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Those Cheating Hearts

A simple plea for reassurance:
"You'd tell me, wouldn't you?"

It's just 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 poets.

"Although we can describe sexual desire, we don't know how to measure it scientifically," said Dr. Stephen B. Levine, a psychiatrist 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 why.

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 usually is catastrophic.

"Those who assume that only bad people in bad marriages cheat can blind themselves to their own risk," said Beth Allen, a researcher at the University of Denver who want to contact your for some extramaritial fun, you can answer quickly and not miss out on the booty call! It is so easy to find sex in colleagues David Atkins, of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and the late Shirley Glass, a Baltimore family psychologist, recently completed an extensive review of infidelity research.

Several recent surveys suggest that the majority of people do not cheat, either because they cannot bear the thought of betrayal, cannot drum up the interest or perhaps already have known the profound pain of losing an important relationship. Yet studies find that more than one in five men do have affairs 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.

Vows provoke rebellion

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 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,'" said Joel Block, a clinical psychologist in New York and author of "Naked Intimacy" (McGraw Hill, 2003).

Even when people welcome the sacrifice, and honor vows without reservation, the prom- ises 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 percent of the men and 80 percent 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 said.

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 already have 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 said, "the person decides -- actively makes a choice to participate at every step along the way."

'Very happy' are at risk

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 at 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 happy."

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 or still were having affairs.

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 neighbor's husband.

"One thing many had in common was chemistry," Smith said. "They all described that, the chemistry with another man, the casual brush against the arm, that orgasm-on-the-spot feeling," she said.

Most of the women interviewed were unapologetic; 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 or revealed.

Among couples who do pursue counseling, 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, 14 percent, seemed to bounce back and show signs of real growth and optimism in their marriage, the psychologists reported.

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Affairs Fact

30% Of online relationships evolve into real-world affairs. A staggering nine out of ten women in relationships flirt with other men on a regular basis.

Affairs Fact

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.

Affairs Fact

In a survey 98 percent of men and 80 percent of women surveyed reported having a sexual fantasy about someone other than their partner at least once in the previous two months. Bet it's higher!

Affairs Fact

The chance of a married woman having an affair is highest within the first five years and falls off gradually with time. Men have two high-risk phases, one during the first five years of marriage and, the second, after the 20th year.

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