Adultery, divorce and the legal system

Divorce|September 2nd 2014

Over a long career as a divorce lawyer, I have seen more cases involving adultery than I can count. It’s sad to say, but sometimes people stray from their spouse and the damage done to their relationship is irreparable.

There are common misconceptions about adultery in relation to the law. It is not merely a synonym for infidelity. A lot of people do not understand that, legally, adultery has a very narrow definition.

In English law, adultery is full sexual intercourse between a man and a woman when at least one of them is married to someone else. That is it. Legally, it is not adultery if it occurs between two people of the same sex, nor if the cheating spouse stops short of full intercourse. In those scenarios, the emotional damage can be just as high, but are not sufficient to be granted a divorce due to adultery.

There is another component to adultery when it comes to divorce. If a spouse commits adultery, but divorce proceedings are not started within six months of the other partner learning of it, they have, under the law, condoned the adultery.

Once the adultery has been condoned, it is no longer a ground for divorce.

When people who have been cheated on come to me, they often have the same concern: proving the adultery. For some reason, a lot of people are under the impression that this is a vital step in securing a divorce. It isn’t.

In fact, it is much easier to secure a divorce from a cheating partner without going on the basis of adultery. If you allege ‘unreasonable behaviour’, that can cover any number of issues. If your spouse’s infidelity does not fall under the strict definition of adultery, or you have left it too long before acting, ‘unreasonable behaviour’ is the way to go.

It’s not just adultery that I get asked about frequently.  The most common questions from our readers have given rise to a whole wave of divorce advice videos like the one on this page. Enjoy!

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. james says:

    Yawn, yawn, yawn!
    Really what is the point in grounds for divorce? or indeed the point of marriage?
    It has become a hiddeious !!!

  2. Andrew says:

    Remember when you had to name the Other Person? At one time a man was a Co-Respondent but a woman was a Woman Named – goodness knows why.

    We will come round to making it an administrative process, and the sooner the better.

  3. Nordic says:

    Dear Marilyn

    Quick question: in your considerable experience how often is adultery a significant causal factor in the breakdown of marriages, as opposed to a symptom of the breakdown? In other words, how often would a marriage likely have survived longer term, had the adultery not occurred?

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