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. It's rarely a genuine request: Everyone knows it could happen, but very few of us would really want to know that it did. The topic of infidelity is off limits for most couples.
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 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 last few years, however, researchers have finally 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 is usually 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, with 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. "They're unprepared for the risky times in their own lives, the dangerous situations when, if they aren't careful, they'll suddenly be very tempted," Allen said.
Taking a closer look
The prevalence of infidelity is coming into sharper focus. 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 have already known the profound pain of losing an important relationship. Yet the studies find that more than one in five Americans 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 clearly a red zone, 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 again, after the 20th year.
The psychological underpinnings of early affairs often are tied up with the vows themselves, some experts believe. 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.
Newlyweds' expectations of wedded bliss can set them up for profound disappointment, after the florists and caterers are gone and the reality of living with a spouse becomes clear. And if there are no children on the way, to deepen and broaden the character of the bond, the yearning for variety and attention outside the marriage often still runs very high, psychologists find.
"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 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% of males and 80% of females 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; but the imagined flings were still very common in young married couples, who often assumed that they should be immune.
In short, almost everyone is doing it -- at least in their heads.