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Is The Marriage The Problem?

Sexual infidelity leads people to question whether the primary relationship is somehow lacking and whether having a new sexual partner implies dissatisfaction with the old one. There is evidence that more committed partners are less likely to be unfaithful. People who are merely dating are at greater risk for infidelity than those living in cohabiting relationships. Cohabitors, in turn, are more likely than married people to have sexual affairs—a pattern that cannot be fully explained by their more permissive sexual values (Treas and Giesen 2000). The implication is that married people, who have made a bigger commitment, are less willing to put their relationship at risk by violating expectations for sexual exclusivity. Infidelity declines as people grow older: This may reflect the fact that older people have had the time to make bigger investments in their relationship, or it may simply signify more general biological declines in sexual activity with aging.

Is extramarital sex evidence of an unhappy marriage or a bad sex life? Certainly, people sometimes begin sexual affairs in order to register a complaint or force a spouse to end an unhappy union, but many people who engage in extramarital sex are quite satisfied with their marriages. Research has not found a consistent association between marital satisfaction and the risk of sexual infidelity. On the one hand, various studies report no significant association between sexual infidelity and marital happiness, the quality of marital sex (for whites), or physical satisfaction with sex (for men). Other studies show that sexual infidelity is positively associated with marital unhappiness, low emotional satisfaction with the union, women's reports of marital inequity, and men's sexual dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, there are no large, longitudinal studies to sort out whether unhappiness comes before or after infidelity. The causal direction of the association remains unclear. Although an unhappy relationship may lead to sexual infidelity, infidelity may make people unhappy with their relationship. Ironically, married people report that marital problems led them to have extramarital sex, but they blame their spouse's infidelities for marital problems.

Couples who take pleasure in one another's family and friends are less likely to be unfaithful (Treas and Giesen 2000). Shared social circles may validate the couple's relationship. They may foster a satisfying union so that the partners have more to lose from infidelity. Certainly, couples who share many activities have fewer opportunities for sex outside their marriage than do couples who lead separate lives (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). In other words, more opportunities for sex outside marriage may lead to more sex outside marriage. The workplace is one place where people meet potential sexual partners. In Britain, people who work away from home overnight are not as likely to be sexually monogamous (Wellings et al. 1994). In the United States, a job that involves intimate interpersonal contact—being alone with, touching, and discussing personal concerns of clients, coworkers, and customers—is associated with a greater risk of sexual infidelity (Treas and Giesen 2000). The risk is also greater in large cities that offer greater anonymity and more potential partners than do small towns. More generally, communities that have more potential partners have been found to have more divorce.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsInfidelity - Cross-cultural Perspectives, Studying Sexual Infidelity, How Common Is Infidelity?, What Are The Origins Of Infidelity?