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Can Infidelity Support Marriage and Increase Happiness?

5 factors from research looking at infidelity-specific dating website users.

Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception. — Sophocles

America continues to hold traditional views on marriage, with long-term monogamy as the default expectation for adult romantic relationships in spite of recent challenges to this model. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, fewer adults over the age of 18 are married nowadays, down 8 percent from decades prior largely because people are remaining single longer.

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM), AKA “open relationships”, are relatively popular, with over 20 percent of respondents in a recent Kinsey Institute study reporting engaging in CNM at some point in their lifetime. Importantly, CNM is not the same as infidelity. Whereas people in open relationships consent to allow pursuit of activities outside of their primary relationships, those who engage in infidelity are doing so without their partners consent, typically under conditions of secrecy. Although not all individuals with an explicit agreement for CNM ever exercise the option, it supports a situation where partners can get their needs met more roundly by involving others in the equation. The kicker is that it has to be above-board. Couples with a CNM agreement can still engage in infidelity, if they violate the terms of the agreement, most commonly by hiding secondary relationships.

While it is one ideal (a therapeutic ideal) to address relationship problems, to protect loved ones from harm if betrayal is discovered, and model authentic loving relationships for one's children, things don't always go as planned or desired. We may unexpectedly and disappointingly find ourselves wanting to stay married yet unhappy with the relationship, unable to address the underlying marital issues if they even can be remedied, considering turning elsewhere for a variety of wants and needs. Moreover, some couples live with unspoken ongoing infidelity, in which one partner may assume the other partner "knows" what they are doing, and is OK with it as long as it does not disrupt their lives together. While this tacit agreement may be true for some couples, in other cases it is a false assumption, and a slippery slope leading to rupture.

The research reviewed below surveys attitudes and motivations from people who have already made the choice to look outside their primary relationship, and is not meant to be taken as a suggestion to do so. Rather, it helps us understand infidelity on a deeper level, food for thought for those in unsatisfying relationships who are considering how to achieve greater life satisfaction.

First comes love

The concept of marriage is changing before our eyes. This is found especially among younger people, who increasingly agree with same-sex marriage and more often form mixed ethnicity, cross-cultural and mixed religion partnerships. Interestingly, marriage is less likely to cross political boundaries, with 77 percent of married people reporting that their spouse belongs to the same political party that they do.

Why do people marry? The Pew report tells us that people marry first and foremost for love, with 88 percent of respondents citing love as the main reason they married. Love is followed by commitment (81 percent) and companionship (76 percent). At the same time, the report notes that in 2016 nearly 18 million Americans reported living together without being married, up 29 percent since 2007.

While divorce rates have been approaching 50 percent in the US, recent research from sociologist Philip Cohen of University of Maryland found that divorce rates have fallen by 18 percent, largely due to people under the age of 45. Younger generations, as noted, are waiting longer to marry, possibly making better decisions about who they chose to spend their lives with, taking more time to search for a suitable mate.

Exploring relationships with more people and waiting until one has more life experience and knows oneself better, with more mature tools to deal with the challenges of relationship, makes a lot of sense especially for people who expect to live longer, and we now have access to assisted reproductive technology to extend child-bearing years.

Others may marry without such considerations, finding themselves dissatisfied because of incompatibility, unmet needs, or both. What if infidelity is a hidden factor helping to stabilize marriages which would otherwise end in divorce? Romantic ideals notwithstanding, what if it simply isn’t realistic to either expect one person to meet all of our needs? What if it just isn’t working to live with a sense of chronic deprivation, and denial of various sexual and emotional needs no longer keeps such disruptive realizations from consciousness?

Cognitive dissonance

When it comes to infidelity, as in so many key areas, America is inherently contradictory. On one hand, we remain very traditional, at least on the surface. A 2013 survey reports that 84 percent of Americans disapprove of infidelity, compared with European countries where infidelity disapproval rates average in the 60th percentile, with France holding the lowest disapproval rates at 47 percent.

While infidelity disapproval rates are sky-high in the US, according to literature reviewed by Alicia M. Walker of the University of Missouri’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, rates of infidelity are surprisingly high, most recently reported to be higher than 50 to 60 percent.

These numbers may be lower than the actual rates, as people are prone to under-report activities they feel ashamed of and need to hide because of possible repercussions of exposure and the like. Some researchers have suggested infidelity rates may be as high as 85 percent, amusingly and suggestively about the same percent as the higher disapproval estimates.

Infidelity is the leading reason marriages end, and one of the most difficult issues couples can face together. When one person breaks the exclusive contract of marriage, it is unspeakably painful. Not only that, but the stigma and fear of judgment can leave their partners trapped in shameful silence, unable to reach out for help or support, stuck with feelings of anger, helplessness and confusion about what to do — though for some what to do is clear, especially when there are serious prior issues in the relationship.

Infidelity serves important functions

Why do people engage in infidelity when the costs are so high? Are there ways in which infidelity leads to greater happiness and life satisfaction, making it worth the risk? Could infidelity act as a buffer for people who want to remain married, yet are not getting their needs fully met by one person? As people argue for pornography, could infidelity stabilize marriages by compensating for what is missing sexually?

In order to look at these and related questions, Dr. Walker, in her paper Having Your Cake and Eating It, Too: Factors Impacting Perception of Life Satisfaction During Outside Partnerships, looks at the relationships among life satisfaction and key variables. By working with dating site Ashley Madison, which caters to people seeking clandestine extra-marital relationships, Dr. Walker was able to send an anonymous digital survey to a sample of 1270 members.

This is a group of people self-selected to want to remain married while also exploring relationships with others in the absence of agreeing to an open relationship, in other words, people who were using infidelity while preserving marriage — a perfect group to study in order to understand when and why people consider infidelity the preferred option.

A 40-item instrument was developed to evaluate life satisfaction in relation to infidelity and relevant factors. Using self-report scales, the survey estimated life satisfaction before, during and after outside relationships. Life satisfaction, an estimate of happiness, was measured using an approach similar to the Gallup World Poll.

Participants were also asked how much they needed an outside partner to keep their marriage together, how often they thought about ending their marriage, how much they loved their primary partner, how much they loved their outside partner, how often they had sex with the outside partner, and what had motivated them to decide to seek outside the marriage. Reasons for looking elsewhere ranged from emotional — including unmet intimacy needs, the need for more emotional support and companionship, and revenge-seeking — sexual reasons, including lack of sexual variety, being unable to have sex due to long-distance relationship (e.g. working in different cities), low passion, and simply not having enough sex.

The distinction between emotional reasons and purely sexual reasons is important, because presumably it is easier, requiring less time and resources, to meet for sex a couple of times a week than it is to build and maintain an emotionally meaningful relationship while remaining married. Basic information was collected on age, education, gender, ethnicity and marital status. The majority of respondents were White, two-thirds were men, and nearly 90 percent were married.

What determines life satisfaction when infidelity is part of marriage?

The data analysis found that higher life satisfaction scores correlated with 1) being committed to the marriage, 2) being in love with their lovers, 3) having a sexually insufficient marriage, 4) believing they needed an outside partner to remain married, and 5) being a woman.

Life satisfaction scores were significantly higher during the outside relationship, 7.68 (out of 10) compared with satisfaction scores of 5.47 before, and 5.67 after the extramarital relationship ended. Although the score dropped afterward, it was still significantly higher than pre-affair levels, a lasting positive after-effect.

Notably, reporting loving their primary partner did not significantly impact life satisfaction. However, wanting to leave the marriage was associated with reduced life satisfaction. People in this group, seeking outside relationships while also considering divorce, may not be able to use infidelity as a compromise, and the study author suggests that people in this group may be more likely to look for The One, a soul-mate who can meet all their needs.

On the flip side, for folks with sexual reasons, but emotionally good, life satisfaction was substantially higher. In this survey group, looking to bridge the sexual gaps in one’s marriage worked better for increasing life satisfaction than trying to meet emotional needs with an outside partner.

How about sexual frequency? Those who had sex with the outside partner two or more times per week reported greater life satisfaction. Perhaps meeting for sex less than twice a week doesn’t pay off, taking that big risk for not enough pleasure and satisfaction. The rupture wasn't worth the rapture.

The ease factor (noted earlier) comes into play here — it takes a lot more work to build a deep emotional connection than it does to hook-up a couple of times a week. It’s also generally more trouble to keep secret more serious involvement, because the emotional impact makes it harder to ignore long-standing, possibly irreconcilable differences — bringing years of suppressed thoughts, needs and desires to the surface and destabilizing the unhappy status quo.

Wandering eyes

Why was having an outside relationship associated with greater satisfaction for women especially? Dr. Walker suggests this may be due to “monogamy malaise”, in which women get bored and seek novelty outside the marriage, from a 2002 study which reported that while sexual activity and satisfaction decline over time for men and women, only in women does sexual desire decrease over time, and the need for tenderness in relationships increase. As life satisfaction stays higher after an outside relationship, it suggests that an effective approach for some would be to cultivate a string of affairs — in an attempt to keep life satisfaction up — while also enjoying the benefits of staying married.

Potential costs include the damage keeping secrets can wreak (which leads to negative emotions and decreased well-being), bearing the burden of fears of being discovered, fears of losing the relationship, and any other catastrophic consequences should things go sideways, including the damage that scandal can do to professional identity and personal relationships.

Furthermore, this pattern of reliance on infidelity to compensate could lead into self-medication with internet dating and sexual encounters, potentially snowballing into an addictive-compulsive pattern. People need to be careful about how they use infidelity, if they choose to do so, but as we know once the genie is out of the bottle, it can be hard to get it back in. Regulating primal desires isn’t always so easy, especially after years of experiencing deprivation and resentment, in the face of the dizzying array of sexual and emotional choices presented by online dating.

The secret to happiness — or a road to ruin?

For people looking for outside relationships to make up for what’s missing in their marriages, infidelity may be an effective strategy — when it works — for increasing life satisfaction. In spite of high divorce rates, entrenched disapproval of infidelity, and given high rates of hidden infidelity, this research supports the notion that infidelity may be a significant strategy to stabilize marriages. We can consider an evolutionary argument for infidelity, to protect marriage, family and conventional community by maintaining the appearance of monogamy, and therefore the formal structure. Social life is at least part maintaining appearances, which become socially-constructed reality. Covert relationships grease the wheels of deceit while also providing real emotional and sexual currency.

Staying together fulfills societal expectations and avoids the stigma of divorce while also protecting against potential feelings of failure if the marriage ends, can be beneficial for physical and emotional well-being, may be pragmatic for financial and convenience-related reasons, and may be seen as preserving the family structure on behalf of children.

Brodie Vissers, StockSnapIO, Creative Commons CCO
Source: Brodie Vissers, StockSnapIO, Creative Commons CCO

While these reasons are of debatable and variable benefit, (e.g. the negative effects of an unhappy marriage on partners and their children may offset the positives of forcing the marriage along), for many married individuals, infidelity is thought to provide the best of both worlds at an acceptable price, at least in the short-run.

Given how much disapproval there is about infidelity, arguing that it could be useful in some situations is uncomfortable. The problem is that it is a breach of trust, and breach of contract, potentially harmful to a partner exposed to sexually-transmitted diseases as well as the emotional and psychological harm which can come from betrayal, and the distress to children and other loved ones from a messy, hostile divorce.

While infidelity is a gamble, and arguably short-sighted, more and more choose it as a safe bet. And of course infidelity and sexual/romantic competition have a long-storied, rich role in human literature and culture, at times shaping the very course of human history. If people aren’t happy with our partners sexually or emotionally, but want to stay married, we can try to meet some needs elsewhere. If it works, so the reasoning goes, great. If not, they were thinking about divorce anyway, though many people don’t want to hurt their partners either, a cheating deterrent.

If the reasons are sexual, there may be more on the line because the marriage is more likely to be emotionally intact, but if there are emotional issues which drive the urge toward outside relationships, infidelity does not work as well for increasing life satisfaction.

Follow-up research on how life satisfaction relates to these and other factors across multiple extramarital relationships will be important to better understand whether the “have-your-cake-and-it-too-strategy” of infidelity really is a winning long-term strategy. There are more questions, of course, than answers. And folks aren't waiting around the read the research, either, before looking for companionship outside the marriage.

Questions and conclusions

When is infidelity a sustainable long-term solution, and when is it a patch, a temporary fix? When does infidelity portend future divorce, either as a sign of deeper issues or as a way to trigger injury and separation, delaying the inevitable? Can relationships truly recover from infidelity, and how does having purely sexual motives versus emotional involvement affect whether the marriage survives?

How else does gender play a role, and what are the implications for same-sex marriages? More broadly, what does it mean to be married nowadays, and does this vary more from person-to-person, with less of a cultural overlay and more individual variation defining the institution of marriage as consensual non-monogamy becomes an acceptable choice? As with religion, which has shifted from prescribed belief to individual spirituality, how people see pair bonding is in the midst of transformation. It isn’t clear whether traditional marriage will even remain the dominant paradigm, or whether it ought to...

Time will tell. But in the meantime, this research develops a really central, irreducibly complicated idea. In some cases, infidelity may be a viable compromise for maintaining marital stability by secretly meeting needs outside the marriage. If these needs were put back on the marriage, while they could lead to improvement in sexual and relationship satisfaction, it could also lead to unmanageable conflict and ultimately divorce or chronic unhappiness.

Whether it is realistic to expect one person to provide all our needs, or if we have to have many people in our lives to fulfill different aspects of our desires and necessities is a key consideration, and may vary from person-to-person, couple-to-couple, culture-to-culture. Knowing the reasons people report they go outside the marriage can help readers thoughtfully examine their own relationships, what provides life satisfaction, and how we get our needs met, or not met.

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
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