A woman I'll call Amy is a thirtysomething who has been happily married for six years, but for the last four and a half years, she's been using cheating site AshleyMadison.com to meet a variety of men for sex. It began as cheating, but now her husband knows about it.
When most of us imagine marriage, we envision a lifetime of loyalty, commitment and deepening intimacy. But sometimes life throws you a few curveballs, communication goes off the rails, people get bored with the same-old same-old, health issues arise, and if statistics are to be believed, cheating is an easy salve.
While it's hard to get a handle on how common marital infidelity is, the general truism is that men cheat more than women, but women are beginning to catch up. This typically wreaks havoc on relationships, but there are more and more couples who decide not to split up after cheating, but to pursue something in the middle, social monogamy, or what Dan Savage termed "monogamish."
In a 2012 post about it, Savage laments that all we hear about are couples who tried nonmonogamy—a threesome, poly— and ended up in Splitsville. Who we hear less from are couples who have tried the monogamish route and are still together, but don't necessarily want to talk about it in the open. This, he argues, "allows smug and insecure monogamists to run around insisting that there's no such thing as happy, stable monogamish couples."
In response to a recent piece we ran here about marriage and promiscuity, we heard from Amy, who wrote to say she is such a specimen. We spoke via email about her situation.
Describe your relationship with your husband.
We're an extremely solid team. He's my best friend, the person I want to grow old with, and I love him deeply. We've been together for over a decade, married for over six years, and have been through the heavy stuff (parent with cancer, car accident, purchasing a home together) and fun stuff (travel, silly every day things) together. He's the funniest person I know, and when I think of love and family, it's him.
What was your relationship like prior to getting married? Did the health issues show up after the fact?
Pretty normal/boring relationship prior to marriage. He has a chronic health condition that we became aware of about a year after we married. The full impact of the disease and medications started showing up a bit prior to that and after. Since then, he is able to work but that uses up a lot of his energy, so our off time together went from backpacking/hiking to staying home watching movies. Depending on his health, because it fluctuates, my role as caretaker can be very involved (helping him get to the restroom, managing meds, taking him to/from doctors appointments) or just normal cooking and sharing of household chores.
Was the sexual relationship with your husband ever good? Is there an age or major libido difference otherwise?
The first several years of our relationship things were great. Our libidos were well-matched, we had great communication, we were interested or game to try new things together. But then we basically went from having sex once or twice a week to having what I'd consider bad sex (five minutes or less, no real foreplay) once every six months to a year. We're about the same age (mid-30s). The libido drop came as a result of medications he takes and physical limitations (pain, or unable to move in certain ways needed for sex).
Why did you start cheating? Is this primarily about the sex not being good or about other needs not being met?
It was mostly the sex, but there's a psychological component to it. Sometimes you just want to get fucked or have someone go down on you. As of right now, it has been over four years since my husband has been able to perform oral sex on me. And it hurts and builds resentment when you turn to the person lying in bed next to you, try to initiate sex, and you get rejected. Over and over again. Then that resentment spills into other areas. So it's the physical aspect, I like having sex, and it's wanting to be with someone who wants and is able to have sex with you.
How did the initial conversation go about your cheating, and how did it lead to him giving you the green light to maintain these outside relationships?
We had a few conversations about friends who were in open relationships and friends who had cheated on their partners. He initially found out by seeing something on my computer. He left the computer for me to see what he had seen, and let me bring it up. I explained that this was something I felt I needed, it was an escape, and that it made me happy. I explained that I wasn't in love with anyone else, and that I knew this was a Band-Aid for the sex issues he and I were having, but it was working for me for now. I asked him if he wanted a divorce and he said no. He asked me if I wanted a divorce and I said no, too. There were some tears, but we basically came to an understanding. He was mostly concerned about my health and safety (and I know I've got an amazing guy, trust me, I do). He told me I was OK to keep doing it but that he didn't want to know about it—just that I was being safe and discreet.
Do you consider yourself promiscuous? Monogamous?
Socially monogamous. We're the most boring, basic couple on the surface. I don't consider myself really promiscuous. It's not like I'm out there screwing any man I come across because I can. I've slept with less men than my single girlfriends who date, have casual sex, or the occasional one night stand (for the record I don't consider those friends promiscuous either).
What is your sexual appetite like?
I think it's pretty average. If I can get together to have sex once a month, then I'm happy. I'm not completely vanilla but the kinkiest I'll go is playing with a blindfold or fake handcuffs (stuff my husband got me into).
Are you affectionate or physical with your husband at all, and how has that changed over time or in light of the new relationships?
Absolutely we're affectionate and physical. We'll cuddle on the couch, we both like to grab each other's butts, or we'll make the cat "dance" on the other person. We'll make out and hold hands. We have stupid pet names for each other that I'm not going to share because they're pretty stupid.
How would you say this has helped your relationship?
It's de-escalated things dramatically. Before, we'd fight about sex, and the anger behind that fighting would carry over into everything else. I knew he wasn't trying to hurt my feelings, but the situation still did. The long-term drain emotionally from getting rejected made me feel undesirable. That, plus the drain of being a caregiver, plus working full time, made me feel like shit.
I know this sounds selfish, but it was like I had nothing left for myself. I have a demanding job that I worked hard to get and I love, I help take care of my husband and I worry about him. It makes me sick to see him in pain. And I have family obligations. I have an amazing set of friends, but I share a lot of those friends with my husband. The way I explained it to my husband is that this is a "just me" thing. It's private and makes me happy. It keeps me from being an asshole partner. No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who's angry and mean all the time.
We get along so much better now that it's out there. It's removed our lack of a sex life from this taboo subject list. We don't have to dance around the subject, we don't have to debate it or talk about it over and over again. It's not a non-issue, but it's something that's a lot less emotionally charged now.
Are there any ways your affairs have hurt or complicated your relationship?
Back when he didn't know, I hated lying about it. Now he isn't thrilled to hear details (he prefers that I just let him know if I'll be home late). I make his feelings my top priority. If I need to cancel seeing someone because something comes up with him—health-related or just, "Hey babe, let's go do dinner and a movie tonight" then he always gets top priority on my time.
Are the other relationships all sexual, or are some companionship or talking, or all of the above?
It's a mix. Friends with benefits is probably the best way to describe it. I see about six guys (two fairly regularly, as in once every month or so), the rest I will maybe see once or twice a year. Scheduling is a pain. For the guys and myself the priority list is typically, "spouse/family, work commitments, friend commitments, hobbies, sidepiece as time allows."
I only see men who are also married. Part of that is the MAD [mutually assured destruction] arrangement—you both have equal incentive to not go crazy on the other person or have expectations on the relationship that aren't feasible. What's been so nice about seeing other married people is that you realize you're not the only person in this situation. The guys I see have spouses with depression or health issues similar to my husband's. This is a topic you just don't talk about with other people, so having a relative stranger who gets where you're coming from and doesn't judge you is really comforting.
The relationships are all primarily sexual. I've come across some guys who want a girlfriend to go to the movies with or go to events with—that's OK for them, but I have someone to do that with. The sex is usually really, really good. I wouldn't continue to see someone if the sex wasn't good because the risks (getting exposed, STIs, time suck) don't outweigh the benefits (good sex life). I also only continue to see someone if I enjoy the downtime with them. Good conversation, feeling relaxed, chatting about work stuff or pop culture. I don't jump into the deeper emotional stuff, re: my husband's condition, unless I feel like the man I'm with is a friend—and I don't ask much about their home life because it's none of my business. It's up to them how much they want to share.
Does your husband have the same freedom to pursue outside relationships? If he decided to, how do you think you would feel about that or have you encouraged him?
If he wanted to see someone outside our marriage I'd be thrilled to know that he enjoys sex as much as any other person, which would mean that the sex issue was an "us" thing that could either be fixed with counseling or something—or, not be fixed, but it would have more of a definition than it does now. He has visited a professional sex worker who was able to "work with him" in ways I can't due to physical limitations.
Can you elaborate on that?
I don't want to get too into it, but it was more a kink of his that I'm not able to do due to physical limitations for both of us—I don't want to hurt him/was cool with him going to a pro woman who was able to do stuff for him.
Is jealousy ever a factor for him? How so or how isn't it?
He is an incredibly kind person. I think jealousy is a factor—he doesn't love the idea of his wife fucking other guys, it's not a kink for him—but he loves me, gets that this is a stress release or way for me to escape for a bit, and he sees the bigger picture.
Has it ever bothered you that he doesn't mind about the other relationships? Some women might find this threatening in its own way.
The issue feels like it's the right size. We've had arguments and intense discussions, but those were done knowing divorce wasn't an option we wanted. Once that was out of the equation, we had the space to negotiate what we were comfortable with.
Do you and your husband consider this an open relationship?
Open but not out. A small handful (like four people) know, but our sex life is not really anyone's business.
Has your husband ever met any of these men?
No. He has no interest. Something I've discussed with these guys I see is that if we ever see each other in public (and we don't, we run in different circles) the plan is to play dumb and treat the other person like a stranger.
Do you have rules for how you conduct these relationships?
Yes. Like I mentioned above, there's a mutually acknowledged priority list: Spouse, family, work, friends, etc. This ranks as important as a hobby. That being said, it's hard to carve out time to see each other, so you don't cancel unless you have to. There's some things like emailing or texting but not calling unless you both agree it's okay to call within a certain timeframe. I don't share my last name or a ton of specific details. I usually Google everyone based on the clues they drop (first name, line of work, where they went to college) and I assume everyone does the same for me. It's kinda like Fight Club, you don't talk a lot about it. One of my close friends always knows where I am if I'm seeing someone, and I tell the guy that. Usually I'll meet someone for a drink or coffee or something first, then we meet at hotels.
How do you avoid being seen by mutual friends? Are you only meeting in hotel rooms?
Have you ever almost been spotted?
What happens if you fall in love? Or have you fallen in love so far?
I'm in love with my husband. I care about a couple of these guys deeply as friends. One I actually have stopped seeing—we still email as friends— because I care about him but not in a romantic sense. Like I said, I'll usually see a guy once a month—that's not super frequent. In the interim we'll email—and it's a friendship. It's a weird, raw relationship because there's zero reason to bullshit each other—it's very honest. And if someone wants to end something, you just go with it.
I had one guy, an investment banker, ask me if I'd ever get divorced. He wanted out of his marriage more than I realized, and he started dancing towards the "if we both got out then we could get together" thing. I shut that down and that was the last time I saw him because that's not what I'm looking for.
Tell us what you can about the types of men you're seeing.
I'm very type A and I'm attracted to type A personalities. I like white-collar, college educated, and liberal, so generally they all fall into that broad category (there's a little bit of everyone on Ashley Madison, but this is just what I like). I also like a bit older than me, just because my experience is that men in their 40-50s have a very clear set of expectations, know what works for them in bed, are low drama, and are at a place in their careers where they have the time and money to do this. Big thing to note here: I'm not a sugar baby, I'm not a sex worker, I don't get cash or anything for this—but 99% of the time the guy pays for the hotel (and we usually stay at some nice places: The Standard, The Line, The W) so being able to do that equates with your job being at a certain level.
Because it's Southern California, there are a lot of guys on Ashley Madison in the industry both above and below the line. The people I've met (and I haven't slept with them all) include a really well known writer/director (think Saturday night date popcorn movies), three producers, a stunt man, and an editor. The other major categories I come across are men who are professors and guys who are bankers, lawyers, independently wealthy, or "business men."
They are either foreign and having affairs culturally isn't a big issue for them—I saw a Frenchman for over a year, he was fabulous—or their spouses have health issues, declining libido due to menopause or medication, etc. With the one exception, they're all happy enough in their marriage so that they don't want to leave, but they're missing an active sex life.
I've been contacted through Ashley Madison by men with some interesting fetishes that aren't for me: feet, pee, having someone be my slave. But most guys don't want anything super kinky. [Ed. note: Amy says she gets anywhere from 10 to 20 messages per day through the site.]
One experience sticks out for me—a guy I was seeing had a wife who was a cancer survivor. According to him the radiation, etc., had killed their sex life completely and they were both just grateful she was still alive. The second time we had sex, he started crying afterwards because he was so happy. This guy was 50, he laughed/cried because he hadn't gotten a blow job since he was 18 because his wife didn't do that and it was overwhelming to him. He was amazed because he had forgotten what it was like to just have fun having sex, not worrying about if you were going to hurt the person you were with.
The reason I'm cool with talking about this is that I'm a regular reader/commenter on Jez (out of the grays), and whenever an article on Ashley Madison comes up it feels really judgey in the comments. Women I assume are scared of the idea comment saying how amazing their marriages are and how they could never imagine doing this. But I'm really just like them. The men I see are so boringly normal (OK, some have pretty cool jobs, but they're normal). They're husbands and dads and coach Little League and go to the park with their families. Their wives are both stay-at-home moms or busy with really cool careers. These men are not Don Draper—the idea that if you're marriage is rolling along smoothly you're immune from this happening to you is a joke. The only commonality is that the people who show up on Ashley Madison feel like they're missing something related to sex, so they are taking steps to get it while causing the least harm to others.
Are these men physically like your husband at all?
Yes, without giving too much about myself away—I have a physical type I like and a personality type I go for.
If your husband ever changed his mind and wanted you to stop seeing other men, would you oblige? Or would you leave?
I don't know. I'd like to say 100% that I'd stop, but for that to happen our relationship would need to be in a different space than it is now. I don't want to leave, and that's the reason Ashley Madison works as a Band-Aid. I want to have a happy, healthy sex life with my husband—I'm hopeful that certain therapies he's doing now will get us there, but in the mean time, I don't want to go for over a year again without being touched.
How long do these relationships last, generally?
A few relationships are years old—others are newer (less than a year). They stick as long as they work for both people, then you move on.
If your family or friends found out, what would they think?
The friends that know, understand. I don't typically talk about my sex life with family members, so I don't share this with them. My family isn't particularly religious or conservative, so I don't think I'd get shamed by them. The people who do know seem to agree that it's a sad situation but if my husband and I are okay with it—than that's our business.
Do you not want to say you're in an open relationship?
I don't go into detail about sex toys, sexual likes or dislikes, techniques, etc. with most of my friends and none of my family members. This arrangement falls into that category. I don't view this as a sexuality that I should come out of the closet and share. This doesn't define my sexual orientation; it's just something I'm choosing to do as part of the way I have sex.
What type of relationship do you indicate you're looking for on Ashley Madison?
FWB [friends with benefits]—not a sugar relationship.
What sexual tastes did you indicate that you were looking for?
Fairly vanilla with some kinky things.
What did you say you were looking for in an ideal partner?
I don't want to share my profile verbatim, but something along the lines of be normal, happy, and healthy.
Has your husband ever seen the site?
Yes. He liked that my profile says I'm married to an amazing person.
You mention the experience being empowering because you don't look like the typical blonde size 2 you'd find in LA. Was not feeling attractive in your relationship with your husband a part of this?
I think I'm attractive, but do I fit every social construct of what is attractive? No. I find it funny that the stereotypical homewrecker is a young blond size 2, that Southern California really prizes hyper-exaggerated youth and beauty standards, and that I don't fit those standards but I'm still getting lots of attention.
Are there children involved here?
What do you think people would misunderstand about these relationships, and what would you tell them if you could?
I'm a private person, so I don't have a huge desire to share about my sex life. I do wish that people were less judgmental about affairs. I think that people are afraid of being cheated on and that their reaction is to transfer that fear into judgment.
Anything else you want to add?
I always use protection, get screened regularly, and practice "safe" meeting practices.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.