Cheryl on her own, though, we love especially now that she has ceased battering the lower orders and transformed herself into the moist-eyed Venus of The X Factor, outdoing the most overwrought contestants with her displays of empathy. For some time, her husband has been surplus to the public's requirements. She is "Our Cheryl" now, not his.
Related ArticlesTake arms against a sea of rubbishBreastfeeding and bus drivers don't mixShe was allowed to forgive him one affair (with a hairdresser, just months after their wedding) on the grounds of wifely devotion. But the latest allegations of serial philandering (and, perhaps worse, the "sex text" pictures of him in a saggy pair of Y-fronts) tested public patience too far. "Dump him!" thunders Heat magazine. "Cheryl shouldn't fight for her marriage to Ashley any longer," opines the Daily Mirror. On the message boards, all are agreed: "Once the trust is gone, it's gone."
One gets the feeling, though, that the nation had more than just Cheryl's interests at heart. The stridency with which we condemn celebrity infidelities, and our determination that they should be properly punished, has at least as much to do with our own anxieties about monogamy.
"Wise married women don't trouble themselves about infidelity in their husbands," counselled Samuel Johnson, and he had a point. All of us know from experience that it is possible to love really love more than one person at a time: your siblings, your parents, your children. Why should romantic love (let alone sexual attraction, that most facile of feelings) be any different? Anyone who marries in the expectation that their other half will only ever have eyes for them is, frankly, deluded. The best that most of us hope for is that we, and they, will battle through the agonies of temptation without wrecking the connubial ship.
What that means, of course, is different for everyone. Some adulterers are more forgivable than others. Some are cruel or indiscreet; others are tormented by their own disloyalty. There are plenty of faithful spouses who find other ways to blight a marriage: through violence, bullying or silent retreat. And there are many women who would rather grow old with a kind, funny roué than with a man who has total control of his hormones but not much to say for himself over dinner.
The Jerry Springer-style moral absolutism that says you should never forgive a cheating spouse is a form of moral abdication: it removes the need to make nuanced decisions about our lives. The same internet sages who couldn't wait for Cheryl Cole to dump her husband are full of contempt for her fellow WAG Toni Poole for giving John Terry a second chance. Would it really be wiser and stronger, then, to automatically give the father of her three-year-old twins the heave-ho salving her pride at the expense of their happiness? How many less fortunate children have been put through the trauma of divorce simply because of the modern orthodoxy that to forgive is weak?
There is a vicious circle here: for the ubiquity of divorce is one reason we feel so anxious about adultery. In Dr Johnson's day, the betrayed wife might have felt upset, insulted but she would be unlikely to see it as the end of the road. Most people were stuck in their marriages, whether they liked it or not.
Today, the ties that used to bind us financial dependence, social pressure, religious belief have frayed, and all we are left with is an impossible ideal of romantic love. Celebrities, whose sumptuous weddings epitomise our unrealistic expectations about marriage, are expected to follow the new orthodoxy to the letter. If we're not allowed to make imperfection work, then neither should Cheryl be.