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What’s wrong with being faithful?

ShortList's Jon Axworthy investigates

What’s wrong with being faithful?
Danielle de Wolfe
14 February 2011

The woman who tested my fidelity to my beautiful wife Clare was dressed straight out of The Sound Of Music. It was Oktoberfest 2007 and I was there on a mate’s older brother’s stag weekend.

My only intention was to climb into a stein with a Bavarian hunting scene on the outside and not come out, but obviously a lot of other guys had very different destinations in mind. The first act after meeting at the airport and drinking the first pint was a ritualistic removal of wedding rings. Only myself and a handful of others kept them on — leaving us in the minority of married men. And it wasn’t like I was surrounded by morally bankrupt financiers or sordid sportsmen. They were all quantity surveyors, for God’s sake.

As the Pilsner-based debauchery got underway I was involved in a Teutonic drinking game that involved hammering nails into a section of tree trunk as quickly as possible. For some reason I was particularly good at this game. And for some reason German women seemed to be unusually impressed by my prowess with a claw hammer, and I found myself in an intense one-way conversation with a Fräulein. She was characteristically blonde and blue-eyed and the exact opposite of Clare. This only seemed to add to the excitement of her attentions, which had a lot to do with the fact that she was peddling some new brand of schnapps — hence the Julie Andrews outfit. Knowing very little German aside from jokes involving schnitzels and the War, I flashed the international language of the wedding band, but she handed me a mobile number and leaned in for a kiss and I… leaned away and never saw her again. Later I was asked by the most highly sexed group of quantity surveyors on Earth why I hadn’t “made the most of the opportunity”. And I’ve wondered why ever since.


It’s not that I hold myself to a higher moral standard than anyone else. I mean, I still hijack my neighbours’ Wi-Fi, go to the football using a season ticket that belongs to an uncle with dementia and I rooted for Mary Bale and her cat confinement scheme. So I’m clearly capable of despicable acts. If I’d had one more stein maybe I wouldn’t have been so disciplined. And now, 39 years old, I’m the same age as those other guys in Munich who were quite content to cheat — I wonder, am I destined to do the same?

According to Stephen, 31, the younger brother of another friend, the answer is definitely ‘yes’. “It’s got nothing to do with what age you are,” says Stephen, who is in a serious relationship. “It does make for better sex. It’s exciting. I feel bloody awful about it once I’ve done it, but it doesn’t stop me doing it again.” During one fantastically sordid episode, Stephen tells me how he even cheated on the girl that he was cheating with. “Most of my friends do it because it’s just so easy to meet women now with texts, Facebook and Twitter and carrying on multiple relationships from your phone,” he adds.

I’m actually pretty impressed how Stephen has harnessed technology to further enable his bed-hopping. He’s like the Bill Gates of love rats and I’m all ears until the door of the pub opens and in walks Scarlett Johansson. Instinctively, I turn away from Stephen, who is still mid-sentence, and check her out. Of course, I realise it’s actually not the Hollywood starlet at all — I know she drinks in the Wetherspoon’s down the road. I also realise that my ogling reaction to the entrance of Scarlett’s clone was a purely genetic reflex, but one that gets me wondering if cheating is somehow hardwired into a man’s brain. Is it a hangover from the time when sabre-toothed beasties roamed the Earth picking off our lady folk, making it essential that we plant our seed with as many women as possible to ensure the continuation of our genes?

The most recent research into the area of infidelity from The State University Of New York suggests brain chemistry does play a role in people’s ability to commit. The study looked at possible biological mechanisms behind the compulsion to stray. They found a ‘cheating gene’, 7R+, which predisposes its owner to be unfaithful. Then I read some footnotes to the study, which revealed that it wasn’t conclusive in finding that everyone with the genotype was destined for infidelities and revealed that some of the subjects without it still fooled around when their partner’s back was turned. Sorry, lads. We’re not off the hook that easily.


Talking to the professionals doesn’t exactly ease my concern that it’s inevitable that I’m going to be unfaithful one day either, as they tell me that the definition of infidelity has broadened. “There are so many more opportunities to cheat these days,” says couples counsellor Andrew G Marshall, author of How Can I Ever Trust You Again? Infidelity: From Discovery To Recovery In Seven Steps.

“The rapid infiltration of social media into our lives has been so complete that current generations are almost continuously and intensely connected with a huge number of people. I counsel so many more people now who are experiencing emotional distress after a revealed infidelity and it’s almost certainly down to the fact that entire affairs are being played out on people’s phones and online.”

As a man, I know that our egos require constant massaging, so it was inevitable that texting and tweeting would become a way of reaffirming virility without us having to experience the full-blown guilt of a fully physical illicit relationship. But I believe it’s almost like the coward’s way out.

What would my dad make of all this? He was a marketing executive who existed in a Mad Men-lite kind of world, which must still have contained its fair share of opportunities. From pencil-skirted PAs to week-long business trips — he was even in San Francisco during the Summer Of Love — temptation was all around. But I truly believe that he never cheated on my mum and the same can be said for the guys he worked with who are still friends of the family. They seemed to have a code of conduct that applied whether they were behind their desks or not. Loyalty to a company. Loyalty to a companion. But the moral landscape that I look out over is virtually unrecognisable from the one my old man surveyed in his time, thanks to an unlikely combination of Richard Dawkins and Katie Price. It seems that uttering the words “I do” doesn’t carry the weight it once did. This is borne out by the results of the annual British Social Attitudes report, which reveal that the heterosexual married couple is no longer seen as the model of normality in Britain. Instead, the study reveals that more than 60 per cent of people questioned now believe that cohabitation is as legitimate a concept as getting married. No problem. My wife Clare and I didn’t tie the knot in church. But vows were exchanged, promises made and the whole thing was witnessed by a handful of friends, family and a few random New Yorkers. It was a big deal. I’m not sure if going 50-50 on a Habitat ottoman resonates in quite the same way.


The bottom line is that it has become so much easier for me to cheat, which has in turn made it so much harder for me to remain monogamous. And because the media gives the impression that everyone out there is doing it

I can square it with my conscience so much more easily. So does that mean there is an inevitable weekend of wedding ring removal somewhere in my future? Honestly, I don’t think so. To begin with, I’m a terrible cheat and my ineptitude only seems to increase as the stakes are raised. From blatant plagiarism of English essays at school to bungled attempts at bribing driving instructors in my teens, I’ve always been found out when I’ve gone astray. Why would anything have changed now that I’m a married man? Even Eddie, my seven-year-old, knows when I’m making up the numbers on my Top Trumps, so any attempt at playing away would no doubt blow up in my face in spectacular fashion. But at the heart of my fidelity is the fact that I can’t see the point of risking something so good over a quick bunk-up. Not only is Clare an amazing mum to my kids but she is also an absolute cracker in her own right. Do I really think that I’m going to find this perfect storm of womanhood while my mind is clouded with German lager and other parts of me are online and running the show? I doubt it, and I don’t want to jeopardise what I’ve got chasing cheap thrills on the off-chance that one of them will turn into something more.

It’s not guilt that stops me cheating on Clare, rather the fact that a cheap thrill just doesn’t interest me. It’s possible that I could be unfaithful to her, but where I stand right now I can’t see how anyone is going to give me more than Clare does physically and emotionally, and I’m fiercely loyal to that. I love the fact that this is what our marriage is predicated on. I also love the fact that there are women like Scarlett still at large who constantly remind me that I’m married, not dead. If I need more cheap thrills than that, I’ll go to Alton Towers.

Images: Jonathan Minister