Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Questions On Marriage, Monogamy, and Multiple Relationship

Can an affair help a marriage?

The other night a few colleagues of mine were kicking the tires on a somewhat controversial, and widely misconstrued, article that I wrote a while back. The ensuing conversation brought us all to the rather stark realization that we had consistently experienced clients who had maintained on-going social, emotional and/or sexual extra-marital affairs, but demonstrated no intention of leaving their primary relationship and, in fact, typically espoused quite the opposite.

For those of you who are seething, or, at the very least, about to dig in and take a position, let's first take a breath -- and a look at the numbers. A recent article published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy suggested that 45-55% of women and 50-60% of men engage in extramarital sex at some time during the course of their marriage. This survey was not a single study, but a longitudinal overview of existing research on the subject, suggesting that these numbers are not cohort dependent, but, rather, a general trend.

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In her book The Monogamy Myth, Peggy Vaughn states that about 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an affair at some point during their marriage. Further, Janis Abrahms Spring, author of After the Affair, reports that such affairs affect one in every 2.7 couples, with 10 percent lasting one day; 10 percent lasting more than one day, but less than one month; 50 percent lasting more than one month, but less than one year; and 40 percent lasting two or more years - yes, that's 40%!

What these numbers imply is that, if you are reading this article, the odds are about 2-to-1 that you, your partner, or perhaps even both of you (which'd be 4-to-1), have in some way stepped outside of your marriage or partnership at least once in the time that you have been together.

Yet, despite those numbers, the Associated Press reports that 90% of Americans believe that adultery is wrong, and 35% believe it should be considered a crime. Comparatively speaking, while we may be talking the talk, it seems that we are not doing a very good job of walking the walk; prompting my colleagues and me to ask the larger, and cleverly worded, question, "What's that about?"

The stats show that only 17% of marriages end because someone is having an affair. There's really no way to differentiate how many of those are exit affairs, and how many are just someone getting caught out. Where, then, are those other 16.5% of affairs? And if they aren't exit affairs, or one-offs, or sex addiction, then what? Maybe -- we considered after much debate -- just maybe, they're a fix.

Regular readers here know that I posit seven elements that are essential to establishing and maintaining a balanced relationship - the social, the emotional, the intellectual, the spiritual, the physical, the sexual and the material. I have also suggested that, if one or more of these elements are out of balance for either one of the partners individually or for the relationship as a whole, then something needs to be addressed and, hopefully, corrected, bringing the relationship back into some acceptable semblance of balance.

What if, however, that imbalance is, for whatever reason, unable to be addressed within the context of the relationship? What if one partner stepping outside the traditional bounds of the relationship enables that imbalance to be addressed, and s/he undertakes to do that, but does so with no intention of disrupting or destroying the primary relationship? Not an ideal solution, but, anecdotally, it looks like a whole bunch of folks are making just that choice and the numbers support some version of that assessment.

OK, OK - revealed affairs are potentially destructive, but what about the one's that aren't revealed, or the ones that are tacitly agreed to, or the one's that are openly agreed to without going down the path of swinging, polygamy, polyamory or open marriage, or the ones that are revealed, but lead to some substantive evolution in the primary relationship, rather than its demise? Could the explanation for the existence of these various potential scenarios be that the affair is providing some benefit and support to the primary relationship?

The Puritanical imperative upon which our culture rests construes for most the stepping outside the traditional bounds of marriage as an unforgivable lapse. From that cultural perspective, this makes perfect sense. In contrast, mainstream European culture operates, in some measure, with a pre-emptive assumption that, within the confines of a marriage, there is very likely going to be a mistress, or a mister, or both.

If we were to loose the bonds of our own Puritanical premise for a moment, and take an honest look at what it is that we are actually seeing in terms of human behavior within this culture we find, quite frankly, that, in practice, the authenticity of that premise falls pretty flat. After all, while 90% of us consider it wrong, apparently 50% of us cheat.

This whole construct then inevitably led us, after a great deal of wrangling over ethics, morality and spiritual implications, to some more questions. We didn't come up with any answers because the answers to these questions could fill a book and would probably just create more questions - and after all, it's a think-tank, not an answer-tank.

Then someone had the bright idea that we throw some of these questions out into a public forum. Given that several thousand people read my articles here and I, in effect, started the whole thing, I got elected and here we are. So here are some of those questions for your consideration.

  1. Could it be that the reason that the U.S. has the 4th highest divorce rate (N=1000) in the world, and virtually every major European country has a rate that is half that or less be attributed to a more relaxed attitude toward monogamy as a social stricture and the at least tacit acceptance of on-going multiple relationships?
  2. How many marriages in the U.S. where one partner is maintaining an on-going extra-marital relationship do not end in divorce, but would end in divorce if that extra-marital relationship were not present?
  3. Could the answer to the second question support the premise proposed by the first question?
  4. Is there such a thing as a healthy and contributory emotional affair?
  5. Does the "work spouse" phenomenon simply mask a social or emotional affair?
  6. Could having an affair of any sort actually be beneficial to a marriage, and could the explanation as to why 40% of affairs last more than 2 years be that they serve some function beyond narcissistic indulgence?

Granted, the questions generate more questions than answers, but it's all pretty substantive food for thought.

© 2010 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.


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