Sally Rooney’s conversations with friends – how British attitudes have grown tougher on adultery

At the heart of Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations with Friends and its new BBC adaptation is an affair between young writer Frances and an older, married actor, Nick. Before they sleep together for the first time, Frances tells Nick that she doesn’t want to be “a home wrecker”. Nick responds that his marriage has “already survived several cases”. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Nick has no intention of leaving his wife, Melissa, despite their two infidelities.

The novel was described by The New Yorker as “a new kind of adultery novel” and Marketing of the series by BBC Three emphasized the “very atypical and modern” the relational dynamic at its center. The questions the story asks about marriage, intimacy and fidelity are not new but reflect the evolution of the understanding of adultery over the past century.

You might assume that our view of infidelity has become more liberal as conversations around non-monogamous relationships have grown and people have become more positive about sex. However, the history of adultery in British society may well surprise you.

Quarter life, a series from The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our 20s and 30s. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or simply making friends as adults. The articles in this series explore questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent time in life.

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When love entered the equation

In the British context, before the 20th century, adultery was understood both as a violation of marriage vows and as a challenge to the legal relationship between husband and wife. However, it was rare for adultery to lead to divorce. Divorce was expensive and adultery often difficult to prove definitively, and so many marriages resisted it.

In the 20th century, attitudes towards adultery and infidelity changed. Although people often regard the last decades of the 20th century as a “sex revolution”, with society becoming more permissive, statistics suggest a hardening of public attitudes against adultery.

In 1983, when the British Social Attitudes Survey asked respondents what they thought of “a married person[ing] sex with someone other than your partner”, 59% of respondents described this as “always bad” and 26% considered it “fairly bad”. When the question was repeated 30 years later, in 2013, an even higher percentage (65% of respondents) thought extramarital sex was “always bad.”

These attitudes reflect broader changes in the understanding of marriage during the twentieth century. Where marriage was once viewed as an economic partnership and an arrangement for raising children, over time compatibility, sexual fulfillment and romantic love have become increasingly important elements of marriages.

The period between World War II and the 1970s has been described as a “golden age” of marriage. Social and cultural historian Claire Langhamer has argued that this period witnessed an “emotional revolution” as romantic love became the foundation of marriage.

As love became more important in marriage, the consequences of adultery became more detrimental. Mid-century visions of romance-based marriage saw commitment and fidelity as the cornerstones of these relationships. What was at stake when the partners had affairs was not just the religious or legal contract they had signed, but the emotional relationship at the heart of the marriage. This has led many people to view adultery as unforgivable.

What matters?

On one level, the acceptance of infidelity in Conversations with Friends challenges these attitudes. However, monogamous marriage was not the only type of relationship possible in the 20th century.

Conversations with Friends testifies to a growing awareness of non-monogamy and open relationships, but the complex dynamics of sex, romance and marriage that it explores are not entirely new.

While social surveys show overwhelming intolerance of adultery, definitions of “what counts” as adultery have long been hazy. It’s unclear, for example, how people responding to social surveys might explain the early 20th century proponents of “free love” or the rise of “wife-swapping” parties since the 1970s. These couples would not necessarily describe having sex with someone other than their spouse as “adultery” and often viewed extramarital sex as something that improved rather than deteriorated their marriage.

Similarly, past commentators have often drawn distinctions between different types of adultery. The infidelity of women was often considered more serious than that of men. This was partly related to the fear that a husband might end up raising another man’s child without knowing it. It also reflected gendered conceptions of the nature of women. In 1923, Tory MP Henry Maddocks quoted Shakespeare during a debate on the status of male adultery in divorce law: “A good man, or the best men, are formed from faults, and are rather better because they are a little bad. You wouldn’t say that of a woman.”

A man and a woman in a car lean on each other.
In Conversation with Friends, college student Frances begins having an affair with married actor Nick.
BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe

People also differentiated between one-off cases of sex and long-running affairs, which many people consider more troubling. In 1968, Dodie Wells, the dying aunt of Petticoat magazine, explained:

An act of adultery has never seemed to me, in any case, a sufficient reason to give up a marriage. […] In the context of a good marriage, it should not be allowed to take on disproportionate dimensions.

While the institution of marriage is often portrayed as static and ‘traditional’, what it means to individuals continues to evolve in surprising ways. Love has been a game-changer, and the kinds of dynamics explored in Conversations with Friends represent a 21st century version of long-standing questions. Throughout the 20th century, different couples (and individuals within couples) might have very different understandings of what was important to their relationships and what kinds of behavior were acceptable. The meaning of adultery was not fixed and evolved as understandings of romantic love, sexuality, intimacy and marriage evolved. So yes, perceptions of adultery have become more hardened rather than more liberal and love is, arguably, partly to blame.

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