Monogamy has long been a staple assumption of Western marriage and is deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans as a necessary requirement of successful marriage. In practically every state, adultery is grounds for divorce and in the Bible belt adultery can be used in court to punish the guilty spouse with required alimony or the total loss of alimony.
Although most people assume that it is men who are most likely to have affairs I have found in my practice that women are today as likely to engage in affairs as men. In thousands of divorces I have mediated I have only seen one divorce in which an affair ruined a perfectly good marriage. In most cases the affair occurred after a long period of marital erosion, in which a partner who is lonely, despairing and starved for affection and sex, seeks relief outside the marriage. But I have also seen an interesting new trend in divorces in which the actions by one spouse are viewed by the other as the equal of infidelity even though no sex has occurred.
There are two principle situations where this appears. In the first, one of the spouses develops an emotionally intimate relationship with some member of the opposite sex. Most typically it involves a colleague at work who has proved an enjoyable companion and empathetic listener. They may work on the same projects and are thrown together on long evenings at work or even business related travel. The married employee is not seeking an affair and fends off his own and her (or his) impulses to go to bed. But when the other spouse finds out the sense of betrayal can be as great as if sex had occurred.
In modern marriage intimacy has perhaps become the primary measure of the good marriage. Married partners, particularly but not exclusively women, expect partners to communicate feelings and to respond to the feelings of the other. In my experience the most common refrain of the initiating woman is that she is fed up with her husband's inability to communicate on an emotional level. It leaves her feeling lonely and isolated and feeling emotionally disconnected from her mate. That feeling is commonly accompanied by her gradual withdrawal from sex with her husband followed by his resentment and reciprocal withdrawal. That is probably the profile in fully half the divorces I see.
So when the spouse who yearns for intimacy that is not forthcoming, it is infuriating to discovers that he is engaging in that level of communication with another woman. As one married woman friend of mine said about her husband's affair, "I didn't mind so much that he slept with her. It was how much time he spent talking to her that drove me crazy."
The second recent trend in virtual infidelity involves the easy availability of pornography on the internet. Although many men viewed pornography when it was only available through other media, internet pornography has attracted millions of men who would otherwise not view these images. Some men view it occasionally while others become practically addicted. Some women regard this pastime as tasteless but essentially harmless. Some claim it makes them uncomfortable because they believe that their husbands compare them to the images on the internet and find them less attractive. And there are some who regard it as a form of illicit sex and regard it as a betrayal equal to any affair. It is no longer unusual for a husband's viewing internet pornography to be cited as the reason a woman is seeking a divorce. I am unaware of any state court rulings that found that these non sexual interactions were adulterous. But they are clearly having an effect on the psychological definition of infidelity.