Sexual Behavior in Marriage and Close Relationships

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The scientific study of sexuality is not limited to a single discipline but involves scholars from a variety of fields, including sociology, psychology, and biology. The multidisciplinary nature of sexuality research lends itself to various and often contradictory theoretical interpretations of sexual phenomena. Furthermore, individuals have various perspectives on the purpose of sexual behavior and engage in a variety of sexual behaviors. For example, Reiss (1960) asserts that individuals take one of three general approaches to sexuality. Some individuals have a "procreational orientation," believing that the purpose of sexual intercourse is reproduction; others have what Reiss (1960) refers to as a "relational orientation," believing that sexual intercourse is for the purpose of expressing emotional attachment to a partner; and still others have a "recreational orientation," viewing the purpose of sexual behavior as enjoyment. Other researchers (e.g., Peplau et al. 1977) have constructed similar typologies. These perspectives or standards are likely to overlap; for example, couples who engage in sexual intercourse in order to reproduce also express their love and affection for each other and may enjoy themselves in the process. However, Reiss (1960) argues that individuals have one of these orientations as a primary explanation for engaging in sexual behavior. This article focuses on sexuality within close relationships. It begins by presenting some of the theoretical perspectives on sexuality and then discusses recent research findings on sexuality in close relationships.


As was stated above, numerous theories have been developed to explain why certain individuals engage in sexual activities with certain other individuals and the context in which sexual behaviors occur. These theories generally fall on either side of an essentialist versus social constructionist dichotomy (DeLamater and Hyde 1998).

Essentialism. According to the essentialist perspective, certain behaviors are biologically driven and thus are natural and ubiquitous. An example of essentialist theories would be evolutionary theories such as sociobiology and sexual strategies theory (Buss 1998; DeLamater and Hyde 1998). According to those theories, which often are applied to gain an understanding of mate selection, certain contemporary sexual behaviors have emerged over time in response to environmental conditions. For example, both men and women are thought to strive to maximize their reproductive success (Oliver and Hyde 1993). Men are theorized to want to pass their genes to successive generations; therefore, they wish to impregnate as many women as possible to increase the likelihood that they will have offspring. Women also want to maximize their reproductive success, but they do so by striving to secure a long-term partner who will provide for their children financially (Chodorow 1978). Because men would not be passing along their genetic heritage by caring for another man's child, a woman's sexual exclusivity to one man has been socially desirable. These theories correspond to Freudian theories in psychology ("anatomy is destiny") and structural functionalist theories in sociology, which argue that traditional heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate forum in which sexual behaviors should occur, as the integrity of families and societies can be maintained only by that institution (see Parsons and Bales 1955).

Social Constructionism. Social constructionist theories minimize the influence of biological drives in explaining sexuality, instead focusing on how sexuality, like other phenomena, is socially constructed (DeLamater and Hyde 1998). For example, instead of arguing that men are biologically driven to be sexually promiscuous while women are biologically driven to be sexually exclusive, social constructionists argue that men and women engage in specific sexual behaviors as a result of the cultural messages they receive through socialization. Examples of theories within this framework are symbolic interactionism, social learning, social exchange, and conflict theories (Longmore 1998; Oliver and Hyde 1993; Sprecher 1998).

According to symbolic interactionism, individuals create meaning through their interactions with others; that is, they learn their sexual identities by communicating with others. Indeed, individuals learn and follow sexual scripts (Laumann et al. 1994; Longmore 1998; Oliver and Hyde 1993) that are specific to their culture, gender, race, social class, and so forth. These scripts are fluid; individuals frequently modify them to adapt to their environments. According to network theory (Laumann et al. 1994), sexual relationships are embedded in larger social networks that influence intimate dyads (Sprecher et al. in press). More specifically, network members influence who pairs up with whom, what behaviors (sexual and otherwise) should be encouraged and/or tolerated in an intimate relationship, and whether dissolution should occur.

To explain sexual behavior, social exchange theories postulate that the members of a dyad exchange resources with each other in an attempt to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs (Sprecher 1998). Examples of social exchange theories are equity theory (individuals reward their partners or withhold rewards in an attempt to influence the balance of equity in the relationship; Sprecher 1998) and choice theory (individuals pursue goals on the basis of the resources available to them, such as energy, physical attractiveness, and money; Laumann et al. 1994).

In explaining sexuality, conflict theories emphasize the power struggle inherent in intimate relationships. According to this perspective, men sexually dominate and exploit women in order to achieve their own goals, while women, lacking power, service men's sexual needs (Weis 1998b). While men may be better positioned to dominate and exploit because of their greater average physical strength, the power struggle is social and is based on the system of patriarchy (see Richardson 1996 for a discussion of this issue).

Summary. Despite these theoretical perspectives, sexuality research has been accused of being atheoretical (Weis 1998a, 1998b). Weis argues that theories of sexuality are still in an early stage compared to the theoretical development of other scholarly fields because of a lack of sexuality research that tests hypotheses (below, it will be seen that much sexuality research is descriptive) and because few strong connections have been established between theory and research. Christopher and Sprecher (in press) concur; in their decadelong review of sexuality in close relationships, they note the limited progress made in theories of sexuality despite the considerable increase in research interest in this topic. They call for more theoretical advancements in future research on sexuality.

The following sections present some of the research findings concerning sexuality in close relationships. Several large-scale studies have been conducted within the last decade (most notably the National Health and Social Life Survey in addition to the second wave of the National Survey of Families and Households and several waves of the General Social Survey, which include measures tapping sexual behavior) despite the politicized nature of conducting studies on sexual behavior. These studies have greatly increased sociological understanding of sexuality in committed relationships. The discussion here focuses on three main concerns: (1) descriptive information on sexual behavior in close relationships (e.g., frequency of intercourse, number of partners), (2) the character of extramarital/extradyadic sex, and (3) qualities of homosexual close relationships.


As was stated above, much sexuality research is descriptive. Thus, there is considerable knowledge of how frequently individuals engage in sexual behaviors, the types of behaviors in which they engage, how many sexual partners individuals have had over the course of their lives, the prevalence and character of extramarital or extradyadic sex, and the extent of sexual and overall life satisfaction, in addition to numerous other behavioral and attitudinal characteristics. This section focuses on the frequency of sex, the number of partners, and sexual and overall life satisfaction.

The state of descriptive knowledge of sexual behavior has increased considerably over the last several years as a result of the implementation of large-scale national surveys that use rigorous sampling methods. In particular, the National Health and Social Life Survey, which is based on a national sample of the noninstitutionalized population between ages 18 and 59, has provided extensive information on the sex lives of U.S. citizens (Laumann et al. 1994). The design of this survey is much more rigorous than that of the famous Kinsey studies (Kinsey et al. 1948, 1953), which relied largely on volunteers, calling into question the extent to which their data represented the general population.

Frequency of Sex. Contrary to the popular opinion that married couples engage in sex less than anyone else does, Laumann et al. (1994) found that only 1.3 percent of married men and 3.0 percent of married women did not engage in sex in the past year (respondents defined the meaning of engaging in sex, which may or may not have included vaginal intercourse). Twenty-two percent of the never-married/noncohabiting men and 30.2 percent of the never-married/noncohabiting women did not engage in sex in the past year. These figures are similar to those for divorced, separated, or widowed individuals who were not cohabiting (23.8 percent of the men and 34.3 percent of the women, respectively). However, all the cohabiting men and all the divorced/separated/widowed cohabiting women had engaged in sex at least a few times in the past year (1.4 percent of the never-married cohabiting women reported not engaging in sexual activity in the past year). According to Laumann et al. (1994), then, while cohabitors on average are more likely to engage in sex than are respondents in any other heterosexual category, sexual activity occurs in nearly all marriages.

According to Laumann et al. (1994), cohabitors are also more likely than are other heterosexuals to engage in frequent sex. More specifically, 18.6 percent of never-married cohabiting men (11.1 percent of divorced/separated/widowed cohabiting men) and 16.7 percent of never-married cohabiting women (11.3% of divorced/separated/widowed cohabiting women) engaged in sex at least four times a week, compared with 7.3 percent of married men and 6.6 percent of married women. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983), who conducted face-to-face interviews and collected questionnaire data from a convenience sample of heterosexual married couples, heterosexual cohabiting couples, and gay and lesbian cohabiting couples, found more substantial differences. They report that while 45 percent of couples in short marriages (two years or less) engage in sex at least three times a week or more, the corresponding figure for short-term cohabitors is 61 percent. This pattern persists when one compares marital and cohabiting unions of two to ten years (27 percent of the marrieds and 38 percent of the cohabitors engage in sex at least three times a week) (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). Similarly, Rao and DeMaris (1995), using National Survey of Families and Households data, found that the mean monthly frequency of sexual intercourse among cohabitors was approximately 1.3 times the mean frequency of the legally married.

As was noted above, those who are not currently married and are not cohabiting are more likely than anyone else not to have engaged in sex in the last year (Laumann et al. 1994). However, never-married/noncohabiting men and women who do engage in sex are slightly more likely than are married men and women, respectively, to have sex four or more times a week (7.6 percent of the noncohabiting men versus 7.3 percent of the married men and 7.0 percent of the noncohabiting women versus 6.6 percent of the married women). The divorced/separated/widowed respondents who are not cohabiting are less likely than are married couples to engage in sex at least four times a week (4.6 percent of the noncohabiting men and 3.7 percent of the noncohabiting women engage in sex this frequently).

Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) also found that gay men engaged in sexual behaviors more frequently than did anyone else in their sample (67 percent of gay men in short-term relationships of less than two years reported engaging in sex three or more times a week, compared with 32 percent of gay men in unions of two to ten years). Lesbians engaged in sex less frequently than did anyone else in the sample (33 percent of lesbians in relationships of less than two years engaged in sex at least three times a week; only 7 percent of lesbians in unions of two to ten years engaged in sex that frequently). However, Laumann et al. (1994) found no statistically significant difference in the frequency of sex among gay men versus all men. Statistically significant differences also did not appear among the women (however, the sample size of lesbians was very small).

In summary, cohabitors engage in more sex than do other heterosexuals, but marital sex is not the anomaly that popular opinion asserts (in other words, that sex rarely occurs in marriage; see Blumstein and Schwartz [1983] for a discussion of this issue). However, sexual frequency does decline with increasing age and duration of marriage (see Donnelly 1993; Marsiglio and Donnelly 1991; Call et al. 1995). Findings concerning the frequency of sex among homosexual men and women compared with their heterosexual counterparts are mixed.

Number of Sexual Partners. Individuals vary in terms of their number of lifetime (since age 18) sexual partners as a function of gender and relationship status. First, women are much more likely than men to have had only one sex partner since age 18 (31.5 percent of women report one partner compared with 19.5 percent of men) (Laumann et al. 1994). Men are more likely to report having had at least eleven sexual partners since age 18 (32.9 percent of men and 9.2 percent of women reporting having had at least eleven sexual partners).

Married individuals are less likely than are individuals in any other relationship status to have had numerous sex partners since age 18 (Laumann et al. 1994). More specifically, 37.1 percent of married respondents have had only one sex partner since age 18, compared with 24.6 percent of the never-married cohabitors and none of the divorced/widowed/separated cohabitors (who have all had more than one sexual partner). Nearly 15 percent of the never-married/noncohabitors have had only one sex partner (12.3 percent have had no sex partners), and 11.1 percent of the divorced/widowed/separated noncohabitors have had only one sex partner (0.2 percent have had no sex partners). The percentage of respondents who have had two to four sex partners since age 18 is quite similar across all relationship statuses. However, married respondents are consistently less likely than are respondents in all other relationship statuses (with the exception of never-married cohabitors) to have at least five or more sex partners since age 18. Those in other relationship statuses are quite similar in terms of the percentages who have had at least twenty-one sex partners. Thus, while cohabitors are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors and do so more frequently than other heterosexuals do, they do not differ appreciably from heterosexuals in all other nonmarital relationship statuses in the likelihood of having a high number of sexual partners.

Sexual Satisfaction. Sexual frequency is associated with overall perceptions of the quality of one's sex life (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). Among those who engage in sex at least three times a week, the vast majority are satisfied with the quality of their sex lives (89 percent of both husbands and wives, 87 percent of male cohabitors, 88 percent of female cohabitors, 85 percent of gay men, and 95 percent of lesbians report satisfaction). The percentages of respondents who are satisfied with the quality of their sex lives decreases linearly with decreasing sexual frequency in all types of unions. For example, among those engaging in sex once a month or less, only 32 percent of husbands and wives are satisfied with the quality of their sex lives, compared with 4 percent of male cohabitors, 30 percent of female cohabitors, 26 percent of gay men, and 37 percent of lesbians. Other research has confirmed these findings (e.g., Call et al. 1995; Donnelly 1993).

The number of sexual partners a respondent has within the last year also influences physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction (Laumann et al. 1994). Married and cohabiting respondents who have had only one sexual partner in the last year are identical in terms of the the percentage reporting that they are extremely or very physically pleased with their relationships (87.4 percent and 84.4 percent, respectively). However, married and cohabiting respondents with more than one partner in the last year are less physically pleased by their primary partners (61.2 percent and 74.5 percent, respectively). The majority of those who are neither spouses nor cohabitors are also extremely or very physically pleased with their primary relationships regardless of whether they have one or more partners (78.2 percent with one partner are extremely or very physically pleased, compared with 77.9 percent of those with more than one partner).

Spouses with only one sexual partner in the last year are more likely than are respondents in the other union types to report that they are extremely or very emotionally satisfied with their relationships (84.8 percent; 75.6 percent of the cohabitors and 71.0 percent of those who are neither married nor cohabiting report that they are extremely or very emotionally satisfied). However, only 56.7 percent of marrieds with more than one partner report being extremely or very emotionally satisfied with their primary partners (the corresponding figures for cohabitors and those who are neither married nor cohabiting are 57.9 percent and 61.7 percent, respectively). In short, these numbers indicate that most individuals with one partner are quite physically pleased and emotionally satisfied with their relationships. Unfortunately, statistics are not provided comparing homosexual relationships to heterosexual relationships.

Overall Satisfaction with Life. As previous researchers have argued (e.g., Cupach and Comstock 1990; Edwards and Booth 1994; Greeley 1991; Lawrance and Byers 1995), sexual satisfaction is associated with overall relationship satisfaction, which is associated with overall satisfaction with life. Men and women are very similar in terms of their self-reports of overall life satisfaction (Laumann et al. 1994). There are, however, differences by marital status, sexual frequency, and number of partners. First, married respondents are more likely than are the never married, the divorced, the widowed, and the separated to state that they are extremely or very happy overall (67.5 percent, compared with 51.9 percent of never-marrieds, the next highest percentage) (Laumann et al. 1994). Similarly, they are less likely than are those in other statuses to report that they are fairly unhappy or unhappy with life most times (8.7 percent versus 15.2 percent of the never-married, the next lowest percentage in the sample). Unfortunately, Laumann et al. (1994) did not compare cohabitors, nonmarried/noncohabitors, or gays and lesbians to the legally married on this measure. However, they report that 62.5 percent of heterosexual men and 59.2 percent of heterosexual women are extremely or very happy, compared with only 47.1 percent of homosexual men and 45.6 percent of lesbians.

Respondents with only one sexual partner in the last year are happier overall (63.4 percent report being extremely or very happy) than are those with no sexual partners in the last year (40.7 percent) and those with more than one sexual partner (44.9 percent of those with two to four sexual partners and 47.2 percent of those with five or more sexual partners) (Laumann et al. 1994). Furthermore, the frequency of sex is associated with overall happiness in a generally linear fashion: The proportion of respondents stating that they are extremely or very happy increases with increasing frequency of sex in the past year unless the respondents engage in sex at least four times a week; the proportion reporting that they are extremely or very happy decreases slightly at this point. Again, Laumann et al. (1994) do not report distinctions among the respondents based on union status (married, cohabiting, homosexual, etc.).

Summary. These results clearly indicate that sex in marriage is not boring or non-existent for most couples and that unattached (not married and not cohabiting) individuals are not having all the fun. Indeed, because frequency of sex is associated with satisfaction with one's sex life and with overall feelings of happiness, one would expect married individuals to exhibit high levels of well-being in this regard, since most have steady access to a sexual partner. Also, variety of sexual experience as a function of having numerous partners is not associated with increasing feelings of happiness; instead, exclusive attachment to one sexual partner is associated with high levels of well-being for most respondents. These results raise the question: Why do some individuals engage in extra-marital/extradyadic sex?


Behavioral Incidence. Kinsey et al. (1948, 1953) estimated that approximately half of married men have engaged in extramarital intercourse; the corresponding proportion for married women is approximately one-fourth. More recent figures that are based on more rigorous sampling methods indicate that on average, approximately 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women have experienced extramarital sex (Laumann et al. 1994). In additional analyses conducted by Laumann et al. using 1991 General Social Survey data, 21.7 percent of men and 13.4 percent of women (both between the ages of 18 to 59, consistent with their own sample) reported having extramarital sexual experience. These figures are consistent with those of Wiederman (1997), who, using data from the General Social Survey, found that 22.7 percent of men and 11.6 percent of women have engaged in extramarital sex. In their analysis of the National AIDS Behavioral Survey, Choi et al. (1994) found that 2.9 percent of men in the national sample (4.1 percent of men in the urban sample) and 1.5 percent of women in the national sample (1.0 percent of women in the urban sample) had engaged in extramarital sexual activity within the last twelve months (these percentages would increase with longer periods of exposure to opportunities for extramarital sex). Laumann et al. (1994) found that 3.8 percent of the married respondents had engaged in extramarital sex within the last twelve months (they did not differentiate between men and women among marrieds).

Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) found that 26 percent of husbands and 21 percent of wives had been nonmonogamous in their current relationships. According to those authors, 29 percent of nonmonogamous husbands had only one extramarital partner, while 42 percent reported having two to five extramarital partners. The corresponding figures for wives are 43 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) also found that 33 percent of male cohabitors and 30 percent of female cohabitors had engaged in extradyadic sex. Thirty-six percent of nonmonogamous male cohabitors had only one extradyadic partner (49 percent reported having had two to five partners). Forty-four percent of nonmonogamous female cohabitors reported having had only one extradyadic partner (41 percent reported having had two to five partners). Furthermore, 82 percent of gay men have engaged in extradyadic sex; among them, only 7 percent reported having had only one extradyadic partner (43 percent reported having had at least twenty). Blumstein and Schwartz (1983) report that 28 percent of lesbians were nonmonogamous; 53 percent had only one extradyadic partner, while 42 percent had two to five.

Unfortunately, Laumann et al. (1994) did not present the percentages of those in nonmarital/noncohabiting relationships who are sexually nonexclusive. However, Forste and Tanfer (1996) found that 18 percent of dating women between ages 20 and 37 had engaged in a least one instance of extradyadic sex.

As these results indicate, when respondents are asked if they have engaged in extramarital/extradyadic sex, the majority (with the exception of gay men) report sexual exclusivity with their spouses/partners. Also, at young ages (those under age 40), there does not appear to be a gender difference in sexual nonexclusivity among married respondents (Wiederman 1997). Over the age of 40, however, men are more likely to have engaged in extramarital sex. For example, 29.3 percent of men in their forties have engaged in extramarital sex, compared with 19.3 percent of women in their forties (Wiederman 1997). The greatest gender difference was found among respondents in their sixties, among whom 34 percent of men but only 7.6 percent of women reported having engaged in extramarital sex. It appears that the extramarital sexual behavior of women is becoming more similar to that of men as younger cohorts age.

Attitudes. According to Sprecher and McKinney (1993), much research has been conducted on attitudes toward extramarital sex. Generally, the measures employed in these studies assess either normative attitudes (those concerning the acceptability of extramarital sex in general) or personal standards (those assessing the acceptability of extramarital sex for oneself). Most research on normative standards has found that the majority of Americans disapprove of sexual relations with someone other than a person's spouse (Davis 1980; Greeley 1991). For example, Laumann et al. (1994) found that 77.2 percent of their (unweighted) sample believe that extramarital sex is "always wrong." Similarly, using General Social Survey data and restricting the sample to those between the ages of 18 and 59, they found that 74.3 percent believe that extramarital sex is "always wrong." However, other studies measuring personal standards have found that among younger men (under age 40), 70 percent envision themselves as having extramarital affairs at some point (Pietropinto and Simenaur 1977). Furthermore, Atwater (1982) reports that current predictions assert that as young married women age, approximately 50 percent will engage in extramarital sex. Of course, there is considerable difference between actual behavior, attitudes toward behavior for oneself versus others, and predictions concerning the future, as these numbers indicate. It may be expected that statistics on actual behavior are the most accurate in determining the prevalence of extramarital sex.

Explanations for Extramarital/Extradyadic Sex. Why do individuals engage in extramarital/extradyadic sex? It appears that the answer to this question depends in part on one's gender and relationship status. Extradyadic sex appears to be part of the culture of male homosexuality (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). Indeed, it may be part of the socialization experience of most young men, who may enjoy high status among their peers for being sexually nonexclusive, while women are encouraged to be sexually exclusive (Peplau et al. 1977; Rubin 1990). Also, cohabitors in general (both men and women) tend to be much more liberal than are married couples on a variety of measures, such as premarital sex, abortion, and divorce (Blair 1994; Denmark et al. 1985; Macklin 1983a, 1983b). These liberal attitudes may correspond with more liberal attitudes and behaviors regarding sexuality, including extradyadic sexual behaviors.

Atwater (1982) conducted an in-depth study of married women who engaged in extramarital affairs with single men. She argues that married men and women engage in extramarital affairs for different reasons. Married women who have such affairs report that their self-esteem and confidence increase as a result of an affair; they report feeling more powerful, independent, and resourceful. Married men, in contrast, typically become involved in extramarital affairs in response to unsatisfying marital sex or the belief that their wives (or any one woman, for that matter) could not possibly satisfy all their sexual needs (Meyers and Leggitt 1975; Yablonsky 1979).

In a study of justifications for extramarital sex, Glass and Wright (1992), found that men and women differ in their approval of specific justifications. They found that men are more likely to support sexual justifications for extramarital sex, including engaging in extramarital sex for the purposes of enjoyment, curiosity, excitement, and novelty. Women, in comparison, are more likely to support love justifications (getting love and affection and falling in love) and emotional justifications (intellectual sharing, understanding, companionship, enhanced self-esteem, and respect for extramarital sex). The data collection methods employed in this study were not rigorous (questionnaires were handed out on the street to be completed and mailed back, with a response rate of 36 percent), and only respondents' attitudes were assessed, not actual justifications for their own extramarital sexual experience. However, this research suggests that men and women think differently about extramarital/extradyadic sex (as they do about other forms of sexuality, as evidenced by the sexual double standard; see Sprecher and McKinney 1993). Future research should continue to explore the use of justifications by men and women for engaging in extramarital/extradyadic sex.

The Character of Extramarital/Extradyadic Relationships. What are extramarital/extradyadic relationships like? The perspectives of those involved probably differ. Such relationships have been explored in depth only among legally married spouses involved with single individuals. Thus, the discussion here applies only to married couples, although the findings presented may apply to cohabitors as well.

In an extensive analysis of the relationships between married men and single women, Richardson (1985, 1988) discusses the power play inherent in an extramarital (and, by extension, an extradyadic) relationship. Popular opinion would suggest that the unmarried partner is the one with the power because at any moment she could reveal the affair to her married lover's wife. However, the partner who is married typically holds most of the power. Being married typically requires that the extramarital relationship be maintained in secret and thus in privacy. Often the home of the unmarried partner becomes "their" home because it provides the only safe setting in which the partners can come together. Furthermore, the married partner decides when and how much time the couple will spend together. The man is more likely to have competing obligations (notably a spouse and children), and so the unmarried partner often makes herself constantly available to her married lover whenever he can find time to spend with her. As a result, the single woman often constructs her entire life around her married lover, as she cannot obtain social support for her relationship from other family members and friends (because the relationship is maintained in secret). By being so dependent on her married lover, the single woman empowers him while giving up any control she formerly had.

Also, the unmarried partner has much to lose by revealing the affair to her married lover's wife (Richardson 1985). She may lose the relationship altogether, since the married partner's spouse would in most situations call for an immediate end to the relationship. Also, the betrayed spouse could destroy the reputation of the other woman by accusing her of being a home wrecker, causing emotional distress to the betrayed spouse and her children, causing financial problems, and so on. Furthermore, if the other woman works with her married lover, she may be labeled as "sleeping her way to the top," which could mean career and financial problems. This does not mean, however, that the single woman never reveals to the wife that her husband is having an extramarital affair. Block (1978) reports that some of these women (and men, in addition to the married lovers) intentionally plant evidence of an affair in an attempt to force a marital separation. However, it is not the case that the single woman could only benefit from such a revelation.

Popular opinion also states that the "wife is always the last to know" about her husband's extramarital liaisons, but it is more accurate to say that the wife is always the last to acknowledge an affair. Indeed, numerous researchers (e.g., Atwater 1982; Block 1978; Framo et al., 1975; Richardson 1985; Yablonsky 1979) have discussed the lengths to which a monogamous spouse will go to pretend that the affair does not exist, some bordering on the absurd. Atwater (1982) refers to such feigned ignorance of an affair as a "'pretense' context" (p. 86). Most wives pretend not to know about the affair because admitting knowledge of it would force them to feel compelled to respond to such a transgression (Framo et al. 1975). These women appear to have been lulled into a sense of complacency. They do not want to believe that their comfortable (although possibly dull) marriages may be in danger. Therefore, feigning ignorance may be a strategy to maintain the marriage (Richardson 1985). This may be especially important to wives who feel they have few alternatives to the marriage. Women in midlife, who have minimal chances of successfully competing with other women to find a long-term heterosexual relationship, and women who have been financially dependent on their husbands for many years may feel they have no choice but to stay with their husbands.

Similarly, a single woman interested in a permanent relationship with a married man (not all of these women are interested in permanent relationships, as that typically would entail performing housework and other services for the man, something their wives do instead; Richardson 1985) often denies the existence of the wife in order to more easily engage in her fantasies of permanence (Richardson 1985; Yablonsky 1979). Thus, feigned ignorance allows both women to indulge in their preferred fictions. The result, of course, is that the married man has the implicit permission of his wife to engage in the extramarital affair, while the single woman does not place undue pressure on him to divorce his wife.

Sometimes the evidence of an extramarital affair cannot be ignored. In these cases, there are several possible outcomes. One may be the immediate end of the extramarital affair (Framo et al. 1975). Another may be the eventual end of the marriage. Even if the marriage ends, however, it is unlikely that the newly divorced husband will marry the other woman even if he leaves his wife for her (Richardson 1985). A third possible outcome is that the married couple will arrive at an understanding of the husband's infidelity. For example, upon the discovery of the husband's extramarital liaison, the couple may engage in a tremendous and ugly conflict, followed by the husband promising to never stray again and the couple maintaining their relationship. However, few wives place much faith in a husband's new claims to fidelity (Ziskin and Ziskin 1973). Other couples construct an arrangement in which husbands are permitted to engage in extramarital sex, presumably because of their greater sexual need (Yablonsky 1979), but wives are expected to remain monogamous (Ziskin and Ziskin 1973). The wives typically accept this arrangement with resignation: They believe that they will not be able to stop their husbands from engaging in extramarital sex, and as long as the husband continues to remain married to the wife, does not allow himself to develop a deep emotional attachment to any of the other women with whom he is involved, and does not bring home a sexually transmitted disease, the stability of the marriage is not threatened (Block 1978; Yablonsky 1979; Ziskin and Ziskin 1973). A few wives may believe that they benefit from this situation, as they are granted the ability to pursue their own interests (rather than responding to the husband's needs), while the husband has some of his needs met by other women (Moultrup 1990). Finally, some spouses construct a new agreement in which both spouses are permitted to engage in extramarital sex (Myers and Leggitt 1975; Yablonsky 1979).

Summary. These results indicate that extra-marital/extradyadic sex is not a majority experience. Indeed, with the exception of gay men, most individuals in committed relationships are sexually monogamous. These results also indicate that single women involved in extramarital affairs are not necessarily home wreckers or are looking to "steal away" another woman's husband. Furthermore, the married men involved in these affairs are not the hapless victims of single women's feminine wiles, powerless to reject any and all sexual advances. Finally, the monogamous husbands and wives left at home while their spouses rendezvous with single lovers are not necessarily the fools that others make them out to be but are often making a conscious choice to ignore a spouse's infidelity because of a lack of attractive alternatives to the current relationship.

As this discussion illustrates, little research has been conducted on extradyadic affairs among cohabitors, gay men, and lesbians, with the exception being the collection of statistics on the incidence of such experiences, as was discussed above. While heterosexual cohabitors may experience the same conditions and responses to their own or their partners' infidelity as do the legally married, future research should specifically address the experience of extradyadic sex among them in addition to infidelity among homosexual couples.

As has been suggested throughout this article, the relationships of homosexuals may be both similar to and different from those of heterosexuals in important respects (as an example, recall the very high relative rates of nonmonogamy among gay men, while the rates of nonmonogamy are similar among lesbians and heterosexual wives). Indeed, the relationships of gay men and lesbians are similar to and different from each other in important ways as well. The following section presents the results of research indicating the incidence and prevalence of homosexuality for both men and women as well as how those relationships may be similar to and different from the relationships of heterosexuals.


Behavioral Incidence. In discussing statistics on the prevalence of homosexual experience among men and women, one must be extremely cautious. Even at the end of the twentieth century, homosexuality was still a decidedly stigmatized status. This can be seen in attitudes toward homosexuality: In their analysis of General Social Survey data, Davis and Smith (1987) found that 75 percent of adults in the United States believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are "always wrong." Only 12 percent of adults believe that sexual relations between two same-sex partners are "not wrong at all." This stigma probably results in some individuals claiming no homosexual experience when such experience has occurred or continues to occur for those individuals. Thus, one may suspect that reported statistics on the incidence and prevalence of homosexuality are inaccurately low.

Furthermore, homosexuality may be measured in a number of ways. For example, homosexuality may be defined as having same-gender sex partners, as expressing homosexual desires, or defining oneself as homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, and so on (Laumann et al. 1994). Such variability leads Laumann et al. to conclude that there is "unambiguous evidence that no single number can be used to provide an accurate and valid characterization of the incidence and prevalence of homosexuality in the population at large" (1994, p. 301).

Laumann et al. (1994) report different percentages of the incidence and prevalence of homosexuality depending on how homosexual experience is defined. For example, they found that 0.6 percent of men and 0.2 percent of women have exclusive homosexual experience; that is, these men and women have never engaged in sexual activity with a person of the opposite sex. However, when respondents were asked if they had had any same-gender sex partners since the age of 18, 4.9 percent of the men and 4.1 percent of the women reported having had same-gender sex partners. Furthermore, 9.1 percent of men and 4.3 percent of women reported having engaged in at least one sexual practice with a same-gender partner since puberty (these practices include oral and anal sex). Also, 2.0 percent of men and 0.9 percent of women define themselves as homosexual (0.8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women define themselves as bisexual; the remainder define themselves as heterosexual). In short, as these statistics illustrate, accurately determining the incidence and prevalence of homosexuality is both a political issue and a methodological issue.

The Character of Homosexual Relationships. Today most individuals maintain their intimate relationships in ways that differ from the traditional model (i.e., a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother). These various methods of maintaining relationships typically are referred to by social scientists and the larger public as "alternatives" rather than as legitimate family relationships (Boswell 1994; Scanzoni et al. 1989). Defining these relationships as alternatives to the standard (the traditional nuclear family) implies that such relationships are somehow not as legitimate or valid as the standard (Scanzoni et al. 1989).

A closer examination of these relationships, however, indicates that dyads that do not conform to the traditional standard are similar in certain important respects to traditional heterosexual relationships, particularly in the dyads' search for emotional intimacy and permanence (Scanzoni et al. 1989). More specifically, both heterosexual and homosexual individuals often seek potential partners who are similar to themselves in important ways (Murray 1996). For example, in her analysis of the relationships of homosexual dyads, Sherman (1992) interviewed numerous couples who specifically stated that they chose their current partners on the basis of shared behaviors or interests. For example, John and Reid, a couple that had been together for seventeen years, discussed how

when we first got together, we talked a great deal about life goals and how we felt about relationships. . . . We decided early on that we wouldn't allow anything to come between us. We've really worked at that. We've made sacrifices about where we wanted to live and what we did professionally to help the other out at different points (p. 60).

However, both men agreed that while their relationship comes before the pursuit of individual interests, "we both sense the importance of being individuals and helping the other toward self-actualization" (p. 60). Thus, this couple struck a balance between pursuing their individual autonomy and maintaining their relationship on the basis of their similar values.

Similarly, in a study of eighty-four lesbian couples, Weber (1998) interviewed numerous couples who emphasized the importance of shared interests in forming and maintaining their relationships. A 46-year-old educator and a 43-year-old registered nurse who had been cohabiting for two years reminisced about how they came together: "We met at a Democratic fund-raiser, so through our work there we gained respect for each other overall and realized that we are intellectual and political equals. We also noted that we are peers on an educational and vocational level" (p. 57).

It appears that similarity in relevant characteristics attracts potential long-term partners to each other regardless of whether the couple consists of heterosexual partners, gay men, or lesbians. These long-term couples share a strong sense of commitment and the expectation of permanence based on similar values, making their relationships similar.

However, the relationships of both gay men and lesbians differ in some important respects from those of heterosexual couples, mainly because of the lack of social support homosexual couples experience as a result of their stigmatized status. More specifically, legal and religious institutions for the most part do not acknowledge the legitimacy of homosexual relationships. While in some cities homosexual couples may obtain domestic partnership certificates that publicly acknowledge their relationships, they still may not legally marry in the United States (Wisensale and Heckart 1993; Worsnop 1992). Also, while some representatives of mainstream religious organizations are willing to perform commitment ceremonies (see Sherman 1992 for a discussion of couples who engaged in these ceremonies), the official position of Catholicism, Judaism, and mainstream Protestantism is not to acknowledge such relationships in a religious sense.

Homosexuals confront numerous issues that do not affect heterosexuals. For example, homosexuals often must come to terms with a sexual identity that is stigmatized by the society in which they live. They also must decide whether they will "come out" to family members, friends, and coworkers, recognizing that doing so may jeopardize their relationships and employment. Heterosexuals do not "come out" with their sexual identity, as it is assumed that they are straight, and such an identity is encouraged and valued. Also, heterosexuals are rarely concerned that their sexual identity may result in social ostracism. One may expect that such concerns have an impact on the relationships of homosexual couples, something that is not experienced by heterosexual couples.

Homosexual couples often are shunned by family members and heterosexual friends when they reveal their sexual identity and introduce their partners to others. As a result, friends who do support the couple become defined by that couple as family (Nardi 1992). Those friends may be more important to the support of homosexual relationships than are the friends and family members of heterosexual couples, who also enjoy societywide support for their relationships, as was noted above.

Homosexuals are clearly aware of their second-class status in U.S. society. As a 35-year-old Department of Defense worker explained (Weber 1998, p. 50): "I am a valid and vital human being. I am a taxpayer, a property owner, a veteran, a professional, and also happen to be a lesbian. It is one aspect of who I am, yet it is the only aspect by which I am judged." A 36-year-old school counselor shared her experiences with the pressure associated with her socially ascribed second-class status (Weber 1998, pp. 51–52):

I love my child. I work. I pay taxes. I follow the Ten Commandments. I have friends and relatives that love me and I love them. I would help anyone in their time of need. I live next door to you in a clean house with a manicured yard. I live with my spouse, my child, and two dogs. I'm so normal that I'm boring. Yet, while I call her my spouse, I cannot legally marry the love of my life. While I love and support and care for my child, she could be taken away from me at the drop of a hat. While I have a responsible job at which I am very good, I could get fired without recourse. While I pay taxes, I cannot claim "head of household" or file jointly with my partner. While I follow the Ten Commandments, many churches will not allow me to attend their services.

My family and friends are the most important things in my life, yet if many of my friends knew what my family included, they would cease to be my friends. How can this be? Because I am a lesbian, and according to the laws of this country and the moral judgments of most of you, I am a pervert that should not be allowed to exist.

In discussing both lesbian and gay male relationships together and comparing them to heterosexual relationships, it should not be assumed that homosexual relationships are similar regardless of the gender of the partners (indeed, it should not be assumed that all heterosexual relationships, all lesbian relationships, or all gay male relationships are similar). As was noted above, gay men and lesbians differ significantly with regard to sexual frequency, number of partners, and other characteristics. However, lesbians and gay men suffer from the same stigmatized status as homosexuals. Future research should continue to explore the various coping mechanisms employed by homosexual couples in dealing with this stigma as well as the ways in which their relationships are affected by it.

Summary. As this discussion illustrates, homosexual relationships are similar in a variety of ways to heterosexual relationships, particularly with regard to the degree of commitment in long-term relationships and the expectation for permanence. Although, as was noted earlier, the majority of gay men are sexually nonexclusive, one should not interpret this to mean that among gay men involved in long-term unions, few are committed to their partners as evidenced by sexual nonexclusivity. Indeed, there are heterosexual couples who engage in nonmonogamy yet remain committed to their primary unions (see the above discussion of extramarital sex). Monogamy should not be confused with commitment to one's relationship, and nonmonogamy should not be considered an indication of a lack of commitment.

Homosexual relationships do, however, differ in important respects from heterosexual relationships as a result of the second-class status of their unions. One may suspect that this stigma has an impact on the relationship dynamics of homosexual unions. Future research is needed to understand more fully how societal conditions affect these intimate relationships.


This article has demonstrated that even in examining only close, committed relationships, knowledge of sexual behavior is largely descriptive. Researchers need to explore in much greater depth the sexual dynamics of these relationships. More specifically, there is a need for a better understanding of how couples negotiate their sexual behaviors. Who decides how frequently a couple will engage in sexual activity and in what behaviors they will engage in and when? What is the negotiation process? Also, there is virtually no understanding of how the larger society affects the sex lives of individuals and couples, with the exception of theories of gender socialization in explaining differences between men and women. Of course, asking these questions is a political as well as a methodological endeavor that requires a strong financial and philosophical commitment on a societal basis. While the knowledge of sexual behavior in close relationships has progressed considerably the last few years, a greater understanding is needed of how individuals negotiate and manage their sex lives in the context of committed relationships rather than simply understanding what individuals do sexually. (Note: The authors wish to thank Susan Sprecher for her assistance on this article.)

(see also: Courtship; Sexual Behavior Patterns; Sexual Orientation)


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Marion C. Willetts

Janis C. Weber