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Is Everything We Think We Know About Adultery Wrong?

People have affairs for many reasons, not all of them unhealthy.

Key points

  • Not all marriages in which a spouse has an affair is a bad marriage.
  • Sometimes, a person may choose to have sex outside the marriage as an alternative to seeking divorce from a sexually incompatible partner.
  • In some cases, a marriage can be strengthened by an affair, because personal problems and marital issues that led to it can be worked through.

The term “adultery” (sexual intercourse between a married person and anyone other than his or her lawful spouse) is considered pejorative because virtually all religions condemn it. In some cultures it is punishable by death, and even in liberal-thinking areas legal punishment may be imposed.

Most European countries, however, have decriminalized adultery. It is no longer considered a crime in most of the European Union and in some regions it's quite common. On the other hand, people in Britain and the United States still generally expect total sexual fidelity from their spouses. Sex outside of marriage in these cultures is viewed by most people as sordid if not sinful.

But in American and British culture, many people suffer from marital myths.

For instance, many want to believe that in a good marriage, the thrills and chills of a romantic courtship will only intensify over time. They think that a good marriage will fulfill all their dreams. In fact, the ecstasy of courtship and the honeymoon stage fades in the face of day-to-day proximity. Those who regard marriage as a romantic interlude soon end up with a not-so-romantic divorce.

Marriage is a practical and serious relationship that can provide mature and profound love, companionship, and caring. But wouldn’t even a most discreet affair weaken, if not destroy this bond?

Obviously, our values and expectations play a major role in answering this question. Those who insist that their spouse remain sexually faithful even in an essentially sexless marriage will call it “cheating” if they discover that their partner is having, or has had, a discreet affair, often resulting in extreme conflict and severe emotional distress. Many assert that a couple should strive for transparency and total honesty, but it seems that this does not work well for many couples.

There is something to be said for couples who manage to live happily in each other’s pockets, who develop a deep sense of intimacy, with no secrets, and for whom affairs are agreed to be absolutely forbidden. But while some people may be psychologically and physiologically attuned to this type of monogamous relationship, it is likely that they are in the minority. Hence, it is not surprising that the divorce rates in America and Britain are extremely high. Indeed, it has been estimated that over the course of their marriages, 50% of American couples have extramarital relationships—a figure that closely matches the divorce rate.

Affairs happen for a variety of reasons

Many falsely believe that no happily married man would ever have sex outside of his marriage—and that no wife would jeopardize a happy marriage by becoming sexually involved with another man. To these thinkers, the affair is proof that there is something lacking in the marriage. In truth, people get involved in extramarital relationships for a variety of reasons, only some of which are due to marital problems or personal distress.

While it is true that some sexually frustrated husbands or wives may seek from others what they cannot obtain from their spouses, a disparity in sexual appetite is only one reason why people commit adultery. Others could include the manic phase of bipolar depression (during which people often engage in extramarital sex largely as a feature of their illness), and hypersexuality as a component of some compulsive and/or impulse control disorders. Even in a sexually satisfying and fulfilling marriage, significant personal insecurity about one’s attractiveness or prowess can impel some people to have sex outside of their home.

And then there are the many women and men whose extramarital involvements are purely an expression of curiosity, personal growth, or the manifestation of a varietal disposition. What’s more, in some instances, a person may rationally choose to seek sexual outlets outside the marriage as an alternative to seeking divorce from a sexually incompatible partner—which is usually messy, costly, and traumatic, especially when young children are part of the picture.

In other words, there are both healthy and unhealthy reasons for having extramarital relations.

An affair can make a marriage stronger

Ironically, in some cases, a marriage can be strengthened by an affair. Just like some people who have a nonfatal heart attack can actually be in better cardiac health several years after than they were before it—through losing weight, quitting cigarettes, eating better, and exercising—some marriages that “survive” an affair can be in better shape following it than before. In these instances, the personal problems and marital issues that led to the affair can be sorted out and worked through, often in therapy, resulting in better marital health and sexual satisfaction in the post-affair era.

The bottom line is:

  • Not all marriages in which a spouse has an affair is a bad marriage and not all people who remain sexually faithful are in happy marriages.
  • There are many reasons why people have sex outside of marriage—and not all of them are unhealthy.
  • In cases in which marital problems lead to an affair, or to significant personal problems that are corrected, the marriage can actually be stronger after the affair than it was before.

For more information about this phenomenon, the interested reader might want to peruse “After the Affair” by Janis A. Spring.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus

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