When true love and sacred vows aren't enough


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. 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," says 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 past few years, however, researchers have 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," says Beth Allen, a researcher at the University of Denver. Allen, with colleagues David Atkins, of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and the late Shirley Glass, a Baltimore family psychologist, recently completed an extensive review of infidelity research.

One in five do it

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, 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 a dangerous time, 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, the second, after the 20th year.

The psychological underpinnings of early affairs often are tied up with the vows themselves, some experts say. 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.

"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).

Thinking about others

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 percent of the men and 80 percent of the women 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. The frequency and vividness of these thoughts may themselves lead a man or woman to believe their love for a partner is fading, Levine said.

Then something happens. A blowout argument. A promotion. A school reunion, the loss of a job, an e-mail from an old boyfriend. Some triumph or loss that opens a door through which a person is now primed to walk.

"Whatever the final provocation," Levine said, "the person decides -- actively makes a choice to participate at every step along the way."

The evidence that this kind of logic can lead people astray from apparently satisfying, long-lived, stable relationships is circumstantial but compelling. In one recent analysis, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that people who claimed their marriage was "very happy" were two times as likely to cheat on their spouses as those who said their marriage was "extremely happy."

Psychologists may never know the true impact of infidelity on marriage. Most couples do not seek therapy, whether an affair is suspected or revealed. Among couples who do pursue counseling, however, there's little doubt: Infidelity hits like a hurricane.

In one recent study of 62 Israeli couples seeing therapists to help cope with affairs, one-third eventually divorced; about half limped along in still-troubled marriages, according to researchers at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. Only nine of the couples, or 14 percent, seemed to bounce back and show signs of real growth and optimism in their marriage, the psychologists reported.

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