Being the other woman has a lot going for it. You're more in control of your life and your relationship. You don't get any of the boring bits. And it's considerably more exciting than real life. As Joanna Kiernan talks to women who like married men, she feels pity, admiration and anger. But she does admit that there's never been a better time to have an affair in Ireland
'You get the excitement without the boring elements of life, like having to meet their family or paying bills. Married men make you feel special." Claire, who only dates married men, imparts her dating philosophy to me. She cites a broken heart as her reasoning for the shift in her relationship practice.
"I had just come out of a long relationship and wanted a bit of fun, but not a full-blown thing," the 39-year-old recruitment consultant from Meath adds casually.
"I have a successful career, and had a bit of a thing with a boss when I was younger, and it suited me well then. I feel much more in control being the other woman. I can pick and choose when I do or don't see someone. I can decide on how serious I want the relationship to be, and I enjoy my own space and meeting up with friends, so I don't have to commit to spending every bit of my spare time with someone."
According to Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Mistresses, while an affair might force upon a mistress considerable free time, "especially during traditional holidays, at the same time it liberates her from wifely domesticity into the mode and mystique of showing only her best face and best behaviour".
In her study of various mistresses, Abbott includes the infamous affair between Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy. She refers to JFK as a, "sexual warrior who had taken to heart his father Joe Kennedy's stricture that his sons 'should get laid as often as they could'."
Many would argue that Marilyn, huge as her stardom stood, was simply what one of Kennedy's associates dubbed her, after she was cast aside and banned from making any contact with the then president -- "just another one of Jack's fucks".
The fact that JFK was noted by countless lovers to have been, at best, selfish and underwhelming in the bedroom department, was peripheral to his allure as a powerful, rogueish commander-in-chief.
And so goes the sordid tale with many of the mistresses Abbott chooses to peer at under her delicate, yet in-depth microscope -- they are powerful, uber-perfect playthings one minute, and disregarded trash the moment they appear to relax, get attached or show emotion.
Reading Abbott's book is an unusual experience. One feels pity for mistresses one minute, admiration another and anger the next. It is much the same as the gamut one runs when speaking directly to real-life Irish mistresses.
So what is it that attracts women such as Claire to married men? The game involved? The forbidden-fruit element? "Yeah, I guess so," Claire admits. "You make more of an effort for each other, too. It's a lot more sexy, and there is the thrill of getting caught. I'm currently single and dating, but did go out with a married guy for a year and a half. As a mistress you get the finer, fun bits of a relationship without all of the drab parts of a marriage. I have received lovely gifts, gone to fancy hotels and restaurants -- something that you would have to have a reason to get if you were in a committed relationship or a marriage.
"Sometimes, I feel sorry for the wives," Claire confides, before checking herself and adding coolly, "but if they don't know, I can't see them being affected. I think I understood him a lot better than his wife when it came to discussing certain areas of his life. I'm a good listener. If we did end up seeing each other by accident [when he was with his wife], I pretended it was a business relationship. I think you can have a meaningful relationship with a married man, but it solely depends on how long you are seeing that person for, and how you connect -- just like an average relationship."
Claire is loath to go into detail on her longer-term affair, revealing only that he was a successful businessman, who stopped their affair when he and his wife decided to start a family. He never mentioned leaving his wife to Claire, something, she tells me, "He knew I wouldn't want him to do."
Sarah Symonds is the author of Having an Affair? A Handbook for the 'Other Woman', the former lover of Jeffrey Archer, and she also claims to have been the mistress of seven years standing to one Gordon Ramsay. Now reformed, she says, and helping other mistresses through "Mistresses Anonymous" group sessions in both the UK and Los Angeles, Symonds believes that it is the married men involved, and not the other women, that are to blame in affairs.
"I'm thrilled to be able to talk about the topic through the eyes of somebody who has been there, but who is now completely reformed and helps women to not live that life. Please don't have affairs -- that's my message," she drawls in a gentle, almost too-sweet-to-be-wholesome tone. "However, I can't control the world -- if you're going to have an affair, at least be in control of the situation; don't lose your health and your strength and everything over it, because that's what can happen. Be in control of the situation, and use the man as much as he's using you. Use him; think like a man and act like a man and, if it works for you, fine, but be in control. It's almost like taking drugs -- don't take drugs; however, if you're an addict, then at least use a clean needle.
"Some women actually go out there with a design to have that lifestyle, and I have done it. Other women just actually fall for a guy who happens to be married or, realistically, as well, who does not tell them he's married to begin with," she adds, sounding a little wounded.
"The mistress is always seen to be a bad person, but she's often the one who, rightly or wrongly, gets caught up in the whole turmoil and fallout of somebody else's relationship or marriage. We cannot force a man to cheat. We all know that unless a man's equipment is upright and working it's
impossible, so the notion of stealing somebody's husband is absolutely ridiculous. Even if you throw the biggest temptations in his way, if a man has integrity he'll say, 'I'm sorry love, no. I'm going home to my wife.'
"People would rather blame a third person than look at themselves and deal with what's going on between their four walls. It's really sad that the wife always blames the other woman. Yes, she's a part of it; yes, she could have walked away, but if the husband wants to cheat he's going to do it with somebody, so she was a catalyst to him doing it anyway."
So does a mistress ever give a second thought to the oblivious other half/wife?
"I'm not going to lie to you: no," Sarah answers immediately.
"If you're in love with a married man, the wife is actually a thorn in your side. She is the reason why you can't be with the man you love. If the man doesn't honour his vows and take them seriously, when he's chatting you up and persuading you to have an affair with him, you've got to wonder, 'Well, why should I worry about his wife, when he's not?'
"That might sound callous, and I don't live this life anymore, but often you're so caught up in your own emotions, and it's such a toxic environment.
"The mistress almost becomes like a second wife. I mean, she becomes a real confidante, a best friend, somebody who puts her life on hold. Nobody wants to hear this side of the story because there's such a stigma, but you know when a man cheats it's usually because there's something wrong at home, whether that's all his problem or whether the wife is also partly to share the responsibility for what's going on.
"The fact that so many men out there want to cheat and there are so many women -- perhaps the Sex and the City-era girls who can't find the right decent single guy -- it's not rocket science why it happens. We all know that wives, by the nature of the title, have a lot of responsibility. There are usually children involved, and marriage, as we know, can get really boring, really tedious, and really familiar. The interesting thing is that about 30 per cent of the women who write to me these days for advice are actually married women having affairs, so they're married mistresses. I think the stigma of the other woman being just the hot-to-trot hussy who's stealing somebody's husband is long gone. I'm dealing with real-life desperate housewives having affairs."
Maria, a 37-year-old office manager from Dublin, is one of the real-life desperate housewives Sarah refers to, and a fully fledged member of the Irish extra-marital-activity website, www.maritalaffair.ie.
MaritalAffair.co.uk was set up in 2006, and the Irish site, MaritalAffair.ie -- "Where the grass is always greener" -- was launched last summer. Combined, the UK and Irish sites bring in more than 500 new members every day. The UK site has more than 300,000 members and the Irish site had more than 15,000 people join up in its first four months of operation. "It was born out of curiosity. I have only had two serious partners, one of them being my husband, and I started to wonder what sex could be like with other people," Maria, a married mother of two, told me. "I had read about other people's 'no-strings' meet-ups in magazines and in stories on the web. I like swapping messages with guys and do this a lot, plus I have met up with a few guys too. Normally, I'd meet them a couple of hours away in the next city or town, go to a pub or bar and, if it's going well, stay over in a hotel.
"I would never see myself as 'the other woman'," she adds, "just as an adult who can control her life and do what I like to a certain extent. I do feel guilty about my husband, but the feelings about the other guy's partner -- if they have one -- never really cross my mind, as it's something you don't really talk about. The 'being caught' bit does add to the excitement I feel -- it's my own secret that no one else knows about."
So other people's husbands are a more exciting option? "It's not entirely about the attraction to married men for me," Maria answers plainly. "I guess it's easier knowing they are married, as I am too, so they are in the same boat. I have a rule with myself not to meet up with the same guy more than three times, just in case it develops into anything else. I don't want things to get any more complicated. It's a fun thing for me. You have all the exciting elements without all of the boring stuff like the mortgage. You can try things out in the bedroom and not worry that the other person will judge you for saying it. You can be more experimental."
Paul Graham, the owner of Maritalaffair.ie and Maritalaffair.co.uk, is quick to point out the reasons for his websites' allure. "Some married men have an aura of life experience about them, and this could be very attractive to a younger, single woman. Experienced, or more mature single women may not want the hassles that go with the traditional relationship and may have travelled this road before -- opting for an affair that allows a cake-and-eat-it situation to exist. All the good bits and not a dirty pair of socks in sight! There may be an element of wanting what someone else has."
Graham, who has noticed a huge increase in users since the recession started, believes his websites provide the opportunity for an "external release to assist them with their emotions through these stressful times". He is also of the opinion that modern women are no longer in search of "the fairy tale".
"Women's role in society has changed tremendously, and they are taking complete charge of their own lives and destiny," he tells me. "This particular change has seen more women having less time for the typical fairy tale and a drive to ensure their own success is not affected by this. Rather than opting for the glass slipper, they are considering careers, lifestyles and their future and, in particular, how they want it. As a result, shorter, less committed relationships that fit into this lifestyle can often be sought."
Paul has no problem with his conscience, believing that, for those using his website, their marriages are already irreparably damaged in some way. "Personally, I believe that the connection between partners has become so fragmented that guilt is very easily digested. They no longer know the individual they married, so it's therefore very easy to have an affair," he concludes.
But Maritalaffair.ie is no monopoly player when it comes to Ireland's adulterers. There are a variety of websites aimed at match-making those in need of a little adventure on the side. Back in early February, controversy emerged when, just days ahead of the Super Bowl, US TV network Fox banned an ad for Ashleymadison.com, another matchmaking infidelity website, which was due to be played during the broadcast of the game.
The 30-second ad depicted US porn star Savanna Samson, whose character appears excited her husband is having an affair, and ends with the on-screen wording: "Ashley Madison -- Life is short. Have an affair." (Surely that should be, "Life is short. If you have a short attention span, or suspect you may have an aversion to monogamy, don't get married.") This same site has 5,762 female members in Ireland and 12,973 male subscribers, and offers users a money-back guarantee on affairs, as well as iPhone and Blackberry apps for the adulterer-on-the-go.
In fact, if you really want to have an affair in Ireland, there has never been a better time. You can arrange a partner at the click of a mouse from any number of websites promising everything from "lonely housewives" and "illicit encounters" to "naughty fun" and "married, but playing".
There often appears to be two camps, certainly among the female population, when you bring up affairs. You have the holier-than-thou grouping spewing hate at those who would even contemplate going there with a married man, then you have women who hunt married men like prized pets in order to fund an egotistical existence, with no thought of what might happen when they, as women, are no longer 'desirable'. But these are extremes.
As John Lennon put it, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," a sentiment Sarah Symonds, possibly the world's only infidelity expert, who has appeared on CNN, Oprah and Dr Phil, is all too familiar with. "The main regret I have, to be honest, is that I wasted so many years of my life, of my young life," she admits. "I'm 41 now, and this was throughout my 20s and 30s. I wasted so many years of my life on the wrong guys, whilst not looking for the right guy to make a future with. I don't have regrets as such, because that just makes you bitter, but I wish I hadn't wasted so many years."