Infidelity. Having an affair. Being with more than one partner has not always been a social pariah. It was a way of life for Paleolithic humans, Asian, early European and Arctic societies.
As the centuries passed, modern European and church values enforced monogamy. Partnerships were made for familial, social and financial security, children, to merge fortunes and to build kingdoms. If love happened, that was just icing on the cake.
But, we aren't monogamous creatures, so maybe it's just time to change the parameters, to question traditional marriage and societal roles, particularly the roles women hold.
Infidelity is a common part of life, with stats showing that anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of men and 15 to 30 percent of women(1) are stepping outside of their primary relationship.
History of the Word
The word infidelity as an everyday word in English and French has been used since the 14th century. It comes from the Old French infidelite, and the Latin words infidelitas and infidelis "not faithful".(2)
In the 1400's it was used to describe lack of religious faith. By the early 15th century, it took on the meaning of "unfaithful"(2), and in the 16th century, the word started to be used as it is today (2), to reference actions against a lover or spouse, the "...action or state of being unfaithful to a spouse or other sexual partner."(4)
Infidelity - More Complicated Than You Think
"Infidelity" and "cheating" have been used interchangeably since the 1930's(5). However, while they are the same, they also aren't. Both are used to describe an affair, sex and emotion. And, to make things more complicated, so is the word "adultery". But, they are all very different.
Cheating is a very basic human instinct. We all cheat, but we all don't have affairs. "Cheating" is more than sex and emotion. People cheat to get ahead, to take advantage, whether right or wrong(6). Cheating can be celebrated and can be overlooked. Pop culture can make us cheer when the good guy wins over the bad guy. In literature, Robin Hood is the bane of the rich and a hero to the poor. And, like people who cheat, he is made to look like a bad person, but he isn't. When you cheat, you can get what you want or need, or escape something that you don't want.
The word "adultery" is used more as a legal term, and used when the affair is spoken about in pre-conceived religious, social, legal or moral conventions(7). It is infidelity and is like cheating in the carnal sense. No real emotion, just sex. It's the way infidelity is described when you're going to divorce court, or being lectured by someone who disapproves.
Infidelity, however, is a betrayal of trust on an emotional, physical and social level(5). It can mean connecting with someone else on a level that is unacceptable to one's partner. Infidelity can be cheating, and infidelity is Adultery, but it goes beyond the carnal and legal ramifications and moral posturing.
Why We Do It
Infidelity is complicated. It's guilt. It's rationalization. It's desperation. And it's all around.
People don't stray on purpose; there is usually a bigger reason as to why someone acts without consideration of consequence. In reality, it is usually about the person doing the straying.
It isn't just sex. One survey says that 92% of men who have affairs don't do it because of the sex.(8) It's because they don't feel connected to their partner. The affection is gone. And, even though sex can be a large part of infidelity, it is about connection.
Maybe we're no longer in love with our partner, and we stay because it's easier than leaving. Or maybe we're happy - 56% of married men(9) and 34% of married women (9) are happy in their relationships.
There is also the argument that it is genetic. The dopamine receptor D4, which targets pleasures of body and soul, may be connected to our need to have an affair.(1) Maybe we can love one person, as the happily married people have shown, and be attracted sexually to someone else.
Falling out of love, differences in gender needs, a partner who works too much, who spends too much time with the kids, a boring sexless marriage, abusive marriage, emotionally painful marriage - there are many reasons for cheating.
These are the main reasons people stray:
You're just not that in to each other anymore
You may have fallen out of love with your partner, you and/or your spouse don't like each other very much, and you're there solely out of habit. Maybe you're afraid to leave, or you don't want to be by yourself.(10) As you fall out of love, you look for affection elsewhere.
Your partner is not around (10)
Absence sometimes doesn't make the heart grow fonder. If your spouse is not there when it matters, physically or emotionally, then you could end up finding someone who will be.
You're in a Sexless Marriage
Over time, sexual energy changes in a relationship, and what was once hot and heavy has now become boring, bland, and unfulfilling. Looking for new energy, a fix, outside of the relationship is not that uncommon. We may need to explore who we are, to challenge ourselves and please ourselves in a new and unknown relationship, with somebody who isn't our partner.
Having an affair in a sexless marriage may not be a bad thing. You get to live your passion, and still have that safe space at home (perhaps even improving your marriage). We are, after all, sexual creatures.
An affair for affection, friendship
According to one of Ashley Madison's surveys, "straying to stay" is quite common.
When we've lost touch with our significant other, we are sad, we feel unwanted and uncared for, and then anger and resentment can kick in.
We stray. A friend or a co-worker may become an ally, a friend and then a lover. They become the partner, the person we turn to, emotionally and sexually.
This connection with someone other than one's partner can strengthen a marriage. Love is a strong emotion, and people stay in unhappy marriages for various reasons, many of which are not visible to others outside of the relationship.
An Affair to escape reality
Very little in this world is black and white, and infidelity has many grey areas. It is not as simple as one thinks. An affair, many times, is a reaction to a relationship that is already on the skids.
You feel stuck, and you may think this is the best you can do. Entering the adult dating world in order to find another relationship that makes you happy again is not unusual, especially for women.
An affair for the Self
Affairs can be self-seeking journeys. Infidelity is not always about a bad relationship; it is about the person who is having the affair.
The mediocrity and dissatisfaction of a life that may harbor regret or missed opportunities can lead someone down a different path.
An affair can give you some control over your life. People surveyed by Ashley Madison said that affairs made them feel "more alive". They are betraying their partners, but not themselves.
Some numerical facts about Infidelity
An Ashley Madison survey showed that cheating met their emotional needs. Of the 2,018 members of Ashley Madison surveyed for a recent survey, emotional unhappiness and wanting someone to care was the main reason to have an affair.
- It was always thought that women who cheated were looking for an emotional connection. The reality is that:
- 43% of women said that they wanted something physical.(12)
- 5% were attracted to the person because of their brain.(12) The affair partner was generally more educated than their spouse or significant other.
- 48% said that they got more affection from their affair partner than their spouse or significant other.(13)
- 42% were in it for the friendship(13) of someone who wasn't their spouse or significant other and 37% for emotional needs. (11)
- 54% of women had their first affair after they had children. As women fall into the domestic role, they get bored and they lose themselves as they care for their families.(12)
And, something interesting:
- Approximately 10% of fathers-to-be cheat on their pregnant partners, mainly because they are getting less sex.(14)
- Of the people who were having affairs, 54% of those surveyed don't want to leave their partner(13), and want something temporary and fun. About half of them, 51%, say an affair breathes new vigour into them.(13) 50% say they just want sex.(13)
- 55% of men surveyed thought about cheating, and 44% have had an affair.(15) 39% of women surveyed have cheated, and 35% thought about it.(12)
Who they cheat with and Why
The Ashley Madison survey asked women and men who they cheat with. While some have one-night stands, it is more likely that they put thought into an affair's intricacies. Most people surveyed would have an affair with someone they know.
- 27% of men surveyed would go to a friend or co-worker.(12)
- 28% of women, if unhappy, would seek out the comfort of a friend.(15)
- 15% of women surveyed would go to a co-worker.(12)
- 17% of women would cheat with their boss.(12)
- 35% of those surveyed (both sexes) have cheated while away on business.(16)
- In another survey, 88% of men said that their lover's looks were irrelevant, suggesting again that there is more to cheating than just sex.(8)
The History of Infidelity and The Human Condition
We need to redefine how relationships work. In this modern world, we are living longer, which means we are loving longer.(17)
Monogamy is a relatively new construct in world history. Paleolithic humans and early indigenous cultures were promiscuous because their survival depended on it. They were communal, sharing economic resources and skills sets for the benefit of the community.(9) Children of one woman may have been fathered by different men, but they were all raised together.(9)
Before European colonization, indigenous communities were open about sex and love. Polygamy, pre-marital sex, extramarital affairs and even incest were not judged. Marriage wasn't always a forever thing, and people moved on to new partners with ease and without judgment. Open marriages were common. Romans, classical Greeks, Asian cultures, African and South American tribal communities practiced love outside of the marital bed.(9)
Married men were always given social permission to have affairs, and their wives had very little recourse.(18) Women, especially in the late 19th century and early 20th, were always encouraged to get married. But with the rise of women's rights, birth control and economic independence, women found married life a little lacking. Lonely housewives have always been looking for more, and cheating wives have been part of our social fabric. Having an affair was no longer a man's game.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel has noted that since the 1990's, the percentage of married women who cheat has gone up by 40% (8) The percentage of men has remained the same. Women are appreciating their sexuality and their independence and realizing that they can make sure that they are happy.
Attitude in Other Countries
It seems that the attitude towards having an affair is changing.
Around the world, attitudes towards infidelity are not the same. Many cultures, such as Japan, see affairs as part of everyday life. Conventionally, North Americans tend to see the monogamous, two-person relationship as the only acceptable way to go. However, this is also changing.
In many European countries, having an affair is quite common.
In Finland and other northern European countries, "parallel relationships" are discussed before and during marriage, and marriage is still a highly regarded institution.(19) Close to 50% of married people in Denmark have had an affair, and Germans, French and Italians are very open about infidelity.(20)
In France, "le cinq à sept", the mistress hour(19), is the time of day when married men see their mistresses. Over half of French men in relationships - 55% of French men and 32% of French women had admitted to having an affair.(21) They see affairs as new sexual experiences.(21)
Japan has always been open to sex. Japan's culture is based on Shintoism and Buddhism, which have open attitudes on sex. (22) Sex is a pleasure, and sex workers are common.(23) Sex and marriage aren't the same thing(23), and can be appreciated separately.
It is this desire for sex, and dissatisfaction with their home sex lives that sees 55% of women and 51% of men in Japan joining Ashley Madison.(22) And guilt isn't part of their psyche - of the 3,500 people surveyed by Ashley Madison 8% of men and 2% of women felt bad.(22)
Canada and the United States
It is still a forbidden topic in the two largest countries in North America. Because they are young countries founded on European values, infidelity is still a bad word.
Julianne Maslabbey, marriage and family therapist, says people have affairs because of stress (someone outside of marriage to talk to).(24) More men have affairs than women, because women are the primary caregivers of children and home, so their attention is elsewhere - UNTIL children are more independent, when they can shift their attention to themselves, and if needed, find their happiness elsewhere.
Things are starting to change in India, as more and more people are accepting of affairs.(25) Arranged marriages were once the norm, as marriage meant one was accepted into society. But as attitudes change, married men and married women are expressing through sex outside of the home. (25)
As with people everywhere, physical and emotional needs are the main reasons for straying.(25) An Ashley Madison survey showed that 76% of Indian women and 61% of men don't think that infidelity is wrong.(29)
Different Kinds of Infidelity
There are many kinds of infidelity - from harmless flirting to all out sex - and everything in between. And how a couple deals with it depends on them.
Infidelity is not only about sex. It can take many forms. Infidelity starts with a connection and can turn into something more, that may or may not be acceptable to the person or their partner.
Infidelity is going outside of what you and your partner expect in your relationship. So, if kissing matters, if emotions matter, or if they don't, that is for you and your partner to define.
- These are the most common types:
This is what everyone thinks of when an affair is mentioned - having sex with someone who is not your partner. It can be self-discovery, a need for love, and can last one night or for years.
Yep, kissing a friend (or stranger) can also be infidelity, although it may not seem like it. You fight with your partner, and in frustration and out of need, there is a stolen kiss between you and a co-worker of friend.
Texting/sexting - the Cyber Affair (10)
Social media and the internet give us the chance to have an affair. Texts, sexts, videos, and Artificial Intelligence become part of the arsenal used to have an affair. Web sites such as Ashley Madison offer opportunity for an affair.
Using these tools gives us both sexual and emotional connection with people from our past and our present. And although many of these connections don't result in sex, it is that flirting, that connection that can cause issue.
Fantasies can take many forms. Fantasizing about sex with a stranger or someone you are crushing on is pretty normal and really shouldn't be seen as infidelity. However, one's significant other's feelings have to be considered.
Sometimes a friendship turns into an emotional or romantic connection, where conversations and connection are deeper than those we have with our partner. There doesn't have to be sex, as the emotions, the intimacy, the secrecy can be hurtful to one's partner and can be seen as infidelity. (10)
Secrecy - not the whole truth
We all sometimes lie and intentionally leave out information. Secrecy can amount to an infidelity too - when we lie about what we are doing, or hiding the truth about a friendship we have.(10)
Micro-cheating is a new phenomenon, and is a little difficult to define. It is, well, an almost-infidelity, a pseudo-infidelity. It may seem harmless to the person doing it, but one's partner may see it differently. It looks like something that a person having an affair would do, but without intimacy.(30) It is pushing those boundaries, being affectionate to someone who isn't your partner. It is making yourself looking your best for that someone. It is joking, smiling or laughing with that someone.
It is reaching out to your past on social media. It is private jokes, coded names on your phone, downplaying your relationship with your partner. In short, it is putting your partner second.
Is cheating bad? Not always. There are reasons for cheating, and we cannot judge what we can't see behind closed doors. Very little in this world is truly black and white.
Affairs are complicated. Most people say they don't agree with cheating, but the volume of people cheating tells a different story. Since 2002, over 53 million members worldwide turned to ashleymadison.com to find an affair partner. Many of those cheaters connect discreetly using specialized affair apps. Cheating can be a lot more complicated than some might think.
Cheating normally isn't about the other person. It is about the cheater, about what's missing in their relationship, about what's missing in them.(18)
Sources and References:
- Five Things You May Not Know About Infidelity, Reader's Digest Best Health
- Why People Cheat: 12 Differences Between Men and Women, Terri Coles - The Huffington Post
- 10 facts about infidelity, Helen Fisher - TED guest author
- Seven Types of Infidelity Affairs
- A popular website for married people seeking affairs revealed why people cheat — and it isn't just about sex, Shana Lebowitz
- Survey Reveals why Men and Women have Secret Affairs, Sarah Young
- Sex, intimacy and friendship: Ashley Madison survey reveals why people cheat, Mary Bowerman - USA Today Network
- Why Happily Married Men Cheat on Their Pregnant Wives, Blake Harper
- One of the world's largest affair websites with more than 56 million members has revealed how and why people cheat, Rosie Fitzmaurice - Business Insider
- Infidelity Statistics 2017: Why, When, and How People Stray
- My Cheating Heart: What Causes Infidelity, Alyssa Siegel - Psychology Tomorrow
- Overlooked reasons why people in happy relationships still cheat, Ari Patel
- The recipe for happiness? An enduring marriage and an affair with lots of sex, Catherine Hakim - The Telegraph
- Adultery: Which countries are most unfaithful?, Nicola Bartlett
- In France, lots of people cheat on their spouses - but that's not necessarily a problem, Dennis Green
- How Ashley Madison Pulled Back the Curtain on Japan's 'Infidelity Economy'
- Here's what Japanese men and women think about cheating, Evie Lund
- Canadians and infidelity study, Radhika Santhanam
- Marriage, morality and more
- Married dating: past and present
- Relationships in the age of Polyamory
- Polyamory dating guide
- Most Indians feel infidelity not a sin: Survey
- Here's How to Know If You're Micro-Cheating, Mel Evans And Jessica Goodman