How do couples react after an affair? Five people talk about their experiences of infidelity, and an analyst explains why we stray
‘I was the “wronged woman” who no longer feels wronged’
Isla, 47, is a divorced GP, with two children
My husband left when I was 40, after ten years of marriage. Our two children were still in primary school.
I felt like the classic frumpy wife. The woman with whom he had an affair and who then became his second, considerably less frumpy wife, was 13 years my junior.
They met when he was walking our dog in the local park and hers sniffed ours. You couldn’t make it up. I had no suspicions whatsoever. The only sign was that he became rather bad-tempered. A few months later, one night at supper in our kitchen, he just came out with it: he was leaving me for another woman and he did so later that night. I felt as though I was having a heart attack.
She may have been unable to rustle up a delicious supper at the drop of a hat or juggle work meetings with toddlers’ temperatures, but these qualities were no longer of any interest or value to my husband. She had rather more exotic, probably unmentionable traits, which I speculated upon. They gave me nightmares.
It was baffling to me that almost overnight everything he and I held dear became redundant. For him, the exchange from one to the other of us was as seemingly dispassionate as upgrading to a new car. The shock and pain I felt made me feel so physically sick that I was scared I would throw up willy-nilly on pavements and in people’s bathrooms as I had throughout my pregnancies. The mere memory of the assault on the mind and body can still destabilise me even now, seven years later.
When I read about Matt Hancock’s affair, my first thought was for his wife. Not pity — the last thing she wants is pity, mine or anyone else’s — but deep empathy. The detail about Hancock waking his eight-year-old to say that he was off was the one that kicked me most in the guts. When I told my oldest daughter, nine at the time, that her father was not coming home, she writhed and screamed for three hours until there was no scream left in her.
I went through my period of mourning when I was too raw to do anything but heal myself and hold the girls. In time I found the courage to go on dating apps. I had fun going out with different men — coffee, drinks, dinners, the odd fling: some grim, some great. I was determined not to be defined by seeing myself or allowing others to see me as a “failure”. I wasn’t a failure. It was a case of shit happens, and shit can happen to anyone. Life is longer than it once was. I wasn’t old — 40 — and I still had a future, just a different one from the one I had envisaged. No one judged me. Family and friends were nothing but supportive and sympathetic.
I still live in Edinburgh, near family and old friends, but now with my new partner, whom I met online, and my two children. He is kind, which was top of everything I wanted after the wanton unkindness of my husband. It was crucial to have the time to rebuild my self-esteem after it was shattered so blatantly. Only then was I able to make a measured choice as to whether to remain on my own, or to embark on a new relationship, but only with someone kind.
Of course, nobody wants to be betrayed, but wives like me, who have been left for younger or “better” versions, no longer have to be cowed into obscurity, living out a solitary existence of purple cardigans and cats. We are fitter and healthier and more robust than ever, and can learn much from our daughters, who are feisty and will not be cowed by men in the same way our mother’s generation once was.
My ex-husband and I had a rocky two years navigating our separation and his move down south with “her”. But he and I are now friends; she and I, friendly enough. During the turmoil I don’t deny I harboured vengeful thoughts. My fantasies were full of clichés — not letting him see the children, ringing her up and saying unspeakable things. It took a good deal of restraint at times, but I held my tongue, thank God, because it means my relationship with my ex-husband today is healthy and respectful. We talk on the phone a lot and he comes to see us often.
Naturally enough the cracks began to show between him and his wife soon after they moved in together and married. I felt no satisfaction whatsoever. The great joy of karma eluded me. It had been inevitable, their unravelling. It was a combination of their hasty get-together and their incompatibility. She was unable to make him laugh or talk about things that interested him. She began to find their age gap difficult. Far from gorging on their misfortune, I just felt sad, because the whole upheaval had been for nothing and such a waste. No real winners.
Having said that, I do believe that I am the one who, of the three of us — him, her, me — has turned out to be better off at this point. Balanced and content. He and she are suffering. Time and distance have bestowed strength and perspective on me. That doesn’t make me a saint. It makes me a “wronged” woman who no longer feels “wronged”, but reconstructed, robust, wiser and as cautiously excited as anyone can be about the next few decades of life.
‘It was an emotional affair — at first’
Rory, 32, works in publishing. He has a four-year-old daughter and is separated
It was right at the start of the pandemic that a flirtation began. Lucy and I were the first two people in the room on a company video call.Lucy teased me about being “a bit keen” and commented on the poster in the spare room that was doubling as my WFH office. It shows the cover art of a lot of iconic Penguin books. Lucy had read more than half of them. When I felt the need to lie about how many I’d read, I knew I wanted to impress her.
Lucy and I work in sales, and the first lockdown was incredibly stressful. We all thought we were going to lose our jobs. There is something about working closely together in a crisis that lends itself to romance.
I’d been married to Sara for five years and I have a daughter who is four. Sara was also working from home and there were endless spats about who was doing more childcare or shopping or cooking. I found it much easier and fun talking to Lucy on Zoom and on the phone.
To be honest, things had been rocky even before Covid. We were effectively living separately in the same house during lockdown (my WFH office became my bedroom). We agreed on a trial separation in July and I began seeing Lucy when restrictions eased during August last year.
My soon to be ex-wife is retrospectively calling my new relationship an “affair” because, she says, we were obviously “up to something” before the marital split. We weren’t. But she angrily calls it an “emotional affair” and perhaps that is true. I abandoned the marriage months before we actually split. My heart just wasn’t in it any more.
‘It was intoxicating. My self-esteem soared’
Natasha, 51, is a freelance PR executive. She was married for 15 years and has four children
We met at my daughter’s sports day. He was standing at the edge of the school playing field, consoling his daughter who had tripped in the 25m race, and we got chatting. He let it slip that he was divorced. I told him I always attended school events alone, hoping he would pick up that I was not happily married.
It felt as if we had an instant connection, that he was interested in me in a way that my husband never was. We began to say quick but loaded hellos at the school gates and soon I was spending every waking moment thinking about him. We began to email each other. There was always a lovely message waiting for me when I turned on my computer after seeing off my children to school and we’d chat on the phone as he commuted to his London office.
I didn’t approve of affairs. I had endured my husband’s indiscretions through 15 years of raising our four children. I stayed because I didn’t want to spoil the kids’ comfortable lives by divorcing their father.
But I told myself this was different. We were decent, honourable people who’d always put our children’s needs first. I knew I was behaving recklessly but I felt like I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes we would meet at his place during school hours and fall into bed and not surface until school pick-up. Being the centre of someone else’s world was intoxicating. My self-esteem soared.
And then I arrived home from his house one day, full of joy because he’d told me for the first time that he loved me, and a pile of papers by my computer caught my eye. To my utter horror, I realised they were printouts of all the emails between myself and my lover. Not only were the emails printed out for me to see I’d been caught out, but my husband had forwarded them to my family, friends — even my children’s school.
I didn’t have much of a marriage to save, but it was my children’s sadness that was the worst. My husband told them that their “bad mummy” had been with another man and he’d have to leave. They regarded my betrayal of their father as a betrayal to them.
He tracked down my lover and warned him to stay away from me, which he did. He simply vanished from my life. I struggled to hide my broken heart from my children while racked with guilt that I’d hurt them. And yet, while the initial fallout of my affair was agony, it was what was needed to show that the marriage was over. It was what I needed to start living again. As much as I’d wanted to keep the family together for my children’s sakes, they are better off no longer exposed to the toxic environment of a sham marriage. They may not realise why, but at that time, my children enjoyed the company of a joyous, more youthful mother — and some of that joy still remains.
‘I just wanted to feel attractive to someone’
Claire, 43, is a civil servant. She has been married for 15 years and has a son
Pre-pandemic my husband and I would socialise together once, twice a month, depending on babysitters, or have the odd date night at home. But we’d fallen out of the habit of making an effort. So unless we planned to do something together we never actually spent time in each other’s company. Then came Covid and he was furloughed.
You hear so many stories of marriages breaking down, but I wouldn’t say we were exactly unhappy. What prompted the affair was the pressure — of home schooling, of my husband earning less, of him always being down. It was quite overwhelming. By Christmas I considered leaving him. I thought: “What is happening to my life? I never imagined this.”
I tried to speak to him, but he was quite dismissive. It pushed me to join a website called Illicit Encounters in January. It was a big step. But what crystallised it for me was that on New Year’s Eve he took himself off to bed and I nursed a glass of wine and rang in the new year alone. I thought: “Is this what I’ll be doing for the next 30 years? No. Definitely not.”
I was searching for divorce lawyers online, and the reality hit that leaving a marriage wasn’t straightforward. We have a son and a mortgage. So I thought: “What are my options?”
I debated and debated, though, before I finally signed up to the affairs site. There’s nothing wrong with browsing, but once you take action you’re crossing that line, admitting there’s a problem in your marriage. I created a profile and started receiving messages almost instantly. It was quite overwhelming, about 40 or 50.
I started speaking to quite a few men in a similar situation straightaway. One man had actually had an affair before. He said it had saved his marriage. But his initial message stood out — it was just: “Hello, how are you, don’t be worried about being new.” Once we started speaking, that was it. I moved quite quickly off the website to WhatsApp. We had a phone call the next day and arranged to meet for coffee.
We went for a walk and there were definitely sparks. It wasn’t just about falling into bed, that was about two weeks later. I managed to cheekily book an Airbnb quite close to home. I hadn’t had a physical relationship with my husband for a few months. I was nervous but excited. We stayed there for a few hours, had a shower and went back home. Apart from the sex, it was so nice to speak to someone who could hold a conversation and looked at me in the way my husband used to look at me. To be attractive to someone again makes you feel happier and more confident in yourself.
Since then we’ve been seeing each other when we can. We are lucky to live not far from each other. During lockdown we had to be imaginative, but even if we didn’t have time to get physical, we’d go for a walk or a coffee. Now things are opening up, keeping secrets is trickier. The affair has made me realise that I don’t want to leave my marriage. I do love my husband and we have a son together. It helps that the man I’m seeing doesn’t want to leave his wife. She’s unwell and has been for many years — he can’t abandon her. We have an understanding.
If my husband had any inkling, he’d confront me, so I don’t think he knows. The fear of being found out is always at the back of my mind. I do feel guilty, but I like having the best of both worlds. I tell myself that life is for living. Whatever decision I finally make will be for me and not just to make everyone else happy.
‘It made me feel good. No one was hurt’
Joshua, 48, works in insurance. He is married with two teenage daughters
It was the summer of 2019 and I’d turned 46. I’d been happily married for 15 years. My wife and I have two daughters; the first was at university and the second had just completed her A-levels and was all set to go. There was a very gratifying sense that we (my wife and I) had “done the job”. I talked about the exciting things we could do with the time (and money) we had in hand. But I was disappointed at the lukewarm response from my wife. To be frank, I believe she was heartbroken at “losing” our daughters and didn’t see their departure as the gateway to freedom that I did.
My affair happened when I was invited to speak at a conference. I work for a big insurance company and I’d been asked to address an audience of executives from around the country. At the lectern, that sense of being watched, listened to and respected was thrilling. At the drinks afterwards this young woman told me my talk was “ inspirational” — a word not bandied around a lot in the insurance industry.
I have always been the steady guy, the safe pair of hands. When I gave my eldest daughter some supermarket gift vouchers to pay for her food at uni she said to me: “Dad, as a parting gift it’s a bit practical and boring.” I was hurt.
The conference organisers put me up for the night in a city-centre hotel. My new friend accepted the offer of a nightcap. Here was my opportunity.
I didn’t want to end my marriage and my young (ish) admirer didn’t want a relationship. It was fun and silly, but no, not meaningless. As a parent, as a husband, I had spent years minimising my personal identity. Having a fling made me feel human again.
Afterwards I went home to my wife, who didn’t suspect anything. I think she would be devastated if she knew. However, I now think: “Why do we make such a big deal out of fleeting intimacy?” I had an opportunity. I took it. No one was hurt. My wife doesn’t seem that interested in sex any more. Why shouldn’t I enjoy it where I can find it?
Names and details have been changed
The 8 reasons people cheat
Jean-Claude Chalmet, psychotherapist
Lack of emotional connection in the marriage
An affair is often the end point of feeling taken for granted, which is possible even is sex is still happening. No one wants to feel used. I’ve noticed that women in particular tire of feeling like the waitress at the banquet of their husband’s life.
The sex drought
I’ve heard spouses say: “You drove me to it.” I find in my practice that many men think that their partners don’t want sex. This creates a tension — and they look for the easy solution. The truth is their partners often do want sex, just not bad sex.
Women often cheat because they’re bored, and tired of waiting for their husband to engage. Men tell me they often become disengaged when their partners stop initiating sex. They want them to do it much more. The irony is, in their affairs, women tend to be more sexually assertive than in marriage.
Fear of intimacy
An affair can be a way of sabotaging a “safe” relationship. If someone secretly fears emotional closeness or commitment because it makes them feel vulnerable (as ultimately they believe that their partner may leave them), they may create a situation that makes the partner more inclined to do just that.
If you were unable to express anger or rebel when you were growing up, having an affair can be an immature way of showing strong emotions. We might rebel against expectations or society because now we have the power to do so. Some men reach the pinnacle of their career and feel invincible.
A cry for help
It can be that the one cheating is punishing their partner. An affair can be a toxic way of bringing an intolerable state of distance or stalemate in a relationship to an end, or of trying to regain control if it’s someone who feels unheard by their partner. This is particularly cruel because the betrayal of an affair is so painful.
Emotional maturity incorporates self-awareness, empathy and communication — all of which are often lacking when you cheat. An affair is an emotionally immature way of acting out your discontent.People say: “Actually, I just wanted to get my leg over.” That merely shows how unaware they are. It’s a passive aggressive way of expressing anger within the relationship.
Often you want to prove to yourself that you’re better than the person your lover is married to. Dare I say it, I’ve seen this a lot with women. They can describe in gory detail the awfulness of their lover’s wife. I once said to a client: “I wish you had as much awareness about yourself.” They often want to understand why he won’t leave her. The affair is an ego boost.
As told to Anna Maxted for The Times Saturday, 3 July 2021