- New research explores the motivations for—and consequences of—sexual affairs.
- Poor relationship quality is often not a cause for affairs. Sexual dissatisfaction is the primary motivation.
- Most of those who have affairs are satisfied with their experience and do not feel regret.
Infidelity in monogamous relationships poses a seeming paradox. On one hand, it is universally considered a moral transgression, a source of concern for partners, an oft-cited cause of divorce, and a predictor of intimate partner violence. On the other hand, affairs are common, with estimates showing that 20 to 25 percent of married people and 33 to 50 percent of young adults in dating relationships have them. Relationship exclusivity, in other words, appears to be highly desired yet not easily maintained.
What causes such "failure"? Early research on that question has tended to take a deficit model, assuming that infidelity is brought about by relationship problems. Moreover, it is commonly assumed that those who commit infidelity will often be dogged by a guilty conscience and emotional upheaval because of their transgression.
Relationships, and people, however, are complex. And people’s behavior in relationships often contradicts both received wisdom and common sense.
A new study (2023) by social psychologist Dylan Selterman of Johns Hopkins University and colleagues has explored some of this complexity. The researchers surveyed registered users of the website Ashley Madison, which facilitates extra-dyadic affairs. Two groups of participants (T1 and T2) completed surveys three months apart. A smaller third sample was matched across the two occasions, allowing for some longitudinal analyses.
T1 group included 810 respondents, (684 men, mean age 51.48, mostly straight and engaged, married, or in a domestic partnership). T2 group contained 868 participants, (780 men, mean age 52.77, mostly straight and engaged/married/domestic partnership). The third matched sample included 234 participants, (204 men, mean age 53.66, mostly straight and engaged/married/domestic partnership).
Participants were asked about a broad range of infidelity and relationship-related topics, including their history of affairs, the degree to which they felt enthusiastic about finding affair partners, their monogamy status, relationship quality (conflict, sexual, and intimacy), well-being, and life satisfaction. Motivation for seeking an affair was assessed, as well as satisfaction with the affair both sexually and emotionally, and whether they had any regrets about the affair.
Results showed that most participants had had affairs before. Many of them reported that the exclusivity demands in their relationships were ambiguous. While most participants had not yet had another affair by the time the study concluded, a sizable minority did, and most of those reported that their partners were not escorts or sex workers.
Participants generally reported high levels of love for their regular partners, yet low levels of sexual satisfaction. Approximately half of the participants across the samples said that they were not currently sexually active with their partners. Sexual needs, rather than relationship needs, appear to drive the desire for affairs in this sample. The authors note: "Sexual dissatisfaction was the strongest motivator for those in our sample to pursue affairs.” Low commitment, wanting autonomy, and a desire for a variety of sexual partners were other highly rated reasons.
On the other hand, relationship problems (e.g., lack of love, anger toward the spouse, feeling neglected) were among the least endorsed reasons for wanting an affair. Most participants reported that their partners did not know about the affair. They also reported being highly satisfied both sexually and emotionally and having no regrets about their affair.
Further analyses showed that, unlike in previous research, relationship quality was not a significant predictor of enthusiasm for finding an affair partner. In addition, relationship quality did not decrease at T2 relative to T1 as a function of having an affair, nor did having an affair increase the likelihood of relationship dissolution/divorce. Those reporting affairs did not score differently from those who did not report affairs in terms of life satisfaction or self-esteem.
The authors conclude that their findings “highlight the nuanced psychological nature of extradyadic behavior... The descriptive results suggest that people’s experiences with affairs are counterintuitive and, at times, self-contradictory. On one hand, participants reported strong feelings of love toward their primary partners/spouses that would ostensibly impede them from cheating. On the other hand, they also derived considerable physical and emotional pleasure from their affairs and expressed little regret."
The findings from this study do not fully align with certain received wisdom about infidelity. For example, those who chose to have affairs did not report sub-optimal relationships and did not behave in significantly different ways compared to those who remained sexually exclusive. The study also did not find a commonsense link between relationship quality and having affairs. Relationship quality also did not predict feelings of regret post-affair.
The authors note, “dyadic variables were not associated with infidelity. Relationship quality (satisfaction, intimacy, conflict) did not predict having affairs, nor did it predict affair regret, nor did it decrease as a function of whether participants had affairs. This challenges findings from some prior work which has shown relationship investment as a key predictor of infidelity in young adults.”
The authors point out that these results offer clues about the paradox of cheating. Extradyadic behavior appears to be normative in large part because the relationships of cheaters resemble those of non-cheaters. “Although this may be surprising to those who have long assumed key benefits to monogamous relationships, including higher satisfaction… Monogamy comes with trade-offs, and relational or emotional outcomes are not universally positive.”
The study contains several limitations. For one, it is based on self-report, which is often prone to inaccuracies, particularly where issues of sexuality are concerned. Moreover, the sample is skewed toward middle-aged, heterosexual males, which may not represent general population tendencies. Many participants reported ambiguity about the exclusivity status of their relationship, which may further muddy the results. Finally, those who choose to use a website like Ashley Madison may be different in some systematic way from those who do not, further undermining the generalizability of the results.
Still, the results suggest that infidelity is psychologically nuanced and, like the human beings who engage in it, paradoxical. The data suggest that we may want to question some common assumptions about links between infidelity and relationship quality, and about moral consistency in intimate relations.
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