Monday 16 July 2018

The state of affairs

Do men react differently when their partners cheat? As Colin Firth's wife Livia admits being unfaithful, Tanya Sweeney looks at the impact of infidelity

My affair lady: Colin Firth with his wife Livia Giuggioli, who had an affair with Marco Brancaccia. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
My affair lady: Colin Firth with his wife Livia Giuggioli, who had an affair with Marco Brancaccia. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Colin Firth and Livia Giuggioli have long been a picture of marital togetherness on the red carpet. Yet showbiz followers were shocked over the weekend when it was revealed that their 20-year marriage recently had a brief intermission.

The plot thickened considerably when it transpired that Livia was being stalked by an old friend - an Italian journalist called Marco Brancaccia who, it emerged, she had an affair with during her separation from her husband.

A statement sent this week by a spokesman on their behalf said: "A few years ago, Colin and Livia privately made the decision to separate. During that time, Livia briefly became involved with former friend Mr Brancaccia. The Firths have since reunited. Subsequently, Mr Brancaccia carried out a frightening campaign of harassment over several months, much of which is documented."

For his part, Brancaccia told newspapers the stalking allegations were false. "We were romantically involved, she wanted to leave Colin for me," he said, adding Giuggioli's marriage to Firth had "been over for years", and that Firth, meanwhile, had shown "understanding".

In fact, Firth has set a new precedent in responding to an allegation of an affair, and one that's the polar opposite to Ivanka Trump's motto of 'don't get mad, get everything'.

Rather, after Marco disclosed details of the fling to Firth, the actor allegedly responded with a polite email, reportedly saying: "You have made me suffer but I know you are suffering, too." To say it's a celebrity first is likely an understatement.

The entire episode has the makings of a Hollywood potboiler, but Firth's experience is fast becoming a grim reality for an increasing number of married men.

We've long heard the one about unfaithful men and scorned women - if Firth had a fling, we'd barely bat an eyelid - but the unfaithful wife and cuckolded man, perhaps less so.

Few can deny the 'poor Colin' tone of the ensuing coverage of the debacle, while in celebrity culture, the tone is perhaps less sympathetic to wives undergoing the ignominy of finding out about an affair.

"I think society does have more sympathy for the guy in this instance," observes psychotherapist/relationship therapist Bernadette Ryan (d6counselling.com). "It's just something deeply embedded in our culture. On the flip side, society judges women more harshly for having an affair. Women especially get judged if there are children involved, like: 'How can she do that to her children?'"

It's a media concoction as old as time: unfaithful men have often been painted as victims of their own biology, barely able to contain their animalistic impulses (or perhaps reacting to a situation in which they've been emasculated by their partner).

Their flings have frequently been explained away by bruised egos, displacement in parenthood or simply an opportunity presenting itself.

Women who cheat, on the other hand, have long been seen as doing so with a particular brand of premeditated cunning. That or they simply want to be loved in the right way.

So the question looms large: has this age-old conceit stood the test of time? Do men and women cheat for different reasons? Do they feel differently about being cheated on?

Certainly, the statistics hint that women are starting to cheat as much as men. According to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, the most recent data from the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey shows that women have had more affairs in the past two decades then in previous years. The percentage of men who admitted to infidelity "held constant at 21pc," while "the percentage of wives having affairs rose almost 40pc... to 14.7pc in 2010." The gender gap is slowly closing.

Yet author Esther Perel, whose book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity offers a novel look at cheating, believes men and women are unfaithful for essentially the same reasons.

"Of course they've been better at keeping it under wraps," she says. "The consequences for women have forever been way more dire than men. Women could become destitute, ostracised, could get pregnant.

"Women have not been allowed to say they like sex [in the past] so women have to say they do it [have affairs] for love," says Perel. "But what they're looking for is pretty much the same thing. They want to feel a deeper connection. They want to feel intensity, desire… they want to seem alive." David Kavanagh, relationship psychologist and author of Love Rewired: Using Your Brain To Mend Your Heart, agrees somewhat: "The basic reasons for why people cheat are becoming a lot more gender-neutral. People are bored in relationships, not feeling appreciated, not feeling special.

"In my experience with clients, there's not even something necessarily bad in the relationship," he adds. "Some marriages are really good, but a woman and man might be working in close proximity at work and things just happen. We stereotype roles and make assumptions, but it's a lot simpler than that."

Psychologist Brendan Madden adds: "We have a traditional view of the roles of men and women in affairs and this is only now catching up with the way we really live our lives. Women are traditionally seen as less impulsive and are probably less obvious when it comes to conducting affairs, but this is changing too," he adds.

Yet there are differences in the way men and women react to an affair coming to light.

"I think generally speaking, women tend to be more willing to work on a relationship if their male partner tends to be unfaithful," notes Ryan. "Men can be quite unforgiving around this. Perhaps it has to do with the idea that women have a more emotional connection during an affair than a man might have. I think there's an element of the whole 'alpha male' thing - another man moving in on 'their territory'.

"A lot of men also don't tend to notice if something is missing in the relationship - they can be there and 100pc committed without being fully present - so when an affair comes to light, they can be really taken aback by it," she adds. "Men can be a bit more black and white about things, and can find it more difficult to find a way back into the relationship.

"When men cheat, they can be very 'sorry, okay, let's move on' about it, but women often have a huge need to process things and explore everything that happened and why," Ryan adds. "Men can be very uncomfortable examining their feelings within themselves and may not be prepared to do the work needed to get the relationship back on track."

To any man on the receiving end of an extramarital affair, Ryan advises: "Remember that affairs happen for different reasons and are often reflective of something not working. Instead of having the difficult conversations that need to be had, it seems easier for man and woman to take their energy away from an existing relationship and have a fling.

"It's worth both of you sitting down and having that difficult conversation, and seeing what drove that person into the arms of someone else."

Irish Independent

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