ORLANDO, Fla. — From one-night stands to clandestine relationships that last for years, the cheatin' heart of married America is beating a fevered pulse.
Some experts now estimate that as many as 50% to 70% of married people in this country have been involved in extramarital affairs.
"It seems to be something that happens a little later on in a marriage, which is significant because the baby boomers are now in that stage of life and the prevalence is increasing," said David Moultrup, a fellow of the American Assn. for Marriage and Family Therapy who practices in Arlington, Mass.
That increasing prevalence attracted hundreds of Moultrup's colleagues to his recent seminar on extramarital affairs at a national convention for the 13,000-member association.
"The average length of the marriage is in the 14-year range when an affair happens," Moultrup said. "Other critical times in which I would certainly expect it to occur are in the first two years of marriage and in the seven-year range."
Men who scratch the notorious itch typically are 37 to 39. Women usually chafe between 34 and 37. Moultrup said the percentage of women having affairs is increasing faster than men, but that may be a reflection of women's overall social gains.
"An affair is not a sexual event," Moultrup said. "It's an emotional event. And how big an event depends on the increase in the distance in the marriage.
"Sex is a medium of exchange in an emotional event."
Moultrup said Hollywood and fiction writers belie reality with portrayals of affairs in which the husband seeks his secretary's companionship when his wife grows cold or the wife takes a lover because her husband is too wrapped up in business to shower her with the attention she craves.
"An affair is an attempt to put distance in an uncomfortable relationship," he said. "It is not a reaction to too much distance in a relationship.
"Couples must be able to maintain a comfortable balance between togetherness and individuality. It's when a person starts feeling suffocated" that he or she starts looking outside the marriage," Moultrup said.
He used as examples the man who has an affair when his wife becomes pregnant for the first time and the woman who takes a lover when one of her parents dies.
The man is not "fooling around" because his wife has become less sexually attractive to him, Moultrup said. Rather, the affair comes in reaction to anxiety over becoming a parent, being more solidly entrenched with a family.
The affair stimulated by a parent's death indicates an unresolved tension or conflict with that parent. Sometimes the person will have an affair with someone who represents qualities the son or daughter would like to have known in the parent.
And what of the paramour?
"There are times when the third person is trained to become a lover, and that training begins very early," Moultrup said, offering the example of a woman whose life with her father was very dull.
"She became a lover rather than a wife because she saw marriage as stifling. It again speaks to a person's fear of suffocation. Being a lover gave her the freedom to be connected and the freedom to be separate."
While people who become lovers believe they alone can provide some key emotional element to another person's life, they also choose their role as lovers because they have a need to distance themselves from the person with whom they are involved.
Who is most likely to become the paramour?
"They're usually best friends or co-workers or business acquaintances," Moultrup said. "It's often purely a matter of availability."
He said the spouse often gives signs, albeit subtle, that an affair is in progress.
"There is some dispute about whether the uninvolved spouse knows about the affair," he said. "But it seems to me the uninvolved spouse always knows when" the mate is not as emotionally available as he or she used to be, he added.
Moultrup said there is no easy formula for preventing extramarital affairs.
"It's not like you can take Vitamin C to prevent a cold," he said. "Obviously, establishing and maintaining good communications and being able to identify problems and pressures that come about is very important."
Potential problem areas include job changes, family deaths and pregnancy, he said.
Moultrup, who has a master's degree in social work and spent five years on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the high incidence of affairs should not deter people from developing friendships and relationships with people outside their marriage.
"We've got to understand people can have attractions without it being the end of the world," he said. "It's a question of what evolution the attraction takes and what kind of effect it has on the primary relationship."