Even though surveys vary greatly in their estimate of infidelity (from 25% to 70% of partners), the Kinsey Institute estimates that about 35% of husbands and 30% of wives have been unfaithful. Janus & Janus (1993) also found that more than 1/3 of husbands and more than 1/4 of wives have had an extramarital experience, but less than 1/4 of divorces are caused by affairs. Of course, as time goes on, more of the faithful will become unfaithful. It may be hard at first to separate the chronically unfaithful from those who have only one brief affair in 50 years, but these are very different people. Pittman (1989) distinguishes between adulterers and womanizers. Adulterers (males) usually have one affair, typically during a crisis–when passed over for a promotion or when his wife is very busy–and then feels guilty. Womanizers compulsively seduces women as a full-time avocation and hide this from their wives. They often claim to have a high sex drive and a lust for sexual variety. Their therapists say such men often don’t like women or even sex. Womanizers have a disease or an addiction, in which they see women as the enemy. They think of “being a real man” as escaping a woman’s control and as being someone who can powerfully manipulate and deceive women. Like a rapist, he seeks power and superiority. Many had fathers who escaped their mothers via work, divorce, or alcohol. There are some 12-step programs for womanizers. Advice for therapists of people who have had affairs is given by Eaker-Weil and Winter (1993) and Brown (1991).
On the positive side, Greeley, Michael, & Smith (1990) report that a high percentage of married people (ranging from 91% and 94% for men and women under 30 to 95% or more of both sexes over 30) were monogamous, i.e. had only one sex partner, during the last year. But, the years roll on and those 5% and 9 percents add up. However, most marriages today are faithful and the belief in being faithful to your spouse has steadily increased during recent decades, even during the time that premarital sex was being approved of more and more.
Unfaithfulness is always a devastating blow to the partner. We feel crushed, like a part of us had been ripped out. We may be very angry or sad or both. It isn’t just that our partner wanted and did have sex, the ultimate expression of love, with someone else, but he/she lied to us, betrayed us, and had so little concern for our feelings. Yet, two thirds of marriages survive infidelity. Many people say they would “immediately throw the b——/b—- out.” The situation is more complex than that. A brief affair doesn’t always mean there is a serious problem with the marriage. Men having an affair are not more unhappy with their marriage than faithful men; women are more unhappy. Nevertheless, infidelity is a huge problem even if the marriage survives. Putting love back together is a long-term, difficult task in our culture (it’s no big deal in some cultures). The difficulties for survivors of child abuse are some what exaggerated because the fact their partner has had an affair just serves to reinforce all of their negative issues that have been accompanying as a result of their abusive past.
We need to realize how widely the rules about sex differ from culture to culture: we expect our spouse to be faithful, but 75% of societies are polygamous.
Frank Pittman (1989) clarifies some of the misconceptions about infidelity:
No, not everyone has affairs; about one third to one half of us do (although some new research suggests maybe up to 73%) over a period of years. Women, especially younger employed women, are having about as many affairs as men, but the difference is that men frequently have brief affairs or one-night-stands while women are more likely to get emotionally involved. Only about 20% of married men are continuous, compulsive philanderers or womanizers. Pittman’s experience is that womanizers usually get divorced (often after many years). Faithful partners rarely get divorced.
No, having an affair doesn’t always mean that love is gone. Both men and women sometimes just want sex, not love. Occasionally, a spouse has an affair as a warning or a “wake up call” for his/her partner. Often an affair reflects an ego that needs inflating. Or, a person finds him/herself in a tempting situation or in a friendship which gets out of sexual control. Affairs frequently mean that the wayward spouse has a problem, not that he/she doesn’t love you any more. Nevertheless, it often inadvertently ends in divorce. Pittman says with honest work on the marriage, couples therapy, and with forgiveness (once), the marriage can gradually revive.
No, the “other woman/man” is not always beautiful/handsome or sexually “hot.” Pittman says the choices are mostly neurotic or a mishandled friendship. Sex is not usually the main purpose. No, the deceived faithful spouse did not “make me do it.” The unfaithful one makes the decision to “act out” his/her feelings via an affair. No, it isn’t best to keep your affair secret or to pretend you don’t know about your partner’s affair. For sake of the marriage, the mess of the affair and other problems need to be dealt with. Affairs often die when exposed; marriages often die when problems are unexposed. Only 1 in 7 new marriages resulting from an affair are successful.
No, the best approach is not to “keep it a secret .” In fact, the suppressed emotions erupt and the marital problems multiply; thus, much honesty and work, usually in couples therapy, is almost always needed to salvage the marriage. (An isolated, meaningless one night stand may be another matter.) If you are tempted to be unfaithful, read Pittman’s book or one of several others, e.g. Lawson (1989) or Linquist (1989), before doing so, to find out what you are facing and why. It’s seldom worth it. If your spouse has been unfaithful to you, read Golabuk (1990) or Dolesh & Lehman (1985). Pulling your marriage back together is possible (Reibstein & Richards, 1994; Weil, 1994; Spring, 1997–recommended), even trust, forgiveness, and intimacy is sometimes possible.