The scarlet letter may be fading as a badge of shame, with religion, courts and society as a whole working to reconcile the long-cherished ideal of monogamy with the all-too-common reality of adultery.
With estimates that about one-third to one-half of married persons have engaged in extramarital affairs, some say attitudes toward adultery are shifting from outright condemnation to a sort of acceptance, if a rather uneasy one.
* Marriage therapists say they believe couples are more likely today to try to keep their marriages together after an infidelity than head straight for divorce.
* Lawyers say adultery has less shock value in divorce proceedings, although some believe it still plays an outsized role in alimony and child support rulings.
* Sociologists say that even as polls continue to show strong opposition to adultery, the loosening up of sexual attitudes in general over recent decades has given infidelity less of a stigma that it had in the past.
"It's more acceptable and, in some ways, it's almost expected," said sociologist Lillian Rubin. "The mere fact that the Presbyterian commission comes out with a report talking in a responsible matter about . . . relationships outside the context of marriage is an extraordinary shift from anything we would have seen 20 years ago."
The Presbyterian report on sexuality -- the most hotly debated topic of that church's national convention, recently concluded in Baltimore -- did not, of course, come out in favor of adultery. But by acknowledging sexuality beyond the traditional marital relationship -- generally the only one sanctioned by mainstream religion -- the report has led to serious discussion, if not acceptance, of alternatives. Even though the Presbyterian organization ultimately rejected the report's suggestions, observers say, the subject remains open.
"There seems to be a lot of institutions being questioned, and marriage is one of them," said James Patterson, co-author of the recently published book, "The Day America Told the Truth," which gives the results of a national survey on moral attitudes. "You see an awful lot of dissatisfaction out there. You see the depth of miscommunication. This whole country needs a marriage counselor."
But marriage counselors themselves say that infidelity is not necessarily a blow against the institution of marriage. Rather, they say, couples increasingly are realizing that marriage is an imperfect institution, one that requires constant upkeep yet is generally worth upholding even in the face of infidelity.
"People are more willing to take it as a sign to work on the marriage and not just get divorced," said Thomas L. Wright, a Baltimore psychologist. "Instead of saying goodbye, they're more willing to go for help."
"I would say there is less denial than before," said Arthur Schwartz, a professor of family and couples counseling at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "It's not that people are approving of extramarital affairs, it's that it's no longer hidden."
The increased willingness of people to talk about sexual matters and seek help for them is part of the fruits of the sexual revolution, said Ms. Rubin. People are more sexually experienced entering a marriage today than in the past, and sex is more widely and openly discussed, said the Queens College professor and author of "Erotic Wars: Whatever Happened to the Sexual Revolution."
"The wide range of exposure people have to sex makes it hard to think of forever monogamous relationships," she said. "People have a fair amount of knowledge about sex. They know good sex and bad sex. They know how sexual passion gets muted over a long-term relationship."
Yet while attitudes may be shifting on a broad, societal level, not much may have changed on the personal level. Marriage therapists say extramarital affairs are no less devastating than they ever were.
"The betrayal and the pain and the hurt is very strong and severe," Mr. Wright said. "Many couples can find ways of getting past that and strengthening the relationship. But that doesn't mean it's not hard work."
Katharine Brainard, a Rockville woman whose husband's infidelity led to a divorce that she graphically illustrated in a quilt, said that any society-wide change doesn't have much effect on the individual level.
"It probably hurts as much as it ever did. Having made this quilt, it's opened up a faucet," said Ms. Brainard, whose quilt showed such revenge scenes as a car running over her ex-husband's girlfriend. "Women come up to me and tell me what happened to them.
"It's taboo to talk about it, about him and his affair. I was saying things you weren't supposed to say," she added. "That's why the quilt was so threatening to men. You're not supposed to talk about it, which I think makes it easier for men to have affairs."
As with any sweeping societal trend, people change first, and institutions like law and religion later. Maryland, like other states, still considers adultery a crime; it is a misdemeanor punishable by a $10 fine.
Yet there are signs of change elsewhere in the law, at least as it regards divorce.
Divorce court, for example, is becoming less a morality play and more an economic transaction, according to some lawyers. In the past, the issue of who was at fault for the split -- especially in the case of adultery -- played more of a role, they say.
"It is 1991, and I don't think [adultery] shocks the conscience as much as it used to," said Tom Wolfe, a Baltimore lawyer and chairman of the family law committee of the city's Bar Association. "I think in this day and age, it's a lot more acceptable. . . . I think the focus these days is more on the economic aspects of divorce, on what to do with marital property."
Longtime attorney and former judge Tom Watts also has noted the shift.
"Society has changed," said Mr. Watts, who has seen his share of divorce cases as both a Baltimore Circuit judge and a practicing attorney. "When I first started, you went into divorce court . . . there had to be one innocent party, one guilty party," he recalled. "You would get up there and testify, 'I'm a loving, faithful, chaste wife, blah, blah, blah.' And the witness would say, 'Oh, yes, she was.'
PD "Now, they'll bring their boyfriend into the courtroom with them
and get a divorce."
Assigning fault for the breakup "is still a factor," he said. "But it's just one of the 11 factors to be considered in determining alimony."
One judge, however, said vestiges of the past remain. Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Rosalyn B. Bell found that fault for the break-up, a category that includes adultery, played a big role in Montgomery County alimony rulings: "I found no case where women had gotten indefinite alimony when they had committed adultery," she said.
She added, however, that some judges are becoming "more realistic," matching what the rest of the community believes.
That, perhaps, is what's behind the attitudinal change toward adultery -- the growing realization of the gulf between belief and behavior.
In opinion polls, people generally say they're opposed to adultery.
"About three-quarters have always said it's wrong," said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey, an annual poll taken every year by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. "But that doesn't mean infidelity isn't occurring."
Indeed, surveys on how many people engage in extramarital affairs, though varying widely, tend to put the number at between 30 percent and 50 percent. A recent poll of 300 Baltimoreans, conducted by Mr. Wright and his partner, psychologist Shirley Glass, for example, found about one-third of the women and one-half of the men had engaged in extramarital affairs.
"We still give voice to a set of beliefs that we don't live by," said Ms. Rubin, the sociologist. "I think we're in a stage of transition. My hunch is we will remain at the initial level wanting very much to have monogamous relationships, and we'll be struggling to make belief and behavior more consistent."
* Thirty-one percent of all married Americans have had or are now having an affair.
* Only 28 percent of those cheating on their spouses intend to end the affair soon. (The average length of an affair is almost one year.)
* Of those having affairs, only 17 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women intend to leave their spouses. Even fewer (9 percent men and 6 percent women) plan to marry their current lovers.
* Sixty-two percent of America's adulterers think there's nothing wrong with the affairs they're having.
From a survey of 2,000 adult Americans, conducted in 50 locations around the country, by the authors of "The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe about Everything that Really Matters."