Married? Seeking romance? Don't despair. `Discreet' dating agencies claim you can have your cake and eat it. Lucy O'Brien reports
Caroline is a 45-year-old farmer's wife whose husband ignores her. She joined Additions dating agency last year and since then has been wined and dined by a number of similarly attached men. "I hadn't worn lipstick or had a new hairstyle for 10 years," she says. "I've started to feel like a new woman."

John is a 50-year-old solicitor who says he loves his wife and adores his children, but adds: "If I hear my wife talk potty talk any more, I'll go mad." He is looking for female companionship and, because he no longer has sex with his wife, an extra-marital fling.

Delia is a 37-year-old housewife whose workaholic husband wears away at her self-esteem. Through the Loving Links agency she has established contact with a whole range of men who call her up for "nice chats" and take her out. "I'm a changed person," she says. "This has done more for me than 10 years of psychotherapy."

The above are typical clients for a new form of specialist dating agency - set up to help married or attached people have no-strings flings. According to David, who established Loving Links last year and is known only by his first name for "security reasons", he provides a safe environment for people wanting to avoid a Fatal Attraction-style affair. A 50-year- old, twice-divorced former film producer with a background in marketing, David started the bureau because he felt there was room for "an elegant way of handling things".

People respond to his company's adverts ("Attached, Seeking Romance?") in broadsheet papers or glossy women's magazines; for pounds 50 subscribers get a listing, a confidential box number in the bi-monthly newsletter, and the agency forwards replies in a plain envelope. The newsletter is decorated with cheesecake illustrations of gamine women with Bambi eyes, and reads like something out of Blind Date - "Vincent (vintage 1946 but packed with fruit) needs female for full-bodied relationship", but David insists that his agency is tasteful and discreet. He has "nice, middle- class" clients, and he roots out female gold-diggers or men who are just looking for a "quick lay".

Charlotte Graham, who runs Additions agency from her detached Edgware home, is also adamant that she has effective "gatekeeping" techniques. She has 200 clients aged from 23 to their late 60s. At first women seemed reluctant to join, but she claims that the "ladies now outnumber the men".

The British public, however, claims to have an enduring respect for the marriage vows. According to the 1994 Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles survey, 86 per cent of people rate being faithful as very important for a successful marriage, while 83 per cent say affairs are always wrong. The idea that we can buy ourselves organised duplicity fills many people with unease. "To go to an agency is so calculated, you may as well go to a prostitute," says Martin, 35, who has been married for five years. "If someone's got the balls to have an affair they should do it anyway. It seems odd to get a dating agency to find a fling for them."

Christine, newly married and in her late twenties, says: "I could maybe just forgive my husband if it was an affair that he fell into because he couldn't help himself. But to find out that he went off and spent money with an agency - I don't think I could forgive that, it'd be too crushing."

Professionals who help people with marital difficulties also take a dim view of adultery: "We'd never endorse it," says Julia Cole, counsellor and psychosexual therapist for Relate. "I've been a counsellor for 10 years and have yet to find a couple where adultery improved their relationship. In most cases it made it worse. The success rate for counselling and psychosexual therapy, however, is high; that should be your first port of call, not a dating agency fling."

"Rubbish," says Graham. "There is a long queue for Relate. You can't just ring and say, `I'm in trouble I want to see you now'. And anyway, we're not like the Americans, rushing to psychotherapists. I can see a woman going along, but English men find it difficult to talk." Graham cheerfully admits that trading in infidelity is "immoral", but adds: "I'm fulfilling a need. I'm a kind of agony aunt. There was once a young woman who said to me in a very small voice, `I'm seeking someone who'll love me.' "

David, too, reckons that he is taking the stress out of marriage. "In the long term I feel I save far more marriages than I harm." Not everyone, he says, wants to "work through" relationship difficulties with their spouse; they want excitement and intrigue, the mysteriousness of billets doux and secret liaisons. "People love to be called Box Code Storm or Midnight - something sparkly, delicious ..." says David, who thinks up pseudonyms for all his subscribers. "If someone annoys me I relegate them to a minor Shakespearian character, a walk-on role. And if someone's awfully nice I'll get out my book of Greek legends and call them Poseidon or something. People who lead serious lives as city bankers or doctors love their code names."

Midge Stumpfl from the British Association of Psychotherapists is not impressed: "It might seem glamorous, but this is deliberate cheating on their partners. I don't want to preach, but why do they need this forced excitement? What's going on in their psyche that doesn't allow them to be honest?" To her, agencies like Loving Links and Additions are simply "officialising" affairs, complete with the veil of secrecy and split loyalties.

Such deception is hard to sustain. "It's something emotionally corrosive," says Warren Colman at the Tavistock Marital Studies Institute. "I don't dispute that it's possible for people to have affairs and maintain marriages. But they'll use double-think and put a positive gloss on it rather than say, `This is rather tawdry yet it's the best I can manage.' There's always a painful underside to affairs that is difficult to acknowledge."

Perhaps, says David, but modern marriage demands modern attitudes: "To want a partner to be friend, lover and business partner all in one is expecting too much from a human being." On the Continent, he adds, the "discreet adult relationship" is well established. "It's known as `Cinq a Sept' since it refers to those quiet hours between leaving the office and returning to the marital home. Such liaisons form an important social role in Continental Europe. President Mitterrand openly had two families - the official and the unofficial."