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Happily married couple suddenly come apart at the seams when one or other (or both) unexpectedly strays. It's a scene replayed in every office in the country - and now on the Archers too - writes Diane Benussi. As a top matrimonial lawyer, she's seen it all.

The word “adultery” conjures up images of torrid passion between lovers who, despite being married to other people, simply can't help themselves.

Adultery can be like that. Often, though, it's less lustful and more cerebral than might be imagined. The trouble is, the fallout is just as cataclysmic.

Take the fictional scenario being played out in The Archers, where farmers Ruth and David Archer, married apparently contentedly for many years and with three children, are embroiled in marital crisis.

There is no illicit grand passion at the heart of it - rather an unfortunate set of circumstances that have converged to cause a deep rift in a seemingly rock solid relationship.

David has met up with an old girlfriend, to whom he has become close, in an accidental kind of way (he offered a burly shoulder to cry on). Unsurprisingly, his wife, who two years ago went through the trauma of breast cancer, wasn't best pleased about the amount of time her husband was spending with his old flame. No wonder, then, that when cowhand Sam started whispering, first treacherous accusations, then sweet nothings, in her ear, Ruth didn't bat him away.

As a divorce lawyer, I hear stories like this all the time - and they are some of the saddest, because, in so many cases, a little forethought and the same amount of restraint would have prevented the disintegration of a marriage.

Many of us imagine that most people who commit adultery are unhappy in their marriages and are looking for something - or, rather, someone - else. In my experience, the opposite is true. As with the Archers, a high proportion of marriages affected by adultery are essentially happy ones.

Even happy marriages get stale, however, and that's when couples are vulnerable to the attentions of other people. A lack of excitement and appreciation from their “other half” can lead an erstwhile devoted spouse into the arms of someone else.

Men like David Archer are especially susceptible: they're middle aged, have been doing the same job for two or three decades and see no prospect of life changing until they retire. Their wives are often caught up in a new job or career if the children are older or have left home and aren't as obviously attentive as they used to be.

Enter a former lover or, more commonly, an “office piranha”* who appears to find them interesting, funny and attractive and men are ill-protected against temptation. When that temptation is offered on a plate, well, it would seem churlish to refuse, wouldn't it? That might sound slightly facetious, but it really is the case that a lot of men end up having an affair because they are too polite to say no. Once sex is on the menu, a man's blood supply ceases to reach his brain and he's lost.

Yet however an affair starts, and even if an extra-marital relationship doesn't involve sex, the end result is usually the same - divorce.

Marriages can - and do - weather the storm of unfaithfulness: David and Victoria Beckham have stayed together despite a series of allegations that he had affairs with other women. Mark Oaten and his wife Belinda are attempting to repair their relationship following the Lib Dem MP's six-month fling with a rent boy.

All too often, though, adultery leads to divorce. It is, in fact, the biggest single cause of marital breakdown because, for many people, the betrayal - emotional, physical or both - of their spouse is the one thing they can neither forgive nor forget.

Divorce is now so prevalent - one in four marriages fail - that it is easy to be blasé about its effect. Yet its effect is enormous, not only on the couple concerned, but on their children, their relatives, their friends, their colleagues, their health and their whole way of life.

The results of one survey, based on pooled data from 80,000 adults, suggest that compared to children raised in two-parent families, adults who experience a parental divorce have lower psychological well-being, more behavioural problems, less education, lower job status, a lower standard of living, lower marital satisfaction, a heightened risk of divorce and poorer physical health.

Other research has shown that divorced men are four times more likely to be involved in road accidents or commit suicide than their married counterparts, while divorcees are generally less well off than married couples and don't perceive themselves to be as happy.

Even “happy” outcomes don't always stay that way. It is not uncommon for someone to leave their partner for their lover, only for the new relationship to break up soon afterwards. The grass, they soon discover, is not always greener on the other side. This is reflected, in part, by the divorce rate for second marriages, which is even higher than for first-time nuptials.

Middle-aged men whose heads are turned by an “office piranha” might think they've done well to swap their long-standing spouse for a younger model, but they often live to regret it. Not only is a piranha not interested in taking over the first wife's job of social secretary, what happens when a man whose attraction was based on power and success is no longer powerful and successful, but simply old? Well, I'll tell you: the piranha starts sharpening her razor teeth again.

Divorce, then, wreaks untold misery on many fronts, which is why couples, and men in particular, should be ever alert to the danger of slipping inadvertently into an extra-marital relationship, however innocent it might seem at the beginning. Before you know it - as David and Ruth Archer are discovering - you may find yourself at the point of no return.

* Office piranha: an unmarried, childless 30-something who seeks to sink her teeth into an older, successful man whose virility is proven by the fact he has fathered children by his wife

** Diane Benussi is senior partner of Birmingham-based matrimonial law practice Benussi & Co.


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