Julia Roberts and Jude Law in Closer 


Do we relax about infidelity as we get older?

Sali Hughes once thought she could never forgive her partner if he were unfaithful. Now, aged 40, she’s outgrown her fidelity obsession

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By Sali Hughes on

I have recently returned from America, where all news sources were oddly obsessed with the Ashley Madison scandal. In case you’ve been trapped under something heavy or, you know, been preoccupied by actual news like a humanitarian crisis in Calais, this is the story of a website and online community for men and women seeking an extra-marital affair. Hackers have infiltrated the Ashley Madison site and obtained the non-verified email addresses of its rather grubby registered users, and leaked many of them to the public. The scandal provides the American (and some British) press with the dream angle: one of delicious voyeurism and appalled self-righteousness at one and the same time, all while someone else breaks the law to bring them the goods. Meanwhile politicians, prominent business figures, celebrities and many thousands of ordinary people who had been relying on the complete confidentiality of the online “service” are left with the rather nightmarish prospect of exposure, and consequently grave personal ramifications. 

It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to feel any pity for the Ashley Madison users. You play with matches, you get burned. One would expect that any spouse, on realising their other half had actively sought out strangers with whom to betray them, would call time on a marriage. I’m certain I would. But the scandal has caused me to wonder if my feelings on infidelity generally have fallen out of step with popular opinion, and even with myself. Because, while my partner having an affair would have once been an open-and-shut case, demanding instant dismissal, now, at 40 years old, I’m shocked to find it’s no longer my be all and end all.

Whereas monogamy was once a black and white issue for me, now I see infinite shades of grey – some many more manageable than others

Easy for me to say. I have never known the undeniable trauma of an affair and have never had to make the momentous decision of whether to stay or go (though I have been divorced, and know that it is so completely ghastly that one should never take it lightly, nor initiate it on a point of principle). And I know that, in any case, the revelation that an affair had taken place would mean someone moving out, if only to suitably scare everyone involved and to clear some emotional and physical space for continued talks. But I can no longer say an affair would ruin me, nor even my relationship, permanently. I take my happy life far too seriously to think I could just toss it in the rubbish. I’ve simply outgrown my obsession with fidelity.

Whereas monogamy was once a black and white issue for me, now I see infinite shades of grey – some many more manageable than others. What was the duration of the affair: one catastrophically misjudged night, or several months or years of daily deception? If the former, then I may allow you my ear, at least. Was the relationship purely physical, or was there an emotional component, maybe even love? I’d find the latter very hard to reconcile and yet, if the liaison involved a sex worker and the wholly unemotional dynamic of financial transaction, I could literally never have my partner’s hands on me again (for me, there’s just a greasy film of inherent misogyny and abuse over those men I know I personally could never live with). Regardless of the “other woman”, had there been problems in our relationship that I was persistently choosing not to tackle and resolve, or had the affair been pure, selfish, destructive opportunism at a time when I thought we were doing great? I like to think I’d acknowledge some – albeit lesser – responsibility where it was due. With those questions answered with the lesser of two evils, and a huge amount of sincere remorse from my partner, I think I could see the bigger picture and stay.

A man’s brutal act – however hurtful, unexpected and infuriating – wouldn’t destroy me. I will ultimately be fine either way

I suspect my own self-worth is a component of my shifting feelings on infidelity. While one often hears that people stay with an unfaithful partner because they “have low self-esteem”, I think the opposite can be true. I’ve been in my own skin long enough to know that I’m not defined by a partner, that I’m too sturdy to be crushed by another person wrongdoing. A man’s brutal act – however hurtful, unexpected and infuriating – wouldn’t destroy me. I will, ultimately, be fine either way, and so I’d make a decision based purely on what I wanted, needed and felt able to live with, not on what he, nor anyone else, expected from me. Less healthily, I wonder if age has made me more proud than idealistic. I have absolutely no doubt that an affair known to my peer group and social circle would prove more intolerable than a comparable situation carried out in private. There shouldn’t be a difference, of course. It shouldn’t matter. And yet I’m now self-aware enough to realise that, in the bleakest of moments, the additional horror of public shame and humiliation would push me past the point of no return. Yet, if I was the only audience member, and no one was forcing me to wear their shame, there’s a chance I could rebuild.

To be clear, I love my extraordinarily lovely, unequivocally monogamous partner (on the subject of Ashley Madison, he was less understanding: “Fuck those pricks. They deserve everything they get”). The almost unimaginable event of his having an affair would constitute a major trauma in my life, and one for which I could never rationally plan, of course. I never, ever want it to happen and I’d be shocked and devastated if a relationship I believe to be built on respect, trust and great friendship was so recklessly handled by the person closest to me. But, for the same reasons, I know it would be hard for me to see him as some tabloid love-rat stereotype and instantly dump him unquestioningly. I would think he had made an exceptionally bad and wholly selfish decision, not that he was an exceptionally bad and wholly selfish man. Because very few are. If middle age has taught me anything of value, it’s that people are endlessly flawed and life is an absolute bloody mess. Good people do terrible things constantly. They make mistakes, they have regrets, they have moments of overwhelming vanity and stupidity. The chances of anyone staying firmly on the impeccable path of righteousness are frankly slim to none, and we are in a dream world if we ever think our relationships are unimpeachable.

All we can ever hope for is that our partner in life has flaws that complement our own in a tolerable manner, if only to us. Everyone has their deal-breakers. I know women who have worked through spousal control issues, gambling and drink problems and even an instance of domestic violence, yet would immediately change the locks and throw his clothes in the garden if he were ever to cheat. I think I could forgive some affairs, but the merest whiff of control or violence sends me hurtling towards the exit and probably the police station. One girlfriend of mine spent 20 years with a monogamous man who chose not to get a single job despite being more than capable. On the continuum on relationship crimes and misdemeanours, I’d personally place that further towards the dumping territory than a mere fling. Tolerance is a wholly subjective business born from our own insecurities, upbringings, expectations and emotional baggage. One woman’s bollocking is another woman’s divorce papers, and no one but she can truly say what constitutes an appropriate reaction. Not even if her pitiful, lowlife partner was shopping the internet for a mistress. 


Julia Roberts and Jude Law in Closer 
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