The 51-year-old retiree and 43-year-old store clerk had two spouses, 35 years of marriage and a stay-at-home order between them when they embarked on an affair in late March.
The strangers felt sexually unfulfilled in their marriages on Vancouver Island and connected quickly on Ashley Madison, a dating website for people seeking affairs. They now spend much of their days exchanging fervent sexts, photos and videos through an app called Kik.
“This is definitely a release," the man said. “It helps pass the time and frees up pent-up frustration.”
The two are abiding by physical distancing rules, limiting the affair to their phones, for now. The retiree retreats to the bathroom, bedroom or his home office to send photos and videos – his wife remarking that he’s on his phone all the time. The woman is bolder: “My husband is lying on the couch with his legs on my lap and I’m texting away,” she said. “He is oblivious.”
Home isolation is inflaming serious issues in people’s intimate relationships. Couples are feeling cooped up, divorce filings are on the rise, child custody battles are flaring and domestic violence has surged.
In tense times, some are turning outside their marriages for a release valve. Some of these adulterers are waiting out the quarantine, only communicating online for the time being. Others are risking more, breaking home isolation rules to carry on extramarital affairs in person. Their cover stories are dwindling: grocery-store trips and solo walks are the last remaining excuses to leave the house.
Always complicated, infidelity is even more consequential now, experts say. Today, affairs involve several layers of betrayal: Those who stray not only break the marriage vows, they deceive spouses through a major global crisis, possibly risking a husband or wife’s health.
“On the one hand, people who are risking it, it speaks to a depth of need. But on the other, it is the height of irresponsibility,” said Alicia Walker, who surveyed philandering spouses for her 2017 book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity.
“You’re betraying the sanctity of the relationship but you’re also exposing your spouse to possible life-threatening illness,” said Prof. Walker, who teaches sociology at Missouri State University.
As lockdown orders took hold across Canada in mid-March, Ashley Madison saw a drop in new users signing up, with people feeling “shock,” chief strategy officer Paul Keable said. But by April 13, staff recorded a 30-per-cent jump in Canadian sign-ups from the month prior. According to Mr. Keable, the increase reflects spouses feeling suffocated by home life in quarantine.
“They are stuck,” he said. “This time together can expose fractures that exist in a relationship.”
In two surveys of 3,500 Ashley Madison users conducted between mid-March and early April, 60 per cent said they’d be happier isolating with an affair partner than with their husband or wife. Some 58 per cent complained their spouses weren’t initiating any sexual contact, with 51 per cent of female users and 39 per cent of male users saying they felt less attracted to their partner while isolating together. Other “pet peeves” included spouses glued to their phones, picking fights, acting moody and being slovenly around the house.
Mr. Keable said the quarantine sign-ups mirror an upswing the website typically sees in January, when people sign up after “spending an inordinate amount of time around their spouse or partner over the Christmas holidays."
“Sometimes we like our partners better the less time we spend with them,” Prof. Walker said.
Many of the ways people used to distract themselves from a failing relationship – late nights at the office, gym workouts, drinks with friends – are gone. “You can hide a lot of the unhappiness in the flurry of modern life," she said.
Citing past research, Prof. Walker said husbands and wives told her their affairs helped them blow off steam, some comparing it to a spa day. This type of stress relief now feels even more urgent for some, she added.
As lockdown orders tightened on March 18 in Miami, two affair partners had their last rendezvous at a hotel in a tourist area that resembled a ghost town. The woman and man met online in January and managed to hook up three times before physical distancing rules came down. Living several hours apart with their children and spouses of 15 years, the two can only text now, the novelty and excitement of their affair on pause.
“You kind of feel like a kid on Christmas Eve and all of a sudden you find out Santa’s not coming any more,” said the woman, a 41-year-old special events co-ordinator. “It’s a total letdown.”
The two attempted another clandestine meet-up in late March, his excuse being a fictional, one-day training session at the office. “He wasn’t able to pull that off,” the woman said. “It’s impossible to find alone time with everybody home now.”
As parts of Florida reopen, they plan to check into a hotel for a few hours this week.
Canadian health officials are urging caution around sex beyond the home front. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada advised against having sex with people who don’t live in the same household. “Wait to see other partners post-COVID,” reads a document from the Society, which suggests masturbation and connecting by means of technology.
Ashley Madison is recommending members keep their affairs online for the time being and sharing tips on video chat and phone sex. Still, some users are meeting at hotels and car parks: “People are finding ways to make that happen," Mr. Keable said.
Prof. Walker foresees that unfaithful spouses found out during the pandemic will face serious fallout. “The wrath is going to be so much worse now. … No one is going to have much sympathy because everyone is making such big sacrifices right now.”
Still, she expects some affairs will fizzle out on their own as lockdowns drag on and people’s conversations grow tense in the uncertainty of it all.
“You may see a lot of those pairings breaking up. People think, ‘I’m already dealing with this in my own house. This is supposed to be my escape.’”
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