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dreamed of, if not actually consummated.

The road to infidelity is paved with unmet expectations about sex, love and marriage. A woman who is 40 today grew up during the permissive 1970s and went to college when the dangers of AIDS were just beginning to dawn. She was sexually experienced before she was married and waited five years longer than her mother to settle down. She lives in a culture that constantly flaunts the possibility of great sex and fitness well after menopause. "Great Lovers Are Made, Not Born!" read the ads for sex videos in her favorite magazines; "What if the only night sweats you had came from a good workout?" ask the ads for estrogen therapy.

At the same time, she's so busy she feels constantly out of breath. If she's a professional, she's working more hours than her counterpart of 20 years ago.and trying to rush home in time to give the baby a bath. If she's a stay-at-home mom, she's driving the kids to more classes, more games, more playdates than her mother did, not to mention trying to live up to society's demands of perfect-momhood: Buy organic! Be supportive, not permissive! Lose five pounds! Her husband isn't a bad guy, but he's busier than ever, too, working harder just to stay afloat. And (this is practically unmentionable) therapists say they're seeing more cases of depressed male libido. It turns out he's too tired and stressed to have sex. An affair is a logical outcome of this scenario, therapists say: women think they should be having great sex and romantic dates decades into their marriage, and at the same time, they're pragmatic enough to see how impossible that is. Couples begin to live parallel lives, instead of intersecting ones, and that's when the loneliness and resentment set in.

Marisol can't remember the last time her husband paid her a compliment. That's why the 39-year-old grandmother, who was pregnant and married at 15, looks forward to meeting with her boyfriend of five years during lunch breaks and after work. "There is so much passion between us," she says. "He tells me my skin is soft and that my hair smells good. I know it sounds stupid, but that stuff matters. It makes me feel sexy again."

Ironically, the realities of the overprogrammed life make it easier, not harder, to fool around. When days are planned to the minute, it's a cinch to pencil in a midday tryst -- and remember to wear the lace-edged underwear.at least compared with trying to stay awake and in the mood through "Law & Order." And as any guileless teenager knows, nothing obscures your whereabouts better than an Internet connection and a reliable cell phone. Amanda's husband has no idea she has six e-mail addresses, in addition to an account specifically for messages from her boyfriend Ron. Amanda, a customer-service rep in L.A., uses e-mail to flirt with Ron, then turns to her instant messenger or cell phone when it comes to setting up a rendezvous. "Text messaging is safer than e-mailing," says Amanda, 36, who's been married for eight years. What would she do without her mobile or computer? "No cell phone? I can't even imagine."

Along with its 4 million porn sites, the Internet has exploded with sites specifically for people who want to cheat on their spouses -- sites like "Married and Flirting" at Yahoo, "a chat room dedicated to those who are married but curious, bored or both!!" These sites contain all the predictable pornographic overtures, but also such poignant notes as this: "Ok, I know it is late almost 11:30 my time and I am still up on this pitiful Friday night. Hubby STILL at work."

Online romances have a special appeal for married women. For one thing, you don't have to leave the house. "You can come home from work, be exhausted, take a shower, have wet, dripping hair, have something fast to eat and then, if you're feeling lonely, you can go on the Internet," says Rona Subotnik, a marriage and family therapist in Palm Desert, Calif. On the Web, women can browse and flirt without being explicit about their intentions.if they even know what their intentions are. Clicking past porn, women prefer to visit sites that dovetail with their interests, such as chess, bridge or knitting, explains Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth". "They find somebody else who seems to think like they do, and then they gradually move from that to an instant message, and then they wake up one day and they cannot believe it happened to them," says Vaughan. Last year Vaughan did a survey of a thousand people who visited her Web site, and 70 percent of the respondents were women.

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