While starting an affair may seem complicated no matter when it happens, kicking one off during a global pandemic takes some truly spy-level sneakiness. Anywhere from 20% to 40% of married couples reportedly deal with infidelity, according to American Psychological Association data, but COVID-19 lockdowns would likely put a dent in those numbers, right? Think about it: You’re cooped up with your spouse and forbidden from coming within six feet of another human. Turns out sex always prevails — even in a pandemic.
The website ashley madison, which caters to individuals looking for an affair, is reporting an average of 17,000 new sign-ups per day since the pandemic hit the US, compared to 15,500 sign-ups per day in 2019. In its most recent study, the site found 30% of its female users are now exploring cybersex with their affair partners.
Previous polls had indicated that this shift to online affairs is up, as 80% of female members reported being in sexless marriages, and looked to ashley madison to help them find a physical, in-person affair as a salve. “These two data points tell us that the majority of women seeking an affair intended to fill a missing physical element in their life,” says Paul Keable, the chief strategy officer of ashley madison. “Now with self-isolation a major factor in our lives, virtual affairs are being utilized to fill the gap.”
Anecdotally, users are reporting a higher instance of married people on regular dating apps, too. “I am seeing WAY more married and in-relationship men looking,” says Chiara, an app-user in New York City. The apps back up that they’ve been booked and busy even while traditional dating is on-hold: OkCupid has reported a 10% increase worldwide in new matches, while Bumble saw an 84% increase in in-app voice calls and video chats between March 9th and March 23rd. “They say that they are non-monogamous,” Chiara says of the marrieds popping up in her searches, “but there’s no way to tell, and I have a feeling they are locked inside with their significant others who have no idea.”
Keable seems to corroborate this. “We’ve spoken to members, and they’re saying they’re using the site as a release valve for the tension that’s built up at home during the pandemic,” he says. “They’re looking to have needs met that aren’t being met at home.”
That couldn’t be more true for Debora* who is currently quarantined with her husband of 15 years. The two had decided to end their marriage late last year but were still living together while he looked for apartments. Before they could file paperwork, or he could move out, the pandemic hit. “We agreed that we would stay put and ride this thing out in our two-bedroom apartment,” she said.
To deal with the harsh reality of quarantining with her estranged husband, Debora reached out to Alex*, an old friend with whom she’d had a 25-year-long flirtation. Alex had just moved to Australia to escape the lockdown, and was now cooped up with his children and wife, with whom he has an open marriage. Over Facebook, Debora and Alex reconnected, and eventually had cybersex completely over Facebook chat. They now check in with one another at least once a week.
Although she and her husband had plans to separate, Debora is keeping the affair from him. Only one friend knows about it, and the entire affair has played out over Facebook messenger for discretion. “I don’t feel guilty,” she said. “The affair has helped me realize my worth, and that I am desired and wanted.”
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That desire to be, well, desired may be driving a lot of these affairs, according to sex therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, author of the book When You’re The One Who Cheats. “I think a lot of people are looking to feel alive at a time when we’re all, frankly, afraid of dying,” she says.
Jessica* is currently quarantining alone, but is engaged in an affair with Rob*, whom she dated on-and-off for eight months. Rob is sheltering in place with his current girlfriend — a nurse who is an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic. He and Jessica have had cybersex twice, and talk often — especially when his girlfriend is at work. She says their cybersex happens completely over text, complete with intimate photos and graphic descriptions of what they would like to do to one other.
“I consider what he’s doing cheating,” Jessica says. “I’ve told him that he’s cheating on his girlfriend and that it’s an emotional affair, but he doesn’t think it is.” But Jessica is still participating in the communication because the emotional side helps her to feel less alone during the pandemic. “He’s someone I can talk to through all of this,” she says. “I want companionship. It’s like I’m starving, and the only thing in my fridge is a piece of moldy bread. I’m going to eat the moldy bread.”
She doesn’t see the affair continuing after the pandemic, however, even if Rob were to split from his girlfriend and pursue her. “Our relationship ended because I wanted something serious, and he didn’t, and then he moved on to someone else,” she says. “He used me then. So I’m going to use him now when I need him, and when I’m done with him, it will be done.”
While Jessica feels certain about the future, what comes next is a question mark for many — even with China reporting a clear spike in divorces post-lockdown. And Keable, though he’s in the business of affairs, can’t predict whether these cyber hookups will lead to breakups post coronavirus, either. “More than 80% of women who use ashley madison choose to have an affair because they don’t want to exit their relationship,” he says. “They’re in love with their husband, but there’s an element that’s missing. They come to the site to find that element, and they say that finding it helps them become better wives and lovers. They tell us it helps them find balance in their lives.”
And while that idea may seem completely backward, Keable isn’t the only person to believe that. Esther Perel, the woman who quite literally wrote the book on why affairs happen, writes often about how her clients see their affairs as a way to tap into an unlived life. Writing for The Atlantic, Perel states that it’s our expectation that our marriage and partner should provide everything for us — love, sex, security, loyalty, and more — coupled with our belief that we deserve our due that causes some people to cheat.
People may love their partner, but feel they’re not getting everything from them. So they seek it out elsewhere, which helps them feel happier and more fulfilled, leading to greater satisfaction overall. That doesn’t forgive infidelity, of course. But it offers up an explanation as to why it happens. And when you’re sitting with your partner, day after day in lockdown, the things that are missing might seem more apparent than ever.
Once life returns to normal, Dr. Nelson thinks we’ll see more cyber affairs than we had in the past. “It makes total sense,” she says. “You can Zoom in for a happy hour. Why not Zoom in for an affair?” But maybe, just maybe, we’ll find that eventual return to the status quo more fulfilling than ever before.