couples in conflict

Marital infidelity is difficult to research. Few people are willing to admit it. One widely noted survey made headlines with the finding that only a tiny percentage of spouses said they’d ever been unfaithful. But the researchers interviewed respondents in the presence of their spouses. Duh!

Even without spouses present, results depend on how researchers ask their questions. University of Colorado researchers surveyed 4,800 married women using both face-to-face interviews and an anonymous questionnaire. In the interviews, only 1 percent said they’d been unfaithful during the previous year. But the anonymous questionnaire showed 6 percent.

Meanwhile, controversy clouds the definition of “infidelity.” Most say it’s sex with anyone who isn’t your spouse. But what about spouses who are separated but not divorced? What about open marriages? And don’t-ask-don’t-tell marriages? Is infidelity any sex outside of marriage? Or just secret sex? What about people in heterosexual marriages who have homosexual flings? Finally, does cheating require intercourse? What if you have only share passionate kissing? Or handjobs? Or oral sex?

General Social Survey

Arguably the best research on this subject is the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted annually since 1972 by University of Chicago researchers. Every year they ask a representative national sample of married and cohabiting Americans about infidelity. The results have been remarkably consistent. Every year, 10 percent of spouses admit cheating, 12 percent of men, 7 percent of women.

But in our culture, men with multiple partners are often envied as studs, while similar women are dismissed as sluts. As a result, we would expect men to more freely admit infidelity. In many non-Western cultures that do not embrace the stud/slut stereotypes, anthropologists have found no gender differences in infidelity rates. Perhaps the same is true for us, but cultural assumptions color admissions.

Latest Changes

Recently, the GSS has shown one notable change, more cheating by spouses over 60 and under 35. These changes have been modest, so it’s hard to know if they are real. But many social scientists contend they are, and are happy to offer explanations.

Among older adults, the reason most often cited is health issues. Sexual activity tracks health. Today 60 is the new 40, which might explain the rise in cheating among older spouses. However, while many of today’s 60-somethings are healthier than their counterparts a generation ago, today we have substantially more diabetes, a condition that often causes sexual impairment, and substantially more obesity, which may make people feel unattractive, and raises risk of arthritis, heart disease, and cancer, all of which reduce libido and sexual function. In addition, older adults take considerably more medications than they did a generation ago. Many drugs cause sex problems, notably, antidepressants and blood pressure medications. So, does better health in those over 60 explain the increases in infidelity? Perhaps, but maybe not.

Another oft-cited reason for horny elders is erection medication, which some say has encouraged older men to cheat. But two recent studies show that only 10 percent of men over 50 have even tried these drugs, let alone become regular users. With erection medications used by so few older men, how much of a difference could they make?

Maybe rising infidelity among those under 35 has to do with increasing numbers of working women, particularly women traveling on business, which provides opportunities to dally discreetly. But homemakers of yore had plenty of opportunities for extra-marital sex: the postman, milkman, repairmen, and delivery men of all stripes. Meanwhile, cheating is up only in women over 60 and under 35. If travel explains the increase, why hasn’t it risen in women 35 to 59? Most of them work outside the home, and many travel on business.

The fact is, no one knows the true prevalence of marital infidelity and every explanation for supposedly rising rates is open to serious question. All we know for certain is that infidelity occurs so frequently that when we hear about its icy finger touching couples we know, we’re only occasionally surprised.

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