They are the words I have heard countless times in my two decades as a divorce lawyer: ‘My marriage is over.’
The voice of the well-spoken fortysomething businessman and father-of-three cracked over the phone as he explained how his wife had betrayed him.
To make matters worse, when Greg discovered what Helena, a florist, had been up to, first of all she claimed it was ‘just a bit of fun’ and then said: ‘Nothing happened… it was nonsense.’
But her actions were, he insisted, unforgivable.
And as soon as Greg mentioned he had proof of his wife’s duplicitous behaviour, I had a hunch about what might be coming next.
It was not an envelope stuffed with grainy photos of some seedy tryst. Instead, he had the very modern and very real equivalent: a screen-shot of his wife’s profile on a dating website. Their marriage was the latest victim of what I now describe as Generation Swipe.
In the past six months, our department has seen an almost 50 per cent increase in enquiries triggered by married people who have caught their spouses browsing dating apps such as Tinder
As head of family law at a solicitors’ firm, I have become used to being handed computer printouts and hard drives packed with website screen-shots from clients who have been deeply wounded by their partner’s social-media activity.
In the past six months, our department has seen an almost 50 per cent increase in enquiries triggered by married people who have caught their spouses browsing dating apps such as Tinder.
And, judging by the cases I’ve handled, it’s not only husbands who are straying – it’s the wives too.
Greg had discovered Helena’s secret one afternoon when she was distracted away from her iPad by the doorbell. Glancing over at the tablet, he saw a picture of an attractive man – and on closer inspection he realised that it was a profile on a dating app.
Horrified, he confronted his wife and she came clean.
She tearfully confessed to having signed up because she was ‘curious’ after some single girlfriends mentioned it, but that as soon as the approaches from other users came flooding in, she became hooked on the attention and how being desired – even in a virtual way – made her feel.
‘She said she didn’t want to leave me, or even cheat,’ says Greg. ‘And she hadn’t met any other men. But I suppose our own marriage was in a bit of a rut. Sex had become functional and we were both absorbed with work and the kids. I know she hadn’t physically been with another man but it was the secretive way it had gone on for months, and the fact that on some level she was looking for that kind of attention from someone else that I just couldn’t get over.’
As head of family law at a solicitors’ firm, I have become used to being handed computer printouts and hard drives packed with website screen-shots from clients who have been deeply wounded by their partner’s social-media activity
There may well be some people who believe such behaviour, although regrettable, is hardly a reason to call time on a relationship. And some might not even consider it cheating.
But it is, says Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at marriage counselling service Relate.
‘People do it behind their partner’s back, perhaps when bored, in need some comfort, or after a row with their partner,’ she says.
‘So it is underhanded. We are seeing so many people now whose relationships are in trouble because one of them has been browsing dating sites. Even if the browser says it was fun, or they had no intention of looking for sex, it is still a form of cheating.’
While infidelity is as old as time itself, it is the emergence of dating apps including Tinder, Hinge, Bumble and Happn, which exist in the relative privacy of a smartphone rather than on, say, the family computer, that has become a real relationship hazard and given rise to Generation Swipe.
According to a study by London firm GlobalWebIndex, more than four in ten people who use Tinder are already in a relationship.
The app, like many of its ilk, allows users to flick through hundreds of dating profiles – you simply swipe right if you like the look of someone, and left if you are not interested.
It’s not only husbands who are straying – it’s the wives too
If someone you have swiped right on has done the same with your profile, you are matched, allowing you to start sending each other messages.
Of the women who are signed up to Tinder, more than 40 per cent are married. Few realise the potentially explosive consequences of such virtual window-shopping. Take Siobhan, for example, who realised she had let things go too far when she found herself sitting in a coffee shop just outside Leeds with a man she had started swapping messages with via an app.
Married with three children, the 38-year-old hospital administrator had taken a look online during a night out with girlfriends.
‘We’d been talking about signing up for a laugh and seeing what all these men looked like,’ she says. ‘And I just did it.
‘It was so funny looking at all these people – it felt safe and fun.’
However, one particular man caught her eye and Siobhan found herself exchanging messages with him over the following weeks.
Even if people say it is just a bit of fun, it is still a form of cheating
‘It’s all such a cliche but he had twinkly blue eyes and a lovely smile in his photograph,’ she says.
‘And when we “chatted” we really seemed to get each other.
‘It really made me question my own life. I was nearly 40 and was this all there was ahead of me?’
After four months, she agreed to meet the man at a coffee shop. ‘It felt like a first date. I really liked him. I came away with my head all over the place.’
In fact she readily agreed to meet him again, only for matters to come to an abrupt halt when his wife discovered what was happening.
Of the women who are signed up to Tinder, more than 40 per cent are married
‘It was New Year’s Eve and while I was out, I got about 30 calls from this mobile number I didn’t recognise,’ says Siobhan. ‘When I called back the following day, it was a woman warning me to stay away from her husband. I was petrified. My husband could so easily have found out and that would have been the end of things.’
Even though many women do not get caught out, the impact on their marriage can be long-lasting.
Karen got a terrible shock when a friend rang her to say he had spotted her profile picture on Tinder.
‘I’d signed up to the site because my husband works away a lot and I was just at home, fed up,’ she says. ‘I had absolutely no intention of doing anything. I’m just not like that. I would never cheat on him. But it became a form of recreation. But when one of my male friends – who as a single man was on Tinder legitimately – warned me he had seen my picture, I got the shock of my life.
His wife rang me and told me to stay away
‘The problem was I didn’t know how to get it down, so I got into a real tizz. In the end I had to get him to do it for me. But it was huge wake-up call. I kept telling myself what could have happened. The only problem is that it has made me realise how unhappy I am in my marriage. I have a husband who isn’t here, and there are so many men out there who I could enjoy a much more fulfilling relationship with.’
So why do people continue to take the risk? Louise Tyler, relationship counsellor with Personal Resilience Clinic in Cheshire, says that married people – especially women – do browse internet dating sites for the ego boost.
Even though many women do not get caught out, the impact on their marriage can be long-lasting
‘If you’ve got low self-esteem, when someone swipes right on your profile, the ego boost may mean the app becomes habit-forming.’
But is that ego boost worth the price of your marriage?
I know from my bulging case files that many people rush to see a divorce lawyer at the first hint of infidelity.
But any responsible solicitor should always advise couples to try to find a way to reconcile their differences, perhaps through counselling or just talking to one another.
Equally it is important to remember that what you see online and what happens in reality are two different things. People only post the best bits.
The reality of Generation Swipe and the inexorable slide towards divorce is fathomlessly painful.
I know from my bulging case files that many people rush to see a divorce lawyer at the first hint of infidelity
It’s best to make your phone a ‘no browse’ zone and the people in your life the ones most deserving of your attention.
As for Greg and Helena, they are still together – as a family lawyer, I always urge any potential client to first sit down with their partner and try to find some resolution. Yet Helena’s dabble with Generation Swipe has left its mark.
‘Things are still not right,’ Greg admitted to me. ‘There’s a barrier between us – and however routine things were before this is far worse.
‘I’m just questioning everything now. I can’t help wondering if I’m the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with.’
How to protect your marriage from Generation Swipe
Of course the best way is not to look in the first place. But if you do get caught out, how can you salvage your relationship?
1ADMIT YOUR MISTAKE
Own up to the fact that it is a form of cheating, says Relate’s Ammanda Major.
Your actions have created fear, anxiety and mistrust.
Don’t try to justify what you’ve done by saying you were only looking.
Affairs aren’t just defined by having sex. Trust has been broken and you have to acknowledge that if you are going to move on.
2 SIT DOWN AND TALK
Don’t get caught in a shouting match or slink away and say nothing.
You need to have a considered conversation.
But it shouldn’t be a date night, says Ammanda.
This is not the time for a nice meal. You need to sit down quietly and talk.
3 RESPECT THEIR VIEW
Acknowledge that you have a different opinion when it comes to what has happened. While the guilty party may think it was harmless, the other clearly doesn’t. Respect that difference of opinion.
4 ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS
Ask yourself why you did it? Were you bored or feeling neglected? Those are the issues which you need to address, maybe by changing jobs or being honest about how your partner treats you.
5 TAKE IT SLOWLY
Regain intimacy slowly, advises marriage counsellor Andrew G. Marshall.
Women talk about wanting to be touched, and men often want sex – which will be the end result for women – but you have to rediscover the pathway to that.
It can just be making the time to kiss and cuddle on the sofa – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s about having contact, reintroducing some fun and pleasure into the relationship.
6 IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT ‘LIKES’
Stop measuring your life in social-media likes because this isn’t reality, says relationship counsellor Louise Tyler.
Ask yourself why your self-esteem needs such a boost.
7 IT’S TIME FOR A REBOOT
Use the discovery as a wake-up call to reboot your relationship, not call time on your marriage.
You have a home, perhaps even children, so there is so much you have invested in each other over the years. Make time to sit down and remember why it was that you came together in the first place.
8 DON’T FOCUS ON THE PAST
Don’t keep bringing up what has happened. Yes, it was a terrible mistake. But when you have talked through it all and addressed honestly the issues, now agree that it is time to move on.
:: Some names have been changed.