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It was my move to Co Meath and the people I talked to there which inspired a novel about affairs, mistresses and infidelity

The Irish midlands seems an unlikely setting for a tale of illicit desire and forbidden love, yet it is precisely its taciturn landscape which inspired me to set my new book, The Adulteress, in the dark silent lands of north Co Meath and Co Cavan.

This is a place where you can almost smell the secrets hidden behind doors in the damp, earth-soaked air. Unlike coastal communities, the midland counties do not possess the romanticism of a windswept seacoast or the high drama of cliffs and mountains.

It is this secretive landscape of bogs, drumlins, woods and lakes which attracted me to setting a story of adultery here. It is a place where you often feel like you have gone back in time, where a separated or unmarried woman with children is still a rare occurrence. And yet, as I have learnt, despite this sense of times gone by, tales of adultery are as common as in the city.

Infidelity has always existed, as long as the institution of marriage. Why do we persist in the dream of happy ever after? Or are those who are married more pragmatic and view marriage as a necessary rite of passage?

Settling down is what you do as much now as ever and is a practical solution for sharing a home, children, companionship? But does the realistic couple expect fidelity? Of course they do, and yet, the fidelity desired from one's partner rarely happens.

Against the backdrop of a damp midlands landscape, I set a tale of the betrayed and the betrayer, but rather than have the usual scenario of a husband betraying a wife I decided to switch the roles. I wanted to delve into why a woman might cheat, explore the unspoken side of female sexuality and desire.

We are led to believe that more men than women cheat. Or are women just more adept at hiding their infidelity? I was interested by the idea of the faithful husband betrayed by the straying wife, his reaction and her motivation, for I do believe that very different factors cause a man and a woman to be unfaithful.





Emotional

One theory is that men are more able to have casual sex than women because a man is physiologically designed to want to spread his seed. He is able to have sex without any emotional connection. But if a woman commits adultery her husband knows it means more that just sex. She is looking for an emotional connection. It is more serious.

Is that true? Most of the women I spoke to who committed adultery did not describe it as a one-night stand. The person they were unfaithful with was usually someone they already knew, and gradually over time the relationship developed into something else. A line was crossed. They say that you can be more lonely in a relationship than out of one.

Our lives have accelerated. We need to work harder, and for longer, to provide for our families. Many couples rarely have time to share a meal together, nevermind love-making. Sex becomes perfunctory, even a chore. Libidos drop. This is usually the point at which a husband might stray. Possibly, more than a woman, a man needs the physical side of his marriage to stay healthy for him to remain faithful.

Men are very visual. If his wife is dressed in tracksuit bottoms, and a baby-sick smeared top every night of the year it is going to be hard to continue desiring her. And so he stops seeing her as a sexual being. And sometimes she begins to forget too. She thinks she has lost her looks.

So the day someone does actually seem to notice her, the invisible wife suddenly becomes a visible woman again and the key has been turned.

"I had forgotten how much I loved sex," one woman admitted to me. "It reawakened a part of myself that I had buried since the early days of my marriage."

The sexual desires of the older woman is a taboo subject. We hear of "cougars" -- the mythical older woman who prefers to hunt rather than be hunted, her desired prey young men under the age of 25.

Was Iris Robinson a cougar? Somehow I don't think so. Yet, apart from the financial allegations, it seems that this is the one aspect of her affair, sexual relations with a man 40 her junior, which appears to scandalise the most.

Society prefers to view the older woman as a mother, or grandmother, certainly not a woman who is sexually attractive or active.Yet there are plenty of women over 35 in Ireland who, after years of isolation in unhappy marriages, are involved in affairs. Some quite defiantly.

"I know he's been up to it, why can't I?"

Some women are eaten up with guilt.

"I hate deceiving my husband, but I can't tell him, I don't want to hurt him."

So why is she an adulteress?

"My lover provides intimacy in my life. It is a secret part of myself, a fantasy of forbidden love. I wouldn't want to be married to him or live with him."

So what do women want?

Little Irish girls are dressed up as miniature brides on the day of their First Communion and from that time on are fed the dream of the fairytale wedding.

But the day you get married is not the perfect ending but a beginning. Of course not every marriage is heading for disaster but an acknowledgement of its challenges and a determination to keep communicating is key to its survival.





Stronger

Can a couple survive the revelation of adultery? In my novel, the husband walks out on his adulterous wife. He cannot forgive her. Yet a marriage can in fact become stronger for the experience of infidelity. It can make a couple look at why the adultery occurred in the first place.

Like the bogs of the midlands, the hearts of some of its inhabitants have the past locked within. Grey days of relentless drizzle possess a sense of yearning, and of words which are never spoken between couples. Yet there are moments of natural splendour, as the sun filters light on a winter morning tipping the frost-laced turf, which inspire dialogue with your partner, and a reason to love.

The Adulteress, by Noelle Harrison, is published by Pan Macmillan


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