WHEN you got married, the last thing on your mind was a fling.
Marriage, or its modern equivalent — the committed, long-term relationship — has traditionally been viewed as a safe harbour.
But nowadays, when both partners are often out at work, while juggling a stressful home-life of childcare and domestic duties, financial worries and the siren call of the internet, there’s no guarantee of fidelity.
Our modern, always-connected culture means it’s never been easier to take time out to flirt or even have an affair — and according to the latest research, the chances of having one are as high as 25%.
Infidelity can be hugely exciting — but it can have truly devastating consequences for a marriage or long-term relationship.
Films like Damage, Unfaithful, Fatal Attraction or the unforgettable Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead show just how wrong things can go when it comes to extra-marital affairs.
Yet, it seems many of us are willing to take the chance — while a recent study by the relationships organisation Relate shows one in four of us is unfaithful to our partners, one psychotherapist believes the actual figure is closer to seven in ten.
On top of that, it would be a mistake to assume that the traditionally conservative Irish are a faithful lot.
Global infidelity website Ashley-Madison, which has more than 28 million members in 41 countries, has not only signed up 108,345 Irish members or 3.15% of the entire adult Irish population since it entered the Irish market four years ago — but, says its European spokesman Christoph Kraemer, this figure is significantly higher than the website’s international average.
Behind all of this are figures from the Central Statistics Office which show the number of divorced people has rocketed by more than 150% since 2002 — rising from 35,000 in 2002 to more than 87,700 in 2011 while the number of separations stands at 116,194, up from 107,200 five years previously.
Clearly, we can’t blame infidelity for all of these broken hearts, but it’s a common problem.
Tony Moore, a psychotherapist and relationships counsellor with Relationships Ireland believes that the actual number of people being unfaithful to partners is higher than that reflected in the official statistics because many people won’t even admit to being unfaithful, even in a confidential survey, so studies tend to underestimate the level of infidelity in society. Moore believes that as many as seven in ten people in a relationship are being unfaithful in some form, be that face-to-face, internet contact, texting, sexting, phoning, emailing, chatting up members of the opposite sex on nights out, or viewing pornography.
“Infidelity is exceptionally common, depending on how you define it,” he says.
There’s a very ambiguous attitude to it, he says, pointing out that while people will officially take a very hard line on it, “there’s never been as much of it going on. Infidelity is an epidemic”.
Christoph Kraemer also believes that surveys on infidelity may not always get the true figure, no matter how carefully they’re conducted:
“There’s still so much social stigma attached to infidelity that it’s very difficult to get conclusive data. I think the number of seven out of 10 is probably a lot closer to the truth than one in four,” he says, adding that despite public perception, the experience of Ashley-Madison has been that conservative-seeming Catholic people “tend to be more adventurous in their sex lives”.
It seems there’s no guarantee that there will never be more than two people in your marriage.
However, there are things you can do to make an affair less likely.
Infidelity, says psychotherapist Austin Prior, “comes at the end of a period where a couple have drifted apart even without necessarily noticing it”.
The thing to do, he believes, is to pre-empt that by consciously nurturing and maintaining your relationship.
“Neglect can kill love,” he warns.
So before you get to either the stage where you are about to experiment with infidelity, or worse, where dishonesty, betrayal and lack of communication have destroyed your connection, here are some ways to affair-proof your relationship.
There should be an agreement on boundaries, says Tony Moore. Have a conversation about what each of you perceive to be unfaithful behaviour.
Some people might not consider light flirting with a member of the opposite sex as being unfaithful to their partner — but others would. “Things have to be worked out,” he says.
“You need to keep very close to each other and be able to express how you feel about things in your relationship — we need to be heard and listened to. Sometimes people in long relationships let communication slide and take each other for granted but no relationship is 100% solid; it does not just happen. Be aware of each other – talk, listen, share anxieties and concerns.”
Remember, says Kraemer, the number one reason Irish women give Ashley Madison for straying outside their relationship is that they feel emotionally neglected by their partner or spouse — and that’s the second biggest reason given by unfaithful men.
“Go out on a date or even stay in and cook something nice,” advises Bernadette Ryan, psychotherapist and relationships counsellor with Relationships Ireland.
“Show how much you care for the person and give them the opportunity to show how much they care for you.”
This needs to be done regularly, says psychotherapist and relationships counsellor Austin Prior. “Don’t make excuses and don’t assume that your relationship doesn’t need maintenance. Love needs to be worked on. Be conscious about nurturing and maintaining your relationship.”
He suggests couples ask questions like: Are we communicating well with each other? Are we accessible to each other? Do I feel close to my partner? Is there a connection, how do we cherish each other?”
If we feel anxious or sad about our relationship we should voice that, he says. It’s a good idea to consider how you may have unconsciously contributed to any problems in the relationship he adds.
Contact websites, for example, says Moore, may promise adventure with no consequences “but there are always consequences,” he warns.
“Have an internal warning system about opportunities which present themselves, through people coming on to you.” You must make it clear that you are not available, he says.
“It is so easy to cross a boundary with an online friendship — just because it is on a screen does not mean it is not real,” warns Ryan.
Appreciating the positives in your relationship could actually prevent you having an affair, says Ryan. “Be conscious of your relationship. Value it more.”
Don’t invest in someone who has a history of infidelity: If someone has been unfaithful in the past, says Moore, don’t get involved.
“I have seen people who have had sex on their wedding day with someone else — and I have seen people who tell me they are having an affair with someone who attended their wedding.
“You’d be shocked to know how many people are being unfaithful in the run-up to their wedding. “
Respect is the foundation of a relationship,” says Moore. “I have seen couples speak to each other in a way that is abysmal.”
This can potentially open the way to an affair, he warns. “If there is no respect, then a person will find it attractive if someone else smiles and listens to them when they feel lonely and disrespected.”
It’s crucial, says Ryan. “Trust is something that is earned. You have to earn your partner’s trust by your behaviour. Think about what trust means.”
It’s central to any relationship so don’t make the mistake of letting it slip. According to research carried out by Ashley Madison, says Kraemer, an unfulfilling sex life is the main reason men give for straying — for women it’s the second biggest reason.
There are certain crisis years in everyone’s life — for many people this may be around the time when the children are young and they are struggling with their career and mortgage repayments.
“The reality of having a young family is often to do with stress and strain. Relationship gets neglected and can go on automatic pilot. The smaller emotional intimacies are gone and there can be conflict,” Ryan warns.
Another difficult stage can be the middle years, from the late 40s into mid-50s. This is when men can feel time is running out on them and they haven’t achieved everything they wanted to do.
Instead of addressing a possible unhappiness, some can turn away from their relationship and seek an affair.
“It’s not only men but often it is men because they find it difficult to address the underlying issues in a relationship that is no longer working,” says Ryan.
Forgiveness can be difficult, says Prior. However, it’s not impossible.
“I think people have to be prepared to do something to save the relationship.” Forgiveness is essential in saving the relationship, but that can only happen, he says, when the person who has been unfaithful takes responsibility for what they’ve done.
“In my experience an essential part of it is trying to help to heal the wound — saying sorry is not always enough.”
“I was in a long-term relationship with a woman which had lasted for about 15 years.
“We had three children together, and we were great friends and exceptionally close emotionally, although our sex life was not great.
“Then on one occasion, when I was in my early 30s, I had to go away for the weekend. I really wanted my partner to come with me. However, she refused, because she had something else planned for that weekend.
“We had an argument. I felt very rejected because it seemed to me she preferred to be with her friends. I felt second-best.
“After that I began to see things in a different light. Everything she did seemed to prove that she was rejecting me and I became emotionally disconnected from her.
“She started going out without me more and more.
“I was travelling for my work and would be away several days at a time. I had an affair with somebody I met through work.
“I didn’t tell my partner about it, but it turned out that afterwards she also had an affair. Then she heard about my affair and asked me to leave the house and I did.
“She later married the man and is very happy now.
“I know now that my initial rejection of her was what made everything go wrong. I should have understood that it didn’t necessarily mean anything when she didn’t want to go away that weekend.
“I should have understood that it didn’t mean she no longer loved me.
“I’m sorry now, every second of the day. I hurt this woman, my children and myself.”
Three relationship therapists on when a marriage is unable to recover from an affair.
When one person is so hurt they simply cannot get past the infidelity, says Austin Prior.
When a betrayer won’t look at why he or she committed infidelity, says Tony Moore.Sometimes the unfaithful person simply wants out. Women have a tendency to seek reconciliation. “Most of the people seeking counselling are women who have been betrayed by a male partner,” he says, adding that the vast majority of men will find it virtually impossible to get past the fact that their partner has been in a sexual relationship with someone else.
A relationship is over if, after a lot of exhaustive talking and listening there is no common ground, and if the desire to save it is not mutual, says Bernadette Ryan.