Can affairs save your marriage?

Maybe it’s time we stopped seeing infidelity as an enemy, and instead embraced it, a new book argues. Suzanne Harrington reports

Can affairs save your marriage?

IF you love and care for your spouse and family, but your sexual needs are not being met, should you (a) put up and shut up (b) get divorced (c) go to therapy or (d) have a no-strings affair?

In her book The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power, social scientist Catherine Hakim argues that it should be (d). She suggests we should reexamine our insistence on fidelity and get over the ingrained sexual squeamishness of our “puritan culture”. By ‘we’, she means Britain and America, but says this includes Ireland too — because we also regard affairs as cheating. “Puritan Christian culture can turn marriage into a prison,” she says.

It is this fundamental idea — that having no-strings sex with someone you are not emotionally or financially committed to, while remaining in a committed relationship with your long-term partner, is ‘cheating’ — which Hakim seeks to challenge. Here’s her argument: America, Britain and Ireland lag far behind the rest of Western Europe in our attitudes to sex, monogamy and fidelity. We regard sexless marriages (one fifth of all marriages in the US and Britain, according to her research) as more acceptable than marriages where the dissatisfied partner seeks sex outside the marriage without dismantling the family unit. We therefore have high divorce rates, family break-up, and all kinds of displacement. Instead of such unpleasantness, we should be grown up about our sexual needs — after all, they are hardwired into us as innately as our needs to eat and sleep — and go and have sex as required, without destroying our home lives in the process.

“Puritan culture” negates and trivialises the importance of having your sexual needs met, she says. As in, if you and your spouse haven’t had sex for five years, well, tough. Going to counselling is the common remedy for celibate marriage, which Hakim thinks is a con, because “these people [relationship counsellors] are just selling their own services”, have “no acceptance of some marriages being celibate”, but instead act as the “moral police of monogamy”. Relationship counsellors, she says, only ever tell you to work on your sexless marriage, instead of ever thinking outside the box.

Not that any of this has ever stopped people from having affairs, despite 80% of British society and 90% of American society disapproving of them. But Hakim is not interested in old-school “asymmetric” affairs, where a richer older man has an illicit relationship with a younger poorer woman, leaving his long-term spouse sidelined. This is not what she is talking about, although of course this still happens all the time.

Hakim says the sharing of money and the sharing of sex is intrinsic in marriage. It’s not acceptable for one party to say they are bored of paying the mortgage with their spouse, yet it is acceptable — normal, even — for one party to say they are bored of having sex with their spouse. However, should the spouse from whom the sex has been withdrawn seek it outside the sexless marriage, s/he is “cheating”.

What Hakim wishes to highlight is a new trend born of the internet, where equally matched men and women meet online on websites designed solely for the purpose of no-strings sexual affairs. These are what Hakim calls ‘playfairs’ — not affairs of the heart, but sexual connections which may result in at most, a friendship — neither party is remotely interested in leaving their partner or restructuring their domestic lives. They just want sex.

Yes but. What if one person develops feelings for the person with whom they are having the ‘no-strings’ connection? “They are dropped like a stone,” Hakim says emphatically. “I have interviewed hundreds of people, and the response is always the same from both men and women. Similarly, people in bad marriages who are unhappy are not attractive propositions either.”

In other words, the people who use these no-strings sites are often “high income, highly educated, and confident”, who are seeking “enjoyment... not in a crude or nasty way, but have more of a French approach of doing things in style.” Ah yes, the French. The famous cinq a sept — 5pm to 7pm — where people meet to have no-strings sex with people who are not their spouses.

Then everyone goes home for dinner, and life goes on. It’s not just France — in Finland, says Hakim, one half of men and one third of women have had a “major affair” — that is, one with strings, emotions, the lot. Her point is that affairs happen, and we need to move our thinking forward and stop pretending sexless marriages don’t exist or that divorce is the only remedy.

Yes but — and this is a serious but. What about the deceit element? Wouldn’t the most pragmatic approach be to involve your spouse in your sexual adventures, rather than doing it behind their back? Hakim says this is not what the trend is about, that the no-strings websites are not about swinging or group sex, although swingers sometimes try to recruit individuals via these no-strings sites. She says that many of the people she interviewed who have had no-strings affairs would recoil from the idea of group sex.

“Playfairs allow people to be discreet,” she says, adding that it allows people to look after their marriage by taking care of their own sexual needs without displacing their spouse or home life. “It also avoids sexual harassment in the workplace where people would have traditionally looked for a sex partner. And because it happens via a website, there is no social overlap.”

Hakim makes for a radical reappraisal of how we view monogamy within long-term relationships. Her argument is clear-cut, clinical, and entirely unburdened by traditionalism. But while her attitude to sex is honest and refreshing, it might be harder to convince the “puritan culture” to get online and get it on, before returning home in time to read the kids their bedtime story. We have never been open or honest about sex — can the internet really change this? Maeve Douglas, counsellor with Relationships Ireland responds: “A discreet ‘no-strings’ internet affair sounds like an interesting proposal to deal with celibate marriage, but in reality can it work? If both partners in the marriage consent to this idea and have explored its possible implications and impact together, then it may serve a purpose but at what cost emotionally and where does it leave trust and emotional intimacy?”

Is it that easy, especially for women, to separate sex from emotional intimacy? What if the participating partner starts to feel more connected to the internet partner than his/her partner at home?

“Communication and trust are the cornerstones of a healthy relationship,” says Douglas. “Looking elsewhere is often a form of avoidance of dealing with a difficult issue like sexual intimacy within the marriage. Negotiating one’s needs together and being part of a solution together would be so much more healthy and satisfying and hopefully result in a happier relationship and a lot more fun.”

* The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power by Catherine Hakim is published by Gibson Square Books, €19.80.

*; 1890 380 380

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