From Promise to Promiscuity

Image: Red condom, green condom
Stephen Lewis

As devastating experiences go, few events can match the emotional havoc following the discovery that one's partner is having an affair. Atop a suddenly shattered world hover pain and rejection, doubts about one's worth, and, most searingly, the rupture of trust. For Deanna Stahling, discovery struck in a hallucinatory moment that forever fractured time into Before and After. She had just stepped off a plane from the Caribbean after a week's vacation with a family friend and picked up a copy of the city's leading newspaper. There, in the lifestyles section, was a profile of a top woman executive whose name Deanna had heard a lot lately—her husband worked with the woman. Deanna had even met her—introduced by her husband a few weeks earlier at a corporate function. The exec, it was reported, was leaving the company so that she could ethically pursue a relationship with a colleague.

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Deanna doesn't remember the trip home from the airport, but the house was empty and her husband's belongings were gone. A denuded bookshelf highlighted now-missing Giants memorabilia. A note on the kitchen table advised her—after 25 years, two newly fledged kids, and the recent purchase of a joint cemetery plot—to refer any questions to his attorney.

The next morning found Deanna sobbing in a therapist's office. Together they began the search for the source of the sudden defection. Like most therapists (and indeed, most everyone else), they subscribed implicitly to a deficit model of affairs: the presumption that there were fatal problems in the relationship.

Over the past several years, however, leading thinkers have begun to abandon such a pathologizing approach. No one doubts that a straying partner is alone responsible for the often disastrous decision to engage in infidelity. But a new, more nuanced perspective that puts far more emphasis on contextual and situational factors has sparked a revolution in understanding and handling affairs. The new approach encourages as a matter of course what happens now only by chance—complete recovery without any feelings being swept under the rug and even fortification of the couple bond.

The Shifting Landscape of Illicit Love

No one knows for sure just how common affairs are. Social desirability and fear of disclosure skew survey responses significantly. In 1994, 77 percent of 3,432 people constituting a representative sample of Americans declared that extramarital sex is always wrong (although the vast majority of people also have fantasies of engaging in an affair). And the number is actually growing. Today, over 90 percent of respondents deem sexual straying unacceptable—and expect sexual monogamy.

Still, decades of studies show that affairs are common, and, at least historically, more so among men than women: Among American couples, 20 to 40 percent of heterosexual married men and 10 to 25 percent of heterosexual married women will have an affair during their lifetime. In any given year, 1.5 to 4 percent of married individuals engage in an affair.

The newest surveys also reveal a very notable shift in the demographics of deception. Among younger cohorts—those under 45—the rates of infidelity among men and women are converging. Psychologists and sociologists attribute the development to huge changes in sheer opportunity, particularly the massive movement of women out of the home and into the workplace; studies show that the majority of individuals engaged in an affair met their lover at work. The rising financial power of women renders them less risk-averse, because they are less dependent on a spouse for support. As for a longstanding belief that men are more instinctually inclined to sexual infidelity than women are? Well, it's now far more of an open question.

That doesn't mean there are no gender differences in affairs. For women, infidelity is thought to be driven more by emotional needs and is most likely when they are not satisfied in their marital relationship, especially when it is not a partnership of equals. For men, infidelity has long been more independent of the state of the marital relationship. The pioneering psychologist Shirley Glass first reported in 1985 that among individuals engaging in infidelity, 56 percent of men and 34 percent of women rate their marriage as "happy" or "very happy." However, some of these differences may be disappearing, too. In 2003, just before she died, Glass reported that 74 percent of men were emotionally (as well as sexually) involved with their affair partner.

While the landscape of illicit love has been shifting, the therapeutic world has remained fairly fixed in the belief that affairs occur because something is radically wrong with the marriage. Make no mistake—most couples stay and want to stay together after a partner has strayed, despite the enormous psychic trauma to the uninvolved spouse. And indeed, 70 percent of couples choose to rebuild the relationship after infidelity, although they may not know how. Even couples for whom the violation is so painful or incomprehensible that divorce seems the only alternative often later regret a decision made in the highly disorienting days after discovery.

Studies indeed show that relationship dissatisfaction is associated with engaging in extramarital sex. But there's evidence that in almost two-thirds of cases, marital problems are the effect, not the cause, of extramarital involvements. Further, affairs themselves skew perceptions of the marriage. Once infidelity has occurred, partners tend to look back on their primary relationship and see it as having been flawed all along—an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Focusing attention exclusively on relationship flaws, say the field's leading thinkers, encourages couples to get psychologically stuck, brooding on the emotional betrayal and assigning blame. There is no statute of limitations on the hurt and anger that follow a partner's affair. But for the sake of dampening emotional volatility, injured partners are often rushed into "moving on," burying distrust and resentments that fester underground, sometimes for decades, forever precluding restoration of closeness.

Context, Context, Context

Affairs, says Washington, D.C., psychologist Barry McCarthy, are "the absolutely best example of behavior being multicausal, multidimensional. There are many contributing factors. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the marriage. The most common reason for an affair is high opportunity. People fall into affairs rather than plan them." Another very common cause of affairs, he observes, is that "people do not feel desired and desirable in their marriage, and they want to see if they can be desired and desirable outside it." For others, he notes, the affair is a symptom of a mental health problem like alcohol abuse or bipolar disorder.

But unless all contributing elements are openly discussed and their meaning evaluated by both partners together, injured partners cannot regain the sense of security that allows them to forgive a straying spouse and rebuild trust in their mate. "The reality is that it takes two people to continue a marriage but only one to terminate a marriage," says McCarthy.

By far the biggest predictor of affairs, experts agree, is sheer opportunity—how people vary in access and desirability to others. And the workplace is the great benefactor, providing large numbers of people with constant contact, common interests, an income to camouflage the costs of socializing outside the office, and an ironclad excuse.

In a study of more than 4,000 adults, reported in the Journal of Family Psychology, Donald Baucom and colleagues found that both income and employment status are indices of opportunity for affairs. "Income may not be the critical variable in itself," they offer. "Individuals with higher incomes might be considered to have higher status, to travel more, or to interact professionally with more appealing individuals." In their study, those who worked but whose spouses did not were the most likely to report being unfaithful. Opportunity at the office is most ominous when it mixes with a disparity in relationship power at home.

Travel is way up there, researchers find, especially work-related travel. "Lots of elements go into that," says Kristina Coop Gordon, professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee. "You're away from your partner, maybe even missing your mate, and you're in situations where you're encountering plenty of people," Gordon explains. "It certainly facilitates one-night stands." Companies that employ large cohorts of young people, especially those who socialize together after work, create an environment for affairs.

No one profession has a lock on infidelity, Gordon maintains. Most relevant is the culture within a company. "Really macho cultures, which often exist in drug enforcement and police work, can involve a 'player' phenomenon where you need to show how virile you are. They are the clearest examples of work environments that foster infidelity that I've seen."

Image: Men's jeans w/ fly open

Stephen Lewis
Duplicity also has a downtown address. Living in the midst of a city abets infidelity. Not only is there exposure to large numbers of potential partners, there's more opportunity to escape detection. The larger the city one lives in, researchers have found, the greater the likelihood of an affair.

Attending religious services is generally a deterrent to infidelity, perhaps because it embeds people in a social network that promotes accountability. But it helps only those who are already happy in their relationship. If the primary relationship is less than ideal, then dissatisfaction overrides religious values. Rates of infidelity do not differ by denomination.

Education increases the propensity to infidelity. It may be a marker for more liberal attitudes toward sexuality and permissive attitudes toward adultery. Ditto a history of divorce, or having parents who divorced, especially if either one had an extramarital involvement. Women with more education than their husbands have more affairs, perhaps because they are less dependent on a spouse.

Friendships are a factor in infidelity. Peer groups may sanction or even encourage it, researchers have found. Those who engage in extramarital involvements estimate a higher prevalence of affairs in their community than those who don't and believe their friends would be relatively approving. Separate his and her friendship networks are especially risky. One way of avoiding infidelity is to share a spouse's social network. Befriending a partner's family proves particularly protective. In one study it was linked to a 26 percent decrease in the odds of sexual infidelity.

Personality differences between partners play a role as well. Spouses who are comfortable with conflict and more or less matched on that trait are less likely to have affairs, perhaps because they are most open to airing marital concerns and dissatisfactions with each other.

In general, openness is protective and a characteristic of noncheaters. Associated with intelligence, creativity, curiosity, and insightfulness, openness makes partners more satisfied with the relationship and better able to express feelings, including love. Some researchers believe that openness is essential to commitment to and enduring satisfaction in a relationship.

Low levels of agreeableness (the tendency to be compassionate and cooperative) bode poorly for monogamy. More important, however, is whether couples are matched on that trait. Spouses who see themselves as more agreeable than their mate believe themselves to be more giving, feel exploited by their partner, and seek reciprocity through outside relationships. Many studies show that a high level of neuroticism also inclines individuals to infidelity, independent of a partner's personality.

Psychological problems factor in, too. Affairs, associated with insecurity and having low self-esteem, can be a way of seeking reassurance of desirability or of combating depression. An affair certainly provides an arousing stimulus that is an antidote, however temporary, to feeling down. Then, too, affairs are also linked to high self-regard, a sense of one's own attractiveness or entitlement, or may be the accompaniment to narcissism.

Situations that deplete self-control—exposure to alcohol, an exhausting day of travel, doing highly challenging work—raise the risk of infidelity. They disable sexual restraint, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Matthew Gailliot have found. The two manipulated self-control by giving subjects cognitively demanding or simple word puzzles before presenting them with purely hypothetical scenarios testing their willingness to engage in infidelity. The more demanding the tasks, the more depleted self-control, the more subjects were unable to inhibit their inclination to infidelity or to stifle sexual thoughts. Of course, hypothetical infidelity is a long way from landing in bed with someone.

Hypocrisy or Hormones?

The very make-up of the human brain contributes to affairs, too, observes anthropologist Helen Fisher. She has shown in brain-imaging studies that there are separate neural systems for sex drive, romantic love, and attachment, and they can operate independently. "Everyone starts out in marriage believing they will not have an affair. Why do data from around the world consistently show that infidelity occurs even among people who are happy in their marriage? You can feel deep attachment to a partner but also feel intense romantic love for someone else while also feeling a desire for sex with other partners," she observes.

The attachment system, fueled by the neurohormones oxytocin in females and vasopressin in males, drives animals, including humans, to pair-bond to rear their offspring as a team. Both hormones are triggered by orgasm, and both trigger dopamine release in reward regions of the brain. But all animals cheat, even when they form pair bonds. In most mammals, the bond lasts only as long as it takes to rear the young. Among prairie voles, science's favorite model of monogamy, knocking out the gene that codes for vasopressin receptors abolishes their penchant for pair-bonding. And implanting it in their notoriously promiscuous cousins, the mountain voles, leads the males to fixate on a specific female partner even when alluring others are abundantly available.

More recently, in a study of over 500 men, Swedish researchers found that variations in a gene that codes for vasopressin receptors in humans influences the very ability to form monogamous relationships. Men with two copies of a specific gene variant scored significantly lower on a questionnaire known as the Partner Bonding Scale and reported twice as many marital crises in the past year. Those with two copies of the variant were also twice as likely to be involved in outside relationships and far less likely to have ever been married than those not carrying the allele.

"Monogamy does not mean sexual fidelity. That is a separate issue," says Fisher. In fact, scientists increasingly speak of "social monogamy" to distinguish promise from promiscuity. If we are monogamous, we are also just as predictably adulterous. What's more, people jeopardize their family, their health, their safety, their social standing, their financial well-being for affairs—and violate their own strong beliefs.

Monogamy may be the norm in human culture, but it is only part of the human reproductive repertoire, contends Fisher. "We humans have a dual reproductive strategy," she argues. "We regularly appear to express a combination of lifelong (or serial) social monogamy and, in many cases, clandestine adultery."

Despite its many risks, and sometimes because of them, there are big payoffs for infidelity, Fisher argues. For men especially, genetic variation is the most obvious. But she believes that women benefit, too. Infidelity may provide a "back-up mate" to offer protection and resources when the regular guy is not around. And women may use affairs as a way of "trading up" to find a more desirable partner. It's possible, too, that infidelity can serve a positive role in relationships—as a way to gain attention from one's primary partner or to signal that there are problems in the relationship that need attending to.

In a study reported in 2010 in PLoS One, Justin Garcia, a postdoctoral fellow at Binghamton University, outlined another payoff—pure, passionate thrill. He found that individuals with a variant of a dopamine receptor gene were more likely than those without it to have a history of "uncommitted sex, one-night stands, and adultery." The motivation, he says, "stems from a system of pleasure and reward." Fisher suspects that's just the tip of the infidelity iceberg, and more biological contributors are likely to be identified in future studies.

From Angry Victim to Proud Survivor

One of the great facts of infidelity is that it has such a wildly different emotional impact on the marital partners. The uninvolved partner is deeply traumatized and emotionally distraught over the betrayal, and desperately trying to piece together what happened. The straying partner, often because of deep shame, may get defensive and shut down or blame the spouse for not moving on, only compounding the hurt. One needs to talk about what happened; the other can't bear to. "It's as if one of them is speaking German, the other is speaking Greek, and they're not speaking English to each other," McCarthy says.

Getting them on the same track of understanding is the key to recovery from affairs, says Gordon, who along with Baucom and Douglas Snyder, professor of psychology at Texas A&M, has sparked the revolution in treating infidelity not only by focusing on the many contributing factors but by developing the first empirically validated model of recovery. As detailed in their book, Getting Past the Affair, the first step is for both spouses to recognize the huge emotional impact on the uninvolved partner. Gordon and company have found a powerful device: After encouraging the partners to make no decisions about the future in the immediate aftermath of discovery or disclosure, they ask that the cheated-on partner write a letter to the spouse describing what the hurt feels like.

"The cheating partner must hear, no matter how discomfiting it is," says Gordon. "The experience is very intense and usually a turning point. Partners begin to soften towards each other. It's a demonstration to the injured partner that he or she really matters."

Image: Tray w/ holiday inn room key on it

Stephen Lewis
Then together the spouses search for the meaning of the affair by exploring how the choice was made and what contributed to it. Everything is fair game—attitudes and expectations about marriage that each partner has, conflicts and anything else going on in the relationship, hidden desires, personal anxieties and insecurities, needs for excitement, the closeness and distance they feel, job demands, work ambience, flirtations, opportunities, the people and pressures around them at home and outside it. The approach short-circuits the often misguided inclination to focus on The Other Person.

From understanding flows forgiveness, which allows partners to become close again. Wild as the reaction to discovery of a partner's affair can be in the beginning, Gordon welcomes it. "At least it provides the opportunity to interact around the pain. What often happens with the 'nice' couples," she says, "is they stay together but lead parallel lives marked by great distance. There's no bond anymore."

Renewing Romance

Barry McCarthy gives the revolution in recovery from affairs another twist all his own—re-eroticizing the marriage. "A couple has to develop a new sexual style" that facilitates sexual desire both in and out of the bedroom, he says. The point is to abolish the inclination to compare marital sex with affair sex—a hopeless cause as affair partners don't have to contend with sick kids and other realities of life, and the illicitness of the liaison intensifies excitement—but to compare marital sex before the affair and after it.

For the vast majority of American couples today, sexual satisfaction plummets at the birth of the first child and reemerges, if at all, after the last child leaves home. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. Admittedly, McCarthy says, "it's a balancing act for partners to maintain their sense of who they are as individuals, their sense of being a couple, and being parents and sexual people." But in the long run, it's in everyone's best interest. Most contemporary couples, he laments, treat sexuality with benign neglect—until an affair sets off a crisis.

In healthy marriages, sex plays what he deems "a relatively small part, a 15 to 20 percent part"—but it energizes the whole bond and allows each partner to feel desired and desirable. When couples abandon sex, they wind up draining the entire relationship of its vitality. "You not only lose the marriage connection but your sense of self," McCarthy finds. "An affair can be an attempt to regain a sense of self."

So McCarthy puts great effort into reconnecting partners both emotionally and physically. He focuses on "nondemand pleasure." "We try to reintroduce the idea of touching inside and outside the bedroom, clothed and not clothed, valuing sensual and playful touch. It can be a bridge to intercourse, but there's no demand that it has to go to intercourse." He encourages couples to find a mutually acceptable level of intimacy and come up with their own erotic scenarios.

Pacts of Prevention

Because good intentions do not prove good enough, McCarthy takes postaffair repair one step further—asking couples to create an explicit pact to prevent future infidelity by either of them. Together, they lay out the terms for disclosing when their interest is straying. Having painfully reached an understanding of the complex personal, marital, and situational vulnerabilities that led to an affair, couples draft a relapse prevention agreement.

The purpose is to rob any future affair of its spontaneity and its emotional and sexual secrecy. Both partners are encouraged to articulate the types of situation, mood, and person that could draw them into an affair—and to share that information with each other.

Then they commit to alert the spouse if they are in a high-risk situation and to discuss it rather than act on it. As an incentive, the agreement, drawing on recent experience, spells out the emotional costs to both parties of an affair. Because the secrecy and cover-up of infidelity are often more damaging than the defection itself, partners agree that, if there is a sexual incident, they will disclose it within 72 hours. And it works, McCarthy finds.

The pact of prevention embodies a principle Helen Fisher enunciates most succinctly: "Predisposition isn't predestination." Six years after her disorienting discovery, Deanna is remarried; her new husband shares her taste for travel and adventure. She can talk dispassionately (with close friends) about the thin spots that likely existed all along in her first marriage. She understands how her frequent travels as a consultant, although they never tempted her to stray, carried intimations of abandonment for her more anxious ex. And how, under the circumstances, his conversations with an attentive female coworker could have evolved from the collegial to the confidential almost imperceptibly over the course of a year. But there's one question that still nags at her: Why, when their marriage was about to blow apart, did her husband insist that they share eternity by purchasing a joint burial plot? She'll probably never know. 

Image: 3 hot dogs on one bun

Stephen Lewis
The Other Woman

She might be history's most reviled female. Or most misunderstood. She isn't all she's cracked up to be. Sex with her is generally no better than sex in the marriage. And she's not likely to be a bombshell. The most you can say for sure is that she's different from the wife, and that may be all some cheaters need. Most male affairs, which is to say most affairs, are excursions of opportunity with little emotional investment. Worth crying over, yes. But not necessarily worth bringing the house down. Fewer than 25 percent of cheaters leave a marriage for an affair partner, and those relationships are statistically extremely unlikely to endure.

However much the mystery woman incites rage and envy and dreams of malevolence, she falls short of the self-destructive comparisons made against her.

Usually, says University of Tennessee psychologist Kristina Coop Gordon, fixation on the other woman and desire for details about her are not what they seem. "It's really a test of the straying spouse by the wounded one: 'Will you be open with me about the affair?' They really don't want to know the gory details; either it will spark a fight or make them feel bad. The wounded spouse just wants proof that she's important enough."

Sometimes, however, the other woman won't let go. She may threaten retaliation or self-harm. On the other hand, the involved spouse may do a miserable job of setting firm boundaries and not make a clean break of it. "Some men are not quite letting go themselves," Gordon finds. "And they're sending mixed messages to the other woman, which both she and the wife pick up on. That may be one reason a wounded wife can become obsessed with the other woman; there's a continuing threat."—H.E.M.

Read more: Is Adultery Ever Justified?  

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