Sex in the Suburbs

OUT961920When their husbands are away, the desperate housewives of Jane Walters’ quiet commuter town will play…

When I left the Big Smoke for a middle-class commuter town in the Home Counties, which I felt would be an appropriate setting for my children’s early years, I assumed I would find a way of life that would make David Cameron sleep easy at night. Inside the neat houses, I imagined children who went to bed at a sensible hour after Daddy had read them a goodnight story and before Mummy had put the freshly made mushroom risotto on the table for the happy couple to share while they discussed the minutiae of their day.

But barely had the removal men left than I realised that if you looked beyond the privet hedges, something altogether more scintillating seemed to be happening. Blimey, Desperate Housewives was being played out right before my eyes! Several of the wives I met had found a more – how can one put it? – interesting way to build up a sweat than working out at the gym between school runs.

Not one, not two, but six of the married women I became friends with were having affairs. Along with the weekly shop, sewing in name tags and getting food on the table, the Home Counties’ answer to Bree and Gabrielle were playing away from home with a gusto that no amount of retail therapy could hope to match.

‘I tell you, it’s like Wisteria Lane down here,’ said one of my friends, pointing to the highly desirable Victorian terraces with window boxes to die for.

Sarah has recently moved with her three girls out of the matrimonial home into one of these smaller houses after her husband found out about her fling with the builder who worked over the road. ‘There isn’t one woman I know down here who’s happily married,’ she said, reassuringly.

Well, she would, would she? But the makers of the hit US TV series, which explores the dark side of suburbia where the lives of respectable stay-at-home wives aren’t what they seem, were clearly on to something. And a recent survey in the US agrees: one in five women say they have cheated on their husbands, the highest number ever recorded.

But my new neighbours aren’t femmes fatales, they’re women like me: Boden girls who married for love – and life – and had given up good careers to put family first. Infidelity seemed to come as much of a shock to them as anyone else.

‘If anyone had ever told me when I first got married that I was going to have an affair and fall in love with someone else, I would never have believed them,’ says Sally, 44, who has two children and is in the throes of an affair with a man she met when he came to sort out her boiler.

She is uncomfortable with the term affair. She is in love, she insists, and sees that as justification for the infidelity. She says it was the affection and tenderness she craved that led her astray and she doesn’t want her special relationship tainted with any references to smutty misdemeanour.

And it’s not just happening in my neck of the woods, either. Denise Knowles, counsellor with Relate, says, ‘In my experience, women are having affairs in greater numbers than 10 years ago. They’re having children later and they may find themselves at home in their forties with time on their hands. They’ve been used to being very dynamic in the workplace and the change to being at home can be quite stark.’

‘It’s the emotional connection that makes women have affairs,’ says novelist Alexandra Campbell, who wrote about the subject in her book That Dangerous Age – that age being between 40 and 55, ‘when women have come out of the baby bit and start wearing cashmere and low necklines and thinking, “Is that it? Am I missing out and will anyone fancy me any more?”‘

The distancing of the absent husband, who may be perceived as still enjoying the cut and thrust of city life, doesn’t help. ‘There are a lot of abandoned wives here,’ says my friend Melissa, mother of an eight year old, who has been having an affair for two years and believes it’s the only thing that’s keeping her going.

Knowles says that a lot of it is to do with social and economic changes and the increasing opportunities women have. ‘They are not as dependent on their man for financial assistance as our mothers were,’ she says. These shifts have changed attitudes and behaviour, too. Far from being ostracised for their behaviour, my friends compare notes and even cover for each other.

‘They are better managers of their emotions than men and can behave in such a way as to let the husband feel he is being cared about and yet have emotional ties elsewhere,’ says Knowles. ‘In fact, women who come to see me feel guiltier about their children than about their husbands.’

And if the husband does find out, will a man react in a different way from a woman?

‘If a woman has an affair the husband is more interested in what the sex was like; the women are more interested in the intimacy and emotion that was exchanged,’ she says.

The women I know who are taking time out of their wifely duties have different levels of illicit involvement with their lovers – from Julia, who is considering leaving her husband, to Sophie who takes solace in the odd lunch and a few text and email exchanges. But none of them is in it for the sex alone.

‘Men often say when they fall in love with a younger woman, “Oh, she’s so intelligent”, which is rubbish because it’s actually because she’s got big boobs,’ laughs Alexandra Campbell. ‘But what they are looking for is that soul link; someone to listen to them and to talk to. It just gets dressed up with the sex, which is the thing that whips it along. But it’s the emotional connection that’s important and what everyone is after.’

It’s the same for women, says Knowles. ‘If a wife doesn’t feel that she is getting the recognition for her contribution to the family home and is being taken for granted, that can be very destructive in a relationship. She may feel that neither she nor the relationship are being given the time that she would like and then someone comes along who gives them attention and the gift of time. It’s very intoxicating for a lot of women.’

So now the glass ceiling has been broken, it seems we have to revise our thinking about the marital home, too. According to Knowles, ‘The pendulum is swinging. Men have had the upper hand in relationships but women are gaining that status and doing what they have put up with men doing for an awfully long time. I am just hoping the pendulum will swing less in the future and we will see more stability in relationships.’

But in the meantime, it seems, with husbands too tired to talk and working ridiculous hours, yummy mummies are baking their chocolate cake and eating it elsewhere, too. Perhaps that extra pint after a hard day in the office isn’t such a good idea after all, Mr Jones…

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