One in seven newlyweds cheat in their first year of marriage, according to a recent survey. But what makes people stray so soon after taking their vows?
For Hannah, the post-wedding comedown was more of a full-on crash. Having exchanged vows with the love of her life one perfect July day and gone to the Maldives on their honeymoon, she began married life on a high and full of hope.
But not for long. Within a year, Hannah, a health worker in London, discovered through friends that her husband Matt had slept with someone else. It was a person they had known for years. She had even been at their wedding.
‘The fling was over by the time I found out,’ says Hannah, 32. ‘When I confronted Matt, he broke down in tears and admitted it. It had happened just six months after we got married. How can you stand in front of your friends and family and promise that you’re going to devote yourself to someone – and then sleep with another woman a few months later?
‘I couldn’t breathe. I could barely speak in the first few weeks of finding out. I thought we were starting this wonderful new life – and he’d been having sex with someone else. I couldn’t get my head around how that could happen.’
And yet it does – perhaps more often than we suspect. There are few reliable statistics about infidelity, but experts generally agree it’s becoming more common and that, thanks to the internet, our all-consuming work lives, our phones, our ‘girls’ nights out’ and ‘drinks with the lads’, straying has never been easier – or more tempting.
One in seven newlyweds cheat in their first year of marriage, according to a survey taken in the UK, and the General Social Survey, which tracks behaviour in the US, also suggests that infidelity in young marriages is on the rise. Between 1991 and 2006, the number of unfaithful husbands under the age of 30 increased by 45 per cent, and wives by 20 per cent.
Several celebrity marriages have dissolved shortly after the big day with only a few dark hints as an explanation. Myleene Klass and bodyguard Graham Quinn were married for just six months. Myleene later said she’d ignored her growing doubts about Quinn’s behaviour.
‘How did I think it was OK for him to say he needed to go out and buy milk on Christmas Day?’ she mused, refusing to say more. (Graham has always denied claims that he had an affair.)
But why, if someone does stray, would they do it so soon after getting married? For some couples, the six-month itch is caused by the sheer shock of married life, says psychotherapist Simon Jacobs. ‘Even if you’ve been together for years, psychologically, there’s nothing quite like being married,’ he explains.
‘It’s ‘officially endorsed’, witnessed by friends and family and, in a sense, you become less interesting to people. Six months later, you find yourself waking on a grey morning next to the same person, getting up, going to work – that feeling can induce panic. An affair is a desperate grab at one’s old life.’
This is how Hannah’s husband defended his affair. ‘He said he couldn’t explain it, other than that marriage had made him feel trapped and middle-aged,’ she says. ‘We had been a bit of a party couple. Now, we were married and respectable – the logical next step would be parenthood. What started as a text exchange with this woman about work – they were in the same field – became flirtatious. They only met three times before he ended it. I do believe he bitterly regrets what he did. We’ve had nine months of therapy and – in my strongest moments – I almost understand and can forgive him. But we’re still working on it.’
Which begs the question, is it possible for a marriage to survive a fling at such a tender stage? Online, on forums and in support groups, the general opinion seems to be a resounding no. On one chat site, a devastated woman whose husband had also been unfaithful with a colleague half a year into their marriage is advised to end it immediately. ‘Six short months of marriage and he cheated on you?’ posts one responder. ‘File for divorce.’
Another is more brutal: ‘You want my opinion? He’s been cheating all along. If she works with him, the rabbit hole goes much deeper. The safety and stability of a marriage were appealing to him – a source of comfort. This way he could cheat with his co-worker while keeping you [his wife] as a safety net. This guy has been ‘cake-eating’.’
On another forum, someone asks: ‘Does a man who cheats a few months after getting married really love his wife? Is it worse than a man who cheats ten or 20 years into his marriage? Please comment.’ The first answer is typical. ‘Yes, it’s far worse,’ it reads. ‘It’s not a moment of weakness during a rough patch in the long haul of marriage. It’s a character flaw and a sign that this person doesn’t take his vows seriously. That will never change. Divorce him now!’
M Gary Neuman, psychotherapist and author of The Truth About Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do to Prevent It, agrees that straying early in a marriage may well be a sign of a serial cheater. ‘You’re supposed to be in the honeymoon phase at six months – before the challenges of children, work and routine,’ he says.
Humans, he explains, get used to pretty much anything – experts call it hedonic adaption. Whether it’s our kitchen makeover, our nth-generation iPhone or marrying our dream partner, eventually the shine wears off.
In a marriage, domestic drudgery builds, routine creeps in and bad habits wear us down – but this takes most of us two years, by which time we (hopefully) have the glue of respect, companionship, shared lives and maybe children to hold us together.
‘You get a new car and you’ve generally got two years before you start thinking, ‘That other car looks good,’ says Neuman. ‘If you’ve been married for six months and you’re already cheating, you have to question whether you were ever committed to the marriage. It’s likely that you were unfaithful before and somehow thought getting married would magic the cheating away. You wanted the benefits of marriage and a family but don’t know how to be faithful. Big mistake.’
Julia Cole, therapist and author of After the Affair: How to Build Trust and Love Again, has counselled many newlyweds rocked by infidelity. ‘It’s not unusual,’ she says. Like Neuman, Cole believes it can be a red flag. ‘It’s often someone in a panic who has realised getting married wasn’t the best idea,’ she says. ‘Perhaps the couple had already lived together for a long time and marriage had become almost inevitable. They drifted into it – and the affair was a route out.’
An affair in the early months doesn’t have to spell the end, says Jacobs. In some ways, it can be easier to surmount. ‘It’s a massive shock, an enormous deflation,’ he explains, ‘but some people might find an affair after sharing 20 years of history more hurtful. If it happens early, you’re not looking back at decades of marriage thinking they were all a lie.’
‘To survive’, says Cole, ‘requires a careful unpicking of the ‘whys’. You really need to get beneath the issue.’ One study found that 86 per cent of couples recovered from an affair when they thoroughly discussed it. Brushing it under the carpet as a blip and moving swiftly on is not the best policy.
‘Whether it’s through counselling or just between the two of you, you should create a space for the party who was cheated on to be able to say how they feel about it,’ says Jacobs. ‘The person who cheated needs to sit and listen to their spouse’s anger, hurt and grief without getting defensive. It’s important to create a sense of balance, a sense of having been heard. You can’t leave things unsaid.’
When it comes to rebuilding trust, it is actions – not promises – that count. ‘Trust is in the proof, not the promise,’ says Cole. ‘The person who has been cheated on needs to think about what it would take to trust and be trusted – it might be for their partner to come home when they say they will, to always be on the end of the phone, or to stop going out with a particular friend who facilitated the cheating.’
With careful handling and commitment, an early-stage affair can even be an advantage – a hard lesson learned for the future that jolts the cheater out of bad habits. Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie and Transformers actor Josh Duhamel are proof of this. They have both said that their rocky start strengthened their marriage. Nine months after the couple’s wedding, stripper Nicole Forrester claimed she and Josh had enjoyed a one-night stand in Atlanta. Fergie stood by her man and Josh later claimed it made him ‘straighten my ass out’. The couple renewed their wedding vows on their first anniversary and, seven years on, they are still together.
Though we may have been conditioned to believe that infidelity happens only when a marriage has gone wrong, a growing body of research suggests this is not always the case. ‘People cheat in happy marriages on partners they love,’ says Jacobs. ‘It can be opportunistic – and there are more opportunities now than ever. It can be bad timing, bad choices. There are certain times in people’s lives when they’re more vulnerable – and for some, being ‘just married’ is one of them.’
Susanna Johnston has recently written a novel exploring affairs to understand why she allowed herself to be seduced in the early days of her own marriage. ‘He was handsome, but not kind in any way – or suitable for me,’ says Johnston. (In the book, Patricia and Malise: A Novel, the seducer is exceptionally good-looking, but cold and unemotional, while his married lover is lonely with a busy, distracted husband.)
‘Maybe I was just flattered and susceptible. But I’ve realised – as the character in my book does – that I don’t see myself as being ‘unfaithful’ to my husband, because I never stopped loving him,’ says Johnston. ‘I’ve had many friends whose marriages have ended over affairs. They had believed in ‘happily ever after’ and didn’t understand how it could happen to them.
‘My husband never felt that he owned me and wouldn’t dream of not forgiving me,’ says Johnston, who went on to have four children with her partner and ten grandchildren. ‘Now we’re a happy couple in our 80s living in an olde-worlde village,’ she says. ‘Marriages can survive and still be so very, very strong.’
Patricia and Malise: A Novel by Susanna Johnston is published by Gibson Square, price £12.