Infidelity : 'Being unfaithful keeps me happy'
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 22/01/2008
Continuing her investigation into Britain's adultery epidemic, Angela Levin talks to professional women who have affairs to bolster their marriages - and revitalise flagging sex lives
# The Infidelity files: Day 1 - Desperately seeking someone
Sylvia, 43, has a highly paid job in the City. Her husband is supportive and they have two children. She entertains at weekends, enjoys luxury holidays twice a year and has time for her friends.
Get some spice in you life: Many women turn to affairs to cope with a loveless marriage
Get some spice in you life: Many women turn to affairs to cope with a loveless marriage
To those in her circle, she seems to have an enviable life and to have mastered the difficult art of balancing work with home and family. What they don't know is that she has a higher libido than her husband and regularly takes a lover.
Sylvia belongs to a small but growing group of alpha woman - financially independent, confident and uninhibited - who, like men, have developed a similar pro-active, almost cynical approach to sex.
For them, it is no big deal to seek sexual fulfilment outside marriage and they claim to be able to separate lust from love.
"I am one of those women who want it all," she laughs. "My life is very hectic and I thrive on adrenaline. I really enjoy sex, but I don't want any complications. So I am only interested in men, preferably married, who want the same."
Just how many women today are having sex with men who are not their husband is hard to pin down, but some sex researchers are claiming it is as high as 60 per cent.
Whatever the numbers, much has changed since Emma Bovary decided she couldn't take the humiliation of living life being branded an adulteress and committed suicide by taking arsenic.
The hard-nosed, predatory female of today is perhaps the evolutionary reality of a phrase originally coined by author Erica Jong in her taboo-busting 1973 bestseller, Fear of Flying.
She described a sexual encounter for its own sake, without emotional involvement or commitment and between two previously unacquainted persons, as a "zipless f***"; she also said it was "rarer than the unicorn".
Nearly 35 years on, these encounters are available with a click of the mouse.
Over a five-month period, I talked to almost 100 middle-class professionals, both male and female, who confessed to being unfaithful.
What was remarkable was that not one of the women said they felt guilty. And those who believed they might get emotionally involved tried to work out hard-headed strategies of dealing with it.
Although it would seem that no-strings-attached sex is the emotional equivalent of McDonald's - in that it can satisfy a certain hunger but is quickly forgotten and doesn't do you much good - many of the women I spoke to saw it as a better option than having an affair with someone they work with, which could put their career at risk.
Nor did they want to get involved with a family friend.
Lynne, a 45-year-old married administrator, thinks the growing popularity among women of no-strings relationships is a result of their success in the workplace. "Now we are as successful as men at work and other areas of life, women like me think, 'Why the hell not?' My lover won't jeopardise my work or family life. I am doing something that makes me happy, which, in turn, makes home happier, too.
"Women have come a long way in the last 20 or 30 years, so why should taking a lover without commitment be a male preserve? I just think, 'Lucky me.'?"
Jenny, 48, who runs her own business, thinks the trend for uninvolved sex is part of today's have-it-all society.
"In the past," she says, "a wife would think, 'I've got a decent husband and live in a presentable house, so I can't expect too much.' But now our expectations are much higher and we don't want to compromise. I've done it and don't feel guilty at all.
"I spend a lot of time caring for my husband and child and running my business, and I think of this as something for me. Women have always had sexual needs, but culturally we've not been encouraged to attend to them. Now we are more willing and able to make decisions about what happens to us. Some of us might choose to go to the cinema for a night out. Others might prefer to have sex."
So while more men are in tune with their feelings and want more from an extra-marital relationship - emotional companionship as well as physical contact - some women want less. Less involvement, less friendship, and more sex.
But can women really be quite so matter-of-fact and unemotional about infidelity? Can evolution be gradually turning women, whose priority was once to build nests and care and be cared for, into hunter-gatherers?
Are Byron's words: "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart; 'tis woman's whole existence" really no longer valid?
Possibly. Most women are sexually experienced before marriage. They are financially independent. Nor is there a stigma attached to the adulterous woman.
As recently as 1970, if a woman was found to have had an extra-marital affair, she not only forfeited her right to maintenance but also risked losing her children.
It was a penalty Diana, Princess of Wales's mother, Frances, discovered to her cost. After years of an unhappy marriage to Earl Spencer, in the late 1960s she had an affair with wallpaper merchant Peter Shand Kydd.
She left her husband, taking their four children with her. He felt so humiliated by her adultery that although, at the time, women were routinely given custody of the children, he fought her in the courts and won.
The judge made much of branding her as an adulteress and seemed to take no account of her cross-petition on the grounds of cruelty. Now, when couples divorce, any sexual misdemeanours by the woman are considered on a par with a man's.
We do not yet, however, have a no-fault-based divorce system like Spain or Canada.
Nor are women who have extra-marital relationships confined to a particular age group.
While today's women of 40 and younger see having great sex as their right (some studies show that the more sexual partners a person has before marriage, the more likely she or he is to cheat on a spouse), many fifty- or even sixtysomething women, in common with their male counterparts, don't want to be left out.
These are the generation of women whose children have left home. They are fitter and better looking than their predecessors, thanks to HRT, Botox and plastic surgery, and seek new challenges.
While some choose physical challenges, a recent report from Germany cited that one in three fiftysomething women are looking for a sexual adventure. Perhaps they are catching up on all they missed during those sleep-deprived times when their children were small.
Teresa, who is 52, is one example. She has been married 27 years and, when her youngest left home she decided she wanted more excitement in her life.
"I have a good husband, but I have spent my life lying on my back thinking of England when we have sex. He's never been any good in the bedroom. He has a low libido and little interest. I knew that when I married him and he is a good man in every other respect.
"For years, I kept wondering what it would be like to meet someone who was really exciting in bed. Then about nine months ago I placed an ad on the internet just for the fun of it. I was inundated with replies, but mostly from losers. There was only one man who stood out. We met and there was instant chemistry between us. We met again on an occasional basis, but then I realised that psychologically I wasn't the type to be unfaithful. I would hate my husband to find out, so I stopped. But I don't regret it."
Julie, 49, who is married with one son and has a senior position in a health authority, knew she wanted more out of an extra-marital relationship than just sex.
"My husband and I haven't had sex for years," she explained. "He is 15 years older than me and although it wasn't a problem when we first got married 20 years ago, his approach to life now is that of an old man. We sleep in separate bedrooms and I don't think he sees me when he looks at me.
"For much of our marriage, I put my needs to one side and concentrated on my work and looking after my family. But about five years ago, I began to feel increasingly unhappy and unsettled. I wanted to do something about it, but didn't know how to go about it. The only men I met were my husband's colleagues or fathers of my children's friends. So I contacted a dating agency for married people. I was a little nervous of the interview, so I took along a close girlfriend.
"I only wanted to meet married men who wanted to stay married. I want to be happier, but not wreck my marriage. Although I'm not in love with my husband any more, he's becoming elderly and I wouldn't want him to be a lonely old man. I wanted to take a lover to keep me happy.
"I was offered a choice of three men. I contacted each one, we met for a drink, and I then spent about five months getting to know the man I most liked. It was important for me to develop a friendship and trust before we had sex. If I had just wanted sex, I could have tried to pick up someone in the local pub."
The relationship wasn't, however, as manageable as she hoped. "I broke off with him after a year because I found myself getting too emotionally involved and realised I would get more so if I continued. Although my partner, who is also married, enjoyed being with me very much, he didn't feel involved with me in the same way."
Other women, like Mary, 55, claim to have affairs to help them stay with their husbands until the children leave home. "I know that eventually I will leave my husband, but I don't want to while our children are still at home," she explained.
"I have a lover, our relationship has lasted two years, and I hope I don't have to have another one. Although it has made me slightly distant with my husband, I am also less irritable and if something happens in the relationship I don't like, I tell myself that I have different pleasures."
Others, like Anne, who is 54, chose to have an affair because she wanted to be indulged and spoilt. "I entered into a relationship because I wanted to be adored, desired and given lots of attention - all things I don't get at home. And that is what I have found.
"I meet my lover every two or three weeks in a hotel. He always pays and nearly every time buys me presents - nothing that would be awkward to explain, but perfume, chocolates and flowers. Of course, I can never take the flowers home and after our couple of hours together they end up in the bin in the hotel room, but he understands that."
Getting caught is not a pressing worry. "I hope I don't live to regret this," she continued. "But I honestly don't think it would occur to my husband that anything could be going on. If he did discover I've been unfaithful, he would probably be crushed. It makes me feel uncomfortable but not guilty. Guilt is a pointless feeling. Nor do I feel guilty about my lover's wife. His relationship with her is quite poor. He hadn't had sex with her for years, not just for a month or two.
"My daughter is a different kettle of fish. A short while ago, she commented that I seemed much happier than I had been. I fobbed it off. She once picked up my mobile and started playing with it. It gave me a fright as my lover regularly sends me sexy texts. I've since changed the pin number. I would hate to go down in her estimation."
She admits she doesn't always practise safe sex. "At the beginning of our relationship, I made sure he used a condom but when it looked as if it would work out, we both went to a clinic and got ourselves checked, showed each other the results, and then stopped using protection."
Several women, including Mary, mentioned how much they enjoyed the feel-good factor that comes from a fulfilling sexual relationship. "I've relearnt how to be a sexually confident woman, which is a good thing," she said. "I also take much more care of my appearance."
If a woman starts to feel vulnerable, Anne, 45, believes in handling it rationally. "Women are naturally more emotionally vulnerable than men," she conceded, "so we have to exercise self-discipline. Everything in life has its disadvantages and we have to learn to cope. It is easy to get too involved but we just have to stop ourselves and know where to draw the line.
"There's no reason why a multitasking woman can't handle extra-marital relationships in a similar way to a man. I multitask to an astonishing degree in my business life, and all I am doing is taking that ability into my personal life. It isn't a big deal.
"The point is, I don't believe one person, man or woman, can meet all your needs for the duration of your life. And having a discreet affair is one way of handling that."