One husband came upon his wife’s infidelity after hacking into her inbox and poring over reams of e-mails she’d exchanged with the other man. Another woman’s affair was discovered when she didn’t show up to her own surprise birthday party: she was in a hotel room, nowhere to be found. Another recalled the jolt she felt when her phone buzzed and her husband was standing nearby, never learning her secret.
Female infidelity remains both widely condemned and highly misunderstood. Three recent books challenge the cultural myth that women are inherently monogamous and shine a light on the motivations wives have when they step out of their marriages.
“Women are…closing the infidelity gap. We’re just not talking about it,” author Wednesday Martin wrote in her incendiary new book Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust and Infidelity is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free, which features insights from sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and sex researchers, as well as 30 unfaithful wives and girlfriends ranging in age from 20 to 93.
Female adultery is certainly more common than we’d like to acknowledge. A 2016 Globe and Mail survey of 11,259 people found that 33 per cent of women said they’d had an affair, placing them not far behind the 40 per cent of men who admitted the same.
Contraception, earning power, increased independence and digital connections have all opened a door for women looking beyond their marriages. Even so, female infidelity “is not only an offence against cultural norms regarding monogamy; it is a gender transgression as well,” Alicia Walker wrote in her 2017 book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism And Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Walker, an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, interviewed 46 women between the ages of 24 and 65 using Ashley Madison, the dating website catered to adulterers. She produced a comprehensive and surprising portrait of the female cheater. In their extramarital affairs, women spoke of relinquishing the structured roles and expectations of good wife and good mother. The infidelity served as a release valve.
Untrue’s Martin hazards that monogamy might be actually be a "tighter fit” for women than it is for men. She and others are now asking what female adultery means for the future of commitment. "If you really want to know what [women] want to experience emotionally and sexually, you have to go look at those affairs,” Esther Perel, a couples’ therapist who wrote the pivotal 2017 book A State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, told the Globe last year.
Here, four Canadian women – all of whom chose not to use their full names to protect the privacy of their families – share why they chose to look outside their marriages and how they experienced their double lives.
Deborah, 64, described her marriage as two people living "parallel lives.” She and her husband of 16 years had very little in common. Sex was infrequent. Privately, Deborah believed there was a natural "end date” on her marriage, once their three children moved out. An unexpected infatuation with the husband of a close friend sped things up dramatically.
"I always thought that the worst thing that could ever happen would be to feel an attraction to someone other than your spouse,” Deborah said from Calgary. “And then, bang, it happened to me. I could not resist it. I didn’t want to resist it.”
Complicating the matter was this: the other man was caring for his own wife, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury. As he turned to Deborah, a mutual friend, for guidance, one conversation abruptly shifted the energy between them. Tentatively, they began a long-distance relationship, she in Canada, he in France.
"The double life felt uncomfortable and yet terrifically exciting,” Deborah said. "When you finally have what you have longed for, you are so focused on yourself and the gratification of your needs. I found it virtually impossible to think about anybody else.”
She eventually divulged her affair to her husband and left the marriage. Two of her three children felt deeply betrayed; it took years to repair these relationships. When the other man’s wife passed away, Deborah and he married. They’ve been together for 15 years. Though she doesn’t regret her life with him, Deborah carries guilt about the secrecy – of "having your cake and eating it too.”
Unfaithful wives are often conflicted. Many say they had no intention of hurting or even abandoning their husbands, even as they betrayed them. Lisa Kelly, a registered psychotherapist who counsels couples in Toronto, said these women often grapple with "a mixture of guilt, rationalization, excitement, attachment and indecision that culminates in overall angst.”
When Melissa, a 45-year-old Toronto woman, discovered that her husband had an Ashley Madison account, she signed up for one too. Theirs had been a 20-year-long marriage with an orgasm disparity: plenty for him and little for her, Melissa said. With her husband completely tuned out, Melissa logged on and embarked on a four-year, long-distance affair with another married man.
"It was nerve-racking but I felt that it was my time to get to do what I want,” Melissa said. "It was just what I needed to help me gain confidence and realize that I did have something to offer, which I was led to believe I didn’t.”
The infidelity turned out to be a powerful catalyst. Melissa initiated a divorce, which stunned her husband. "My confidence level had increased to the point where I could say, 'I’m better than this. I know that I can find better than you and I’ve got to get out of here.’ ”
Bucking gender stereotypes, Melissa is one in a subset of women that feels deeply entitled to their affairs. These cheaters are defiant and “enthused,” Martin observed in Untrue. Walker’s probe into the female community on Ashley Madison found that many of these wives felt stagnant in sexless and orgasm-less marriages. They sought out extramarital sexual relationships of “utility.” There was no caregiving here, no domesticity, no emotional labour, no enduring of anything they didn’t want to do "for the good of their partner.” Some tellingly referred to their (multiple) affairs as “me time.”
Many of these women didn’t plan to leave their husbands. The “infidelity workaround” offered them sexual fulfillment without the upheaval of divorce. “They carefully weighed their options,” Walker wrote.
Kate, a 54-year-old Toronto woman, has had two undetected affairs throughout her 12-year, same-sex relationship.
"From what I can see, women like sex as much as guys, and like guys, get a bit bored in long-term relationships,” Kate said. "I just felt that I could have a more exciting life than what I was having.”
Feeling taken for granted by her partner, Kate sought out novelty. The first affair was sexually and emotionally intense, so much so that Kate considered leaving her partner for the other woman. As the "flush” cooled off, Kate realized they had little in common and abandoned the idea. Her second affair was strictly sexual – and nearly found out by her partner. "I denied everything,” Kate said. "I shaped up my act by getting home earlier.”
It’s been two years since she’s been unfaithful. Kate feels her libido dropping off, as well as a growing appreciation of the consequences, including the hurt it could cause her two children.
Unlike many women, what Kate doesn’t feel is guilt. She tells herself that the affairs did not ultimately detract from her long-term relationship, which she remained "attentive to” throughout and has no intention of leaving. "I thought, I don’t know if this is hurting them,” Kate said. Going further, Kate felt the infidelity improved her primary partnership because it made her less needy. "Expecting someone to be that everything for you? Maybe that’s wrong.”
Aside from one friend, Kate sits alone with these ideas: in her social circle, disloyalty is still viewed as a male trait.
For most women, infidelity comes at a steep cost. Adulteresses still face death penalties in nine countries, Perel will often point out. Although men face some familial and societal censure in the immediate aftermath, the shadow is longer for women. While male infidelity is spoken of as predictable ("they’re all dogs”), women’s betrayals are still viewed as aberrant.
Sara, 46, had an affair after her husband of 13 years grew distant and depressed, leaving her feeling invisible in the marriage. He refused to attend couples therapy, leaving Sara at a dead end.
One night at a work function, she fell for another man. "It was thunderbolts,” Sara said from Kingston, Ont. "The biggest thing for me was feeling like somebody thought and cared about me. It was very quick and very intense.”
She snuck around for a month, until the day her husband went into her inbox and sifted through piles of e-mails between his wife and her paramour.
Nine years after their divorce, Sara said her ex refuses to speak to her, which makes co-parenting their three teenage and university-aged daughters challenging (the girls are fiercely protective of their father, Sara said). Their mutual friends have sided with him. Her own family excommunicated her for six months, inviting her ex-husband to an Easter dinner instead of her. Such was the punishment for detonating a nuclear family.
"For the first year and a half, being in a small town, the way word travels like wildfire, I really felt like I walked around with the scarlet letter,” Sara said.
After seven years with the other man, the pair split. Today, Sara is dating a man she met decades ago at age 17. She divulged all and was relieved that he wasn’t judgmental. "Any time you tell a story like this, your fear is that you’re a cheater with a capital C. It’s like the permanent stain that won’t come out,” Sara said. "He’s the first one to say me that it’s ridiculous, that it was a product of the environment.”
Sara continues working out her guilt. "I still carry some feelings of, 'Wow, underneath it all, I’m kind of a bad person,’ ” she said. "I remember coming away from that whole experience thinking, 'This isn’t who I am.’ It was at the time. But not forever.”