Exploring the Complex Landscape of Infidelity

5 min read
Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock

Source: Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock

Everyone knows that intimate relationships are challenging, and monogamy can be difficult at times. Nonetheless, few people enter a committed relationship expecting that they or their partner will have an affair.

The incidence of affairs is notoriously difficult to ascertain. Research teams define affairs differently, which makes it difficult to integrate data. For example, the definition of affair can include online affairs, emotional affairs, sexting, participating in camming sites, and even watching porn.

Further, research subjects may hesitate to be truthful about such personal information.

One recent study found that acknowledgment of an affair depended on how the question was worded to research participants (Tang et al., 2023). In this sample, 465 subjects in monogamous relationships ranging in age from 21 to 54 were recruited online, with 91 percent married and 90 percent heterosexual.

When asked directly, 9 percent of women and 17 percent of men acknowledged being unfaithful. However, when given a checklist and asked to ID sexual behaviors they had engaged in outside of their primary relationship, the numbers were drastically higher.

For example,

  • 15 percent of women and 27 percent of men had penile-vaginal intercourse outside of their primary relationship
  • 26 percent of women and 33 percent of men received emotionally intimate support from someone other than their partner
  • 13 percent of women and 23 percent of men masturbated over a webcam

In total,

  • 61 percent of women and 65 percent of men endorsed behaviors suggesting an emotional affair
  • 22 percent of women and 37 percent of men had a sexual affair
  • 29 percent of women and 51 percent of men had an online affair

All these numbers are significantly higher than when asked directly if they had been unfaithful.

A second recently published study revealed that not everyone who cheats is motivated by an unhappy relationship or an unsatisfying sex life. This survey of Ashley Madison users, a website designed to facilitate infidelity, revealed that most participants did not report low relationship quality in their primary relationship (Selterman et al., 2023).

Subjects of two studies (one a single session, another a longitudinal survey spanning three months) were 810 individuals with a mean age of 51 years in the first group and 260 individuals with a mean age of 54 in the second. The sample was predominantly male, representing 84 to 90 percent of the subjects across samples, and predominantly heterosexual.

Results revealed that participants reported minimal regret and generally didn’t feel that their affairs negatively impacted their primary relationship. While the authors acknowledge this could be a biased sample based on their participation in a unique website, a third research study offers further evidence for this claim. These results certainly counteract the experience of many couple’s therapists, but of course, for a variety of reasons, not all couples experiencing infidelity find their way to a therapist’s office.

A third recently published study attempted to identify variables that could predict the likelihood that someone would have an affair (Vowels et al., 2022). They used a machine learning algorithm to analyze two samples, one a group of individuals and the other a group of couples.

In the first study, 891 participants identified as 63 percent cisgender women, 31 percent cisgender men, and 2.8 percent genderqueer; of these, 54 percent were heterosexual, 21 percent bisexual, 11 percent gay, and 7 percent lesbian. Their average age was 33 years.

In the second study of 202 predominantly heterosexual couples, their mean age was 33, and the mean relationship length was nine years. Results indicated that approximately half of those in relationships acknowledged infidelity, and the researchers found these affairs to be only “somewhat” predictable based on their algorithm.

Infidelity Essential Reads

As the second study reported, these authors found that while those more satisfied in their relationship were generally less likely to have an affair, a subset of individuals highly satisfied with their relationships had engaged in infidelity.

Some of the variables that were better able to predict in-person (vs. online) infidelity included decreased relationship satisfaction, higher sexual desire, and longer relationship length. For online infidelity, better predictors again included greater sexual desire and longer relationship length. Having never had anal sex with their current partner decreased the likelihood of their having engaged in online infidelity.

The authors speculate that this finding may be reflective of more restrictive sexual attitudes. Overall, participants reporting greater sexual satisfaction and more romantic love were less likely to have engaged in any form of infidelity.

The research on infidelity is robust. Type the word infidelity into Google Scholar to see for yourself. It’s a topic that many people find compelling. My previous post, titled “When You Still Want Sex, Just Not with Your Partner,” is by far the most popular.

Some couples deal with these challenges by agreeing to open arrangements. It’s estimated that 4 to 5 percent of couples in the U.S. are currently engaged in consensually non-monogamous relationships (Cardoso & Klesse, 2022). Nonetheless, for at least now, most people still long for intimacy and exclusive romantic connection.

Probably, the best approach to managing the challenges of monogamous intimacy involves the basics. Regular and respectful communication, prioritizing time together, expressing gratitude for how your partner enhances your life, and consciously loving your partner well are all essential elements of a fulfilling romantic connection. Giving and receiving love may be one of humanity’s greatest challenges, but it’s also our greatest gift.

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