John and Marilyn. Bill and Monica. Charles and Camilla. Ashley and Whatshername. The extramarital affair has a long and if not quite distinguished, then at least high-profile, history. More often than not it is the men who occupy that central, adulterous role; difficult as infidelity statistics are to gauge, men repeatedly own up to committing the lion's share of affairs, outnumbering women by at least two-to-one. But why?
That question, age-old as it may be, is not terribly difficult to answer – at least not according to Peadar de Burca – and he should know, having just interviewed almost 300 candidates on the subject.
A playwright, director and comedian, de Burca has spent the best part of six months travelling England and Ireland, interviewing men who have cheated and the women that they have cheated on.
He has spoken to over 250 adulterous husbands, not to mention several dozen of their wives, attempting in each case to identify the motivations, mindsets, and moralities of the unfaithful.
The results have been turned into a two-man comedy show, Why Men Cheat, in which de Burca and his co-star Briane O'Gibne re-enact the tales they have been told, from the small-town soldier falling head-over heels for the leggy women he met on tour, to the big-city banker who got his kicks by setting up swinging sessions around the country.
It's a unusual way to spend time – particularly given that de Burca has not been married that long himself. This, though, was part of his inspiration. "It had been on my mind a lot because there was a history of the males in my family straying," he explains. "I suppose I was a little bit worried about what I might do."
Odd though his subject matter was, it wasn't particularly difficult to delve into. De Burca began with friends and family and worked his way out. Before he knew it, he was booking train tickets left, right and centre, visiting casinos, nightclubs and swingers' groups, and listening to the stories of jilted wives and regretful husbands. "I thought I would maybe talk to 10 or 12 people about it. I would go and hang around with them and get them beers and win their confidence; suddenly they opened up and just started blowing out all these stories. I couldn't stop them."
It wasn't long before a pattern emerged. Throughout his research, de Burca encountered just one instance of what could properly be termed a "love affair". Unlike any other interviewees, the pair in question ended up leaving their spouses and marrying one another. The woman was older, too – more than a decade older than her new husband. It's the exception which, he says, proves the rule. "The men would go for a kind of wife-lite, as it were. The women they would sleep with would look like their wives but be more ... on display."
It's an intriguing finding, since it would suggest – as spectators of the unedifying dalliances of Ashley Cole, Tiger Woods et al have long suspected – that men who cheat are not simply motivated by their mistresses' superior allure. Overwhelmingly, says de Burca, they are looking for compensation. Compensation, not for their wives' failings, but for their own. "That was the big thing. These men were very insecure, needy men. There was something lacking in them. A lot of them were quite athletic, wealthy, successful men – cops and doctors and politicians.
"But you felt deep down that they were wanting something: adulation, people to like them. It was very strange."
The older the man, the more this motive of compensation came into play. The young men de Burca interviewed spoke of lust, hormones and the suspicion that their girlfriends were just as unfaithful. But the older men would cite a break from routine, the illusion of excitement or the sensation of adventure as their reason for infidelity. One man interviewed for the play claimed he felt like he was "in his own personal movie ... full of excitement and clandestine meetings".
Much of the fault, says de Burca, lies with society's emphasis on the smooth, suave sexually successful philanderers that tend to become cultural heroes: the James Bonds, the George Bests, the Jack Nicholsons that populate our screens and stages.
"When you are a young guy in college, you look up to certain people: famous local footballers or people like Mick Jagger. There's a different woman every night." And yet, for all their desire to live the high life, to escape impending old age, to be the North-East's answer to James Bond, or Tiger Woods, the men that he interviewed were without exception fundamentally deluded.
"There was one guy who was a top banker, a very wealthy guy who had absolutely everything at his fingertips. His big thing was swinging sessions. One woman wasn't enough – he had about eight women on the go at the time. You would have thought he was some kind of Adonis, the way he went on, but he looked like Tom Selleck – Tom Selleck in need of a kidney transplant, with a moustache that looked like a pregnant earwig."
When de Burca agreed to accompany him to one of his meet-ups, he was greeted with a scene that was less Magnum, PI than an X-rated Archers. "I imagined a big house with a swimming pool or something. The Playboy mansion. In fact, it was a farmer's shed in the middle of nowhere. He would go out to the countryside and meet the others in this barn. It was the most unglamorous thing. You could hear the animals in the background."
It's a curious phenomenon, really: the thought of going from a promise to "Love honour and cherish" to arranging sex with strangers before an animal audience in a draughty barn off the M45. If anything is clear from de Burca's findings, it is that few, if any, adulterers plan their route. Indeed for most men, the initial encounter would happen almost by accident: "They would find themselves with an opportunity – away from home or something – and end up in bed with someone or whatever it was and suddenly think, 'Oh, God, it's so easy – I'd never really thought about it.'" Once accomplished, a world of extramarital liaison would open up to them – part challenge, part escape.
Even when actively pursuing adultery, few consider their new hobby to mean the end of their marriage. Most see it as a temporary escape, some even as a form of therapy necessary to keep with their marriage going. "It's almost a different thing," says de Burca, on this. "It's almost like a holiday."
If they don't think through the familial consequences, they almost certainly don't consider the financial. In Why Men Cheat, we hear the sorry confessions of one multimillionaire businessman whose attempts to emulate Dallas womaniser JR Ewing cost him not just his wife but his entire livelihood: "He was a millionaire. He had a house in Spain and a family home in Ireland: a huge mansion of a place; huge and ugly. When I met him he was living in a bedsit. He had lost it all by cheating. His wife had taken everything in the divorce. The saddest past of all was that he had a picture of his old house on the wall of the bedsit."
Of all the men he met, not one left de Burca concerned about his own chances of fidelity. Indeed if anything he left reassured, convinced of the fallacy of that old chestnut, "all men cheat". "These guys would be going out drinking late, hanging out in casinos and stuff. Things that I wouldn't do, you know? There was something so seedy about the whole thing. I'd be driving back home after meeting them and feeling terrible. I would feeling like I needed to go and have a shower because these guys ... well, they're just so pathetic."
Why Men Cheat will be performed at The Supper Room, Assembly, in Edinburgh, 5-30 August, 0131 623 3030
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
INFIDELITY: THE CONCLUSIONS
Society puts forward bad male role models
There remains a double standard in society. You don't hear of many men being stoned in Iran for adultery. There has always been a higher premium for women. For men there is an element of kudos. We look at it as a heroic thing: successful men can play the field.
Men cheat to ease their own insecurities
There's a tendency to cheat when there is emotional pressure. When you find that you can't face the pregnancy or when you're losing your job. That sort of thing. You see famous sportsmen or wealthy business figures with prestige girlfriends on a daily basis. It makes a lot of other men feel bad, so they seek to validate themselves.
Infidelity is easy in our globalised world
There is still the idea that it doesn't count when it's "on tour". We travel a lot for work these days and in different societies sexual services are supplied on a semi-regular basis.
A youthful mistress offers a temporary escape from mortality
You hit mid-life, you're losing your hair and you feel that you can capture lost youth by being with a younger person who hasn't yet developed that fear of the future. When you're 25 you feel you're going to live for ever. It is so sad when you come to the realisation that no one will ever want to kiss you again.
Adultery means excitement
Most of life is hard work and sometimes we feel we need to be in our own movie. I think it was Annette Lawson who has written books on the topic who said something along those lines, and they ring true. A lot of people say that they would do it again because of the excitement involved.
Often, it happens by accident
Men's default position is that they want to secure as many women as possible. Virility is part of the male psyche. There is a biological drive, to some degree, to reproduce.
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