Why have illicit encounters become so popular? It’s not your imagination - everyone really is at it. Relationship expert Kate Figes, writing in her book Our Cheating Hearts: Love And Loyalty, Lust And Lies (Virago), estimates that “although precise figures remain elusive, surveys in the UK and the US suggest that between 25 and 70 per cent of women — and 40 and 80 per cent of men — have engaged in at least one extramarital sexual encounter.”
She goes on: “One major problem is that, over the past few decades, we’ve come to expect far more of marriage. Our husbands and wives now need to be not only our best friends, intellectual equals and co-parents but also sexual athletes who are constantly thinking of new ways to delight us. However, if we expect to get everything we need from one person for a ‘happy marriage’, we are more likely to feel that our partner is failing us when we’re not getting what we want.”
So has it become more common to seek what we want from new sources? Hugo Schwyzer, writing in The Atlantic in 2013, studied a survey of American adults and found that, while the statistics showed that they were fairly forbidding of adultery, infidelity and flings, “...the same poll that found near-unanimous disapproval of cheating also found rising acceptance of many other non-traditional, consensual sexual relationships.”
It could be that, in a world where new vistas have been opened up to us through the internet - constant communication, images, text and sound from other people all over the world - that we have far more choice, and are far less willing to settle and leave the unknown to be the unknown.
Schwyzer says, in his piece - titled ‘How Marital Infidelity Became America’s Last Taboo’ - that “...the new ethical consensus, that you can do whatever you like as long as you're not hurting anyone—and as long as you're being rigorously candid—reflects a thoroughly modern mix of tolerance and puritanical censoriousness. We've become more willing to embrace diverse models of sexual self-expression even as we've become ever more intolerant of hypocrisy and the human frailty that makes hypocrisy almost inevitable.”
He goes on: “A Google search for "ethical non-monogamy" returns plenty of results about polyamory and open marriage. It also brings up sex columnist Dan Savage's notion of ‘monogamish’ relationships, in which partners pledge enduring emotional commitment while enjoying ‘flings, affairs, three-ways, and swinging experiences.’”
So are we in fact having more affairs than ever? Researchers Blow & Hartnett took a comprehensive look at this issue when reviewing all the research on marital and sexual infidelity in 2005. They conclude, in an extract of the article replicated in a blog by John M. Grohol for PsychCentral titled ‘How Common Is Cheating & Infidelity Really?’, that “in general […] we can conclude that over the course of married, heterosexual relationships in the United States, [extramarital] sex occurs in less than 25% of committed relationships, and more men than women appear to be engaging in infidelity”. Which more or less confirms the anecdotal account of extra-marital affairs given in Kate Figes’ studies at the beginning of the article.
While it seems like the potential is there to engage in more extramarital illicit encounters than ever before, roughly the same amount of people - the same section of the population - do so, and have done so, for years now.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, in a blogpost on the topic of ‘infidelity’, raises the issue of emotional affairs. For some, this is a very new, quite contentious sub-category of illicit encounter.
The AAMFT introduce the concept of ‘emotional cheating’ thus: “In the age of social media and technology, a new crisis of infidelity often referred to as the emotional affair has emerged. People who never intended to be unfaithful are unwittingly crossing the line from platonic friendships into romantic relationships, particularly in the workplace and on the Internet.”
However, not everyone believes that you can compare these exchanges and relationships - however serious or transactional - with the sorts of illicit encounters entered into by those looking for sexual or physical gratification, which are less often brushed off by partners when the straying husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend is found out or confesses.
So why are illicit encounters so popular? The same reason they always have been: because it’s unrealistic to expect your partner to be all things to you, all the time. Enter into a relationship with a realistic expectation of what your partner can do for you - what they can and should provide - and you will be less likely to run aground later, and the dialogue around what you should seek elsewhere will be much easier to enter into.