Myth: Most Married People Are Unfaithful

The myth is that most men are unfaithful – most married men are unfaithful. And the reason that I know that Americans believe this is in fact we at the Kinsey Institute did a national study. We asked a representative sample of Americans what they thought about a lot of issues – well, in fact, we were asking them about their sexual knowledge. And one of the questions we were asking them was whether they thought American men and women were faithful in their marriages. And we asked them about this question, and we found that the average American believed that 50 to 80 percent of men had been sexually unfaithful in their marriages. That comes to 1 out of 2 or 4 out of 5, up to 4 out of 5 men had been unfaithful to their wives. Now of this national sample of Americans, just to give you an idea, 83% said that at least 3 out of 10 men had been unfaithful, 55% said that at least 1 out of 2 – that’s half of the men who are married – had been unfaithful. 20% said that 7 out of 10 had been unfaithful, and 50% more women than men believed that it was at least 7 out of 10. So basically, America thinks that married men are likely to be unfaithful to their wives, or to have more than one partner, to have extramarital sex. Let’s look at the data and see what we know about this. And again, one of our big problems is that our government does not want to spend money on finding out what Americans are really doing sexually, and it’s a big problem for good sex education, it’s a big problem for making plans about health and sexual health in America, it’s a big problem all around, not really knowing what the facts are. And we have to collect lots of studies, lots of small studies, to come up with any really good understanding of what’s going on. So I’m going to tell you now what the data tell us about this. Of 2000 randomly chosen Americans surveyed on a wide variety of issues in 1991, one-third of both married men and married women reported at least one affair during their married life. In another national sample of 2058 American adults, conducted in 1993, one percent of married respondents reported that they had had sex with more than one partner in the last year. Remember, when you ask “ever” you’re asking over their whole adult life, and when you’re asking about what happened the last year you’re hearing what happened in the last year. And also you have to remember that each one of these studies, many of them were done in different ways, and the circumstances of how you ask these questions make a big difference. Obviously, if you’re asking it over the phone you don’t know if there’s anything else in the room with the person, you may not be getting as accurate or as truthful an answer as if you’re doing it in a place where the person is very comfortable. And then it depends on who’s asking the questions and under what circumstances and so forth. And you always must guess that you’re getting an underestimate of what’s going on rather than an overestimate of what’s going on, because this is a taboo behavior and behavior that most Americans believe that it’s not the best kind of behavior to be doing, as we’ll find out later. Other recent surveys have reported that approximately 5 percent of currently married men and women admit to extramarital sex during the last 12 months. So one study said 1 percent and one other study says about 5 percent.

Two studies that were done in 1994 evaluated the prevalence of extramarital sex in Americans. And although many people believe that older people are less likely to have an extramarital experience than younger people, this study revealed that when you ask about lifetime sex, and that’s probably not surprising, older people are much more likely to report having had that experience at least one time outside of marriage, because those between 55 and 65 said that they were more likely to have had that experience than those who were younger. 23 percent of those between 55 and 65 reported that they had experienced at least one extramarital sexual experience, and the overall prevalence of adults between 18 and 65 was 19% in men and 15% in women. So obviously it makes sense that the longer you’ve lived, the longer you’ve been married, the more likely it is that you might have had one of these experiences. A second survey of lifetime prevalence of extramarital sex also showed that it increased with age, as we would expect, so that in the 50-59 year age group 28.7% reported at least one extramarital sexual experience, while in the 60-69 age group, 34% said that they had had an extramarital affair. For women, the highest prevalence was between the ages of 40 and 49. So it seems that after that women are less likely to add one to their sexual experience. And the older generation are probably less likely to have had that experience, but now as the baby boomers are growing up, we may see a change in that. A study that was published in 1997 found that 23% of men and 12% of women said that they had had an extramarital experience. Of those participants over 40 years of age, approximately 30% of men and between 10 and 20% of women had had at least one extramarital sexual partner, and when evaluating just those who had ever been divorced, and they’re a special group, right? Because they obviously had had an unhappy marital experience, the prevalence increased. And it increased to 38% of men and 20% of women. And we would I think expect that, that’s something we would probably predict.

Now just recently, in fact in the last month or so, in 2005, AARP published a survey for their magazine, Modern Maturity, and it addressed sexual attitudes and behaviors as well as quality of life. And they surveyed a representative sample of Americans – there were 1682 of them 45 years and older, because that’s their population. And that was done in 2004, published in 2005. And 95% of them, first of all, said that they were against any form of extramarital sex. And that’s the way most Americans feel, that is, without partner consent, because that’s the question that was asked, how do you feel about extramarital sex without your partner’s consent. But nevertheless, 8% of the currently married men and 4% of the currently married women reported that they had had an extramarital affair. Now we also did a study because we were very interested to know how college students who weren’t married would feel about extra-relational sex. So we wanted to ask them about how they would feel about sex outside a relationship when they had promised to be faithful to that relationship. So we did a random stratified representative sample of undergraduates at a large Midwestern university – we had 600 respondents, and their average age was 20 – a little bit over 20, closer maybe to 21. And their age range was 18 to 48 years old. Most were white, most were born in the Midwest, about 50% of them grew up in cities of less than 100,000 inhabitants, so they weren’t big city people. 96% of them were unmarried, they were heterosexual, more than ¾ of them identified themselves as politically moderate to conservative. The majority of them were Republicans when they were registered to vote, and their average age at first intercourse was 17 years old. Now, the following findings were based on the 447 of them that were sexually active, so we’re looking at the ones who were active, had already had intercourse. One of the questions that we asked them was exactly this – have you ever had sex with somebody other than your relationship partner when it was expected or clearly understood that your primary relationship was to be sexually exclusive. And 31% of the males and 24% of the females said that they had participated in extra-relational sex. So overall this percentage is kind of similar to that estimated for overall adult population in general having extramarital sex. Now keep in mind that with these young people, their first intercourse was just less than 4 years before, so they didn’t have, for instance, a long marriage relationship or a long sexual relationship time for them to have strayed. Of course, they’re also young and they’re experimenting, but it’s an interesting thing to ask about, and I think other researchers have found, since we did this study, some similar findings.

In a 1995 study of 197 college students who were asked to compare marital infidelity to dating infidelity, as you might expect, they rated marital infidelity as a more serious infraction of moral rules than dating infidelity. And I think we would all agree that that’s true – you don’t make the same kind of commitments in a dating situation that you do in a marriage situation. And also not surprisingly, I think none of us would be surprised, men were more lenient in their ratings of being faithful, of unfaithful, than were women. But of more interest, I think, and I think this is very, very interesting and something that we should all think about, the students with the higher self-esteem, because they asked and they did ratings and they did testing of people’s self-esteem, and that students with higher self-esteem were less likely to engage in dating infidelity than those students with lower self-esteem. So it appears that if you have good feelings about yourself, if you feel positive about yourself and your self-worth, you’re less likely to cheat on your partner, to break promises that you’ve made to your partner. And I think it’s a very interesting thought, and a very interesting idea that we should all take a moment to consider.

OK – let’s talk about some more attitudes. A study was conducted asking 21 men and 24 women ranging in age from 23 to 36, and they were married, all of them, from 2 to 10 years, and had never been divorced, about their attitudes regarding marital infidelity. 69% said that if they were unfaithful to their partner, and remember they hadn’t been, they would be honest. And then they were asked why they would be honest. And this was their answer as to why they felt that if they were unfaithful, they would be honest. They said that honesty between partners was important – that was one reason. They also said that they could not remain married and keep such a secret from their partner, so the idea of keeping a secret that was that big would be difficult or impossible for them. Another reason was that they believed that extramarital sex was a signal of a problem in the marriage that needed to be attended to. It showed that there was something wrong with their relationship, and that therefore they would need to reveal the problem so that they could attend to it in terms of a more serious overall problem in the relationship – it was a symptom of something in the relationship. 31% of these couples said they would not disclose that they had had an affair. Pressed to disclose their reasons for not disclosing, they were these. First of all, they expressed a desire not to hurt their spouse. That was reason number one. Number two was the fear that the revelation would end the marriage – that was reason number two. Number three was the fear of retaliation by their partner – that their partner would then go out and have an affair too. They didn’t want them to do that. And number four was that they felt there was no reason to disclose the fact that they had had extramarital sex if it did not affect the marriage, that is, if their behavior had not affected the marriage, that they believed it hadn’t affected their marriage. That’s a question as to whether it does or not. And some of us believe that it always affects the marriage in some way – not that it is permanent or that it might affect it forever, but that there is always the effect of taking your energy outside your primary relationship. Again, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fixed, but some of us in this business believe that when you take your energy elsewhere there is some loss in your relationship – not permanently necessarily, but that it is there – there is some damage done. Anyway. Then they were asked what would they do if their spouse was unfaithful to them – what would they want done? And this was very interesting – now keep in mind that 69% said they would be honest. 80% of them said they would want their spouse to be honest with them. So that’s an interesting conflict, since 69% said that they would be honest, but 80% wanted their spouse to be honest with them. And their reason for this was that honesty between spouses is important. The next reason was the extramarital sex is a sign that there’s something that needs to be remedied in the marriage. So these are similar to the reasons that those who were going to be honest with their spouse said they would be. The third reason was that they felt that they had a right to know if the commitment had been breached in some way. Another reason was that they would be embarrassed to find out about the breach from somebody else, outside the marriage. Another reason was that they would want to seek divorce – some of them said that this would be it, one breach would be out the door. And a final reason was that they would be concerned about STD risk, and they would want to go and be able to make sure that they had not been hurt in some way health-wise. 20% said that they would not want honesty – that they would not want to know, and their two reasons for that were, one, that information was of no value to them, and would only harm the marriage, and the second was that the knowledge was too painful to live with or to deal with. So interesting set of circumstances. And it is an issue, and not a simple one, as to what one does when that has happened. And I think it’s very different if it’s a long term outside relationship or if it’s a one night or very short term outside entanglement. I think those are two very different situations, and can be dealt with quite differently. And it’s something that really has to be thought about.

Now, a 1994 national sample was done and 79% of both men and women said that they believed that extramarital sex is always or almost always wrong. So again, like other ones I’ve talked about, Americans are very much in agreement – sometimes 95% of them, and in this case the lowest amount, 79%, but that’s still 4 out of 5, that it’s not an appropriate way to conduct a marriage. So I think Americans are very clear, at least in their attitude about it. Some interesting other facts about extramarital affairs that I think you’ll find very interesting – at least I do, I find them interesting. The average extramarital affair usually lasts one year. So we’re not talking about the one-nighters, but we’re talking about affairs. Here’s another interesting set of facts. When we ask men and women about their partners, their extramarital partners – and these are affairs again, not your one-night stands, which is a very, very different situation, men report liking their wives better than their mistresses. But women report liking their lovers better than their husbands. And perhaps that’s one reason why, at least in my clinical experience, open marriages are very tricky, because husbands are not really attached emotionally in the same way to their outside partners, but when women get involved with outside partners it’s often much more of an emotional attachment. So men and women think about these things in different ways. Obviously you can’t make these judgements about each individual person, but in general, there are different responses of men and women to lots of things.

Of those couples who are involved in an extramarital affair, only about 17% of males say that they are going to leave their spouse for that person, or I should say, are going to leave their spouse because of the affair, and only 10% of females say they intend to leave their spouse. So an extramarital affair does not necessarily – in fact, for the majority, it doesn’t mean that the person is getting ready to leave. So that’s kind of a mythic thing – oh, you’re having an affair because you want to leave your marriage – well, it seems from the data that we have, and I know we don’t have a lot of data, but when people are asked that question in a study, only 17% of men said “oh, I want to leave” and only 10% of women said “oh, I’m having this affair because I’m getting ready to leave.” And interestingly, when people were asked in the study, “well, are you going to leave and marry the person you’re involved with now,” only 9% of the men said “yes, I’m planning to leave my marriage and leave it to marry my present lover” and only 6% of the women said “yes, I’m planning to leave and to marry my present lover.” So that’s not a myth, when people say “oh, they never marry the one they’re having their extramarital relationship with” – well, never is not true, but it sure is a small percentage. So, interesting data that in fact supports what people tend to believe is true.

You’ve all heard about the seven year itch. Well, our data from several studies seem to indicate that it’s not a seven year itch, it’s a four to five year itch. So the most potentially dangerous time for an affair of some kind is between four and five years, not seven years. And then often it goes away, and it doesn’t have a long-term effect. Now one study of 6000 couples found that the vast majority felt that sexual exclusivity should be a goal of a marriage. But there was less agreement on what the consequences would be if one or both of the couple didn’t live up to that ideal. Some said there would be no effect if they didn’t live up to it, but most said that even one incident would put an end to trust, to love, to commitment, and even to the relationship. So people have very strong feelings about this. In a study of a large number of American couples that was done about 20 years ago, the researchers found that the relationship was less likely to survive – not unlikely, but less likely to survive – if either partner reported sex outside their primary relationship within the last year. So it puts a strain on the relationship. It’s indicative that something’s not right, just as our couples said that we heard about earlier in this discussion. In addition, they found that husbands and wives who report extramarital sex are more likely to divorce – more likely doesn’t mean they are going to divorce, but statistically more likely to divorce whether that extramarital sex happened at the beginning of the relationship or after many years. So it is indicative that something is not right. Now I think it’s mostly because people are not talking to each other. I really think the biggest problem with American marriages is lack of communication, and I think it’s probably one of the big reasons why people go outside their marriages.

I want to talk a little bit about sociobiology now – and I will mention that in a lot of our myths, or at least in some of them, and I want to remind you what that is, for those of you who don’t know and for those of you who do know the word but have forgotten what it means. It’s a theory and it’s a way of looking at human behavior that says that our whole reason for being here on earth is to get our genes, our chromosomes and genes, into the next generation. Therefore all our behavior, whatever we think we’re doing, being doctors and lawyers or inventing things, our real reason for being here is to make as many offspring as possible so that our genes will go on into the next generation and then that next generation, our kids, will take our genes into our grandkids’ generation – that that’s what it’s all about. And so based on this theory, it was suggested that men would be more concerned about sexual infidelity because they would lose the opportunity to have their genes carried into the next generation by their partners if their wife, if their partner was unfaithful, because she would then go off secretly, get impregnated by some other guy, he wouldn’t know it because how would he know? Remember it’s only in the very last few years that there was any way to prove whose baby a woman was carrying, and still it’s pretty expensive to find out, and you have to tell her that you don’t trust her in order to find out. So it was very important that he trust her and that she be trustworthy because otherwise he would be taking care of a pregnant woman and a child that was not his, and all his resources would be going into taking care of a set of genes that weren’t his. So sexual infidelity would be the thing that would really make him jealous and upset. And on the other hand, a woman would be most concerned about emotional infidelity, because that would mean that she would be threatened by a loss of the mate’s resources to take care of her while she was pregnant and while she had the young infant, when she is most vulnerable. So that was the theory, and sure enough, when they did the original studies on this, the sociobiologists, they gave people forced choice on this one, either/or questions, and it seemed that women were most concerned about emotional infidelity, and men were most concerned about sexual infidelity. But in the last few years, researchers have begun to ask about more real life situations, where participants were either asked to recall real life personal experiences with infidelity of the emotional or sexual type, or they were given scenarios to think about, like stories to think about that the researchers had made up, or they were asked to imagine real life partners’ infidelities of the emotional or sexual type. And when these procedures were used, instead of the forced-choice kind of questions, sex differences disappeared. In most studies, both men and women reported greater jealousy in response to sexual infidelity, except in one study, where the real life situations of participants were invoked – that is, they were asked to remember a time where a real partner was either sexually or emotionally unfaithful – and then the strongest response in both men and women was to emotional infidelity. Very interesting. No sex differences, however, were found in any of these studies – they were upheld in all of the studies, that is, that men and women are the same in these regards, and it was regardless of sexual orientation, they found the same similarities in straight, gay or lesbian individuals. So it’s very interesting that there isn’t a sex difference here, and I’m afraid that our sociobiological hypotheses are not right here. So, people are very jealous of their partners’ fidelity, and I think emotional infidelity means sexual infidelity, because I think that if you go to dinner and hold hands over candlelight and delicious red or white wine, sexual infidelity is not far behind. So anyway, I think that’s what we’ve learned here.

Now – I want to end up talking about why people divorce, because I think that one of the many myths that people believe – or maybe it’s not a myth – is that infidelity is the major cause of divorce. I think that people really believe that, and I think that’s one of the reasons that they are so concerned about infidelity, even though we’ve seen that that might not be true in the data that I’ve just given you. In a random study of 2000 Americans who had been divorced, they were asked to list the causes of their divorce. And they could list more than one, so you’re going to see that there is not just one reason, and clearly, people are not so simple that they get divorced – divorced is a big step, and they don’t just have one reason why they divorce. But here’s what they said, in the order of how important they were to them. And number one was lack of communication. And what were those disagreements about? Number one was money, family, personal goals, and how to spend non-work hours. 64% of the people who were asked, that was their number one reason, even if they mentioned many reasons, that was number one – lack of communication. And they didn’t communicate about things that were important to them – money, family, personal goals, and how to spend non-work hours. Interesting. Number two was – was sexual infidelity number two? No. Number two was constant fighting – probably about money, family, personal goals, and how to spend non-work hours! So it really goes along with the lack of communication, because if you learn how to talk to each other about things, you don’t have to fight about them. 58% said constant fighting. Number three was infidelity. 54% of the wives and 46% of the husbands said the partner had strayed, so it wasn’t really that big a difference, but it was a difference. But only 20% reported that the infidelity was actually the cause of their divorce, so really only one fifth, or one out of five divorces, were caused by the infidelity, so it really wasn’t the major cause – the other things were more important. The fourth reason was emotional abuse, but you know, that comes out of the fighting. Number five was falling out of love – and again, you hear the echo of that in the first ones that you’ve heard, when you’re not communicating and you’re fighting all the time, you start to fall out of love. Number six was unsatisfying sex – because when you’re fighting all the time it’s hard to have good sex. The ninth one, which was only 22%, goes along with the infidelity part, being the real reason, was falling in love with somebody else. So when the infidelity did count as a reason for getting divorced, it probably was related to being part of when the infidelity was the real reason, because it’s one thing to be unfaithful with somebody that you don’t really care about, it’s just a sexual thing. But if you’re in love with somebody that does make a difference in the relationship.

And I thought you might be interested to know what presidents we really know for sure fooled around, and had extramarital affairs, and still were president. Here’s the ones that we know for sure had serious affairs: Washington – yes, the one who cut down a cherry tree and never told a lie – well, turns out, he did; Lincoln; Wilson; Roosevelt and Eisenhower. We know of those. Now of course we know certain ones have fathered children out of wedlock, and two that we know of are Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland. Extramarital affairs that perhaps were not so serious – Harding, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Bush Sr., and Clinton. We know that Wilson prevailed and had a second term – so did Clinton, in fact. Cleveland acknowledged his child out of wedlock and won two terms. And in fact during his second election there was a campaign slogan from the other side that was “Ma Ma, where’s my Pa, gone to the White House ha ha ha.” This was what they said, but it didn’t stop him from winning a second term. People who faced numerous accusations while they were in the White House were Jefferson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton. So, you know, the average American is not so different from the men who have held the highest office in the United States, a whole bunch of them. And God knows how many we don’t know about! So, extramarital sex is not a rare event in any level of society.

And I guess I want to end this – very long, as it’s turned out – myth for this month with a note of caution. Interesting research from Japan, but I believe it’s also been supported in the United States, has demonstrated that in the very rare cases – and it is rare – when heart attack occurs in men during sex, it is much more likely to occur, statistically more likely to occur, in sexual activity with a partner other than one’s wife. So I leave you with that to think about, and I say adieu for this month’s myth.

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