views updated May 14 2018


Infidelity is a breach of trust that signifies a lack of faithfulness to a moral obligation to one's partner. Infidelity usually implies sexual infidelity, although some people, particularly women, regard an intense emotional relationship as an unfaithful extramarital involvement, even when there is no physical component. In short, infidelity is feelings or behavior that go against a partner's expectations for the exclusivity of the relationship. Some couples are comfortable with having relationships outside their union. These liaisons do not constitute infidelity unless they violate the couple's shared understandings about discretion, partner choice, and sexual conduct—understandings that are designed to protect their relationship from disruption.

In the United States, open marriages that tolerate extramarital sex are the exception. Most U.S. husbands and wives say that sexual fidelity is very important to a marriage (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Greeley 1991). Ninety-nine percent of married people in the United States say that they expect sexual exclusivity of their spouse, and 99 percent report their spouse expects the same of them (Treas and Giesen 2000). Cohabitors are only slightly less likely (94%) to say they expect fidelity from a partner. Although males in same-sex couples tend to be more tolerant of multiple sexual partners, few heterosexuals in the United States are indifferent to their mate's sexual activities.

Cross-Cultural Perspectives

It has been argued that limiting sex to socially sanctioned partnerships like marriage contributes to the stability of the relationship, because it makes the union the unique focus of self-disclosure and sexual pleasure. The emphasis on sexual fidelity, however, varies from culture to culture. Around the globe, about half of societies have strong prohibitions against extramarital sex for women, and about a quarter object strongly to extramarital sex for men (Frayzer 1985). Extramarital sex is permissible for men in half of societies, but it is permissible for women in only one quarter. This double standard—controlling female sexuality more than male sexuality—has been traced to the desire to insure the paternity of heirs. It has also been attributed to the unequal power between the genders— inequality that supports a man's sense of ownership over a woman. Masculine roles, by contrast, often encourage sexual adventuring. For example, brothel visits are a common ritual of male camaraderie in Thailand and elsewhere.

Monogamy, the institutional form of marriage permitting only one spouse at a time, still confronts extramarital relationships, particularly for husbands. La casa chica, or little house, is an established Latin American custom whereby married men maintain a second partner and family. Although polygamy, the custom of taking multiple wives and concubines, is illegal in China, the tradition has made a comeback among businessmen, who can afford to maintain a young mistress in her own apartment. These institutions, of course, still serve to protect the family and the marital relationship by minimizing the intrusion of secondary partnerships. Even in societies where extramarital relationships are casual and fleeting, a degree of secrecy and discretion usually surrounds the activities to minimize marital disruptions.

In honor-based Arab societies, which place a high value on female chastity, relatives may feel obliged to put an unfaithful wife to death. In other societies, casual sexual liaisons outside marriage are widely accepted both for men and for women. This is the case in parts of Africa. Where children are regarded as belonging to broad kinship groups, there may be less concern with paternity and with controlling female sexuality. Where financial responsibility for offspring falls to women, they often rely on supportive sex partners in order to provide for themselves and their children. In urban Nigeria, for example, two-thirds of men and one-third of women in monogamous marriages reported that their most recent sexual encounter was with someone besides their legal spouse.

The less tolerant attitudes in Western nations may be traced to Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality. In the twenty-four largely Western and industrial countries in the 1994 International Social Survey Program, most people stated that extramarital sex was "always wrong" (Widmer et al. 1998). Fully 80 percent of U.S. respondents condemned extramarital relations as being always wrong, a figure comparable to conservative Catholic populations like Ireland (80%), Northern Ireland (81%), and the Philippines (88%). The "always wrong" response found less favor in other countries: Australia (59%), Austria (67%), Bulgaria (51%), Canada (68%), Czech Republic (43%), Germany (data reported separately: East Germany, 60%, and West Germany, 55%), Great Britain (67%), Hungary (62%), Israel (73%), Italy (67%), Japan (58%), Netherlands (63%), New Zealand (75%), Norway (70%), Poland (74%), Russia (36%), Slovenia (57%), Spain (76%), and Sweden (68%). On average, however, only 4 percent of survey respondents believed that extramarital sex was "not at all wrong." Thus, moral judgments in Western countries continue to support sexual exclusivity between husbands and wives.

Although people in the United States have become increasingly tolerant of premarital sex and homosexual sex, they voice stronger disapproval of extramarital sex. Disapproval has actually increased in recent decades. According to data from the General Social Surveys, extramarital sex was condemned as "always wrong" by 70 percent of U.S. respondents in 1973. Following a sharp increase in disapproval at the end of the 1980s, perhaps in response to the AIDS crisis, views on extramarital sex largely stabilized and stood at 81 percent strongly disapproving in 1998.

Permissive sexual values reflect liberal religious and political ideologies. Men are more permissive than women. People with more schooling are more tolerant than people with less education. African Americans and people who live in big cities are also more tolerant of extramarital sex. Not surprisingly, people with permissive sexual values are more likely to have adulterous relationships. Only 10 percent of U.S. respondents who say extramarital sex is "always wrong" report having extramarital sex, as compare to 76 percent of respondents who say extramarital sex is "not at all wrong" (Smith 1994).

Studying Sexual Infidelity

The scientific study of sexuality has faced the problem of finding a neutral terminology to describe behavior that often elicits strong moral sentiments. EMS, the abbreviation of extramarital sex, is a common convention used in scholarly papers. Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz (1983) employ a nonjudgmental term, non-monogamy, which they apply to married and cohabiting couples, heterosexual or same-sex, who have sex outside of their union. Adultery is a narrower, legal concept. Adultery refers to voluntary sexual intercourse, either between a married man and someone who is not his wife or between a married woman and someone who is not her husband. Although an unmarried partner may have an adulterous relationship with a married person, only married people have extramarital sex. The epidemiological literature in public health focuses on the number of sexual partners. This approach to measuring sexual behavior distinguishes secondary sex partners, who are defined by reference to a primary sex partner (i.e., the person reported to be the most important or frequent sexual partner). The primary partner is typically a spouse, cohabitor, or steady date. Married people who have multiple or secondary sex partners are assumed to have had extramarital sex.

The accuracy of sex data depends on the respondents' recall and candor. People have difficulty remembering sexual activities from the distant past. Also, because sexual infidelity is what survey experts describe as "sensitive" behavior, people may be embarrassed or reluctant to admit infidelities, particularly if an infidelity is not really characteristic of their usual patterns. This reporting bias could mean that survey estimates of extramarital sex and secondary partners are understated. Critics of sex surveys have challenged the validity of data, because men, on average, report a higher number of partners than women do. This pattern is seen in the United States, Great Britain, Norway, and Canada. Close examination of sex data does not suggest widespread problems. The problem is limited to a few men who skew the results by reporting extremely high numbers of sex partners.

Data quality is not a new concern. To discourage under-reporting of sexual behavior, Alfred Kinsey's pioneering sex studies of the 1930s and 1940s used complex cross-checks and aggressive interviewing techniques. Kinsey's estimates of the population engaging in extramarital sex—half of married men at some point and a quarter of married white women by age 40—were startlingly high. As statistical experts of the day noted, it is impossible to determine the validity and reliability of Kinsey's findings. His figures may have resulted from his biased volunteer sample, which was skewed toward prisoners, divorcees, and others whose sexual experiences were not representative of the U.S. population at large. The limitations of the historical data make it impossible to determine with much confidence whether the incidence of sexual fidelity has changed over time for U.S. husbands and wives.

Because of the sensitive nature of their topics, sex studies, including recent ones, have encountered heated political opposition. As a consequence, much research on extramarital sex has been based on dubious sources, such as readers who are sufficiently motivated to mail back a magazine questionnaire on sex. Largely in response to the AIDS crisis, however, several countries fielded large, nationally representative sample surveys of sexual behavior in the 1990s. In the English-speaking world, two surveys in 1992—the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Wellings et al. 1994) and the U.S. National Survey of Health and Social Life (Laumann et al. 1994)— have contributed to our understanding of sexual partnering.

Contemporary interview surveys have devoted considerable attention to improving the quality of sex data. Researchers go to great lengths to develop, pretest, and refine their questionnaires. To insure the integrity of their scientific samples, they work hard to secure interviews with sample persons who are difficult to locate or reluctant to be interviewed. They make special efforts to conduct confidential interviews out of earshot of other household members. Anonymous, self-administered questionnaires that work well for sensitive questions are combined with face-to-face interviews where clarification is needed. For example, interviewers collect complicated rosters for the start and end dates of sexual relationships; these can be used to determine if there are overlaps in time that would indicate sexual infidelity. Data are analyzed for consistency and compared to results from other surveys.

How Common Is Infidelity?

The U.S. media perpetuates the belief that extramarital sex is widespread. Television programs, for example, are nearly as likely to feature extramarital sex as marital sex. Even serious newspapers report on extramarital affairs if they involve a breach of public trust or an instance of personal hypocrisy. In their own lives, most people in the United States know somebody who has had extramarital sex. This may explain why two-thirds of married people are prepared to believe that fidelity is more important in their own marriage than in the marriages of other people (Greeley 1991). Research on sexual behavior, however, does not sustain the impression that sexual infidelity is the behavioral norm in the United States. Most married people do not have sex outside marriage. Although sexual infidelity may be habitual behavior for some people, most married people who do have extramarital sex do not have it very often or with very many partners. Extramarital sex is atypical behavior.

Surveys find that between 1.5 and 3.6 percent of married people in the United States had multiple sex partners in the preceding year. Similar figures are reported in British surveys. Although few people are engaged in extramarital sex at any particular point in time, the numbers who have had sex outside marriage at some point while they were married are, of course, higher. Nonetheless, only a minority of men and women report ever having had other sex partners while they were married or cohabiting with a partner. Whether one considers older or younger generations, more than 90 percent of women and more than 75 percent of men say that they have always been faithful (Laumann et al. 1994). The low incidence of extramarital sex underscores the importance of sexual exclusivity as a condition of committed heterosexual relationships in the United States.

What Are the Origins of Infidelity?

Gender differences in sexual attitudes and behavior are striking. Compared to men, women are less accepting of extensive sexual experience, non-marital coitus, and casual sex outside a committed relationship. Sexual behavior is consistent with sexual values. Wives are less likely than husbands to engage in extramarital sex. Apparently, this is due largely to attitudes: Controlling for permissiveness of sexual values and for the frequency of sexual thoughts largely eliminates the gender difference in the likelihood of sexual infidelity (Treas and Giesen 2000). Although men are willing to consider sex without emotional commitment, women view romantic attachment as a prerequisite for sex. Hence, women regard sexual infidelity as a greater threat to marriage than do men (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Wellings et al. 1994). When asked what might justify extramarital sex, women are more likely than men to invoke falling in love and less likely to cite sexual gratification.

One explanation for gender differences in sexual behavior frames an evolutionary argument: Men's genetic legacy is maximized when they impregnate many women while women's optimal reproductive strategy calls for breeding selectively with men who will help to raise the children. Other explanations emphasize social roots of monogamy such as the gendered nature of learned scripts explicitly motivating sexual activity.

For both men and women, normative beliefs and behavioral patterns seem to be established by late adolescence and early adulthood. In the early teen years, girls' peer groups are already reinforcing monogamous feeling norms (e.g., don't have romantic feelings for a boy who has a girlfriend or for more than one boy at a time). Even in adulthood, sexual attitudes continue to reflect the values of the community in which one was raised. Early experience foretells later behavior. According to French survey data, the younger the age at first intercourse, the more likely an individual living in a couple relationship is to have multiple sexual partners (Bozon 1996). In the United States, having had more sexual partners before the first marriage or cohabitation also increases the likelihood of infidelity (Treas and Giesen 2000). The implication seems to be that premarital sexual lifestyles encourage infidelity in marriage, but some unidentified common factor (e.g., a preference for risk-taking behavior) may account for sexual behavior both before and during marriage.

Individuals who strongly disapprove of extramarital sex are not likely to be unfaithful. The personal discomfort in violating deeply held values discourages infidelity, although those who are unfaithful may also work to bring their values in line with their behavior (Lawson 1988). Most organized religions teach values that emphasize sexual fidelity. People who attend religious services are less likely to engage in infidelity, even when the individual's sexual values are taken into account (Treas and Giesen 2000). Belonging to a community that is supportive of sexual fidelity seems to discourage extramarital sex—above and beyond any influence on individual moral beliefs.

Is the Marriage the Problem?

Sexual infidelity leads people to question whether the primary relationship is somehow lacking and whether having a new sexual partner implies dissatisfaction with the old one. There is evidence that more committed partners are less likely to be unfaithful. People who are merely dating are at greater risk for infidelity than those living in cohabiting relationships. Cohabitors, in turn, are more likely than married people to have sexual affairs—a pattern that cannot be fully explained by their more permissive sexual values (Treas and Giesen 2000). The implication is that married people, who have made a bigger commitment, are less willing to put their relationship at risk by violating expectations for sexual exclusivity. Infidelity declines as people grow older: This may reflect the fact that older people have had the time to make bigger investments in their relationship, or it may simply signify more general biological declines in sexual activity with aging.

Is extramarital sex evidence of an unhappy marriage or a bad sex life? Certainly, people sometimes begin sexual affairs in order to register a complaint or force a spouse to end an unhappy union, but many people who engage in extramarital sex are quite satisfied with their marriages. Research has not found a consistent association between marital satisfaction and the risk of sexual infidelity. On the one hand, various studies report no significant association between sexual infidelity and marital happiness, the quality of marital sex (for whites), or physical satisfaction with sex (for men). Other studies show that sexual infidelity is positively associated with marital unhappiness, low emotional satisfaction with the union, women's reports of marital inequity, and men's sexual dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, there are no large, longitudinal studies to sort out whether unhappiness comes before or after infidelity. The causal direction of the association remains unclear. Although an unhappy relationship may lead to sexual infidelity, infidelity may make people unhappy with their relationship. Ironically, married people report that marital problems led them to have extramarital sex, but they blame their spouse's infidelities for marital problems.

Couples who take pleasure in one another's family and friends are less likely to be unfaithful (Treas and Giesen 2000). Shared social circles may validate the couple's relationship. They may foster a satisfying union so that the partners have more to lose from infidelity. Certainly, couples who share many activities have fewer opportunities for sex outside their marriage than do couples who lead separate lives (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). In other words, more opportunities for sex outside marriage may lead to more sex outside marriage. The workplace is one place where people meet potential sexual partners. In Britain, people who work away from home overnight are not as likely to be sexually monogamous (Wellings et al. 1994). In the United States, a job that involves intimate interpersonal contact—being alone with, touching, and discussing personal concerns of clients, coworkers, and customers—is associated with a greater risk of sexual infidelity (Treas and Giesen 2000). The risk is also greater in large cities that offer greater anonymity and more potential partners than do small towns. More generally, communities that have more potential partners have been found to have more divorce.

What Are Secondary Sexual Relationships Like?

Except for studies of commercial sex workers, secondary sex partners have not been much studied. U.S. researchers find that married, cohabiting, and dating persons choose secondary partners who are very much like their spouse, cohabiting partner, or usual date. There is only limited evidence that people are actually able to improve on their current partner by having a sexual affair. Compared to their usual partner, women's secondary sex partners are a bit more likely to be college graduates. Men's secondary partners are more likely than their primary partner to be enrolled in school, suggesting that they are perhaps younger.

If both types of sex partners are quite similar, it is because people find their sex partners—primary and secondary—in the social world they inhabit.

To be sure, married and cohabiting men are less likely to have met their secondary sex partner through friends and family members. They are more likely to have met at work and to have introduced themselves. The implication seems to be that men meet secondary sex partners outside the watchful eye of wife, family, and friends—a hardly surprising finding since adulterers usually go to great lengths to keep their affairs secret. The finding also points up that secondary sexual relationships lack the public commitment and stabilizing social networks of marriages and cohabiting unions.

Although a breach of fidelity may undermine a marriage, secondary sex partners do not usually displace primary ones. Some extramarital affairs are long lasting, but most secondary sexual relationships are casual and short-lived. Many people do not even expect to have sex with the secondary partner ever again. In fact, at least for women, the secondary relationship is not as satisfying sexually as the primary one.

This may reflect the fact that secondary sexual relationships are often short-term relationships: Men and women in short-term relationships say sex is less satisfying, emotionally and physically, than married and cohabiting people do. Of course, sexual practices differ between short-term and long-term relationships. Short-term sexual relationships are characterized by greater condom usage, more oral sex, and more alcohol use than is the case for long-term relationships, cohabitations, and marriages (Laumann et al. 1994). Secrecy and deceit also characterize sexual infidelity. Sexual affairs, for example, are apt to involve clandestine meetings in out of the way places and elaborate ruses to cover absences from home. Although some people find the intrigue exciting, others experience guilt and anxiety.

What Are the Consequences?

The social and economic costs of sexual infidelity have declined, because the government has largely stopped regulating noncommercial sex between consenting adults. Before no-fault divorce laws were passed in the 1970s, an adulterer might expect to lose custody of children, suffer in the division of marital property, or fare poorly in alimony orders. In removing adultery as grounds for marital dissolution, no-fault laws also eliminated sexual infidelity as a justification for favoring one spouse over the other. Similarly, so-called heart balm torts once permitted a betrayed spouse to sue the third party on grounds like alienation of affection. These torts have almost disappeared from U.S. law, too. Of course, half of the U.S. states still have laws against adultery on the books. These laws would prevent an adulterer from voting, serving alcohol, practicing law, adopting children, or residing with a former spouse. Adultery laws, however, are virtually never enforced. Many states have quietly repealed the obsolete statutes. Where the laws have not been repealed, they serve largely symbolic purposes, embodying the state's support for conventional morality and family life.

How sexual infidelity affects relationships is a question that demands further study. Although a secondary involvement is sometimes meaningful to the participants, it usually does not generate lasting commitment. Nonetheless, marriage counselors testify that extramarital sex is destabilizing to a marriage. Domestic violence is one known consequence of sexual jealousy; divorce may be another. Divorced people are more likely than still-married people to report having had extramarital sex at one time or another (Laumann et al. 1994). Unfortunately, we do not know to what extent preexisting personal or marital problems lead both to infidelity and to the divorce. In short, we do not know how important sexual infidelity is as a cause of divorce.

Theoretically, infidelity is thought to destabilize marriage. It negates the couple's closed network of intimacy, undermines assumptions of mutual "ownership," and short circuits the solidarity that comes when one's partner is the sole source of a valued (sexual) service. Sexual affairs divert time, energy, and money away from the marital relationship. Perhaps because they are more likely to involve an emotional component, women's affairs are argued to be more likely than men's to result in divorce and to lead to a new committed relationship (Lawson 1988).

Only longitudinal data following individuals over time can clarify the causal relationships. The assumption that infidelity actually causes divorce rests on tenuous inferences. Although 15 percent of newly divorced people in the United States admitted to being involved with someone else just before their marriage ended, 40 percent accused their ex-spouse of being involved with someone else. It is not known, however, whether these extramarital affairs precipitated the divorce or were only initiated after the married couple began the divorce. Whatever the chain of events, the betrayal of norms of sexual exclusivity is condemned by most people in the United States.

See also:Cohabitation; Communication: Couple Relationships; Intimacy; Jealousy; Marital Quality; Marital Sex; Relationship Dissolution; Relationship Maintenance; Religion; Sexuality; Social Network; Sexual Communication: Couple Relationships; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Trust


blumstein, p., and schwartz, p. (1983). american couples:money, work, sex. new york: morrow.

bozon, m. (1996). "reaching adult sexuality: first intercourse and its implications." in sexuality and the social sciences, ed. m. bozon and h. leridon. aldershot, uk: dartmouth.

frayzer, s. g. (1985). varieties of sexual experience: ananthropological perspective on human sexuality. new haven, ct: hraf press.

greeley, a. m. (1991). faithful attraction: discovering intimacy, love, and fidelity in american marriage. new york: tor books.

laumann, e. o.; gagnon, j. h.; michael, r. t.; andmichaels, s. (1994). the social organization of sexuality: sexual practices in the united states. chicago: university of chicago press.

lawson, a. (1988). adultery: the analysis of love and betrayal. new york: basic books.

smith, t. w. (1994). "attitudes toward sexual permissiveness: trends, correlates, and behavioral connections." in sexuality across the life course, ed. a.s. rossi. chicago: university of chicago press.

treas, j., and giesen, d. (2000). "sexual infidelity amongmarried and cohabiting americans." journal of marriage and the family 62:48–60.

wellings, k.; field, j.; johnson, a. m.; and wadsworth, j.(1994). sexual behavior in britain: the national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles. london: penguin books.

widmer, e. d.; treas, j.; and newcomb, r. (1998). "attitudes toward nonmarital sex in 24 countries." journal of sex research 35:349–358.

judith treas


views updated May 18 2018






Alfred Kinseys landmark studies of male and female sexuality, beginning in the late 1940s, were the first empirical examinations of infidelity. Following Kinsey, however, little research was done until the 1970s, and it was not for another decade that the first reliable estimates of the prevalence of infidelity were obtained. Thus, research on infidelity, while growing, is still in its nascent phase.


Infidelity is a broad term that encompasses a variety of behaviors. Because of this, social scientists have used innumerable descriptors to more precisely capture the varieties of infidelity (e.g., nonmonogamy, extradyadic involvement, extramarital coitus). Terms fall broadly into two classes: (1) sexual infidelity, which specifies a degree of physical intimacy with someone other than a committed partner; and (2) emotional infidelity, which indicates a channeling of resources such as love, time, and attention toward someone other than ones partner. An additional term, intimate betrayal, has been suggested to describe the experience of specific relationship standards and expectations being violated. These terms are not mutually exclusive, and any given extradyadic involvement may include one or all of these aspects of infidelity to varying degrees.

Nationally representative surveys of the American population have focused on the prevalence of sexual intercourse outside of marriage. These studies have found that approximately 22 percent to 25 percent of men and 11 percent to 15 percent of women report at least one instance of extramarital sex while married, though up to 34 percent of men and 19 percent of women in older cohorts reported infidelity. Moreover, these figures almost certainly represent the lower bounds of actual acts of infidelity, as some individuals are unlikely to be candid about such intimate details of their lives. Research using procedures with greater anonymity (e.g., computer assisted selfreporting as opposed to face-to-face interviews) support this conclusion.


Gender differences have received more attention than any other correlate of infidelity in the empirical literature. Overall, men are more likely to have an affair, though this finding is strongly dependent on the cohort of the individual. Gender differences are greatest in the baby-boom generation (those born just following World War II [1939-1945]) and reduced in younger cohorts; individuals born during the 1960s and later do not show gender differences in the rate of infidelity. The shrinking gender difference may reflect basic demographic changes, particularly the greater number of women in the workforce, a common place to meet affair partners.

While the overall interest remains low, more men express a desire for infidelity and the active pursuit of an affair relationship. Nonetheless, the majority of both sexes expect sexual monogamy in their marriage relationships. In addition, mens affairs tend to be more sexual and less related to the satisfaction of their marriage as compared to women, while womens affairs tend to be more emotional and described as long-term, loving relationships. It remains unclear how these gendered aspects of infidelity may be shifting with the changing rates of infidelity across generations.

Factors related to infidelity can be organized in terms of their source (i.e., involved partner, spouse, marital relationship, and context). A history of divorce, permissive attitudes toward infidelity, lack of religiosity, being African American, and poor interpersonal connections in the marital relationship have consistently shown a positive association with infidelity for involved partners. Factors related to the spouse of an unfaithful partner remain an interesting but little researched area. In terms of the marital relationship, marital distress, sexual dissatisfaction, imbalances of power, cohabitation prior to marriage, and highly autonomous marital relationships have been linked to infidelity, as has marrying at a young age and the length of the marriage. Some contextual factors include opportunity, travel, income, the availability and willingness of partners, and the individuals perceptions of societal frequency and acceptability of infidelity.

A variety of theories have been put forth to account for infidelity, with evolutionary psychology receiving the most attention. This theory posits that mens desire for sexual variety can be explained by natural selection (i.e., men historically have sought reproductive success by gaining access to a variety of women). As such, men are more bothered than women by sexual infidelity because it threatens this goal. Women, on the other hand, find emotional infidelity more disturbing because it threatens the males commitment to protecting and providing for a woman and her offspring. Cross-cultural research demonstrates that men consistently both have more affairs and show greater distress due to sexual affairs than women do. However, there is tremendous variability across cultures in the rate of infidelity, underscoring the important influence of cultural and societal factors.


Although some therapists have suggested that infidelity may at times be helpful for individuals and couples, the empirical literature strongly supports the negative consequences of infidelity. Extramarital affairs are reliably associated with increased marital distress, conflict, and divorce. When an affair is revealed, the spouse of the person who had the affair is often angry, humiliated, and depressed, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may be present, such as intrusive thoughts, hypervigi-lance, and real or imagined images of their spouse with the affair partner. In addition, infidelity can indirectly expose the uninvolved partner to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. This is a significant risk when the affair relationship involved drugs or alcohol, which in turn reduces the likelihood of safe-sex practices. Research focused on the reactions of the involved spouse have been limited, but there is some evidence that after an affair is revealed he or she experiences increased depressive symptoms, a lower sense of well-being, and greater guilt and shame.

Beyond individual reactions to an affair, there are two broad outcomes for the marital relationship: staying together or getting divorced. Relationship dissolution can be influenced by the nature of the infidelity (e.g., degree and type of involvement, how the affair was discovered), cognitive factors (e.g., attitudes toward infidelity, meaning attached to the affair), and aspects of the marital relationship (e.g., length of marriage, level of commitment, quality and satisfaction with the marriage).

Not surprisingly, marital therapists have described infidelity as one of the most difficult problems to treatand one of the most damaging for a relationship. In spite of this, there is a paucity of empirical research on marital therapy for infidelity. What research does exist is somewhat optimistic, however. Couples that have experienced an affair and then pursue marital therapy show strong improvements during therapy, including greater marital satisfaction, reduced trauma symptoms, and greater forgiveness in the uninvolved partner. However, it is challenging to generalize these findings to the wide prevalence of infidelity, as only a small number of studies have focused on therapy, and because many couples do not seek therapy after an affair has occurred.

SEE ALSO Evolutionary Psychology; Marital Conflict; Marriage; Sex and Mating


Allen, Elizabeth S., et al. 2005. Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Contextual Factors in Engaging in and Responding to Extramarital Involvement. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 12 (2): 101130.

Atkins, David C., Donald H. Baucom, and Neil S. Jacobson. 2001. Understanding Infidelity: Correlates in a National Random Sample. Journal of Family Psychology 15: 735749.

Buunk, Bram P., Alois Angleitner, Viktor Oubaid, and David M. Buss. 1996. Sex Differences in Jealousy in Evolutionary and Cultural Perspective: Tests from the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. Psychological Science 7 (6): 359363.

Gordon, Kristina Coop, Donald H. Baucom, and Douglas K. Snyder. 2004. An Integrative Intervention for Promoting Recovery from Extramarital Affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 30: 112.

David C. Atkins
Rebeca A. Marin


views updated May 29 2018

in·fi·del·i·ty / ˌinfiˈdelitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the action or state of being unfaithful to a spouse or other sexual partner: her infidelity continued after her marriage | I ought not to have tolerated his infidelities. 2. unbelief in a particular religion, esp. Christianity.