Technological end to the affair
With mobile phones, BlackBerrys, emails and social networking, fewer people are having affairs -- has technology made it too difficult to cover our tracks?
What could be more family-friendly than a Nintendo Wii, a games console replete with motion-sensing technology and gleaming white purity? Just look at the marketing; families bounding around the living room, gurning with unbridled joy as they compete at video tennis and baseball.
So the recent stories about the man in the US who reportedly filed for divorce, citing his Wii as a catalyst for his wife's infidelity, would have had Nintendo's marketing Svengalis frothing at the mouth.
Returning from a deployment in Iraq, the soldier is said to have plugged in his console and uncovered evidence that while he was fighting the insurgency, his wife had been conducting her own secret manoeuvres. You see, a Wii has a gizmo that allows a player to store his or her personal profile, called a Mii. The soldier discovered that his wife's Mii had spent long evenings virtual bowling with another Mii. When he confronted her, she admitted that the mystery Mii was actually a lover. It probably never entered her mind that the games console could be anything but inert.
However, as more and more philanderers are discovering, modern technology has an increasingly unpleasant ability to trip us up, even the whiter-than-white Wii.
In today's world, to function as an effective member of 21st-century society, we have to engage with a bewildering array of electronic gadgets, few of which we fully understand. We stomp digital footprints all over the place, and the unforeseen result of engaging in the information age is that it is becoming harder to have secrets -- and, as a result, it is harder to cheat on each other.
In the face of our know-it-all culture, extramarital affairs do not stand a chance. They are becoming impossible to maintain. Those classic long-running infidelities of the 1970s and 1980s are dying, gradually killed off by the rise of the machines that sit quietly in the corners of our rooms, their beady LED indicators flickering malevolently, storing information about our thoughts and habits, ready to use it as a weapon against us.
As science drags us forward, it's a safe prediction that within the next decade, traditional affairs -- the ones with longevity, that take planning, scheming and logistics -- will have vanished altogether.
Affairs are fizzling out, and the change is recent. If the final years of this decade are sounding the death-knell for the affair, the late 1990s and early 2000s were its zenith -- and ever-cheaper technology was the fuel philanderers used to stoke the flames of desire. Increasingly available technology -- mobile phones, SMS messages, internet connections, BlackBerrys and Bluetooth -- made it easier than ever to make contact and stay in touch. "Technosexuals" used phones, email and the internet to hook up with partners for easy encounters.
As home PCs became affordable, huge numbers of the populace went online. Through websites such as Friends Reunited, we started to seek out long-forgotten friends, often for romantic reasons. The same story was played out in homes across the globe. Bored husbands and wives, hypnotised by Windows 95 and the wonders of a 24-bit per second dial-up internet connection, would wobble along the information superhighway from the comfort of the spare bedroom, track down high-school sweethearts and start affairs. Six month later, the marriage would be over.
Even the England goalkeeper David James succumbed to the lure of social networking site Friends Reunited and walked out on his 13-year marriage after rekindling an affair with an old flame through the nostalgia-driven website.
Social networking spurred a new dotcom bonanza, with sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. The number of sites dedicated to facilitating relationships rocketed. Witness the slew of new Irish websites offering 'discreet adventures' for married people, not to mention the personals sections on sites such as Craigslist and Gumtree. Casual postings on these sites rose by a nationwide average of 230pc between January and May last year.
And it won't stop there. Futurologist Ian Pearson predicts that in the next 10 to 15 years urban positioning technology will mean that you can text an attractive person in a bar just by pointing your phone at them. He also predicts the rise of technology such as "ego-badges"; jewellery-like devices on which you will be able to upload personal information for transmission to passers-by.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computers can find out what websites have been accessed by sniffing out web history, temporary files and cache records. It's easy to check a mobile phone to see what text messages have been sent and received and what numbers have been called. A quick look at someone's Facebook profile tells you what company they've been keeping, what they've been up to, even how they are feeling.
Snooping has never been easier -- and this is just for the beginners. Surveillance technology is now so widely available that anyone can spy on a partner with gadgets and software that James Bond would be proud of.
There is now a whole industry feeding off the insecurities of suspicious people desperate to know if their partners are cheating. Computer software can secretly record all the actions and keystrokes on a PC so that snoops can monitor emails, websites visited and documents created. For a few euro, you can buy several gadgets that read mobile-phone SIM cards and recover deleted messages.
You can even buy kits online that detect semen; the makers recommend checking not just underwear, but socks and bedsheets as well. A gizmo called the Love Detector uses voice analysis technology to evaluate how your partner feels about you.
So, once you start an affair, at the first whiff of suspicion your partner has a frightening arsenal of state-of-the-art technology with which to catch you. And once you've been caught, modern technology makes it much easier to punish you publicly.
Wronged partners have spurred a cottage industry in cyber-revenge. Love rats have been humiliated on websites such as myexwifesabitch.com and www.cheated-on.com.
Relationship experts and marriage counsellors are now seeing indications of a sea change in the way people cheat, driven by the relentless advance of technology. Psychologist Andrew G Marshall wrote: "While starting to cheat might be simple, keeping an affair going has become almost impossible. I would regularly counsel couples where an affair had lasted more than three years. Today, he or she will first get proof and confront. The result is that the length of affairs has dropped dramatically. Looking at all the evidence, it seems that the end of the secret affair is in sight."
Of course, affairs are not always the reason for a divorce, but they feature increasingly in broken long-term marriages as, in a population staying active and healthier for longer, marriages are lasting perhaps decades longer too. So there is an increasing chance that couples will get bored with each other in later life.
Older generations are more financially secure, thanks to the property boom of the past 30 years, so divorce is less of a financial issue. Add to this mix Viagra and other drugs that help men to stay sexually active, and Botox and cosmetic procedures that help women look younger, and you have a generation not yet ready to give up on extramarital activity.
In contrast, younger people are now leaving it later in life to get married, which means it is more likely that when they do get hitched, they will have found the right partner and will be less likely to stray.
All this bodes well for the ever-decreasing numbers of people who do marry, but it leaves the prognosis for the affair looking decidedly shaky. Whereas in the later part of the last century, having an affair was seen as a misdemeanour and treated with nudge-nudge-wink-wink sniggers on TV (how many of us have sat transfixed in front of shows like Trisha, astonished at the convoluted mess people manage to make of their private lives?), there is now evidence of a moral backlash against philanderers and a puritanical zeal that does not tolerate cheats.
Earlier this year, the author Mira Kirshenbaum, clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Boston, a centre for relationship therapy and research, caused moral indignation with her book When Good People Have Affairs, her 11th self-help volume. In it, she dared to suggest that decent people have affairs and that, in some instances, infidelity can help marriages. She was roundly criticised for suggesting that adulterers deserve sympathy; one said: "Adulterers are neither kind nor good people, so what sort of sympathy are we supposed to give them? A good person doesn't betray their loved ones."
Especially not, it seems, if that good person has a high chance of being found out.