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The roots of infidelity
Surprise: Many in happy marriages commit adultery
Yearning for variety can warp people's judgment
A simple plea for reassurance — "You'd tell
me, wouldn't you?" — is about all the discussion many couples
can manage on the topic of marital infidelity. That's one reason social
scientists have left the study of hidden love largely to novelists and
"Although we can describe sexual desire, we don't
know how to measure it scientifically," says Dr. Stephen Levine,
a psychiatrist at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine
and co-editor of the Handbook Of Clinical Sexuality, a guide to help doctors
address sexual concerns.
For many years, most of what scientists knew about infidelity
came from marital therapists' interviews with clients or from psychologists
who asked men and women to answer questions about hypothetical affairs.
In the past few years, however, researchers have begun to conduct larger,
more rigorous surveys, asking about real experiences. The evidence has
contributed to an emerging body of thinking about who cheats, when and
Contrary to one commonly held view, many people who report
being in happy marriages commit adultery. Their yearning for variety warps
their judgment, even when they fully appreciate the risks of infidelity.
For when an affair is revealed, clinicians report, the impact on the marriage
is usually catastrophic.
"Those who assume that only bad people in bad marriages
cheat can blind themselves to their own risk," says Beth Allen, a
researcher at the University of Denver who, with colleagues David Atkins,
of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and the late Shirley
Glass, a Baltimore family psychologist, recently completed an extensive
review of infidelity research.
Several recent surveys suggest the majority of people
do not cheat, either because they cannot bear the thought of betrayal,
cannot drum up the interest or perhaps have already known the profound
pain of losing an important relationship.
Yet U.S. studies find that more than one in five men
do have an affair, at least once in their lives, and that women are now
about as likely as men to cross the line.
The first few years of marriage are a dangerous time,
new research shows.
An analysis conducted in 2000 by sociologists in New
York found two distinct patterns in the timing of affairs. A married woman's
likelihood of straying is highest in the first five years and falls off
gradually with time, according to the survey of 3,432 U.S. adults. Men
have two high-risk phases, one during the first five years of marriage
and, the second, after the 20th year.
The psychological underpinnings of early affairs often
are tied up with the vows themselves, some experts say. As well-intentioned
as they can be, vows are still open-ended pledges — of unknown cost,
of blind sacrifice. Very often, their gravity doesn't sink in right away;
and young married men and women often have a lingering appetite for the
flirtation and sexually charged attention that was the lifeblood of their
single lives, marital therapists say.
"One reason for starting an affair, especially for
young couples, is rebelliousness against the vows, against the very idea
that `I'm never ever going to make love to another person,'" says
Joel Block, a clinical psychologist in New York and author of Naked Intimacy.
Even when people welcome the sacrifice, and honour vows
without reservation, the promises can lend a false sense of security.
The commitment is firm, but the imagination may lag behind.
In one recent study, University of Vermont psychologists
surveyed 180 couples who were either married or living with a partner.
Fully 98 per cent of the men and 80 per cent of the women reported having
a sexual fantasy about someone other than their partner at least once
in the previous two months. The longer couples were together, the more
likely both partners were to report having fantasies. The frequency and
vividness of these thoughts may themselves lead a man or woman to believe
their love for a partner is fading, Levine says.
Then something happens. A blowout argument. A promotion.
A school reunion, the loss of a job, an e-mail from an old boyfriend.
Some triumph or loss that opens a door through which a person is now primed
to walk. The delights of an affair have already been richly imagined.
The consequences are now minimized: "Many couples survive affairs;
stop depriving yourself; it's an experience, part of the richness of life,"
a person might tell herself or himself.
"Whatever the final provocation," Levine says,
"the person decides — actively makes a choice to participate
at every step along the way."
The evidence that this kind of logic can lead people
astray from apparently satisfying, long-lived, stable relationships is
circumstantial but compelling. In one recent analysis, researchers at
the University of California, Irvine, found that people who claimed their
marriage was "very happy" were two times as likely to cheat
on their spouses as those who said their marriage was "extremely
The given reasons for these affairs range widely. In
research for a book, Diane Shader Smith, a Los Angeles writer, conducted
in-depth interviews with more than 175 married women who had had or were
currently involved in an affair.
There were "revenge" flings: One woman had
a brief affair after she found out that her (now former) husband had cheated
on her. There were "motivational" flings: A Los Angeles doctor's
wife had affairs whenever she needed an impetus to lose weight. And certainly
love can come into play: One middle-age woman living out in the country
had a 10-year affair with her neighbour's husband.
"One thing many had in common was chemistry,"
Smith says. "They all described that, the chemistry with another
man, the casual brush against the arm, that orgasm-on-the-spot feeling,"
she says. Most of the women interviewed were unapologetic, Smith says;
many had kept their secret, and preferred to stay in their marriage, risks
and all. In previous surveys, men have expressed similar motives, although
primarily focused on the thrill of sensual pleasure.
Psychologists may never know the true impact of infidelity
on marriage. Most couples do not seek therapy, whether an affair is suspected
Among couples who do pursue counselling, however, there's
little doubt: Infidelity hits like a hurricane. In one recent study of
62 Israeli couples seeing therapists to help cope with affairs, one-third
eventually divorced; about half limped along in still-troubled marriages,
according to researchers at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.
Only nine of the couples, or 14 per cent, seemed to bounce
back and show signs of real growth and optimism in their marriage, the
Full credit for this news article goes to: TORONTO STAR