Have you ever cheated on a partner? Has anyone ever cheated on you? Do you know anyone who’s cheated on their significant other?
Chances are, everyone reading this will be able to answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, even if they don’t admit it. According to a YouGov poll several years ago, one in five British adults admitted having an affair, while a third said they’d “thought about it”.
This, despite the fact that – according to a Yale University analysis – the percentage of people in the UK who think cheating is always wrong is 76 per cent. Perhaps the results are murky and confusing because people are murky and confusing – and confused; and groping for answers, and getting it wrong, and hurting the ones they love out of a misguided belief that they need some sort of illicit excitement to fend off the inevitable ageing process and feel “alive” again.
Because that notion of feeling “alive”; of wanting that “spark” back – the one we all feel when we first fall in love, when we’re in the “honeymoon” period of a new relationship, when all you can think about is the other person – is something that cropped up time and time again when I conducted a series of interviews with people who admitted they were having affairs, or had previously had affairs.
I was interested, specifically, in those in seemingly “stable” family units: such as those in long-term partnerships. People with families like Matt Hancock’s – 42, married for 15 years to Martha, with three children, the already-beleaguered health secretary has been accused of cheating on his wife with close friend and lobbyist Gina Coladangelo, according to The Sun. Neither Hancock nor the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) have yet responded to the allegations, but one thing’s for sure: it hasn’t been a very good couple of weeks for “totally f****** hopeless” Hancock.
But how much does Hancock’s personal life really matter to those who don’t know him personally – that is to say, we the public? Questions could be asked about whether any alleged intimate contact might have contravened Covid rules that were in place at the time, and about Coladangelo’s appointment as an aide. But should these allegations affect us outside of that? Not so much.
It’s not like we’re not used to politicians conducting their relationships as messily as they approach the job at hand – Hancock’s boss, Boris Johnson, has had the alleged intimate details of his four-year affair with Jennifer Arcuri splashed across the front pages, and is currently being investigated by the Greater London Authority to see if he breached the code of conduct when he was city mayor, by not admitting to it.
But if the statistics are to be believed, then a sizeable percentage of us are not all that different from Hancock and the PM, either. When I conducted my interviews – they spoke frankly on the condition of anonymity – I wanted to know why people had affairs; what it gave them, how it had turned out; and whether they’d do it again, knowing what they now knew about the outcome. After all, psychotherapist Esther Perel says infidelity happens in both good and bad relationships – and can teach us a lot about marriage, our expectations and our own feelings of entitlement. She also says that affairs can represent a loss of (and search for) self.
“Infidelity does not always correlate neatly with marital dysfunction,” she writes. “Once, we strayed because marriage was not supposed to deliver love and passion. Today, we stray because marriage fails to deliver the love and passion it promised.”
I also spoke to a relationship expert, who told me that affairs are rarely about sex, and more about desire. “A desire for attention, a desire to feel adored, or to feel special,” Lucy Beresford said. “An affair provides someone with the chance to find out who they can be, beyond the person they have become in the marriage.”
Ashley Madison, which describes itself as a “married dating site”, surveyed 3,378 members about why they chose to cheat on their spouse or partner, rather than getting a divorce. Almost a third said it was because they “didn’t want to break up the family”. One married woman I talked to, who told me having kids was a “major passion-killer”, made an active decision to join the site. She said she felt “wittier, sexier and more confident” after meeting men outside her marriage than within it.
Another person told me he had an affair with someone he worked with, who “made him feel energised in every way”. “I felt released from all the boring stuff of my life,” he said. “It was like being 20 again.”
One respondent – a director in a high-profile law firm – was 52 and had been married for 30 years, with three children, when he first had an affair. “To the outside world, I had everything,” he said. “But I was bored. Something was missing.”
The affair made him feel “reborn” – like “nothing else mattered anymore” – but then his wife found out. He’s now getting divorced. “There have been days when I’ve regretted having an affair, when I’ve wanted to cry and hit things,” he reflected. “I’ve even thought about killing myself. But would I go back and do it all again? The answer is yes, because I found something vital: freedom.”
As for Matt Hancock? There’s enough to lambast the health secretary about without diving into the gritty details of his relationships: his poor performance during the pandemic, his failure to boost Covid testing and ventilator capacity, the lack of procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS and care staff, the terrible mixed messaging about the coronavirus.
But when it comes to the details of his personal life, let he who is without sin cast the first stone – which, judging by the statistics, doesn’t leave very many of us to throw it.