Would you use a dating website for married people to conduct an affair? A shocking number of women in the UK are doing just that, including Penny*, 50, a successful married woman from Wales.
In an age where you can do everything online, from Tweeting the Prime Minister to paying the mortgage, it’s little surprise that internet dating sites have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years.
But alongside the myriad sites for singletons in search of love, another more controversial breed of dating site has cropped up: extra-marital affair websites, specifically targeted at married people who want a relationship on the side.
One of these sites, Ashleymadison.com, bills itself as ‘the world's leading married dating service for discreet encounters’. It proudly uses the strapline: ‘Life is short. Have an affair’, to attract customers.
Another big player, Illicitencounters.com, has been running since 2003 and now has over 610,000 members across the UK & Ireland. The ratio of members is 45% women to 55% men. But in terms of active members (that’s people who have logged into the site in the last month and sent at least one message), women outnumber men by 3 to 1.
So what would drive a married woman to register with such a site? Could it be that affairs just aren’t as taboo as they once were? According to a recent study by accountancy firm Grant Thornton, infidelity is no longer the leading reason for marital breakups in the UK. ‘Growing apart’, is. But regardless of what the stats say, having an affair is still a huge risk to take. We asked one woman who’s a regular user of illicitencounters to tell us how she ended up looking for extra-marital love on-line.
[ See also: The tell-tale signs of a cheat]
Why I signed up
“I’m an articulate, highly educated, successful woman,” says Penny, 50, a self-employed property consultant from Wales, who’s been using illicitencounters for three years.
“I married young and was with my first husband for ten years. We had two wonderful children together, but he dabbled around with other people and eventually we divorced. I was single for two years and I fell into the rut of not caring about my appearance. My self-esteem plummeted. Then, when I was 35, I met a single man who I connected with and I got re-married.”
Life went on as normal for Penny until she was 47, when she first started experiencing menopausal symptoms. “I started panicking. I thought, ‘Oh God, is this it? Just me, my husband and a copy of Homes & Gardens magazine for the rest of my days?’” At the same time, a male friend gave Penny a compliment that would change her life.
“He suddenly confessed that he thought I was the most attractive person on earth,” she recalls. “I’m blonde, I wear my hair in a French pleat, I’m reasonably well proportioned and I’ve got good legs, but I never would have expected to receive such a compliment. He declared undying attraction, and it got me thinking about myself differently.”
At the same time, a work colleague told Penny about two dating websites specifically designed for married people. Penny was interested in finding out more, partly because her second husband had done something that spoiled the trust between them.
“My husband made a mistake,” Penny explains, refusing to disclose what this mistake was. “He did something at that time that upset me, so I decided to build a profile on Illicitencounters and see who else was out there. I didn’t feel it was necessary to get divorced – if there was another way to feel loved and respected, I was happy to explore it.”
In an interesting twist, Penny’s daughter helped to build her profile. “My second husband isn’t her father, and she knew I was unhappy so she was happy to help. She and I made it clear that I was looking for articulate men in a similar situation to myself. I wanted a buddy as well as a sexual relationship, and not a one-night stand.”
[ Relevant: When you should definitely call things quits]
A brief encounter
Soon after her profile went live, e-mails began trickling in and after two dates which lacked chemistry, Penny met a man she was attracted to.
“We met at a railway station and had a chat in an empty pub,” she says. “It was very much like a job interview. We asked each other questions and tried to work out if we were right for each other. There was chemistry, and we clearly found each other physically attractive too.”
This Brief Encounter-style date was the start of a regular court-ship. “It went swimmingly, if rather sporadically, for 18-months,” Penny explains.
“I work in various parts of the UK so it was hard to get into a routine, but we made it work as best we could.” But the relationship ended in tears when Penny lost a significant amount of money on one of her date’s business ventures. “I trusted him with my body and my money,” she says. “Big mistake – It ended up costing me £2,000 per date. He lost my money and stopped returning my calls, but I will get it back.”
Undeterred, Penny started looking again. “Since March, I’ve had about 40 emails from men,” she says. “I’ve met up with 10 of them and emailed five more, but I’ve not had a physical relationship with anyone since January, which is very frustrating.”
To get herself over first date nerves, Penny treats every encounter as though it were a business meeting. “I meet the men on weekdays as weekends are reserved for my family, and I talk myself into a work frame of mind. I dress for business and always carry a briefcase. Typically I’ll meet a man in a plush hotel foyer – the kind of place where you legitimately could be doing business – because if anyone I know sees me, I need a good excuse for being there.”
It’s a stark contrast with Penny’s weekend routine. “On Saturday morning I typically catch up with housework by myself. My husband will go and watch a football match and I might go shopping. We stay in most Saturday nights as I’m utterly exhausted from a week of work, and then on Sunday we’ll have breakfast together before I cook a family dinner for the children who come over to visit. It’s quite boring, humdrum stuff. My biggest fear is that I’m going to slip back into a Homes & Gardens phase of my life – where my greatest excitement comes from choosing new wallpaper. The dating site helps me keep my senses and spark alive.”
The morality question
Penny insists she doesn’t feel guilty for cheating on her husband.
“Marriage is a partnership where people have to put in the same level of respect and care. But I’ve been let down in both of my marriages,” she explains. “My husband is older than me and although he’s a good man, we have a sterile relationship and there’s no lovey-dovey stuff. If he found out about my illicit encounters, he’d be extremely hurt but he’d probably see things from my perspective too.”
She also remains hopeful about the possibilities of finding a true soul-mate.
“I’m an optimist,” she says. “There must be someone out there who is waiting for me. It would be extremely inconvenient to divorce so I probably won’t do that, but if I meet a life partner through illicitencounters, I’ll try and keep both relationships going simultaneously. Even if I don’t find love, I am meeting some thoroughly pleasant guys which helps to keep life exciting.” Only her children know about her clandestine behaviour. “I access the site through my personal Blackberry, and no-one at work knows what I’m up to. I’m very well known in my industry so I have to be discreet at all times.”
What do you think?
Are dating websites for married people an inevitable part of life in the internet age? Are they serving a purpose for those who don’t want to get a divorce but need to find satisfaction outside of their current loveless relationship? Or are they morally bankrupting marriages in the UK?”
*Names haves been changed.
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