Extramarital affairs are nothing new in human society. Ever since the institution of marriage was born, affairs on the side have continued as well. However the degree to which extramarital affairs appears to have become in contemporary society throws up some interesting questions. Are people actually cheating on their partners more than before or have they only become more open about it? In such a scenario, extra marital statistics offer the only way to come up with answers based on hard facts rather than perceptions.
The extent of extramarital affairs to today’s society is by no means small. A paper written by Roy C Fair of the Yale University in 1978 and published in the Cowles Foundation Paper bases its analysis on two empirical studies conducted by reputed journals Psychology Today and Redbook. The data from the two surveys reveals astonishing number of couples were cheating on their spouses even in the 1970s - 27.2 percent of the first-time married working men and 22.9 percent of the first-time married working women were having extramarital affair at the time of the surveys. In the other survey of women only, 32.2 percent of the first time-married working women had had at least one affair during their married lives. More recent studies reveal that 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their lives1. The most significant conclusion that extramarital affair statistics then throw up is that larger number of people are cheating on their spouses than before. This proliferation of infidelity could be due to several causes; couples today may have higher level of expectations from the marital partner and when these are not met they are more likely to seek them outside marriage. Another reason could be economic independence for women which has made it easier for them to brave the risk of an affair and its consequences. Yet again the overall relaxation of moral standards in society has made infidelity, if not acceptable, at least less of a stigma.
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The other significant result that can be gleaned from extramarital affair statistics is their role in spiralling divorce rate across the country. While the official divorce rate according to the latest US Census Bureau is 3.6 per 1000 total population, latest research suggests that it could be as high as 50% of all marriages that take place. Increasingly infidelity figures as the chief cause of marriages breaking up. L Betzig, a researcher on anthropology wrote a paper titled "Causes of conjugal dissolution: A cross-cultural study" in 19892 in which he found that infidelity occurred as the single most cited cause of divorce in over 150 cultures and the US is no different. According to a statistics gleaned from 2004, the highest percentage of divorces - as much as 27% - in the US are caused by extramarital affairs with family strains and then marital abuse coming at the second - 18% - and third - 17% - most common reasons for divorce respectively. An interesting fact about extramarital affair and divorce is that the divorced spouse rarely marries the paramour who caused the marriage breakup and even when he/she does, the resulting marriage is far from a happy one. For example, Dr. Jan Halper’s study of successful men like executives, entrepreneurs, professionals found that very few men who have affairs divorce their wife and marry their lovers. Only 3 percent of the 4,100 successful men surveyed by Halper eventually married their lovers. Another study carried out by Frank Pittman found that the divorce rate among those who married their lovers was as high as 75 percent. The reasons for the high divorce rate include intervention of reality, guilt at breaking up a marriage, unrealistic expectations from the new marriage, a general distrust of marriage and a distrust of the new spouse.
The internet has added a new dimension to extramarital affairs in recent times. The anonymity and easy availability of online dating now results in many more spouses looking for love outside marriage. The plethora of general dating sites and even those dedicated to relationships on the side like Ashley Madison is proof enough that to online affairs are on the rise. One consequence of this is that one-third of divorce litigation is now caused by online affairs, according to a study titled This Is An Internet E-Mergency and conducted by the Fortino Group. according to a survey of 350 divorce attorneys Spouses who get hooked on Internet porn are a growing complaint among spouses filing for divorce. "If there's dissatisfaction in the existing relationship, the Internet is an easy way for people to scratch the itch," said lawyer J. Lindsey Short, Jr., president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers which conducted the study. Results of the study also found that 57% of people have used the Internet to flirt and that there is a high correlation between online infidelity and subsequent real life affairs.
The study by R.C. Fair titled “A Theory of Extramarital Affairs” throws up yet another interesting conclusion. By working out data from extramarital statistics and applying them to a theory of political economy, Fair finds that an individual’s non-labor income is one of the chief determinants of time spent in an extramarital affair – any increase in his/her non-labor income will lead to a higher amount of time spent with the lover. Another result of the study shows that there is no significant impact of the presence of children on extramarital affairs. Fair’s work mentions that data from both extramarital surveys by Psychology Today and Redbook show that “the children variable is insignificant”. In other words children have little or no “independent effect on the utility of the marriage”.
Surveys and statistics which study extramarital affairs are always going to have some limitations. Factors like culture, sexuality, education, occupation and ethnicity all play their own roles in any dynamics of sexual relationships in society. However more such studies are essential in order to understand what is going on around us and what do the trends bode for the future of the institution of marriage.
1. Atwood & Schwartz, ( 2002), Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy
2. Current Anthropology 30(5): 654-676.