s and over 60s having extramarital liaisons.
That’s partly because the older generation discovered sex with great abandon in the Sixties, and is therefore more likely not to want to give it up. And it’s true, too, that they enjoy better physical health than sixty-somethings in previous generations.
Viagra also prolongs the time during which a man can be unfaithful, while Botox, HRT and cosmetic surgery help to prolong a woman’s confidence in her sex appeal.
Whatever their age, an affair offers the ultimate halcyon, drug-like escape from the realities of daily life. Every emotion, including guilt, unhappiness and fear of loss, is pushed to the point where those involved feel truly alive.
There’s the emotional roller-coaster of seduction and conquest, the thrilling snatched moments in unlikely places, the scary ride of secrets and cloak-and-dagger deceptions to cover give-away signs.
‘It’s the buzz of the pulling,’ [NB: 'Pulling' is UK slang for attracting someone sufficiently that physical sexual activity is likely] says Oliver, an unhappily married man who has been having an affair for the past six months.
‘She’s cheating, too, and she says that if we were together she wouldn’t cheat on me, but I don’t believe her for a minute. I wasn’t even bothered about the sex at the end of the evening. It was all about the cloak and dagger, the secrecy of intimacy, the chase.’
In our romanticised, sexualised culture, the escapist drama of an affair has become highly attractive. For a few hours, we are living in a romance, in which we are told we are beautiful, desirable and the best lover on God’s earth.
This makes many feel omnipotent. They come to believe that they’ll be able to maintain the duplicity of a double life — though this is rarely the case.
When they do eventually separate from their spouses, many come to regret that decision later. There were, after all, so many other threads that united them as a couple that they wonder, with hindsight, whether they could have worked things out.
Some people try to regain the upper hand by becoming hyper-vigilant, monitoring their partner’s every move with obsessive jealously.
‘The worst aspect of the whole experience was becoming a suspicious person,’ says Isabel, who’d been married for 20 years when she found out her husband was betraying her. ‘I hated the woman I’d become — going through the rubbish, the computer, his mobile phone.
‘I wanted to go through all the bank statements and receipts. I wanted to look at the parking payments stuck to the windscreen of the car to see where he’d been.
‘You become this pilfering, long-nosed person poking in places you shouldn’t, and that’s a dereliction of self. You’re out of control and the only way to regain control is to say you’ll have no truck with this person that you’ve become — and when I did that, things got better.’
The truth is that most of us share a primal urge for an exclusive bond with another person, and we thrive on consistency and continuity. In fact, commitment can be very sexy indeed.
Despite our sexualised culture, most of us still aspire to be monogamous — and we view fidelity as a symbol of our commitment. It requires sacrifice, renunciation and tolerance of disillusionment, all of which are good for us.
Being faithful to your spouse shows that you value their needs above your own by choosing not to hurt them. It means that you place someone else above your own desire for vicarious sexual gratification.
The alternative is to hope that it’s possible to have a perfect romantic and sexual relationship with someone new — and to ignore the reality that ‘honeymoon’ periods never last.