Why you should care

Because infidelity isn’t cozying up just on the guy’s side of the bed anymore.

When Katie discovered that her husband of some 15 years had cheated on her, she was heartbroken. But instead of wallowing, she decided that she’d cheat on him. Tit for tat? Not exactly. Her husband knew all about the other man and even agreed to the affair. “It is certainly not a lifestyle I would advocate for newlyweds,” says Katie, a 39-year-old from Philadelphia, who doesn’t want her last name revealed because her children have no idea about her sexual escapades.

It might be unnerving for some guys, who’ve gotten used to infidelity cozying up only on their side of the bed, but Katie is part of a growing group of married women who’ve stepped out on their husbands — often with their husbands’ knowledge. Sometimes, even a couple’s wider social circle may find out, leading men to feel the sort of awkwardness that women of generations past knew all too well. It’s tough to quantify exactly how common female infidelity has become, but over the winter holiday season, Clover, a mobile dating app, analyzed data from about 150,000 users and found a whopping 300 percent increase in sign-ups from people in an existing relationship, with 33 percent more women than men signing up.

While not all of those women were married, much has changed for married women in recent decades. About 50 years ago, “a woman found having an affair would risk losing her children,” says Noel Biderman, CEO of Ashley Madison, a “married dating” site that encourages spouses to have a fling. But the entry of women into the workforce, among other changes in the gender economy, has worked a change. With greater financial stability, independence and custody courts on their side in many cases, married women are revolutionizing 21st century relationships in their favor.

In fact, the number of women users who’ve signed up on Ashley Madison since it launched has grown to 34 percent — and is rising — compared with 22 percent in 2002. (“Life is short,” Ashley Madison’s home page says. “Have an affair.”) The site’s just one of many today that facilitate illicit encounters. Others include Adult FriendFinder, Gleeden, NoStringsAttached, Married Secrets and, well, Illicit Encounters. According to women who have used some of these sites, what looks like a careless hookup can sometimes save a marriage, as affairs provide women an emotional release or intimacy in otherwise difficult situations.

For Bernadette, a 50-year-old who started a hunt for a relationship outside of her marriage, Ashley Madison helped after her husband became ill. He had cancer and suffered from heart issues, and he couldn’t be intimate with Bernadette anymore. “It became a big problem in our marriage,” says Bernadette, who started feeling resentful but still loved her husband and didn’t want to leave him. She ended up meeting a man who quickly boosted her confidence, she says, and helped keep her marriage happy. “I don’t feel so bad about myself anymore,” she says. “I have an outlet for something that’s important to me.”

I’m having as much sex as I had in my 20s — and I’m a short, chubby 50-year-old.

- Bernadette

But what happens if the Mr. finds out about said discretions? There’s mounting evidence that when it comes to cheating, men are more forgiving than many might expect — perhaps making it easier to avoid divorce if they find out. In one poll of more than 1,500 men conducted by Survive Her Affair, which helps guys in these situations, about 71 percent of respondents said they still loved their wife after her affair. And whether they wanted to save their marriages or weren’t sure, 92 percent of betrayed men weren’t going to cut their straying ladies off.

To be sure, some of history’s most powerful women cheated on a partner and stayed with him (at least for a little while), including Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria and Marie Antoinette. Nowadays, there’s the occasional rumor about female celebrities who stray from their spouses, or others, like country crooner LeAnn Rimes, who’ve admitted to having an affair while being married. (Rimes, who has since remarried, didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Despite the trend, though, experts still think men will be doing more of the cheating, in absolute numbers, for the near future. “Female infidelity is going to be on the rise, but whether it can ‘catch up’ to the male counterpart is up for debate,” says Biderman. Some popular dating websites, such as Match.com and eHarmony, have actually banned married women (and men) from signing up entirely. If a person lies and says she’s single or divorced, and then someone else complains to either company, her profile would be removed.

This has happened in some cases, although women like Bernadette are happy finding other sites that will openly take their business. Why should others care about what happens in her bedroom anyway? After all, Bernadette says she’s more confident within her marriage — and satisfied outside of it — these days.

“I’m having as much sex as I had in my 20s — and I’m a short, chubby 50-year-old,” she says. “You wouldn’t think I would be the one having an affair.”

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