It don’t mean a thing ... it’s no more than a casual fling

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Men and women stuck in stifling marriages are logging on to a website dedicated to finding them a new lover - no strings attached

SHE doesn’t sound like some kind of scarlet woman. She doesn’t purr or pout and drop saucy lines into the conversation. In fact, she could be the woman next door.

It’s entirely possible that she be could your wife. Or, perhaps, it’s your husband she’s sleeping with. “Am I a mistress?,” Christine* ponders the question for a second. Being labelled as someone’s “bit on the side” doesn’t fit her quite middle-of-the-road image. After all she’s a mother in her mid-forties, married for ten years, in a professional, demanding job. Well-educated, politely spoken and, she insists, absolutely in control.

“A mistress in my mind – that’s got financial and material benefits, it’s a bit one-sided. So no, I definitely don’t see myself as a mistress, more of a,” she pauses, then adds: “a ‘special’ friend.”

Perhaps even more at odds with the image of the “other woman”, is the key element to what is motivating this middle-class mum from East Lothian to leap into bed with an equally married lover.

It is, she points out without a trace of irony, all about keeping her own wounded marriage alive.

“I was so fed-up with my husband neglecting me,” she confesses.

“The sexual relationship died and we became more like friends. Now there are lies and deceit, that’s true. But now I have more self-confidence and taking action and control of my life makes me feel good. It gives me optimism to go on with my marriage.”

The notion that a marriage might actually be saved by an affair is an unlikely theory. But Christine maintains she’s far from the only wife – or husband for that matter – in Lothian who’s adopted drastic tactics to keep a wobbly relationship glued together.

“It’s certainly not uncommon,” she quickly points out. “There’s a lot of it going on.”

Since taking the plunge and logging on to a website that specialises in bringing unhappy spouses together for extra-marital flings, she’s encountered quite a few married men who, just like her, have taken drastic action to boost an unhappy married life.

But can the theory that fractured marriages might not only survive but actually thrive with a third party in the background, really stand up to scrutiny? Or is an affair of the heart almost certainly the kiss of death for wedded bliss?

There’s plenty of scope for a rescue plan to aid flailing modern marriages. January is, after all, prime-time for couples to head to the divorce lawyer.

This week’s headlines confirm celebrities aren’t immune – television presenter Andrea McLean and singer Seal and wife Heidi Klum have kicked off 2012 with news that married life has fallen by the wayside.

There’s no suggestion that anyone else is involved in any of their relationships. But if Christine’s theory is right, perhaps there should be.

“I amazed myself when I took the first step into doing this,” she recalls.

“I thought ‘hold on, what I have got with my husband is far too good to mess up’. I didn’t want to break up the relationship, so this actually supplies that female need and in a lot of ways makes my marriage more stable.”

According to a new survey for the internet dating site she joined, www.illicitencounters.com, cheating is more common than some might think: 17 per cent of married Scots say they’ve cheated at least once, while 21.41 per cent say they would if they were certain not to get caught out.

Of course, Christine’s not suggesting having a fling can save every marriage. Indeed, perhaps vital to her relationship continuing may well be the fact that her husband is oblivious to what’s going on behind his back.

“He doesn’t know but even if he did, it wouldn’t be in his nature to discuss it anyway,” shrugs Christine. “I was annoyed at one point that he paid so little attention he didn’t even notice, but now it actually makes my life a lot easier because I don’t have to tell so many lies.”

Modern working life of long hours and late meetings means it’s easy for Christine to hide her secret dates with the lover she met via the website. “I work away from home, I generally don’t have a regular time that I’m in at night. But there have been close calls,” she adds. “I met one lovely man who turned out to stay on the same street as me. I said ‘hold on, this isn’t on’, it was just too close to home.”

Cheating isn’t in her nature, says Christine, 47. Indeed it took an unusual chain of events to set her on course of sleeping with another man after ten years of marriage. “He discovered that his ex-wife had moved on into a lesbian civil partnership and the sexual side of our relationship died.

“He kept saying he would go for counselling, but didn’t. Then while he was making excuses, I found out he was seeing another woman.”

Stung but aware his betrayal resulted from his feelings of confusion, Christine asked herself what she wanted. She didn’t want to split up, so the alternative, she says, was to have an affair. Now she has a relationship with a married man which, she says, isn’t love but is “friends with benefits”.

There is, of course, the not insignificant issue of his wife. Quite probably at home, juggling kids and housework, unaware of just what her cheating hubby is up to.

“The men I’ve met tend to be very genuine men,” insists Christine. “Quite often their wives are involved in full-blown affairs.

“But I don’t want to break up any relationship, which is why there’s an understanding at the outset that we both have something to lose if we’re not careful. Neither is calling the shots.”

• *Names have been changed.

‘The passion fizzled out. Sex became non-existent’

SO can a fractured marriage be saved from complete collapse by having an affair?

Like Christine, Peter*, 40, found himself in a sexless marriage but with no appetite to actually end it.

“I’m great friends with my wife, we get on really well, but there’s a need that isn’t fulfilled,” he says.

“But I don’t want to go through a divorce and hurt my family. Some might say it’s a bit selfish, but in my own way I’m thinking of my partner and children and what impact breaking up would have.”

His first affair last year lasted five months. Today he’s in the unusual situation of being married but definitely “looking”.

“I’ve been married for nearly 20 years,” adds Peter, an architect. “We married young, the wee one came along, my partner went through an early menopause and sex became non-existent.

“We went for counselling but it hasn’t helped. The passion in our marriage just fizzled out.

“This hasn’t been an easy decision and it’s very dangerous territory. But I thought, I’m still young, I still need a bit of excitement. Yes it’s a big risk but I think a lot of people are going through the same thing.”

According to Rosie Freeman-Jones, spokeswoman for dating site Illicit Encounters, people seek extra-marital flings for myriad reasons. “Many feel bored, which may not be any reflection on their partner. Most people who join us tend to have been married an average of eight years.

“I think a lot of them miss the sparky bits at the start of a relationship, meeting people and exploring sexuality. They miss having some fun without having to worry about the nitty-gritty of life.”

Many have similar stories to Christine and Peter – that their own sex lives have dwindled but don’t particularly want their marriage to fail, she adds.

“If people are genuinely unhappy in a relationship, then they’ll leave because there’s no stigma to divorce these days. It’s more common that there’s an element of relationship missing but they don’t consider it a complete ‘deal breaker’.”

Tim McConville, practice manager of Couple Counselling Lothian, cautions against thinking an affair is “good” for a marriage: “People have to ask what would happen if their partner was doing the same. Is everyone playing by the same rules and if they are, then why not talk it through?

“And if they’re not prepared to talk, then they might have to ask what are their feelings for their partner.”

There can be devastating implications, he adds. “When a partner comes across an affair it’s a time of devastation for them, there can be immense grief and it feels like something has died.

“Sometimes it forces them to look at the relationship anew and they might well stay with their partner but both agree to see other people. At least that means everyone’s playing by the same rules.”

• Contact Couples Counselling Lothian at www.cclothian.org.uk or call 0131-556 1527