Why adultery is no longer what it used to be
I discussed an open marriage with my ex – maybe British women should be more ‘French’, writes divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag
Some details have been changed to preserve client confidentiality
Adultery – the legal word for infidelity, cheating and the like – was, until a couple of years ago, a legal basis for divorce in England, though not for the courts to give the “wronged” party more money. But since the advent of “no fault divorce”, it has become legally irrelevant. Attitudes to adultery among the English have not perceptibly changed, however. In my experience as a divorce lawyer, in general, it is women who petition for divorce and it is very often because they have discovered their husband has been unfaithful. Husbands rarely leave, unless there is another woman who’s really pushing them to go. Why would they, when they could have their cake and eat it? As Mr Big told Carrie in Sex and the City during their affair, “I’ve looked into divorce, and it would be very expensive.” And indeed, divorce in England, as in much of America, can be the biggest financial event in your life. A 50pc tax on your entire net worth, in big money cases. Or a painful exercise of splitting one into two where there’s not enough to go round in smaller cases – often with the husband ending up kicked out of the home where the wife and kids stay, and no means to buy himself another one. For the woman, who is still statistically more likely to be the one claiming under the divorce, you push out the cheating husband and you get at least half the assets you built up together, or a load of maintenance designed to maintain your lifestyle while you build your independent career, or set up for your next man. What’s not to like? Get rid of the man, keep the money. Not quite Ivana Trump’s “don’t get mad, get everything”, but nearly. For a husband, getting caught cheating on a British wife tends to be terminal. This isn’t the case with many of my continental clients. I had a very elegant French woman who came in a few years ago and explained that, after years of turning a blind eye to her husband’s mistresses in the homes he set up for them, she had really had enough now the latest one had a child. They were still functioning together socially, with their children and their friends, at formal events, and living together. The baby seemed to be the last straw, but in fact, some months later, she told me she had decided to carry on ignoring the situation and stay married. The structure, the life and family that she and her husband had built together, meant so much to her that she could tolerate him having a family “on the side”, as long as he kept it private. An Italian woman came to me during lockdown. Her partner had been running separate households with her and his wife for many years, spending weekdays with her and their daughters in town, and weekends with his wife and sons in the country. He was delighted with this arrangement and considered it very “petty bourgeois” to care about established social norms. Neither of the women were wild about it, but they both stayed in the game; clearly he had something. And when the husband chose the country home to weather Covid in, it was the newer family that was cast adrift. But this was only for lockdown and afterwards the two-family scenario resumed. It’s still going. I looked at this with my ex-husband. After our long- distance marriage had run prematurely dry, we discussed having an open marriage. It seemed like a great idea to me, but then I found I couldn’t do it. I had too much emotion bound up in it. Too much love, I felt. Too much pain. So I exited the marriage instead. It broke my heart, but it felt like the only thing I could do. Was I right? I could have had fun with hot Serbian footballers ( and, indeed, for a while I did), and heard about my husband’s new amours with equanimity. But I felt I couldn’t. Was that love? He asked me to give it a year, but my lawyer told me he was playing me for a fool and I was insecure enough to believe the lawyer and press on with divorce. Could it have been good, in the future, as our children grew up and we watched them make their own lives, with grandchildren and homes and stories to share with us? It feels to me now, with my happy marriage and my big combined family, as if it was all for the best. But it could have been good on the other side of the sliding doors, too. A Belgian woman and her husband came to me and asked for my help sorting out the child custody arrangements between them and the father with whom she had become pregnant during an affair. It was clear that they loved each other very deeply and this chapter of non- exclusivity wasn’t going to change that, or make the husband reject the child. I remember thinking, how wonderful to be loved so much. This was love to last a lifetime. Why are those on the Continent more willing to tolerate extra-curricular sex? Is it all those sexy French Catherine Deneuve films setting a cultural norm? Does that still play? Or maybe it’s the fact that payouts on divorce are so much lower on the Continent, making women who grew up in that culture more disposed to stay and make the best of things. In London, the “divorce capital of the world”, wives have justifiably great financial expectations. It’s scary to give things up. Scary to give up companionship, social structure and, in a big way, for whoever has the money, large pots of cash. Does financial security make English women more likely to call time if their husband plays away? Or is it actually just that we Britons are so very petty bourgeois? One way or another, if you find out your partner has been cheating, and it’s not going to stop, forget about what your friends will say and make a real evaluation about what you, personally, want. Is everything else good? Do you see no upside in someone else servicing his or her sexual needs, thus taking the pressure off you? Does sexual exclusivity matter more than the bond you have built up over the years together? Or should you think about maybe, just maybe, being un petit peu more French?