As if Covid and flu weren’t making our lives treacherous enough this winter, there is — according to experts — a very different, equally contagious phenomenon we should be fearing in our personal lives, too: infidelity.
A recent study by the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior recently found that exposure to others’ affairs made people more likely to be unfaithful in their own relationships, partly because they absorb the impression that cheating is acceptable. According to the Office for National Statistics, infidelity is one of the most commonly cited reasons for divorce in the UK, with around one in five admitting to having had an affair.
Of those who have had an affair, only half have stopped at one, a fifth had more than three, and eight per cent had five or more.
Meanwhile the National Opinion Research Centre’s General Social Survey found in the United States that while men have always been more likely to cheat, women are catching up. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of married women having affairs rose almost 40 per cent to 14.7 per cent (whereas 22 per cent of married men admitted the same).
Lena, 36, a teacher who lives in London with her husband of four years, says she understands exactly how the prevalence of others’ affairs can ruin your own. “My quite normal marriage, which is day-to-day just a bit boring to be honest, seems even more boring since my two best friends started having these sexy affairs and are full of stories. You do end up feeling a bit left out because we used to go out and talk about our marriages and work but now all they want to talk about is their far more illicit sex lives, the excitement and risk of talking to the other guy when they’re at home, where they meet, whether they think their husband has any idea.”
Her friends’ affairs have been going on for four and six months respectively, and Lena admits her own feelings about her home life have worsened during that time. “If they were also talking about being a bit bored, I don’t think I’d mind my own situation so much. That feels awful to say because I think it’s just a normal marriage and I love him, we were until quite recently talking about having kids, and I don’t even want to be contemplating anything else. But should I ditch the friends? Or be stronger? Or throw away my normal life for something more dangerous?
“It’s hard to know what’s going on. I’ve just really started to resent thinking I wouldn’t feel so bored at home if I hadn’t come to think there was something much more exciting outside of it.”
Sound like FOMO? That’s because it is, says Jessica Alderson, co-founder and relationship expert at So Syncd, who agrees that, in general, those who believe “everyone is doing it” will be more likely to take similar risks. “If your friends are talking about their hot, steamy affairs, it can make you feel like you’re missing out, particularly if you’re going through a challenging time in your own relationship. It can lessen feelings of guilt if you can tell yourself that it isn’t that bad because everyone is doing it,” she explains.
The core psychology behind the thinking has evolutionary roots, she adds. “Thousands of years ago, being part of a tribe was essential to our survival and this has caused us to evolve with an innate desire to be accepted by others, which means we tend to avoid socially unacceptable behaviour.
“When we see friends having affairs and ‘getting away with it’ in the sense that they aren’t being ostracised from their friendship circles, it makes us think that we won’t be either. This changes the whole risk profile of having an affair.”
Those in relationships but are not married also admit how persuaded they are by the prevalence of friends’ infidelity and say social media (even before you consider dating apps) has made it all much “easier”.
JP, 32, who works at a law firm in London, admits his relationship of three years was ruined after he started Facebook messaging someone he met in a bar. “You know when you look back and you think, why the hell did I…? That’s how I feel, basically,” he says.
“I added this girl on Facebook, which was obviously the start of the end. I don’t know what I thought I was doing — whether I was setting up someone for the future, even though I was perfectly happy and living with someone really nice at the time. Idiot. It only ever means one thing, because it wasn’t ever going to be a friendship and we had no reason to talk except to flirt, which starts you on a path you have to be very adamant you shouldn’t be on, not to follow.
“I remember it felt exciting. I obviously was not imagining how unexciting, how awful, it would be when it was exposed. My world temporarily fell apart then.”
After three months, his girlfriend found his Facebook page open on his laptop and saw the messages which were too illicit not to mean he hadn’t been cheating for several months. “She was heartbroken, she moved out, there wasn’t a way forward basically. I think I was persuaded by the fact that a lot of people I knew at work and amongst mates, who were in relationships, were at least flirting with other people on their phones, if not meeting and sleeping with them.
“It felt like everyone was doing it, which completely normalised it. Saying anything along the lines of ‘but everyone’s doing it’, doesn’t exactly fly when your girlfriend finds out. I wondered afterwards whether there was a bit like crowd mentality stringing me along and just felt weak. It wasn’t worth it.”
Safae, 29, agrees with JP. She references a couple she knew, neither of whom knew they were essentially in an open relationship because both were playing away on the side. “It’s depressing to think it’s everywhere, but it’s like — if everyone you know drinks, is it harder to give up alcohol? And do you have to rearrange your whole social circle in order to live more honestly?” she says. It was an ex that she “slipped up” with, two years into a new relationship, and while it hasn’t been discovered by her current boyfriend yet, she thinks about it all the time, she admits, and wonders if she should confess before he finds out.
“I know a lot of his friends have cheated on their girlfriends, and a lot of mine have. We talk about it — we talk about the fact that everyone’s doing it and say we’ll never be them. I feel more dishonest every time it happens to someone else now. But it also feels futile — like maybe we should just expect the cheating on. I wonder if that’s partly why it’s so common, people think it’s going to happen to them so they just do it first, or rather, don’t care about it as much themselves because it’s almost a defence mechanism. Is that modern love? It’s depressing as hell,” she repeats.
Jessica Alderson ends on a warning that it’s a “fallacy” that feeling that other people are doing something makes it okay. “It’s worth saying that not everyone is influenced by their friends having affairs. It also depends on your personality, priorities, and values.
“For people who take loyalty and fidelity seriously, seeing friends having affairs won’t sway them, and in some cases, it can actually have the opposite effect. The other point to note is that if you see your friends’ affairs play out from start to finish with painful endings, you might go the other way. Affairs often aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. From a distance, they can look glamorous and exciting but the reality is that tend to be complicated and stressful.”