Authorities agree that infidelity is the number one cause of relationship failures — and divorces — nationwide. But beyond that, there is a lot of controversy.
Look at the definition. If partners expect monogamy, having sex with someone else is clearly infidelity. But what about genital play just before intercourse? Or breast game? Or passionate kissing? Or flirt? What about emotional intimacy with a non-spousal partner that never becomes sexual? Or sexting? Or watch porn? Or do you visit websites that promote affairs? Some people consider all of the above to be scams, while others analyze distinctions.
Estimates of the lifetime risk of infidelity vary widely. Depending on the study, 20 to 52 percent of spouses admit to cheating. The true prevalence is undoubtedly higher. Infidelity is stigmatized. People are reluctant to admit it.
Meanwhile, infidelity has long fascinated social science researchers. Psychologists, sociologists, and sexologists have published hundreds of studies to understand why spouses cheat and how to reverse the relationship damage it causes. They also identified dozens of putative risk factors that supposedly increase the likelihood of infidelity, including gender, age, education, health, religion, libido, anxiety, depression, sexual preferences, self-esteem, relationship length, relationship satisfaction, sexual attitudes, sexual satisfaction, and relationship status ( dating, living together, married). The results were often contradictory. Some studies show that as education increases, so does the likelihood of infidelity. Others show the opposite. And some show no correlation at all.
Unfortunately, most studies have considered few possible contributors. The reason: With an increasing number of variables, the statistical evaluation becomes more and more difficult. Recently, a team of researchers from the US, UK and Switzerland used the latest – and most powerful – statistical tools to simultaneously analyze how 95 possible risk factors contribute to infidelity. The investigators were able to tease out what they consider to be the most important thing. Their conclusion: Spouse demographics and beliefs are significantly less important than a few relationship and sex issues.
Two studies involving 1,295 people
The researchers combined data from two studies. One included a reasonably representative US sample of 891 adults in ongoing relationships—all genders and sexual preferences, median age 33, most with college degrees, and most married or cohabiting for an average of 6 years. When asked individually and anonymously, 32 percent admitted personal infidelity – 42 percent of the men, 26 percent of the women. Slightly fewer (27 percent) admitted online infidelity (sexual emails, sexting, self-sexing others on FaceTime or Zoom) — 47 percent of men, 19 percent of women.
The other study included 202 couples (404 people) with an average age of 33 who were also interviewed individually and anonymously – 89 percent from the US, 11 percent from Canada, with relatively similar demographics as above, who had an average of 9 years in their relationships were involved. 17 percent admitted personal dalliance – 19 percent of the men, 16 percent of the women. 14 percent admitted online infidelity – 17 percent of men, 11 percent of women.
Notice how the results of the two studies differ. In the second, the infidelity rate was about half that in the first. But the researchers’ statistical tools allowed them to bring both findings together and analyze them together.
The best predictors of personal infidelity
Conventional wisdom holds that gender is the key that men are far more likely than women to be unfaithful. In fact, this was the case for the two samples in this report. The men cheated more both in person and online. gender matters. But the researchers note that the gender gap in infidelity has narrowed over the past few decades as women’s opportunities to cheat have increased — thanks to better education, more job opportunities, and more travel opportunities. Today, researchers argue that gender is no longer an important predictor of infidelity.
Investigators found four main predictors of infidelity. Ordered by importance:
- dissatisfaction in the relationship. Chronic relationship unhappiness increases the risk significantly. It is the largest single contributor to personal infidelity. (However, the opposite is not always true. Being unfaithful does not automatically mean that there is something seriously wrong with the relationship. Many people in well-connected relationships leave.)
- want differences. “You’re insatiable!” “You never want to!” When desire differences become chronic and toxic, the more libidinal partner may seek sex elsewhere.
- Less respect for each other. You can get along. But when couples get bored, when they’re less inclined to talk, spend time together, and help each other, that loss of care increases the risk significantly.
- sexual satisfaction. Some people put up with blah-blah sex, sex that is much less frequent than they would like, or sex that is less adventurous than they would like. Others have affairs.
On their own, each of the above didn’t predict all that much infidelity. But as a group, they added up to the top risk factors.
The best predictors of online infidelity
As previously mentioned, infidelity can be difficult to define beyond genital play with non-spouses. Online cheating is even worse. For example, some women consider pornography despicable and believe that men they are friends with are unfaithful. But if that’s the case, then virtually every coupled, internet-connected person on earth is cheating. This analysis defined online infidelity more narrowly as technological connections that facilitate intimacy with non-spouses — email, sexting, and mutual self-sexing over the phone or on FaceTime or Zoom.
Like personal infidelity, the online variant had less to do with demographics and more to do with relationship and sexual issues. The main predictors were the same as for personal infidelity, but their order was slightly different:
- want differences.
- sexual satisfaction.
- Less respect for each other.
- dissatisfaction in the relationship.
The researchers note that there is no surefire way to prevent infidelity. But to avoid this, they say the best approach is for couples to closely monitor their relationships and their level of sexual satisfaction. When one or both partners deteriorate to the point where one or both partners believe the couple has a problem, it signals real risk — and the need for relationship or sex therapy. No guarantees, of course, but if you get help before things get too low, you might be able to avoid infidelity.
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