Every day there seems to be yet another headline in the morning paper announcing the split of a celebrity marriage on account of a philandering spouse. News of indiscretions committed by Tiger Woods rocked the world especially since he had come to embody a positive ideal for African-American young men of today. Then came the revelation of extra marital affairs from Gov David A Patenson as well as his wife in an interview to The Daily News right after he was sworn in to his office. Such admissions of infidelity, to put it mildly, confirm the worst fears of every modern marriage – a partner who is married but looking for an affair.
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Statistics on the extent of infidelity in marriages are not very heartening. Nationwide surveys have found that nearly one-quarter of husbands and more than one in ten wives have had extramarital sex at some point during their marriage, according to studies carried out by Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels in 1994. Again figures compiled by researchers like Wiederman in 1997 indicate that 22.7% of married men and 11.6% of women have had extramarital sex during their marriage. These percentages include 4.1% of men and 1.7% of women who had sex outside of marriage within the last 12 months of taking the survey. Even though these figures are way below the ‘shock statistics’ of 50% to 70% of cheating spouses which are given out by dodgy internet infidelity surveys, they are still evidence of an unhappy trend in society where marriages are no longer sacrosanct and couples no longer have the patience to resolve issues between themselves.
Sociologists and therapists have developed various classifications of extra-marital affairs. According to Pittman and Wagers (1995) there are four most common types:
Accidental infidelity where the cheating spouse gets drawn into an affair without actually intending to commit adultery. These are usually one-night stands following out-of-town business trips or an empty home with no one to return to.
Philandering is where the spouse’s extra-marital affairs confirm to a pattern. He/she consciously and regularly looks to cheat on his/her spouse.
Romantic affairs are those which usually begin as purely emotional attachments before getting entangled with sex and lies.
Marital arrangements are those which compel the cheating spouse to live double lives, often juggling two or more partners and households at the same time.
Other than the above types, extra-marital affairs can also be classified according to the kind of marriages that they result from. Among these are
The conflict-avoidant marriage where spouses are not locked in an overt conflict but neither are they emotionally connected to each other. The result is an inevitable drifting away towards an affair.
The Intimacy-avoidant marriage where the spouses no longer or barely have sex and thus find sexual fulfillment outside marriage.
Empty-nest affairs where either spouse is drawn to an affair on account of physical unavailability of his/her partner for instance as happens in a long distance marriage.
So much for the most common types of extra-marital affairs. But what really leads married people to cheat on their partners and indulge, whether accidentally or regularly, in an extra-marital affair?
Marital boredom. This is perhaps the biggest culprit in modern marriages which leads a partner to stray for no apparent fault of his/her spouse. Soon after the honeymoon when couples fall into a routine, they feel more and more weighed down with the predictability of their lives and the lack of excitement which was a normal feature when they were dating. An extramarital affair brings back the illusion of romance and the thrill of breaking a rule and offers the straying spouse an opportunity to escape from the boring realities of married life.
Lack of marital sex. This is another common reason why a married person gets drawn into an affair. Once sex in a marriage becomes infrequent or boring, partners tend to seek fulfillment elsewhere. In fact according to a survey conducted by extramarital website lovelinks.co.uk, after three years into their marriage, couples tend to have sex only once a week while before getting married they may have been making out up to four times a week. While this may be yet another instance of shock statistics provided by a website catering to cheating partners, the results point to a fact which married couples have long known to be true. Managing a house, career and children does indeed leave most modern couples with little time or energy for sex. And with growing sexual and emotional distance between the couple, the risk of an affair increases in direct proportion.
Lack of communication between a couple. Many times an extra marital affair is more often a symptom rather than the primary cause of a tottering marriage. Once partners stop communicating with each other, sharing daily rituals of love and affection or building dreams for the future, it is only a matter of time before someone else arrives to fill the vacuum in the marriage.
Finally, extra-marital affairs may be caused by dysfunctional personality traits like sex-addiction or the need to validate an inferiority complex with successive affairs. Whether Tiger Woods fell victim to the former condition is open to debate but the string of women including sex workers who were revealed to have an affair with the golf champ is evidence that money, success and ego all had a role to play in his indiscretions.
In recent times, extra-marital affairs have come under increasing focus not only by internet surveys and late night talk shows but more significantly by sociologists and researchers. This is primarily because of the vast potential for damage that extra-marital affairs hold out for marital relationships. In 1997, researchers Whisman, Dixon and Johnson conducted a national survey of marital therapists wherein the participants rated the types of problems that couples bring to therapy. They ranked extramarital affairs as the second most damaging problem to relationships, with only physical abuse having a more negative impact. In yet another study the same year, researchers Amato and Rogers randomly selected more than 2,000 married people in America and examined the effect of their various marital problems on divorce up to twelve years later. Among relationship problems, such as getting angry easily, being domineering, having an affair, having irritating habits, being extravagant with money, or abusing drugs or alcohol, extramarital sex emerged as the number one risk factor of subsequent divorce. In fact, the impact of extramarital sex on divorce was more than twice as high as any other relationship problem.
Being married is no longer a guarantee of being faithful. Some would argue that it never was. But the increasing reach of extra-marital dating websites and growing social permissiveness are indications that the reality of today’s marriages is far from encouraging. And yet the very fact that the issue is being talked about and that counselors continue to be hopeful for spouses who are willing to work to put an unhappy past behind is reason enough to be optimistic.