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Adultery and infidelity are major afflictions suffered in many long-term romantic relationships and are considered to be the most frequently cited reasons for divorce. Adultery can be defined as sexual intercourse between two people, one or both of whom are married but who are not married to each other. Infidelity is a term describing sexual relations between people outside the context of a marital relationship; it implies a romantic partner’s violation of relationship expectations or norms regarding emotional or physical intimacy. Infidelity is the most frequently cited cause of divorce, and it doubles the likelihood that a couple will end their marriage in divorce. Approximately 22 to 25 percent of married men and 11 to 15 percent of women engage in extramarital sexual relationships, although recent trends show that men’s and women’s rates of infidelity are becoming increasingly similar. Every year, it is estimated that between 1.5 percent and 4 percent of married individuals will engage in extramarital sex. In divorced couples, 40 percent of women and 44 percent of men reported more than one extramarital sexual contact during the course of their marriages.
Risk Factors for Infidelity
Risk factors for infidelity include gender, with men being more likely to have affairs; race, with African Americans being most at risk for infidelity; and age, with younger couples being more likely to commit adultery. Other risk factors are employment status, with those working outside the home more likely to cheat than those who do not; infrequency of church attendance; and low marital satisfaction. In young couples, factors like conscientiousness, religiosity, and marital satisfaction are related to a lower risk of potential infidelity in marriage, whereas openness to experiences of extramarital affairs, narcissism, impulsivity, social naïveté, alcohol use, discrepant levels of attraction between partners, and sexual dissatisfaction are all factors related to potential infidelity. Infidelity is more common among partners who regard their marriages in a negative light or who report sexual intercourse within their marriage to be low in frequency or quality. Furthermore, those who have more permissive attitudes toward sex outside a primary relationship and have a strong desire to engage in infidelity tend to do so.
While marriage generally serves as a deterrent and keeps many individuals from engaging in infidelity, a lack of marital happiness or satisfaction may contribute to an increase in infidelity in marriage relationships in some couples. At the very least, dissatisfaction in a marriage increases the desire for all types of involvement outside marriage: sexual, emotional, and combined sexual and emotional relationships. Most research suggests that sexual satisfaction in marriage also plays a part in an individual’s inclination toward infidelity. Both frequency and quality of sexual relationships in marriage have been negatively linked to the incidence of infidelity.
Length of relationship also contributes to infidelity. For married women, the likelihood of having an extramarital affair peaks during the seventh year of marriage and declines steadily after that; for married men, longer relationships are linked to a decreased likelihood of infidelity, until the 18th year of marriage, at which time the likelihood of infidelity increases.
Education also contributes to infidelity, with more highly educated people reporting higher rates of extramarital sexual activity, particularly when the spouses’ education levels differ. For instance, if a woman has more education than her partner, she is more likely to have an extramarital affair; if her partner has more education than she does, she is less likely to engage in infidelity. Education is also a predictor of marriage; those with more education are more likely to be married, thereby opening up the possibility that adultery (as opposed to extrarelational sexual activity between unmarried individuals) will occur.
Types of Infidelity
There may be emotional-only, sexual-only, or a combination of sexual and emotional types of infidelity; some scholars consider these categories on a spectrum of sexual and emotional involvement. Several typologies of affairs have been differentiated in research: (1) the affair that occurs within a conflict- avoidant marriage; (2) affairs that occur within the intimacy-avoidant marriage; (3) “out-the-door” affairs (having an affair with the purpose of leaving the relationship); (4) affairs related to sexual addiction; and (5) empty-nest affairs. Sexual infidelity may include one-night stands, same-sex encounters, emotional connections, long-term relationships, and philandering (multiple occurrences of infidelity) with another person outside the marital relationship, while emotional infidelity might consist of an Internet (chat room), work, or long-distance phone relationship. Some people who hold sexually conservative attitudes may consider engaging in masturbation or viewing pornography (or both together) an act of sexual infidelity.
Cyberinfidelity can result when one spouse becomes involved with a person over the Internet. Internet infidelities are based largely on emotional intimacy, as people engaging in these behaviors are gaining something from the online relationship that they have not received in their marriage relationship. Internet infidelity has been distinguished from traditional infidelity by three factors: accessibility, affordability, and anonymity. There is usually a great level of secrecy associated with Internet infidelity, as the involved partner can easily carry on the relationship without being discovered: rapidly closing chat windows, deleting conversations, and purging e-mail or message boxes. The level of secrecy combined with sexual excitement can lead to the buildup of a shared trust and a sense of solidarity between the individuals in the Internet relationship. Internet affairs are generally discovered by suspicious partners through e-mails and chat-room conversations found online or saved to a computer, rather than disclosure by the partner engaging in the extramarital relationship.
Culture, Race, and Infidelity
Infidelity is a phenomenon that has existed in almost all cultures throughout the course of history. When considering infidelity in other cultures, it is important to remember that cultural norms and values may vary between groups; thus, infidelity may be defined differently in couples whose partners have different ethnic, racial, or even religious backgrounds. Culture has a large influence on level of tolerance to extramarital relationships. While countries like Russia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic appear somewhat tolerant of extramarital sexual relationships, most countries that have been surveyed find there to be a strong disapproval of these types of affairs. Cultures with more liberal values generally have more permissive attitudes toward infidelity or sexual expression outside marriage.
Ethnic background has also been found to play a part in marital infidelity, although the association is unclear. Some research has shown little difference between white, Hispanic, and African American involvement in infidelity, while other studies have shown that African Americans are more likely to engage in extramarital relationships. Furthermore, African American and Hispanic men are more likely to report a correlation between sexual problems within the marital relationship and sexual infidelity than are white men.
Attitudes Toward Infidelity
Most people view extramarital relationships not only as a betrayal of the marital promise but also as a form of immoral or deviant behavior. Many factors influence individuals’ attitudes toward extramarital affairs. People who are well educated, from large metropolitan areas, have permissive attitudes regarding premarital sex, and people who are single or dissatisfied with their marital relationships are more accepting of extramarital relationships. Those who frequently attend church are less accepting of them. The expectation of sexual exclusivity and fidelity within a marriage relationship is steeped in trust, intimacy, and respect, and an incident of infidelity can do significant emotional damage to the foundation of the marriage. A spouse who has remained faithful may feel betrayed, become less satisfied with the marriage, and begin thinking about divorce upon discovering the partner’s infidelity. Likewise, the spouse who was unfaithful may become emotionally attached to the new partner, thereby becoming less committed to the marriage.
Impact on Couple Relationship
Extramarital affairs have been found to be quite damaging to marital relationships but are not always fatal to the marriage. When individuals marry, they usually assume that their relationship includes mutual feelings of fidelity, integrity, and safety within the permanent and exclusive commitment to the marriage. Because of these deeply rooted assumptions, when infidelity occurs, these beliefs are challenged and the experience can be particularly wounding to the parties involved. Deep hurt, betrayal, and a compromise of existing trust are often the result. Disclosure of infidelity is an emotionally charged event for most couples. Many times, it precipitates a roller coaster of emotions that vacillate between rage and disgust toward the offending partner as well as internal feelings including shame, depression, powerlessness, victimization, and abandonment in the nonoffending partner. Some researchers are beginning to equate the negative effects of discovering that a marital partner has been unfaithful and its corresponding emotional, behavioral, and cognitive responses with the responses associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Emotional trauma is often experienced by the partner whose spouse has been unfaithful. People who suffer infidelity often experience severe psychological trauma from a shattering of their assumptions about the commitment level in their relationships. Research on traumatic responses suggests that people are most likely to experience emotional trauma when their experiences violate even the basic assumptions they have about how the world works and how people operate in it. This is also the case with infidelity. When basic relational beliefs are violated, the injured person can lose a sense that the future is predictable and experience a loss of control. The affair can be traumatizing in the sense that the experience can shatter the core beliefs essential to a person’s emotional security.
In contrast, some mental health professionals argue that infidelity may not necessarily be detrimental to marital quality or stability, contending that for those who are able to differentiate between sexual and emotional fidelity (that is, the difference between “it was only sex” and “I think I’ve found my soul mate”), extramarital relationships can in some instances be healthy for traditional marriages. Some unintended positive outcomes of infidelity on marriages include closer marital relationships, increased assertiveness, placing higher value on family, realizing the importance of positive communication within the marriage, and better self-care on the part of each partner. Couples who recover successfully from infidelity typically view the occurrence as an eyeopener in terms of helping them reflect on how they allowed their relationship to get to a point where something as extreme as an affair could develop. Furthermore, some couples use the experience as an opportunity to focus more attention on strengthening the marital relationship to guard against any future infidelity.
However, research shows that only a small percentage of couples who experience infidelity actually improve their relationship quality. Negative consequences of infidelity on a couple include the betrayed partner’s reactions, such as rage, loss of trust, decreased personal and sexual confidence, lowered self-esteem, fear of abandonment, and feelings of justification for wanting to leave the relationship. Other adverse consequences include damage to other relationships (for example, impact on other family members once information is public), legal and financial consequences (job loss or transition if the affair is with a coworker, financial costs related to pregnancy and paternity concerns), and the introduction of sexually transmitted infections to the participants as well as to nonparticipating and unsuspecting spouses.
Many times, the decision to forgive or break up following infidelity depends on the nature of the discretion and also the gender of the spouse of the unfaithful. In general, men, relative to women, find it more difficult to forgive a partner’s sexual infidelity than a partner’s emotional infidelity; they are also more likely to break up in response to a partner’s sexual infidelity than in response to a partner’s emotional infidelity. On the other hand, women, relative to men, struggle with forgiveness and are more likely to break up with a partner who has been emotionally unfaithful. Furthermore, the overall level of relationship satisfaction, the motives behind the infidelity, the resulting level of conflict, and the attitudes about long-term infidelities all play large roles in a couple’s decision to remain married or not following the discovery of an extramarital affair.
Clinical Treatment for Infidelity
Therapists rank extramarital affairs as the problem causing the second-most damage to couple relationships after physical abuse, and much has been written about clinical issues and suggested guidelines for treating relationships struggling with issues of infidelity. Despite the plethora of clinical literature to address the issue, there has been little empirical research validating the effectiveness of the treatments. Two therapeutic approaches applied to couples seeking assistance after an affair are cognitive behavioral couple therapy (CBCT) and insight-oriented couple therapy (IOCT). CBCT uses skills-based interventions that target couple communication and behavior exchange by directing each partner’s attention to the explanations that they construct for each other’s behaviors and to the expectations and standards that they hold for their own relationship, providing focus and direction for the couple. By helping the couple to contain the emotional turmoil and destructive communication between the partners, the approach leads couples to explore factors that placed their relationship at risk for an affair and work toward a better relationship in the future.
IOCT works to help partners understand their current relationship struggles from the perspective of their spouse’s developmental history. Each partner’s previous relationships, affective components, and strategies for relating with others are the focus of treatment. By gaining a deeper understanding of their own and their spouse’s histories, the partners may develop more empathy and compassion for each other. As this connection develops, it is placed within a CBCT framework, in which the couple creates a set of attributions and a more positive narrative for the event, along with a focus for future change.
Recently, more attention has been given to the success of emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with couples who have experienced the trauma of infidelity. EFT is based on attachment theory and suggests that our intimate relationships are places where we have our greatest potential for experiencing personal growth and love, two uniquely human characteristics. Couples who have survived an affair are thought to have experienced an “attachment wound” and are given the skills and understanding necessary to rebuild trust and develop a sense of stability and security in the relationship. In this way, the couple relationship becomes a healing agent for all parties involved.
- Blow, Adrian J. and Kelley Hartnett. “Infidelity in Committed Relationships II: A Substantive Review.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, v.31/2 (2005).
- Carder, Dave. Close Calls: What Adulterers Want You to Know About Protecting Your Marriage. Chicago: Northfield, 2008.
- Lusterman, Don-David. Infidelity: A Survival Guide. Oakland, CA: New Barhingerm, 1998.
- Snyder, Douglas K., Donald H. Baucom, and Kristina K. Gordon. Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move On—Together or Apart. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.
- Spring, Janis Abrahms. How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To. New York: Perennial Currents, 2004.