weird facts about marital infidelity

Brian Pitt, at the Sociological Imagination, has an interesting post about family research. The post is short, so I’ll paste it here:

“Blow and Hartnett (2005) define Infidelity as a sexual and/or emotional act engaged in by one person within a committed relationship, where such an act occurs outside the primary relationship and constitutes a breach of trust and/or a violation of agreed-upon norms, or boundaries, (explicit or implicit) by one or both individuals in that relationship in relation to romantic/emotional or sexual exclusivity.

Factoids About Infidelity (Blow and Hartnett, 2005):

  1. Infidelity is not correlated with marital unhappiness/dissatisfaction.
  2. Opportunity, e.g., the workplace, business trips, professional meetings, and academic conferences, is a significant factor independent of rates of unhappiness.
  3. “Personal factors” or vulnerabilities such as “low self-esteem” or generational transmission of tolerance of, and perhaps encouragement of, infidelity.
  4. Levels of “sexual satisfaction” do correlate inversely with levels of infidelity.  For example, a high level of sexual satisfaction correlates with a low rate of infidelity, and vice-versa.
  5. Female risk for infidelity is highest during the first seven years of marriage.
  6. Male risk for infidelity is highest “later” in a marriage.”

If I understand this correctly, infidelity is not primarily an assessment of the relationship. It’s more likely a reflection of opportunity, self-image, sexual satisfaction,  and life course issues. Sounds like a “empty center” theory of sex and marriage. Marital quality doesn’t lead to infidelity. Rather, infidelity is something that happens “around” the marriage.

Since Brian is a PhD student in social work/sociology, I’ll spin out the practice implications. When the therapist is confronted with infidelity, it’s better to focus on the individual’s self-control and self-image rather than the perceived quality of the marriage. Sounds like that self-control and the ability to resist opportunity will lead to better marriages. Probably not so urgent to work on how people view the marriage, unless the perception is really toxic (e.g., one person obviously is not taking it seriously).

Written by fabiorojas

March 24, 2011 at 12:41 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

16 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the post Dr. Rojas.

    Given that social workers are often working to achieve secondary and at times, tertiary, outcomes with their clients, I think that your practice advice for couples’ therapists is their best course of action. (It is worth adding that because too many therapists, unfortunately, spend too much time trying to ascertain why someone committed adultery, I posted this at The Sociological Imagination.) A few comments:

    1. Brining to the attention of WOMEN their limited self-control is quite important. (In working with married couples, I cannot tell you the enormous number of WOMEN who believe that they can “manage a friendship” with a male who is physically attracted to them. That is, many women believe that they can have lunch, text, hold conversations about their husbands and children, and even spend time alone with a male who is physically attracted to them without “cheating.” When I communicate with the woman, privately, I apprise them that having lunch, texting, and talking to this male about their personal lives is infidelity, or cheating, as it is academically defined.)

    2. Bringing to the attention of men that it is alright to only have sex with their wives is also important.

    3. All married couples ought to consider whether a person is “safe,” regardless of their gender, prior to discussing their marital/parental issues.


    Brian Pitt

    March 24, 2011 at 1:53 pm

  2. Can someone rephrase #3? I’m not quite clear what it’s saying.



    March 24, 2011 at 4:14 pm

  3. KMD,

    Blow and Hartnett are claiming that if, for example, your grandfather and your father cheated on your mother and grandmother, you are more likely to view infidelity as not such a bad thing.



    March 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  4. That is, many women believe that they can have lunch, text, hold conversations about their husbands and children, and even spend time alone with a male who is physically attracted to them without “cheating.” When I communicate with the woman, privately, I apprise them that having lunch, texting, and talking to this male about their personal lives is infidelity, or cheating, as it is academically defined.




    March 24, 2011 at 9:53 pm

  5. @Fabio, this is really interesting: I wouldn’t intuitively have expected infidelity to be so circumstance-dependent. But isn’t the assertion “marital quality doesn’t lead to infidelity” contradicted by #4, which might as well read “a poor sex life may lead to infidelity”?



    March 24, 2011 at 11:41 pm

  6. […] weird facts about marital infidelity ( […]


  7. H.B.,
    Your point is well taken, and not addressed by the published version of Blow and Hartnett (2005). In fact, your point speaks to the weakness of much of the “variable-centered research” that prevails in sociology. If more sociologists embraced theories centered on intention, this would be paradoxical. but since many do not …(This is not what is at issue for you; it is what is at issue for me.)

    I do not have the source in front of me, but I know that the variable “marital satisfaction” does not include “sexual satisfaction.” Rather, sexual satisfaction was used to predict marital satisfaction.



    March 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm

  8. ” If more sociologists embraced theories centered on intention…”

    I can accept many criticisms levelled at sociology, but this one is more misplaced than a polar bear in the Sahara.



    March 26, 2011 at 3:40 pm

  9. hahaha.

    theorizing on intention is the holy grail in social psych – but even they spend most of their time figuring out how to get people to pay-attention-while-answering/not-lie/not-self-present/not-hold-back-in-self-reports-what-they’ll-actually-do etc.

    if only we could sweep it all under the objectivist carpet, and just ask people what their intentions are (which they’ll of course accurately report and carefully follow in their actions…)



    March 26, 2011 at 4:37 pm

  10. @HB: I thought there is a simpler answer. Marital and sexual satisfaction aren’t the same thing. Eg, I may think my spouse is great but I simply want another partner. That’s also a deeper observation – Marriage is a relationship defined by a bunch of loosely correlated components.



    March 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm

  11. “Marriage is a relationship defined by a bunch of loosely correlated components.”

    Marriage is an institution created in a different era, which has evolved only slightly with the times. It was originally meant to be a contract for the exchange of goods and services and retains those characteristics today. Only nowadays society sees it as an embodiment of romantic love, which it wasn’t originally meant to be. This is where much of the conflict generates.



    March 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm

  12. “When I communicate with the woman, privately, I apprise them that having lunch, texting, and talking to this male about their personal lives is infidelity, or cheating, as it is academically defined.”….

    So you tell women they cannot bond with male work colleagues over personal matters? Given that tight bonds with one’s colleagues have profound implications for job satisfaction, being chosen for prize assignments, career advancement, mentoring, etc., you realize the inequality implications of what you’re saying, I presume? (Not to mention some gross assumptions about women’s ‘limited self control’).

    Another point: If married women are precluded from having close male friends, what should they do with all the mixed-gender friendships they formed pre-marriage (in their co-ed colleges and mixed-gender workplaces)? I guess those need to be dissolved at the time of marriage in the spirit of faithfulness.

    And, guess this means that a married lesbian can’t have close female friends without cheating on her partner.

    Who knew what a drag could be!! They really should have a warning label on it telling women that they are signing away their rights to equal career opportunities and friendships.



    March 26, 2011 at 7:15 pm

  13. “So you tell women they cannot bond with male work colleagues over personal matters? Given that tight bonds with one’s colleagues have profound implications for job satisfaction”

    Well, I think he qualified what he said. Besides, and here I may be ignorant of the US social context, but while in a marriage you are not supposed to form intimate bonds with other people of the opposite sex.



    March 26, 2011 at 7:52 pm

  14. W,
    I cannot give you a categorical yes or a categorical no to your question, not that it matters. Also, please try not to lose sight of the context of this post. This post is about the clinical practice implications for therapists working with couples. For that reason, I do not tell people, i.e., women, men, lesbian, heterosexual, gay, etc. etc., what they should do. (In fact, it has been my experience that people tune out therapists when therapists tell people what they should do.) Rather, I empathize with people about what they have already done. I work to repair a relationship if that is what the couple is looking for. (Often, couples have already decided that they want to break-up prior to going to therapy. They just do not know how to tell each other and themselves. Therefore, they get a therapist to help them do it.) And in working to repair the relationship, I take one’s narrative and try to explain to them how their infidelity happened. For a more subtle look at some of these clinical implications, give Davis’ “More Perfect Unions” a read.

    You are indeed correct that “romance marriage” is a “contemporary” (emerging circa mid-20th century) phenomenon, and I share your opinion that this is one of the strongest variables explaining what gives rise to a considerable number of marital problems. Perhaps you misspoke, but the institution of marriage has evolved considerably over the last 100 years. (Just think of the remarkable increase in the number of college-educated, professional women over the last twenty years, and its effect on society.) In addition, if contemporary observers studied the institution 200 years ago, they may not consider those pairings to be marriages. Check out Stephanie Coontz’s the “Social Origins of Private Life” and “Marriage: A History”



    March 27, 2011 at 2:55 am

  15. Nice post, I like the very first point in your list of points and I totally agree. Thanks for posting!



    April 4, 2011 at 11:54 pm

  16. “Infidelity is not correlated with marital unhappiness/dissatisfaction.”

    That seems to be too strong of a statement:

    Primary relationship satisfaction. Some studies support the idea that individuals engage in infidelity because there is something wrong in their primary relationship (i.e., as marital happiness or satisfaction decreases, the occurrence of EM sex increases [Atkins, Baucom, & Jacobson, 2001; Glass & Wright, 1985]). At the very least, suggest Prins et al. (1993), dissatisfaction in the primary relationship increases the desire for EM involvement. Glass and Wright (1985) found the negative correlation between marital satisfaction and infidelity to be true for all types of EM involvement (sexual, emotional, and combined sex and emotion), although they discovered that relationship dissatisfaction is particularly related to emotional infidelity. Further, men and women who are involved in both sexual and emotional infidelities are even more dissatisfied with their marriages than are those engaged in either sexual-only or emotional-only infidelities (Glass & Wright, 1985).

    The relationship between infidelity and relationship satisfaction may be particularly important for women. In general, women who are dissatisfied with their spouse or marriage engage in more frequent EM relationships than women who are satisfied (Prins et al., 1993; Wiggins & Lederer, 1984). Further, among those who engage in EM sex, women are significantly less satisfied in their marriages than are men (Glass & Wright, 1985).

    Wiggins and Lederer (1984) found an interesting relationship between primary relationship satisfaction and the venue in which infidelity occurs. In their small, clinical sample, the men and women who admitted to having EM relationships with coworkers reported significantly higher marital satisfaction than people having relationships with non-coworkers. In other words, their study suggests that people who engage in infidelity with coworkers are not necessarily unhappy in their primary relationships; rather, they are acting on the opportunity available to them. Spanier and Margolis (1983) also report that the connection between marital satisfaction and infidelity may not be so simple. Although they found that 70% of their participants who engaged in infidelity attributed their behavior to marital problems, they also found no significant relationship between marital satisfaction and the occurrence of infidelity in “the months directly preceding separation” (p. 44). Spanier and Margolis (1983) conclude that “respondents’ EM sexual relations had little effect on their perceptions of marital quality compared to respondents who did not engage in [EM coitus]” (p. 44). This conclusion is questionable because of the retrospective nature of the data.

    It is also likely that there are mediating variables that determine the correlation between relationship satisfaction and infidelity. For example, Atkins, Baucom, and Jacobson (2001) report that marital happiness does not act as an independent predictor of infidelity; instead, their data suggest that couples’ religious behavior interacts with marital satisfaction to affect the likelihood of infidelity. Likewise, Thompson (1983) estimated that the characteristics of the primary relationships accounted for only 25% of the variance in infidelity. Based on inconsistent results across studies, it appears that relationship satisfaction is an important predictor of infidelity only for some couples, and there are likely interactional effects with other variables for all couples. For example, a one-night stand for a spouse who travels for 3 weeks out of every month may not necessarily be in reaction to a troubled relationship at home, but a deep, nonsexual, emotional connection might reflect high levels of dissatisfaction in the primary relationship.


    lemmy caution

    April 7, 2011 at 12:37 am

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