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The state of extramarital affairs

Just as the stigma of cheating fades away, opportunities to stray have multiplied — and so have the chances of getting caught.

“A betrayal can be as simple as a sext,” says Sharon-based marriage and family therapist Karen Ruskin.

Chas Ray Krider/Getty Images

“A betrayal can be as simple as a sext,” says Sharon-based marriage and family therapist Karen Ruskin.

ADULTERY IS STILL TECHNICALLY A CRIME in Massachusetts, though a case hasn’t been pursued in decades. So perhaps it is fitting that it is in the Reading Police Station where a small cadre of husbands and wives is meeting tonight, to unpack heartache over cheating spouses.

Whom they still love.

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Maybe.

About a half-dozen middle-aged men and women trickle into the nondescript room and assemble around a Formica-topped conference table where a jar of colorful hard candy — and a telling box of Kleenex — awaits.

A sandy-haired man who drives down monthly from New Hampshire leans toward the woman sitting across the way. “Did you hear about the woman in Lynn who ran over her ex’s girlfriend?” he asks, referencing a story from the day’s news. His mouth unexpectedly breaks into a wide smile. “Good for her,” he cackles. “Good for her.”

Dark humor is not uncommon at the Beyond Affairs Network, an international support group founded decades ago solely for those who have been betrayed — cheaters decidedly not welcome. Members come from all over Greater Boston to speak about infidelity’s aftershocks: the hurt that still lingers, the anger that still rages, the insecurity, the devastation, and the shame. They cover healing and forgiveness and reconciliation, fear and loneliness and scorn. “I’ll never be the same person again,” a man in a green shirt with soft brown eyes tells the group. “I’ll never be as naive as I was. It rapes you of your innocence.”

Over the two-hour meeting, they speak somberly about the suicide attempts with pills or running engines and jovially about the “infidelity diet,” where you shed 51 pounds in two months. They share revenge scenarios, imaginary and ones actually carried out involving strategically placed dog feces. They one-up one another with horror stories — the letter from a spouse’s mistress that begins “You and I could have been friends”; the diamond earrings on Valentine’s Day that were such an obvious sign, in retrospect; the injustices of making child-support payments for a husband’s out-of-wedlock baby and of having to rub elbows with former spouses’ paramours at christenings, weddings, and other family occasions. They describe marriages that ended with a bang, on a 30th anniversary, and with a whimper, after indiscretions dating back to the wedding night.

Group members return to meetings year after year because no one else in their life truly understands how they feel — or still has the patience to listen. And their numbers are growing. In 2006, there were 61 Beyond Affairs Network groups in 27 states and 10 countries. Today there are 129 groups in 38 states and 16 countries.

For a long time they wept, but now they can laugh. They are survivors.

On one thing, they agree: There are no consequences for cheating these days. It’s accepted. Glorified, almost. And no one cares about it. Until it happens to them.

Chas Ray Krider/Getty Images

***

ADULTERY IS AS OLD as the Book of Genesis and as modern as the latest Anthony Weiner revelation. Unlike the more laissez-faire attitude of the French, we Americans are conflicted about infidelity. We denounce it morally — but overlook it politically, time and again. We condemn it in the theoretical — but often quietly forgive it in the personal. It permeates our pop culture, in movies from The Descendants to Blue Jasmine, reality TV shows from Cheaters to Deadly Affairs, and dramas like The Good Wife and Showtime’s upcoming The Affair. It fills the airwaves in country ballads and pop anthems. It stays in the shadows, whispered by small-town gossipmongers, until it breaks into the local headlines, such as the Hamilton cop who shot a fellow officer from Beverly last year after accusing him of having an affair with his wife.

“Infidelity is the ultimate crime in a marriage,” says Whitman private investigator Mark Chauppetta, author of Happens All the Time: Cheating in the Good Ol’ U.S.A. “I’ve had women that want to claw [the other woman’s] eyes out. I’ve had politicians and state troopers crying in my arms.”

And yet there are signs everywhere that the shame of stepping out has faded. Politicians bounce back unscathed for another run. The decade-old matchmaking website AshleyMadison.com brazenly hooks up married men and women, promoting extramarital encounters with its motto “Life is short. Have an affair.” An infamous 2010 New York Times wedding write-up features a couple proudly detailing their “meet-cute” — while married to other people. A Philadelphia man is tagged on Facebook unabashedly bragging in June about an affair to his commuter rail buddies in a picture taken by an outraged female passenger whose “share” went viral.

In a 2013 Gallup Poll that listed behaviors and societal realities that included porn, gambling, abortion, polygamy, and the death penalty, 91 percent of survey respondents flagged adultery as morally reprehensible. It drew a higher rate of disapproval than any issue on the survey. Instinctively, we sense that lying to and betraying the one person we’ve sworn fealty to is far worse than simply divorcing that person. Condemnation of divorce has decreased since 2001, but disapproval of adultery has held steady.

However, that moral censure doesn’t exactly curb the behavior. Nearly 15 percent of wives and 21 percent of husbands reported having an affair in a 2010 poll by the National Opinion Research Center, which has been asking this particular question for two decades.

“Guys do it to get laid, women do it for the emotional connection,” Chauppetta says with a shrug, echoing the classic stereotype. Then he stops and amends his thoughts. “Women are starting to dirty up a little bit.” Whether their reasons are carnal or emotional, women’s infidelity rates are rising. The percentage of wives admitting to cheating has increased in the past two decades from 10.6 percent in 1991, according to the National Opinion Research Center’s poll.

Dr. Karen Ruskin.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Dr. Karen Ruskin.

“Either you’ve been cheated on, you are going to be cheated on, you’ve thought about cheating and shut it down, or you know somebody who has cheated,” says Karen Ruskin, a Sharon-based marriage and family therapist. “It’s a topic that interests everybody.”

From Ruskin’s perspective, a number of societal shifts have facilitated a lapse of fidelity, from the growing numbers of women in the workplace to greater acceptance of friendships across gender lines and even our nation’s newfound tendency to over-share, whether it be with a co-worker or an online buddy. “The philosophy used to be ‘don’t air your dirty laundry,’ ” Ruskin says. “These days we air it at work, on Twitter, Facebook, et cetera,” and that kind of sharing can build emotional connections that lead to affairs. What’s more, infidelity is in the news. “Affairs are talked about on TV, radio, and in print,” Ruskin adds. “The more something is talked about and aired, the more acceptable it becomes.”

The relentless media parade of men behaving badly — Weiner, General David Petraeus, Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, David Letterman, Bill Clinton — has only served to accustom us to the behavior. “It’s become acceptable,” says Ruskin. “It’s so prominent we’ve become desensitized.”

And occasionally, although the odds are long, high-profile alliances formed from a dalliance seem to work out — take Brad and Angie. Or onetime GE CEO Jack Welch and former Harvard Business Review editor Suzy Wetlaufer, whose affair made headlines a decade ago and who have been together since.

“I think adultery has lost some, but not all, of its stigma,” says Quincy divorce attorney Bruce Watson, pointing to changes in the legal system that have greatly lessened the repercussions for cheating. “It’s certainly more widespread than it was years ago.”

Decades ago, cheating could be cited as the cause in a fault divorce, and the “other party” could even be civilly sued for causing “alienation of affection.” Since the advent of no-fault divorce in Massachusetts in 1976, adultery is only rarely brought up as a tactic, sometimes to speed up the process or to affect custody or, occasionally, as a pressure point during settlement negotiations. “People are often trying to vindicate their emotional trauma or to really try to exact some economic reparation,” says Boston-based divorce attorney Donald Tye.

More typically it plays no role at all. “Unless the adulterous behavior was objectively harmful to the children or the non-adulterous party, it’s not going to have a major impact on the outcome of the divorce,” says Watson. “Divorce judges are not all that enthusiastic about seeing adultery as the primary basis for divorce.”

Chas Ray Krider/Getty Images

***

MODERN LIFE has also muddied the waters of what defines an affair, compared with the traditional sex-based rendezvous at the Pierre, a la Don Draper. A once-a-year dalliance at a professional conference? An “office wife” doling out “innocent” back rubs and hugs? An “emo” affair, meaning emotional-only, between two people conducted entirely online?

“We are in a relationship revolution, trying to figure out what even constitutes an affair,” says Ruskin. “From a marriage therapist’s perspective, it’s the secrecy and the intimate connection with another human. A betrayal can be as simple as a sext.”

Technology has certainly added a whole new wrinkle, from the start of an affair to its unraveling. Entire books and academic studies have been devoted to Facebook’s well-documented role in breaking up marriages. Beyond that, there are apps and devices that can simulate touch, and Snapchat, which allows racy photos to be sent and automatically erased. Savvy cheaters set up secondary, secret e-mail accounts and use disposable cellphones.

“Most of the affairs we deal with have started on classmates.com and Facebook,” says Beyond Affairs Network national leader Anne Bercht, author of the book My Husband’s Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me. “All you need is for some old flame from high school to happen to Facebook you on a day you feel angry with your spouse. It’s tempting to have that secret correspondence and create a fantasy — maybe we should have married each other.”

A more calculated affair is a click away on AshleyMadison.com, where members post “selfies” more readily than seems wise if they care about getting caught. Within days of signing up to see how it works, I’ve been barraged by winks, messages, and views from readyornot in Natick, Dirty-GirlSeeker in Minot, and barnside in Chatham, all attached males seeking “fun and lovely times” (discreetly, natch).

But technology is also proving to be an adulterer’s Achilles’ heel. You may think you’re safe because you’ve cleared your cache — but you may not be. Cheaters have been tripped up by being inadvertently “tagged” on Facebook in an incriminating photo snapped while out with their extramarital partner. Or when a spouse synchs a new device and all those deleted sexts come tumbling out of the cloud. Or even by the digital trail recorded by their car’s E-ZPass.

Chauppetta says technology is bad for business, with more men and women catching their own spouses red-handed. But some still hire the PI for incontrovertible proof. “People are just gluttons for punishment,” he says. “Sometimes, [they] need to see living, breathing flesh on videotape.”

But those visuals come at a cost. Therapists say being confronted with all the dirty details of a conversation thread may be devastating in a way that finding a stray hair or hotel receipt indicating an affair is not. “Long ago, you were not confronted with what actually happens [during an affair],” says Ruskin. “Now it’s in your face, and it’s hard to get those thoughts out of your head. It’s like PTSD. You keep replaying the trauma of what happened.”

Once detected, betrayed spouses can find support on websites like SurvivingInfidelity.com — or take their vengeance virtually. CheaterVille.com allows users anonymously to post detailed profiles of cheaters as a warning to potential partners. Wronged spouses have spawned a new genre — the personal revenge blog — where the betrayed spew vitriol upon their spouse’s partners on sites like yesthisreallydidhappen or ourjourneyafterhisaffair.

Chas Ray Krider/Getty Images

***

MARRIAGES GONE STALE, sexless marriages, Kardashian-speed marriages. Affairs resulting from those realities are predictable. The stories that keep you up at night are ones like Kristen’s.

“We had a fantastic marriage,” recalls the 40-year-old mother of three in a MetroWest suburb. Before moving east, she worked in a West Coast clinic testing women for STDs, including wives with cheating husbands. “I remember counseling women like me; nobody ever thinks they’re going to be on the other side.”

Then, after their youngest child was born, her husband confessed he had gotten involved with a co-worker.

The pain was intense. “We were the last couple anyone would have expected this to happen to,” she says. “Not to scare people, but it can happen in absolutely anyone’s marriage, not just marriages that are crumbling. Some people within a marriage make poor decisions. Good people get wrapped up in affairs. I do not vilify anyone. Personal vulnerability, plus opportunity, leads to an affair. It’s pretty classic.”

For many, the journey begins innocuously. A stressful home life. The entrance of someone new who showers you with attention. It starts with just talk. Just lunch. Just dinner. Maybe a trip. “It’s this process where you keep moving the moral boundary,” Kristen says. “And then one day you’ve crossed it. There are real feelings involved.”

Some ascribe the cheating to a specific flaw in the individual, especially in serial cheaters. Drug addictions or childhood abuse drives their insecurities, their need for the repeated ego boost. But even so, therapists largely call foul on those excuses, saying it is ultimately about deciding to take action.

“I believe people make the choice to cheat,” says Ruskin. “The moment we even give ourselves permission to say that ‘It just happened,’ then we have lost control over who we are.” Monica Meehan McNamara, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in the South End, agrees: “Anybody, at any time, could be very drawn to another human being. When that happens, do you take action or not?”

Bruce Elmslie, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, has studied what factors influence the likelihood a spouse will have an affair. Being pious doesn’t matter. What does is simple: happiness with the marriage. The chance of a woman having an affair increases about 8.5 percent if she is not very happy in her marriage for whatever reason, while the chance of a man having an affair increases 9.8 percent.

“Keep [your spouse] happy and they won’t be as likely to have an affair,” Elmslie says. Fail at your own peril. Consider this: AshleyMadison.com claims that the day after Mother’s Day brings the highest spike in women signing up for its services.

Chas Ray Krider/Getty Images

***

‘I THOUGHT MY LIFE was wonderful,” says Kitty, 63, who leads the North of Boston Beyond Affairs Network chapter, recalling the hot July day eight years ago when she stumbled upon her husband’s affair. She and her mother-in-law had stopped by his construction site with some bottled water, only to find him leaning against his truck, kissing a co-worker. “That was when the s ***  hit the fan. I was in such shock. I threw the water at him and left. I was shaking like I never shook before. Every dream we had was shattered.”

They call it D-day: the day an affair is discovered.

It’s easy to jump to a conclusion about what you’d do. But this is the moment when our moral certainty runs smack against our pragmatism. We think we’d be like Elin and her window-smashing golf club, kicking Tiger to the curb, but we turn out to be more like Anthony Weiner’s wife, Huma, standing by her husband as he campaigned.

“You might not really feel what you think you’re going to feel,” says Ruskin. “Many people think they would end the marriage; when they find out, more actually stay [than think they will]. A lot of people, as they talk to their spouse, feel they played a role in the cheating.”

After discovering her husband’s affair in 2000, “I made a decision not to make a decision,” recalls Beyond Affairs Network’s Bercht. She calls the first three months a period of “craziness” and the second a period of “fighting.” “It took two years for me to reach a place where I recommitted myself to my marriage. It’s not the affair itself that does the biggest damage; it’s the mistakes [people] make after. The person who is unfaithful only tells partial truth; they think the full truth will be too painful. The betrayed spouse can say or do things in anger, make decisions you can’t take back.”

Your odds of staying together after one partner has had an affair are, essentially, a coin toss. Slightly more than half of men and women who admit they had an affair will end up divorced, reports a 2012 study in the Journal of Family Issues. And those couples who experienced infidelity were more than two times as likely to divorce as those whose partners remained faithful.

That doesn’t mean that the affair directly caused the breakup, however. “The affair is typically not just about having sex,” says Ruskin. “The theory is that there is an underlying issue that has led to the affair.” Those who are successful in attacking the problem may come out on the other side with a sturdier relationship. “Once you start talking, the couple comes to discover other components that were never addressed. People start to feel maybe this can make lemonade, we can grow and recognize our problem and improve.”

But for those whose flaws were insurmountable, the marriage may have imploded anyway, affair or no affair.

Kitty is resisting a divorce, though her husband has chosen to move in with his extramarital partner. “I don’t feel after 40 years she deserves to take what belongs to me,” she says. “What Elizabeth Edwards wrote in her book Resilience hit me: What gives this woman the right to come and knock on my door and think what I worked so hard for, she can come in and take it all away?” Kitty finds lack of repercussions from an affair disheartening. “I think no-fault divorce was the worst thing that could happen,” she says. “It’s so easy. They don’t have to answer to anybody if they’re cheating.”

Despite counseling and attending couples retreats, Kristen’s husband was never able to recommit fully to the marriage and she asked for a divorce. “People should invest in fostering their marriage [before infidelity occurs], as opposed to trying to pick up the pieces,” she advises others today. “If people aren’t growing their marriage, it could lead to openings for third parties.”

“I believe that affairs are destroying our country; the core that makes any nation strong is strong families — when children grow up in a stable home environment,” says Bercht. She envisions a world where all of us, not just those in a post-affair crisis, would regularly attend couples’ counseling to freshen our skills, similar to how we require doctors to enroll in continuing ed. “It’s the one area of life that has more potential to make us happy, and we don’t bother getting educated; we think we should just know how to do it,” she adds. “If someone says, ‘We’re going to a marriage retreat,’ the response would be, ‘Are you having problems?’ I’d like to see that flipped.”

***

KITTY LIKES to end the Beyond Affairs Network meetings on a positive note, in the same way that she signs all of her e-mails “Keep Smiling.” So after two hours of heavy discussion, the meeting wraps up with Kitty passing out slices of white-frosted cake, brought to fete one member’s birthday. There’s another reason to celebrate tonight. The man with the soft brown eyes and the woman whose husband began cheating on her wedding day are marking their own one-year wedding anniversary tonight, which only goes to show what cheaters know so well: Romance can spring up even under the most unlikely of circumstances.

Kitty wonders aloud whether all that pain was the work of some higher power, designed to bring this new couple together, but the rest of the group looks doubtful. So much anguish, and for what? They can’t throw their cheating exes in jail; they can’t sue them for breaching their marriage contracts; they can’t even shame them socially. There is only one hope, which Kitty voices in a parting shot: “May karma come to them.”

Private investigator Mark Chauppetta.

joel Benjamin

Private investigator Mark Chauppetta.

TO CATCH A SNEAK

Think you’ll get away with it? Think again.

“A lot of cheaters think they’re invincible and they’re never going to get caught,” says private investigator Mark Chauppetta. He rattles off these common mistakes that lead to discovery. “But keep doing it,” he urges. “It keeps us in business.” 

> Going awol

In a world of instantaneous communication, going incommunicado for a few hours

> Seeking privacy

Taking your phone calls in another room or adding a password to your phone

> Stepping up your look

Shedding weight, getting pumped at a new gym, or switching to a sexier style of underwear

> Changing bedroom habits

Trying new techniques, or, conversely, never initiating intimacy

> Sneaking a lover into the home

“Women are perceptive to a piece of hair or cologne,” Chauppetta says. “If a woman is looking, her senses are heightened. They’re like superheroes.”

> Leaving a digital trail

“If you want to have an affair, you’ve got to go underground,” Chauppetta says. “You’ve basically got to live in the Stone Age.”

> Charging it

Wining and dining your secret partner. Credit card receipts leave a trail of evidence.

> Confiding in a friend

“Eventually, even the coolest person is going to say something that will get back to your spouse.” Plus, you never know who could be eavesdropping.

> Getting sloppy

Sooner or later, even the most careful cheater is going to forget something: to delete a text, log off an e-mail account, or get rid of a receipt.

THE CHEATER METER

If your partner exhibits any of these signs, it should raise a red flag, says marital therapist Karen Ruskin:

1. Travels often for work

2. Appears to be distancing self from you

3. Doesn’t show appreciation, in words or actions

4. Doesn’t seem interested in making time for your relationship, emotionally, physically, or sexually

5. Has a disrespectful attitude

6. Consistently reports marital dissatisfaction and then mysteriously stops complaining

OF NOTE

7

Boston’s rank on Ashley Madison’s list of cities with the most registered members seeking extramarital encounters. The Back Bay leads the neighborhoods, with highest use. 

58

Percent of divorcing clients who reported that infidelity was the main reason for their split (Source: August 2013 survey of Certified Divorce Financial Analysts in North America)

A forthcoming Journal of Consumer Research article found women use luxury items such as a Fendi handbag to ward off female romantic rivals by signaling their spouse’s devotion.

Melissa Schorr is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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