The 2000 review of the Registrar General on Marriages, Divorces and Adoptions in England and Wales, reveals that 29 pc of men are likely to present 'adultery' as a cause of the irretrievable break down of marriage, compared with 21 pc of women.

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Increasing financial equality, more opportunities presented by women working long hours outside the home and even Britain's burgeoning 'ladette culture' are all considered to be factors in this new phenomenon.

And as an accredited coach and counsellor specialising in women over 50, I have noticed the increasing frequency of female infidelity.

She adds: 'For men, the sexual component of their wife's affair is very important.

Women are much more likely to ask: "Did you love her?

It seems to me that while once women would have felt obliged to stick at an ailing marriage, these days they don't feel so compelled to stay.

And when their children have fled the nest and they're left with an unhappy marriage, a lover can feel like a means of escapism.

Ruth Johnson wonders if she could have put a stop to the chain of events that led her into the arms of another man. She can now see the errors she made: how having been married for 21 years to the same man, with four children born in quick succession, left little time for romance or intimacy, and how she took so much for granted. The 54-year-old further education lecturer from Northampton found herself pouring her heart out to a man she met at a Parent-Teacher Association meeting. 'The intensity of feeling between us took me by surprise,' she says.

Before Ruth knew it, the relationship had become sexual and for eight years the married lovers conducted their illicit affair in secret, hiding it from their respective partners.

'I suppose the relationship took off during one of those trips,' he says.

When his friend confronted him with the truth, he was stunned.

Although things were not great, I expected the relationship to swing round.' When Lucy said she wanted to return to work, his friend Ian, the managing director of a marketing agency, offered her a position as his part-time secretary.