Chapter 1.
Contours of Affairs: Attitudes, Frequency and Social Impact

Long before climbing a mountain, wise climbers familiarize themselves with it. They look at photos or view it in person. They know the length of the approach trail, the length of the ascent path, the gain in vertical elevation, the interaction with the weather and seasons, and all the unique dangers associated with the mountain. They get to know the contours of the mountain as protection against a climbing tragedy. Similarly, knowing the features and contours of infidelity in and of itself may save some couples from a marital tragedy.

A 2001 Gallup poll found that 91 percent of Americans consider it to be either always or almost always wrong for married people to have sexual relations with someone other than their spouses. In response to a separate but related question, 89 percent say that "married men and women having an affair" is morally unacceptable.

Western marriage vows include some variation of the phrase "I take you to have and to hold from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part, and thereto I pledge you my faith." In the formal ceremony of marriage we publicly declare our faithfulness—our fidelity. We mean it when we say it, don't we? What goes wrong?

The Pervasiveness of Infidelity

How many people violate their expressed vow of fidelity? Lots, al-though no one can get a firm handle on how many people stray. The estimates vary widely. Two prolific researchers on sexuality and infidelity, David Buss and Todd Shackelford, summarized nine relevant empirical studies on the frequency of infidelity:

A conservative interpretation of these figures suggests perhaps half of all married couples will experience infidelity over the course of their marriage. Cohabitation research consistently reveals even higher rates for infidelity.

The likelihood of infidelity tends to increase over time. A nationwide study of 3,432 asked the question "Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?"

Put more simply:

Pioneering infidelity researcher Shirley Glass reviewed 25 studies and concluded that 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have had extramarital intercourse in the course of their life. She further adds that the inclusion of emotional affairs would increase these totals by 15-20 percent.

Research still has a long way to go in this arena. The definition of infidelity poses challenges. Consider the variation between a sexual affair, an emotional affair and erotic contact not involving intercourse.

The Geography of Infidelity

Eight percent of married adults from major cities in the United States report having extramarital sex within the previous year. Contrast that with 2 percent from rural areas and 4 percent from the suburbs.Given these statistics possibly one out of every 12.5 married adults living in large cities engage in an extramarital affair in the course of a year. At first this statistic may seem mysterious. My guess is that the simple rule of proximity largely explains this.

I grew up in a rural area of southwestern Indiana. As a senior in high school I took a solo train trip to Washington, D.C., by way of Chicago. As I walked around Chicago I encountered strip clubs for the first time. Later I did postgraduate training in Manhattan. In my hotel room I encountered adult shows on TV for the first time. Perhaps there were adult films and strip clubs in southwestern Indiana, but in a rural setting they're out of view; in a big city they're in plain sight.

Then there is the other world to consider—the cyber world. Cyber affairs may not involve direct touch at all. Nevertheless, the data are shocking.

When I first started counseling, no Internet existed. Now it is rare for it not to play a role in the complex of infidelity. The Internet lets us interact like nothing else. We can interact with one person or multitudes in the room next to us or around the world. We have closeted access to every disturbing perversion imaginable. I can be minding my own business when an e-mail abruptly invites me to enhance my sexual performance or contact some eager-to-please partner. Evidence supports the prevalence of disinhibition, accelerated intimacy and hypersexual behavior in online settings. There is a high correlation between online cybersex and subsequent real-time sexual affairs. Clearly all this plays a role in increasing the risk of infidelity.

Health Impact

An OB-GYN in suburban Columbus, Ohio, reports that 1 to 2 percent of his practice population have a life-threatening STD; 25 percent have a less serious STD. Another OB-GYN in northeast Columbus reports treating on average eight cases per day of unexplained STD. The conversation goes like this:

"Based on our lab results I need to report that you tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease. Is this explainable given your pattern of sexual activity?"

The patient answers yes or no. If no the next question comes: "Is this explainable given what you know about the sexual activity of your partner?"

Again the patient answers yes or no. "As your physician I need to advise you to discuss this with your partner. If your partner remains an infected carrier we may be wasting our time treating only you."

Sexually transmitted diseases present a range of health challenges and might be considered a pandemic.

Safe sex as a public health policy has a valuable purpose. However, based on the data it's safe to say that safe sex is an oxymoron.


Infidelity, as we have seen, has a significant footprint. Researchers have found that infidelity was a primary or contributing factor in approximately one-third of divorce cases. In an ethnographic study of 160 cultures, Laura Betzig reported that out of a list of forty-three causes of divorce, infidelity was the single most frequently cited cause. Divorce after infidelity is more likely when (1) the infidelity is known to the betrayed partner, (2) the wife is the unfaithful spouse, (3) the occurrence takes place early in the marriage, and (4) the extramarital involvement was both sexual and emotional in nature.

More important is the crisis that infidelity creates in your personal world. Hopefully this brief examination of broad demographic features has introduced you to the contours of infidelity. Now we'll examine particular types of affairs in more depth.