London - Every single week I read anguished letters from women or, less often, men whose marriages are rocked to their foundations by an affair. As this paper’s advice columnist, I’ve almost become used to the deception, rejection, anguish and loneliness which mark yet another marriage crisis.
But I say “almost”... because you never quite get used to the terrible hurt these indiscretions cause. Sometimes reading them makes me want to weep.
Alesha wrote to me sadly after her husband conducted a year-long affair with a former colleague of hers: “I’ve asked him time and time again the reasons for the affair and he admitted he felt trapped by family life. He also admitted to a mid-life crisis.”
Even after ending the affair - at Alesha’s insistence - her husband made her life miserable because he wanted to be somewhere else.
“I’ve tried to look at my own shortcomings and move on,” Alesha told me. “Now I rarely bring it up, but he seems depressed which makes me think he is missing her. I have told him several times if he wishes to re-start the relationship just tell me and I would still let him see his children when he wants to.” The dignity of that letter is heartbreaking.
Another writer, Laura, described the effects of finding out her husband was cheating: “I’m not coping. I’ve lost a lot of weight, have no self-confidence and hardly ever look in the mirror as I don’t like what I see. I loved the life we had and thought he did too, but now I know he didn’t, it’s hard to see any point in life.”
But it’s not just men who cheat, of course. Another of my correspondents, James, encapsulated the feelings of men whose wives have sought excitement elsewhere: “I did everything for her and loved her so much and this feeling of betrayal is like a knife in my chest.”
How anyone could read stories like these, which land in my postbag with seemingly increasing frequency, and maintain that affairs are anything other than devastating? Yet a controversial new book is doing just that.
Dr Catherine Hakim (a social scientist who used to lecture at the London School of Economics) has published a book, The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs And Erotic Power, which claims that “recreational sex outside of marriage” can be good and healthy.
She argues that a fling between two married people cheating on their spouses, with no strings attached, may actually reinvigorate their marriages and make them less likely todivorce.
Hakim believes we need “a fresh approach to marriage and adultery” and to accept the culture of the “playfair”. So what exactly is the difference between an old-style “affair” and a thrilling, modern “playfair”?
Well, it seems the “new” (as defined by Dr Hakim) aspect of this very old sin is simply that “the internet is opening up a whole new culture of affairs between married people”, with the result that physical betrayal simply doesn’t matter so much any more.
That’s hunky-dory with the learned Doc, because she believes that “sex is no more a moral issue than eating a good meal.”
At the risk of sounding “moralistic” I’d like to point out that there is no single aspect of human life which is not subject to moral rules. Not one. We ignore them at our peril.
But for the likes of Dr Hakim, it seems the late Sixties never ended and anything goes. She believes no harm is done by these “playfairs”. Married people who meet and have sex through websites “enjoy the excitement of an illicit relationship without any of the domestic fall-out,” she argues, adding: “Why should we not be able to recapture the heady thrills of youth, while protecting a secure home life?” The theory, you see, is that if you’re having it off with a lover in secret, you’ll stay married. I ask you - who the hell does this woman think she’s kidding?
You only have to consider the effects of broadcaster Clive James’s illicit eight-year relationship with Australian former model Leanne Edelsten - his wife of 44 years has thrown him out - to see the devastating ramifications of affairs.
This isn’t the first time Dr Hakim has courted controversy. After all, suggestive books will sell more copies. She’s good at flashy titles for fleshly thoughts. Her last tome was called Honey Money: The Power Of Erotic Capital - which argued that women need to make the best of our assets to please our men, like so many geisha girls.
She defined erotic capital as a combination of “beauty, social skills, good dress-sense, physical fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence” and argued that, although this is exploitable by both sexes, women have more scope because men want sex more than women. In other words, we can strut our stuff like hookers.
The new book is like the next instalment. In her own words, ‘”t’s time to start honing our seduction skills and join the playground.”
After all, men and women blessed with all that “erotic capital” will need to use it (be a waste otherwise, wouldn’t it?) and therefore they can’t possibly restrict their exciting sex lives by obeying the ‘sour’ old rules of marriage.
Make no mistake, The New Rules is a one-woman campaign for guilt-free, extra-marital sex - dressed up as a ground-breaking theory. Having interviewed many people to back up her liberated idea of “this 21st-century world of modern adultery”, Dr Hakim portrays illicit nookie as not just thrilling, but positively beneficial. A bit like a daily vitamin pill.
“A successful affair” she claims, can “make both parties happier than they would otherwise be”. Her anonymous case studies say that affairs have rescued and saved their marriages - although, of course, there’s no way of testing the validity of those claims.
What of the deceived spouses - are they “happier” when they discover secret emails or texts from their partner’s lover? And are the deceivers truly made happy by living a lie?
In my (considerable) experience, even a marriage that appears to have survived an affair can still be weakened by deep cracks the couple may paper over, but which can shatter the edifice later.
As far as I’m concerned, Dr Hakim - who contributes to learned journals and the Centre For Policy Studies - gives academia a bad name. So much studying and so little sense! How can anybody so obviously clever be unashamed to display such rank stupidity?
How can somebody who has learnt about how people behave (she’s a social scientist, after all) display so little understanding of real human relationships?
Had Dr Hakim read any history or literature at all, she would know that people lusting after the greener grass in the next field is in no way “new” or “21st century”.
How can a so-called “internationally-recognised expert on women’s employment, childlessness, social and family policy” put her name to a book which - if people acted on its cheap theories - would do indescribable damage to family life in this country?
Let me take you through some of Catherine Hakim’s “ideas” in a little more detail.
The crass immaturity of her argument could easily be demolished in a sixth-form debate. The very word “playfair’”is significant - like her phrases, “join the playground” and “heady thrills of youth”. Here’s how she views infidelity: “Affairs are about excitement, being alive, seduction, flirtation, love, affection, sexual bliss, lust, caution, eroticism, fantasy, danger, adventure, exploration and the determined refusal to grow old gracefully.”
A woman who has lectured to the young is now telling people not to accept responsibility and commitment, or to realise a flourishing life is about far more than selfish pleasure. She appears to revel in the thought of millions of Peter Pans flying about with their pockets full of condoms, looking for any easy-going Tinkerbell or Wendy who’ll join them for fun and games in Never Never Land. And never mind the consequences.
Dr Hakim claims that “sex has become a major leisure activity of our time”.
Has it really? Who says so? Even if she’s right, many of us would argue that the modern obsession with tawdry sex (not love, or even passion) is deeply disturbing and reduces human beings to thelowest common denominator.
Sex, proclaims DrHakim triumphantly, “is accessible to everyone, married or not, rich and poor.”
Central to Catherine Hakim’s argument is that Britain and America are “puritanical nations” which persist in retaining a “sour and rigid” view of affairs. Castigating us for resisting “the notion of adultery” and for over-reacting to infidelity, she implicitly blames the divorce figures on these outmoded, moralistic standards.
She writes: “There is … evidence that the more permissive the attitudes of a country, the longer marriages last” - comparing liberal attitudes to marital infidelity in France and Japan. She describes the Nordic countries as “already ahead of the game” because (at least, according to her) their societies approve of “parallel relationships” for married couples. In other words, affairs.
I don’t see how you can prove that any of this is true - or false. But what infuriates me is that Dr Hakim’s ideas take no account of human vulnerability, which is the same the world over.
A couple might fancy the notion of an “open marriage” but hate what it does to them in reality. The very word adultery comes from the world “adulterate” - which means to make something poorer by adding an inferior substance. Even though infidelity need not be fatal, it is never harmless.
Is Dr Hakim trying to tell us that in liberal societies women don’t become desperate and depressed because they’ve found out that their partners are unfaithful? That men aren’t reduced to utter misery and penury because of the fall-out of their wives’ affairs?
Is she really claiming that children aren’t permanently damaged because one or other or both their parents were incapable of keeping their knickers on?
“Why have modern British couples resisted for so long?” she wonders, condemning trained relationship counsellors as “a kind of emotional and intellectual police intent on keeping the door to infidelity locked.”
Well, here we move from the playground into the lunatic asylum.
Forced by experience to accept that people will act foolishly and hurt each other for reasons of need, weakness and vanity (to name but three), counsellors try to help them find a way through their problems. To have all this thoughtfulness dismissed by Catherine Hakim as a “killjoy attitude” is a mindless insult not worthy of anybody calling themselves a serious writer.
Over the years, I’ve advised people to forgive their unfaithful partners and try to start again - because I know that an affair needn’t be a death knell for arelationship. I’ve also sincerely acknowledged that sometimes a great love affair will break up a marriage, and that the split (agony at the time) can lead to greater happiness - even for the “wronged” partner.
I know what it’s like to fall in love outside marriage yet work hard to put things right. Yes, I embrace complexity - and believe that marriage is the greatest test of character most of us will ever have to face.
But acknowledging difficulties is a far cry from ditching the idea of fidelity and condoning rampant adultery, as Dr Hakim does in this intellectually irresponsible book.
When a couple make solemn vows of commitment those promises must mean something. If they don’t then, in the words of Shakespeare’s tragic hero Othello, “chaos is come again”. - Daily Mail