Settled, happy and still in love… so why risk losing everything? MARIA RAY explores female infidelity and decodes why women who have it all embark on affairs
‘It started out as lunch, then an occasional glass of wine after work − pretty run of the mill,’ my friend Aisha* tells me breathlessly one morning as we jog through the park. ‘But then I began to realise the dynamic I had with Matt; it was like he was activating a more brilliant version of me. One night we went to a work dinner and ended up kissing in the Uber home, the next I’m arranging to meet him for sex in a hotel.’ Harmless enough if Aisha wasn’t in a seven-year relationship with the father of her child. ‘The thing is, I love Peter and he’s a great dad,’ she adds as a qualifier for her infidelity. ‘But with Matt, I become a different person − lighter and happier.’
There was a time when infidelity was thought to be motivated by long-term dissatisfaction with a partner; where love and lust had waned. But things have changed. Aisha isn’t the only thirtysomething mother I know in my circle who is having an affair. Today, infidelity is more closely allied to female sexual assertiveness − a sense of ‘I’m taking this for me’. It’s what acclaimed sexual psychologist Esther Perel has identified as a desire for self-actualisation, where women are straying because of dissatisfaction with who they have become, rather than unhappiness with their partner. ‘In truth, we are not looking for another person,’ Perel says. ‘We are looking for another self.’
Outside my anecdotal experiences at the school gates and among colleagues and friends, there is solid evidence of a shift and the stats are intriguing, particularly as we enter opportunistic party season. According to a YouGov study, at least one in five British adults have had an affair (defined by infidelity on a physical basis, it doesn’t reach into the blurred bounds of sexting). Within that, the traditional ‘infidelity gap’ between the sexes is decreasing: research by the Kinsey Institute reveals a 40 per cent jump in female affairs since 1990. And a study conducted by relationship expert and biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher found over a third of adulterous women were ‘happy or very happy’ in their marriages. That’s a sizeable chunk of happy women straying.
‘There are, of course, plenty of affairs grounded in the misery of matrimony,’ continues Perel. ‘But more and more [women] come to me who’ve always believed in monogamy, who have a solid relationship – and still cheat.’ Perel finds today’s clients describe situations where infidelity has been triggered by desire for a new or former version of themselves, and believes Gen Y and millennials expect more from life than previous generations. ‘We live in an age of entitlement and discovery; where sex is a right, linked to our individuality and self-actualisation − and infidelity can be an expansive experience that involves growth and transformation.’
This resonates with me. I had extraordinary rapport with a man I met at an awards event last month and we stayed out all night drinking. This was a man who, within an hour, made me feel like the person I was before I had a responsible job to get up for in the morning, and young children. In his company I became someone more fabulous, more ‘me’. He brought out facets of myself I didn’t recognise or I’d forgotten, and I was suddenly glimpsing my more confident, risk-taking self. It was magnetic. I didn’t cheat or go home with him, but I spent that evening lying in bed thinking about him and the new possibilities that had opened up to me outside the strict confines of my usual routine. When he texted me the following morning as I was eating cereal with my kids (I shouldn’t have given him my number − what was I thinking?) I deleted it instantly. I was suddenly struck by how easily I could have wrecked everything I have.
‘Cheating is easier than ever in the information age, as the possibilities to connect with people readily and covertly expands,’ says psychosexual therapist Krystal Woodbridge. The variety of apps that hide, encrypt or delete messages and pictures on our phones makes it simple for a cheater to cover their tracks. But it’s not just technology transforming the landscape. These technological innovations arrived at a time when women were already wanting to reach out, take risks and explore. The reason dating app Bumble is successful is that it strikes a chord with women who want to take back control. Bumble’s international brand director Louise Troen explains, ‘Women are at last breaking free from years of suppression and wanting to explore their different personas.’ And evidence shows this doesn’t just stop once they have a wedding band on their finger.
According to Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History Of Dating, women are more likely to link the idea of infidelity with a sense that they are taking something long overdue or deserved. ‘Even in these apparently liberated times, many of us grew up feeling we should behave in a certain way and not take sexual risks. There are so many oppressive ideas of how women are allowed to be sexual. Women who had a more varied sexual history by the time they settled down are more likely to be faithful, and not feel that they have a whole other identity that they wish to experience or explore.’
Sexologist Catriona Boffard says that with many women now earning the same as or more than their partners in careers outside the 9-5, there is both increased opportunity and a greater capacity to cheat. ‘Yes, juggling a successful career with relationship or family obligations offers less “me time”, but the flip side is financial autonomy, which can buy back freedom.’ Losing that sense of ‘me’ following the arrival of children is the reason many women stray, despite the perception that motherhood makes us committed monogamists. ‘As a mother, it can be hard to distinguish between one’s sense of self and that of the child,’ says relationship counsellor Vena Ramphal. ‘Becoming a mother can distance a woman from herself; infidelity can be a way of reinhabiting herself.’
One woman, who is 35 and in the midst of a three-year affair, tells me, ‘When I was younger, I had a variety of experiences, from travelling to having casual sex. Today, that’s gone, so I feel entitled to my time with Doug. With him, I can reach into a new “self”, and it’s not hurting my husband because he doesn’t know.’
But while it works for some, one 32-year-old I speak to is racked with guilt. ‘I kissed one of my clients from work who I’ve had chemistry with for about two years and it tore me apart. I had to ask my boss to take me off the account, blaming a “personality clash”. The guilt ate me up. Every time I looked into my baby’s face or kissed my husband I felt like crying,’ she says. ‘That was six months ago and I still feel like there are parts of me that are dormant, but I can’t even contemplate the inevitable car crash [of having an affair].’
Perel says millennials, though natural risk takers, are also fragile when it comes to infidelity while in committed relationships. ‘They are more romantic than baby boomers,’ she says. ‘The flip side of a hook-up culture is that when they do commit, they value exclusivity.’
So how can you avoid slipping into dangerous ground? To start with, recognise what commitment means. ‘Romantic love was never designed to fulfil every desire, and the sooner we [accept this], the sooner we’ll be happier,’ says Hodgson. ‘If you’re monogamous, that will always mean that there are some parts of your sexual self that you will not fully inhabit. Your sexuality will change over time and you must keep challenging yourselves instead of falling into tired patterns.’
‘Don’t give the best of yourself everywhere else, then bring home the leftovers,’ adds Perel. ‘Have new experiences, and not just in bed: novelty breeds intensity and arousal.’ After all, if you find ways to cultivate all the different sides of yourself, you can have the benefits of a monogamous ‘affair’, but with the partner you already love.