Most couples would acknowledge that there is a difference between a one night stand and an affair. The former may well be a stupid mistake, but long term infidelity involves committed and constant lying. Some researchers say there’s a 50–50 chance today that one partner will have an affair – either physical or emotional – during a marriage and it is estimated that roughly 30 to 60% of all married individuals (in the United States) will engage in sexual infidelity at some point during their marriage. A 1997 study by Kristina Gordon found “more than half of the marriages that experience infidelity ended in divorce”, and in his book “Grow Up” psyciatrist Frank Pittman, suggests that infidelity is involved in 90% of first time divorces.
According to Pittman there are four types of infidelity: accidental infidelity (an unintended act of, usually drunken, carelessness); the romantic affair (you meet somebody wonderful while you are going through a big crisis in your life); the marital arrangement (comfort while you avoid dealing with a marriage that won’t die and won’t recover); and the philanderer (men who continually need their masculinity affirmed or women who are the daughters or ex-wives of philanderers). The self assessment questionnaire here helps people work out what type of affair they are having. You can also find objective information on why infidelity occurs here and here.
Though some relationships do survive infidelity, Dr Helen Fischer maintains that “betrayal is betrayal anywhere in the world and it is unrealistic to believe that we can evolve to share our partners.” As research professor at Rutgers University she has studied patterns of marriage and divorce in 58 societies and she says that if infidelity were feasible, “polyamory would be huge, but it isn’t because we don’t share easily.”
Infidelity is presumed to be a largely male pursuit and experiments conducted with different species support the hypothesis that males are not, by nature, monogamous. For example, if a male rat is put in a cage with a female rat, after an initial frenzy of copulation the male rat loses interest in the female and it is very difficult to persuade it to copulate with her. However, if a different female is put in the cage there is a renewed frenzy of copulation. This process can be repeated until the rat practically dies of exhaustion.
Though a couple beginning an affair – new female rat in the cage – can never believe that the adrenaline rush will ever wear off, research shows that if a couple have not converted an affair into a commitment within two months, they never will. If they are lucky, they can slip back into their primary relationship, however the trouble with infidelity is that the problems that propel a person into the arms of another are all still there when the liason ends and infidels then find themselves judging a ten-year,-two-kid commitment against an idealised relationship that was never subject to the same stresses and strains as their marriage. It is simply not a fair comparison because the day-to-day domestic dust that gradually builds up on the once shiny surface of a marriage never has time to settle in an affair. Half hour trysts in hotel rooms stay honeymoon fresh courtesy of maid service and minibars, whereas at home, the greying sheets hold no surprises, and one has to wash them afterwards. Part time love is exempt from gas bills and trips to the supermarket and cleaning out the guinea pig cage. Pitch that against the excitement of an affair and the result will always be Ennui Nil. Adrenaline 10.
Obviously, infidelity is often a ‘symptom’ of a troubled relationship because people who are happily married don’t tend to screw around, but surveys conducted by the University of Chicago surveys between 1990 and 2002 established that 27% of people who reported being happily married also admitted to having an affair. Why? Well, sometimes the opportunity just presents itself and a desire for excitement or experimentation propels the betrayal, but in reality that kind of unconscious behaviour is rare. Scratch the surface of someone who walks blindly into an affair and you reveal someone who is desperately looking for a way of avoiding conflict, or intimacy, or you find a person who is immature, or addicted to thrill seeking, or you find someone who is so confused about being married that they find it easier to transfer responsibility for their issues onto a third party so that a more complex set of problems is reduced to “Should I leave my spouse for my lover? Or not?
Though people who are having affairs do their best not to give the game away at home, the minute one person starts lying, the atmosphere shifts. Infidelity creates a distance between two people who are meant to be connected and eventually the pressure of sustaining two relationships and keeping one secret, eventually becomes an enormous strain. As Phillip Hodson, psychotherapist and fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy says, “The price you pay for having an affair is learning to live with the guilt.” The pressure and anxiety that go hand in hand with keeping a secret from your family can cause behavioural changes which bring on depression, and it is also known that people with heart conditions have a statistically higher chance of having a stroke during sex if they are being unfaithful. The intrigue and the secrecy can make life interesting but ultimately, infidelity is dangerous, exhausting and terribly, terribly complicated – which is why most people avoid it.
Some thoughts on Sexual Variety
Men are generally excited by the idea of sexual variety, a phenomenon that is known as the Coolidge effect. The term derives from a tale about former United States President, Calvin Coolidge. One day President and Mrs. Coolidge were visiting a government farm. Soon after their arrival they were taken off on separate tours. When Mrs Coolidge passed the chicken pens she paused to ask the man in charge if the rooster copulates more than once each day.”Dozens of times” was the reply. “Please tell that to the President” Mrs. Coolidge requested. When the President passed the same pens and was told about the rooster, he asked “same hen every time?” “ Oh no, Mr President, a different one each time”. The president nodded slowly, then said “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge”’ (Bermanent 1976).