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'Grey affairs' - why more women over 55 are choosing to have extramarital sex

Mobile phones and social media are playing a role in infidelity among older women
Mobile phones and social media are playing a role in infidelity among older women Copyright Pexels
Copyright Pexels
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Author and relationship expert Susan Shapiro Barash says more woman over 55 are having affairs than ever before - and feeling less guilty about it than you might expect.

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As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it turns out that women are more sexually liberated than ever before - and that, perhaps surprisingly, older women are leading the revolution.

New York-based author and relationship expert Susan Shapiro Barash has been researching extramarital affairs for more than three decades, releasing a revised and updated version of her 2001 book ‘A Passion for More: Affairs that make or break us’ at the end of last year.

Over the last 30 years, the writer has found that extramarital affairs are no longer confined to the first half of life and are now significantly more common in women over 55. So-called ‘grey affairs’ tend to take place after menopause and don’t appear to have an age limit - Barash has interviewed numerous unfaithful heterosexual women over the years, including those over 80.

Regardless of age, background, race or creed, though, she discovered that around 90% of the women surveyed had no guilt or remorse about their actions, with many apparently having affairs with a sense of entitlement.

Barash has attributed much of that feeling to women increasingly gaining more of a sense of self-esteem in their lives - and more agency, which was less common 30 years ago.

The four kinds of affairs

These older women are, in some cases, making up for lost time and cheating on their partners for one of four reasons, which are similar to those experiences by their younger counterparts. Those categories are:

Empowering affairs which flip the cliché of men having affairs with their secretaries or work inferiors and using their position of power. Some women are now doing the same - entering into a sexual relationship with a younger man, often to combat a fear of ageing or loss of power.

Sex-driven affairs are typically attributed to partnerships which have gone stale or varying libidos within a relationship.

Love-based affairs are more likely to happen when women least expect them, often causing the existing relationship to end as deep feelings and not just the physical are in play.

Self-esteem affairs are usually undertaken by women who feel overwhelmed by work, caring for children and housework and cite that they choose men who make them feel special in a way their existing partners don’t.

Regardless of the reasoning behind older women’s affairs, Barash found that extramarital affairs don’t necessarily lead to the breakup of the existing partnership, with over half of the cases she worked on staying together and, in some cases, strengthening the relationship, whether or not the liaison was disclosed to the spouse.

Often the affair acts as a wake-up call that the primary relationship needs attention or as a pressure-release valve, lowering a woman's need for her partner to be all things to her.

While undoubtedly fascinating, Barash’s research is mostly anecdotal and doesn’t present any solid figures on the prevalence of infidelity in western society. Some experts put the figure across all genders as low as 35%, others estimate it’s closer to 50%. One thing that is agreed on is that it’s difficult to give an official number as many people engaged in affairs are often not keen to be honest about their behaviour and choices.

Copyright - Susan Shapiro Barash
Susan Shapiro Barash, author of ‘A Passion for More: Affairs that make or break us’Copyright - Susan Shapiro Barash

Euronews Culture spoke to Susan Shapiro Barash to delve further into the issue in this exclusive interview…

How many women did you interview for your updated book? How many have you interviewed during your 30 year career on this topic?

The reissued, updated version of ‘A Passion For More’ includes 14 new interviews. For my early research I interviewed 150 women. On average over 30 years, I estimate that I have interviewed 30 women per year on this topic. The analysis contained in the reissue is not only based on the interviews selected for this new version but a reflection of my ongoing study.

Do affairs / attitudes towards them vary depending on race/religion/class etc. or not?

I have found in my research that a diverse group of women share 'a passion for more', a longing for the 'other man'. Whether it is a cyberspace affair or an affair in real time, an emotional and/or physical yearning, this is the case. The affair is riveting for a disparate group of women in terms of age, race, ethnicity, level of education, earning power and affects women no matter what part of the country they live in - be it a small town, big city, suburb, or a rural area.

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Why do women seem to feel less guilty about their infidelity than is the general perception do you think?

Few women marry or make a commitment to a partner planning an affair in the future. The affair is a result of how the monogamous couple has evolved and how the woman herself has evolved. Women describe their lovers as the opposite of their husbands. Thus they view the affair as a form of self-journey and report a striking absence of guilt as a result. Because we live in a patriarchal culture, it is assumed that women will feel guilty and that they should feel guilty. Women are reporting that they feel entitled to this exploration.

Would you say levels of and attitudes towards affairs vary between countries / continents, or states?

There are countries in Europe where an open marriage is accepted and the idea of women conducting affairs would not be newsworthy. And places around the world where there would be serious repercussions. In America a puritanical view holds up and this extends to other aspects of a woman's life and experience, not only to affairs. Because the interviews that I've conducted are so personal, the women's attitudes do not vary from state to state. They are reporting a very specific experience with their lover.

Are women trying to level the 'playing field' as it's traditionally men who've been unfaithful?

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Clearly the thinking in America is that men have traditionally been unfaithful. But with whom were they unfaithful - always a single woman? In terms of playing the field, I have found that women, according to my research, have affairs for four reasons and fall into four categories (although they can cross over) [see above for more details]. In these cases, as with the sex-driven affairs, women are involved with their lovers in a way, to an extent, as men have been known to do.

Do social media / dating apps play a role?

Social media definitely figures into how women find and meet their lovers. Cell phones are private phones and one can be texting with her lover while in the same room with her husband/ partner. There is easy access to someone through Facebook and Instagram, anyone can be googled. There are easy methods to discover one's old flame and be in contact. Dating apps play a role as well and again, this can be conducted so easily.

Are older women more sexually liberated than ever before? If so, why is that?

A part of my latest research that is intriguing is how many older women are having affairs. I call these 'grey affairs' and they dovetail with the 'grey divorce' that has been discussed over the past twenty or so years. If more older women instigate divorce than do men in the US, they are also more open to having an affair. Thus, when I was hearing of women in retirement communities having affairs, it made sense. They fall into the same category as do the younger women in their twenties, thirties, forties - these women are over 50 or 55 and feel very vital. They've been with their partners for decades and now they too want more in their lives when it comes to passion. This also speaks to longevity and female agency. For the women who are of a certain age and embark on an affair, they are reporting with great confidence about the choice they have made.

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