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What Are The Consequences?

The social and economic costs of sexual infidelity have declined, because the government has largely stopped regulating noncommercial sex between consenting adults. Before no-fault divorce laws were passed in the 1970s, an adulterer might expect to lose custody of children, suffer in the division of marital property, or fare poorly in alimony orders. In removing adultery as grounds for marital dissolution, no-fault laws also eliminated sexual infidelity as a justification for favoring one spouse over the other. Similarly, so-called heart balm torts once permitted a betrayed spouse to sue the third party on grounds like alienation of affection. These torts have almost disappeared from U.S. law, too. Of course, half of the U.S. states still have laws against adultery on the books. These laws would prevent an adulterer from voting, serving alcohol, practicing law, adopting children, or residing with a former spouse. Adultery laws, however, are virtually never enforced. Many states have quietly repealed the obsolete statutes. Where the laws have not been repealed, they serve largely symbolic purposes, embodying the state's support for conventional morality and family life.

How sexual infidelity affects relationships is a question that demands further study. Although a secondary involvement is sometimes meaningful to the participants, it usually does not generate lasting commitment. Nonetheless, marriage counselors testify that extramarital sex is destabilizing to a marriage. Domestic violence is one known consequence of sexual jealousy; divorce may be another. Divorced people are more likely than still-married people to report having had extramarital sex at one time or another (Laumann et al. 1994). Unfortunately, we do not know to what extent preexisting personal or marital problems lead both to infidelity and to the divorce. In short, we do not know how important sexual infidelity is as a cause of divorce.

Theoretically, infidelity is thought to destabilize marriage. It negates the couple's closed network of intimacy, undermines assumptions of mutual "ownership," and short circuits the solidarity that comes when one's partner is the sole source of a valued (sexual) service. Sexual affairs divert time, energy, and money away from the marital relationship. Perhaps because they are more likely to involve an emotional component, women's affairs are argued to be more likely than men's to result in divorce and to lead to a new committed relationship (Lawson 1988).

Only longitudinal data following individuals over time can clarify the causal relationships. The assumption that infidelity actually causes divorce rests on tenuous inferences. Although 15 percent of newly divorced people in the United States admitted to being involved with someone else just before their marriage ended, 40 percent accused their ex-spouse of being involved with someone else. It is not known, however, whether these extramarital affairs precipitated the divorce or were only initiated after the married couple began the divorce. Whatever the chain of events, the betrayal of norms of sexual exclusivity is condemned by most people in the United States.


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Additional topics

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