Clandestine afternoons in remote hotels. Furtive love letters. Even the occasional phone call, though you’d have to be ready to hang up if your lover’s other half answered.
To our modern ears this description of a marital affair sounds like something from a world long gone, yet this was the reality of infidelity just 20 years ago.
Then, dalliances were largely restricted to colleagues or, if you were particularly cavalier, friends’ husbands or wives. Communication was risky — what if your husband dialled 1471 on the house phone and discovered who had been calling?
Today, infidelity has changed beyond all recognition. Now adultery is easier with dedicated websites for the unfaithful, sexting on Snapchat and online messaging.
You can start an intense relationship without even meeting in person, and nearly all inhibitions have been abandoned. In my 30-plus years as a counsellor and 20 years as an agony aunt, you could say I’ve been exposed to it all.
These days, one of the most common incidents I learn about through my column is of men — of every conceivable age and background — sending explicit photos to women.
All this would have been unimaginable when I wrote my book, To Love, Honour And Betray, in 1997. In it, I explored how and why unfaithfulness was on the increase. The people I spoke to confessed to devastating betrayals.
But I could not have foreseen how much worse things would get with the arrival of the internet. In particular, how dramatically the behaviour of one group would change.
Because although researchers estimate 60 per cent of men are unfaithful compared to 40 per cent of women, the web has facilitated a boom in infidelity for women aged between 35 and 49.
Some 37 per cent of this age group confess to engaging in internet affairs and cybersex. Contrast that with just a quarter of men the same age. Men are most tempted by online sexual interactions in their 20s.
But in middle age, women dramatically overtake them, destroying intimacy, trust — and marriages.
I find the growth of affairs started online deeply worrying. Not because I want to judge the methods people choose to conduct their romances, but because I’ve repeatedly seen the devastation affairs can cause, especially when children are involved. It seems to me that the internet is a dangerous tool that society hasn’t yet learned to control.
That’s why I felt it was time for an updated version of my book.
No marriage is ever completely safe from an affair, but today they are more prevalent and happen sooner.
The internet gives us all the ability not only to cheat, often entirely undetected, but to engage in previously unimaginable levels of serial philandering.
Significantly, I’ve noticed a rise in the number of women in long-established marriages — where inevitably the initial excitement has waned — who would never have cheated pre-internet, but who are now having online affairs.
Women like Sarah King from East Yorkshire. Two years ago Sarah, a married mum of children aged nine, seven and four, signed up to a dating app after a few glasses of wine with a single girlfriend. By then married for eight years, Sarah admits the passion had faltered, but maintains: ‘I honestly had no intention of looking for someone for myself.’
Her story shows how easy it has become to slip into infidelity, almost without noticing, because — ‘for a laugh’ — Sarah tipsily clicked on the profile of one chap, Stephen.
She didn’t pursue it but he got in touch asking to chat. At first she refused, but he continued to message her, and eventually they got chatting online.
Three weeks later he persuaded Sarah, who had told him she was married, to meet for coffee.
At the time she was working part-time in a craft shop and in the afternoons volunteered with craft workshops.
‘It was easy for me to say I had other commitments and not turn up to volunteer,’ Sarah says.
‘Our coffee was genuinely innocent. We had loads in common but I was very clear I just wanted to be friends, that I’d try to help fix him up with a girlfriend. Still, it was really nice not to talk about the children, or what’s for tea, for once.’
But Sarah also admits: ‘All I could think was that if I wasn’t married I’d have been curious to see where it could have gone between us.’
One morning, soon afterwards, Sarah had a blazing row with her husband. Furious with him, she rang Stephen and agreed to meet at his flat. They made love. ‘The sex, of course, was amazing,’ Sarah says. ‘For once I could take my time and enjoy myself. I wasn’t concerned about one of the kids barging in or just having a quickie like I usually did with my husband.
‘But it was so out of character. I’d never been unfaithful before.
‘And even when I was single I wasn’t the kind of person to have sex with people I didn’t know very well.’
They met five more times, yet Sarah felt guilty, pressured and unhappy. When her husband was offered another job hundreds of miles away she ‘jumped at the chance of walking away from this mess I’d created.
My affair made me realise my husband is a good man.
‘Any couple will settle into a humdrum routine. I needed to take a long hard look at what needed fixing with us.’ Sarah cut off contact with her lover and her husband still doesn’t know about the affair.
Now contrite, she says: ‘Because of a couple of glasses of wine and access to the internet I could have lost everything.’
Then there’s Ally, a marketing freelance from London. She got talking to Rob who chose the same cafe as her to do some work in.
Ally admits that what came next wouldn’t have happened without smartphones.
They exchanged details, and began messaging each other.
‘He seduced me with his messages,’ she says. ‘There was nothing inappropriate in them, he never sent naked photos or anything like that.’
But he told Ally about his friends and colleagues and made her laugh. ‘It was so exciting, so different to how my husband was. When I messaged him, I just got short, functional replies.’
When Rob suggested a walk on nearby Hampstead Heath they found themselves kissing.
Their liaison lasted for years, and became very physically intense, though they never had full sex — ‘We would have but we had nowhere to go,’ says Ally.
It only ended when Rob’s wife got cancer.
Ally is still with her husband today, who remains unaware. As Sarah and Ally’s stories illustrate, women often don’t begin online contact intending to have an affair. But things move rapidly because people quickly lose inhibitions behind a screen.
One reason married women find themselves embroiled in extra-marital dalliances, as in Sarah’s case, is that women tell themselves it’s all just ‘talk’, not a proper affair — even after sending pictures of their breasts to a stranger, women use this justification.
Why such self-deception? In my experience, women feel guiltier about affairs than men. They still see themselves as carers. But this is at odds with their longing for sexual excitement so they judge themselves harshly if they stray.
An online affair, however, often doesn’t seem ‘real’ at first.
But even if there has been no traditional physical infidelity so far, that doesn’t make it innocent.
I often advise this litmus test: would you be happy for your husband to see your messages or texts? If the answer is no, you’re having an affair — even if it isn’t yet physically consummated.
I also remind women that ‘emotional’ online affairs are dangerously unpredictable and often spill over into real-life physical infidelity — about 40 per cent of women’s online ‘emotional’ relationships turn to passionate physical ones.
But online affairs can be thrillingly heady because there’s so much ‘chase’.
You can contact a lover many times a day. There’s an emotional intensity many marriages no longer have.
While great sex is important, research shows it’s the lowest priority for women embarking on an affair. Emotional connection is top, so the constant to-and-fro of messages is seductive.
Even more electric is the experience of reconnecting with your first love online.
Many women over 35 confess to looking up their first boyfriend.
There’s a particular sort of eroticism about a first love. They can make you feel young again — there’s nothing more alluring for some women.
Sharon Jackson-Haworth, 43, fell into infidelity this way. She was 29 when she married John, but five years on he got a job where he was away for days at a time. ‘I became very lonely,’ she confesses. ‘One night, I was on Facebook and thought I’d look up people I’d lost touch with. I wasn’t looking to start an affair — it was a way of passing the time.
‘One old friend was Brad.
As teenagers we were boyfriend and girlfriend and got engaged, but I’d broken it off as I was so young.’ She sent him a brief message and four days later Brad replied; he had moved to the U.S. a decade before, and was single.
They started messaging regularly. Sharon rationalised her behaviour: ‘I was honest about being married. No, I didn’t mention anything about it to my hus-band, but I was simply chatting to a friend.’
Soon they were messaging each other several times a day. When Brad came to the UK to see family, they met for a pub lunch, and Sharon told her husband she was meeting a ‘friend’.
‘When I first set eyes on him, I could still see the boy I’d loved at 17. We hugged. There was an immediate attraction, and it felt so comfortable.’
Before Brad returned to the U.S. they met to say goodbye. ‘We were both upset and shared a passionate kiss. We knew then we both had deep feelings for each other.’
A month later Brad was back in the UK. ‘Nothing sexual happened apart from kissing, but seeing him confirmed my feelings that I no longer loved my husband — John and I hadn’t been physically intimate for six months.’
Just before Christmas 2012, Sharon told John their marriage was over and a month later, she flew to see Brad and they quickly became a couple.
They now live together near Reading and are marrying in December. ‘I’m so very happy, but of course I feel guilty for any hurt I caused,’ Sharon reflects. Many middle-aged wives justify their affairs by arguing that they’re so busy juggling careers, kids and housework that it’s a chance to take back something for themselves.
The beauty of an online fling is that even if your time is limited, a flirty message can easily be slotted in between the breakfast dishes and starting the school run. Far easier than escaping for an illicit lunch date.
You can still be ‘mum’ and the sexy other woman.
‘It was something just for me,’ says Sue, an attractive lawyer in her late 30s, of her own infidelity. ‘The affair began when I felt if I had one more demand made on me by my husband, or my four children, I would scream.
‘The affair was exciting. I was fulfilling my needs instead of everyone else’s.’
Frances, who wrote to me about her own marital problems, is by no means unique in saying: ‘Because of my affair I feel more sensual and sexy. I often fantasise about my lover when I am just going about the normal tasks of family life.’
The online world offers a seemingly low-risk boost to the battered self-esteem of women after years immersed in child rearing. Yet one aspect of having an affair has not changed with time.
You can never be sure you won’t be caught out, especially with such easy access to emails and texts. And you might imagine online affairs are less hurtful than old-fashioned flings.
But they’re just as devastating. Imagine finding the person you love sharing their feelings with someone else, on a daily basis, and how sexual did it become?
And because online flings are often exposed through the discovery of secret messages, the betrayed spouse can chronicle the whole liaision in excruciating detail.
I tell anyone tempted by an online flirtation to ask themselves why they feel like this. Is it because sex with their partner isn’t frequent or good enough?
Are they lonely or feel they don’t have enough quality time?
Then I ask, why they don’t sort out what’s going on with their marriage? Why not flirt with their partner or make love more?
I’d be a rich woman if I had a pound for every time someone has said to me, when talking about how their affair began, ‘I just couldn’t help it,’ or, ‘It just sort of happened, I was powerless to resist.’
But we must resist temptation at all costs. For it can jeopardise a marriage — whether it is found online or anywhere else.
Some names have been changed.