Can you catch infidelity? Here is the affair pandemic

As if Covid and the flu didn’t make our lives treacherous enough this winter, there’s – according to experts – a completely different, equally contagious phenomenon that we should also fear in our private lives: infidelity.

A recent study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that people are more likely to be unfaithful in their own relationships when exposed to the affairs of others, in part because they accept the perception 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 having one, a fifth have had more than three, and eight percent have had five or more.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey found that while women are becoming more likely to cheat, women are catching up. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of married women who had affairs increased nearly 40 percent to 14.7 percent (while 22 percent of married men admitted the same).

Lena, 36, a teacher who has lived in London with her husband for four years, says she fully understands how dominating someone else’s affairs can ruin your own. “My normal marriage, which to be honest is just a bit boring in everyday life, feels even more boring since my two best friends have these sexy affairs and are full of stories. You end up feeling a bit left out because we used to date and talk about our marriages and our work, but now they just want to talk about their much more illegal sex life, the excitement and risk of talking to each other when they do it is at home where they meet, if they think their husband has a clue.”

Her friends’ affairs have been going on for four and six months respectively, and Lena admits that her own feelings about her personal life have deteriorated over this period. “If they also talked about getting a little bored, I wouldn’t mind my own situation that much. Saying that feels awful because I think it’s just a normal marriage and I love him, we talked about having kids until recently and I don’t even want to think about anything else. But should I get rid of 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 was just starting to get annoyed that I wouldn’t be so bored at home if I didn’t think there was something much more exciting out there.”

Sound like FOMO? That’s because, says Jessica Alderson, co-founder and relationship expert at So Syncd, who agrees that, in general, those who believe “everyone does it” are more likely to take similar risks. “When your friends talk about their hot, steamy affairs, you can feel like you’re missing out, especially when you’re going through a trying time in your own relationship. It can reduce guilt when you can tell yourself it’s not that bad because everyone is doing it,” she explains.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

The core psychology behind 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 are prone to engage in socially unacceptable behavior to avoid.

“When we see friends having affairs and getting away with it, in the sense that they aren’t ostracized from their circle of friends, it leads us to believe that neither will we be. That changes the entire risk profile of an affair.”

Those in relationships who aren’t married also admit to their belief in the spread of friend infidelity, saying social media (even before you consider dating apps) has made everything a lot “simpler.”

JP, 32, who works in a London law firm, admits his three-year relationship was ruined after he started messaging someone he met in a bar on Facebook. “You know, when you look back and think, why the hell did I…? That’s basically how I feel,” he says.

“I added this girl to Facebook which was obviously the beginning of the end. I don’t know what I was thinking, what I was doing – if I was building someone up for the future, although I was perfectly happy and living with someone really nice at the time. Fool. It only ever has meaning because it was never meant to be a friendship and we had no reason to talk other than to flirt, which puts you down a path where you have to be very persistent, where you shouldn’t be following.

“I remember it felt exciting. I obviously didn’t imagine how boring, how horrible it would be if it was found out. A world temporarily collapsed for me.”

After three months, his girlfriend found his Facebook page open on his laptop and saw the messages, which were too illegal not to mean he hadn’t cheated in several months. “She was heartbroken, she moved out, there was basically no way forward. I think I was persuaded by the fact that a lot of people I knew at work and among buddies who were in relationships were at least flirting with other people over their phones, if not, dating and sleeping with them.

“It felt like everyone was doing it, which totally normalized it. Saying something along the lines of “but everyone does it” doesn’t sit well when your girlfriend finds out. Afterwards I asked myself if I wasn’t driven by such a mass mentality and I just felt weak. It wasn’t worth it.”

Safae, 29, agrees with JP. She is referring to a couple she knew, neither of whom knew they were essentially in an open relationship because they both played games on the side. “It’s depressing to think it’s everywhere, but it’s like – if everyone you know drinks, does it make it harder to give up alcohol? And do you have to rearrange your whole social environment to live more honestly?” She says. It was an ex she “slipped” with, two years into a new relationship, and while her current boyfriend hasn’t discovered it yet, she thinks about it all the time, admits it, and wonders if she can to confess before he finds out.

“I know a lot of his friends cheated on their girlfriends, and a lot of mine did too. We talk about it – we talk about everyone 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 pointless — like maybe we should just reckon with the scam. I wonder if that’s partly why people think it’s going to happen to them, so they just do it first, or don’t care that much themselves because it’s almost a defense mechanism. Is this modern love? It’s depressing as hell,” she repeats.

Jessica Alderson ends by warning that it’s a “fallacy” that feeling other people are doing something will fix it. “It has to be said that not everyone is influenced by their friends’ affairs. It also depends on your personality, priorities and values.

“For people who take loyalty and fidelity seriously, seeing friends having affairs won’t affect them, and in some cases it can even have the opposite effect.” The other point to keep in mind is that if you see your friends affairs play out from start to finish with painful endings, you might go the other way. Affairs are often not what they are made out to be. From afar they can look glamorous and exciting, but the reality is rather complicated and stressful.”

Comments are closed.