Oh, Those Web Entanglements: British Spouses Deceived
LONDON, March 24 — What struck Sandra Davis about the two new clients who walked into her office one day recently were the similarities between them. Both were men who had been married for a decade or more, and both were having affairs with old girlfriends they had found through Friends Reunited, a wildly popular British Web site that helps people track down long-lost acquaintances.
And both were divorcing their wives, having concluded that the heady allure of the past was more compelling than the familiar security of the present.
“They had chosen not to engage in direct communication with their spouse about their marriages and had, as a fantasy leap, gone back into childhood,” Ms. Davis, head of the family practice division at the British law firm Mishcon de Reya, said in an interview. “After a shortish period of time, they had made arrangements to meet, begun relationships and left their families.”
It is becoming a familiar story on Friends Reunited, which has 10 million members — one-sixth of the British population — and which in a typical month is visited by more than 3 million people. Founded in 1999 to help people track down missing schoolmates, the Web site seems to have inserted itself into the culture here far more emphatically than have similar sites in the United States.
Not only has it spawned a host of sometimes facetious spinoffs — another site, Convicts Reunited, for instance, helps people trace former prison friends — but it has become an all-purpose people finder for long-lost relatives, co-workers and military buddies as well as school friends. Last year, Nielsen NetRatings, which analyses Internet trends, named it one of Britain’s 10 most influential Web sites.
Along the way, Friends Reunited has unexpectedly developed a secondary function. For some people — even married ones — it can serve as a kind of dating service that offers instant connections to ex-lovers.
Although the phenomenon is impossible to quantify, Friends Reunited’s message boards are dotted with accounts from people whose spouses have left them or who themselves have found romance with old flames. Newspapers and magazines regularly run features about marriages that have broken up after one partner began an affair inspired by “Friends Reunited.”
A recent documentary, “The Curse of Friends Reunited,” told the story of, among others, a woman who took up with an old beau via the Web site and cheated on her husband at their wedding (the old beau is in the wedding video, though not in flagrante). It drew a 9 percent audience share, an impressive number for its carrier, Channel 5, the country’s least-watched noncable outlet.
Therapists examining the Friends Reunited phenomenon say the pull of an old relationship, particularly a first love, can be overwhelming, particularly to those who feel unhappy, unloved, neglected, irritated or just suffused with boredom in their middle-aged marriages.
“It’s getting back into that vital time when you felt most excited or alive or happy,” said Phillip Hodson, a psychotherapist here who was recently contacted by a former girlfriend who found him through Friends Reunited (he is married, and remained friendly but appropriately distant, he said).
“First love is first love — it’s indelible,” Mr. Hodson said in an interview. “You may well hunger to experience that again before you die. If the alternative is going into a long decline, or if you’re feeling a lot of sexual frustration or difficulty or boredom in your current relationship, I know what most people would choose.”
Relate, a relationship counseling service, says that about 10 percent of its cases are Internet-related, from porn addiction to online flirtations-turned-affairs. In these stories, the looking-up-the-old-love scenario is becoming increasingly common.
“If you’re unhappy in your relationship, it’s very likely that you will unconsciously try to track someone down and then think, `Well, we might as well meet up,’ ” said Christine Northam, a Relate counselor.
That is what happened to 49-year-old Julie R., who is divorced and who went on Friends Reunited last year, looking for a long-lost boyfriend who represented an uncomplicated time when life seemed filled with endless promise.
“He was my first love and my first real love,” said Julie, a customer service representative for a computer company, who lives outside London and who spoke on condition that her full name not be used. After she found him, now married and the father of two, they began exchanging e-mails, whose tone changed quickly from nostalgic to intimate.
When they finally met up, sneaking off for a weekend together, it was as if no time had passed. They felt an instant familiarity that allowed them to skip over any emotional wariness. “I’ve got 28 years older, but he said I hadn’t changed at all, that I was still the same as I was when I was 16,” Julie said.
Even nicer, she said, her ex-boyfriend (and now lover) remembered their shared past with sweet vividness. “It was like finding a part of myself again,” she said.
The knowledge that her daughter is now seeing a married man who had always been in and out of the family home years ago has stirred conflicting emotions in Julie’s mother, Marcia — worry for her daughter, worry about the wife of Julie’s lover, but a certain degree of comfort, too.
“My husband knew this young man and we were all a happy family and at a happy stage in our lives,” she said in an interview. “He’s asked about me, so I feel sort of close, too.”
As for Julie, she is in constant e-mail contact with her lover, having received some 3,000 messages from him in the three months or so since their affair began. Her friends have argued that he would not be cheating on his wife if he were happy at home, but she is unconvinced. “I’m not sure about that,” she said. “First love is something very different.”
He has not discussed his marriage with her; she has not asked. At least once, she has been on the verge of breaking things off. “Do I feel bad about it? Yes,” she said. “This is going to end in tears for somebody, and I don’t know whose tears they’re going to be.” Autor: SARAH LYALL