Cheating spouses are often portrayed as unhappy at home and tormented by guilt over having an affair, but one study of infidelity offers a startlingly different picture.
People seeking extramarital relationships were fairly satisfied with their marriage and expressed strong feelings of love for their spouses, according to survey findings recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
At the same time, they very much enjoyed their affairs, both sexually and emotionally, and didn’t regret them.
Sexual dissatisfaction was the strongest motivator to pursue an extramarital affair, researchers found. About half of the respondents said they were currently not sexually active with their partners.
The findings show people are complicated and moral consistency is “very, very tricky,” says Dylan Selterman, a social psychologist and the lead author of the paper.
Monogamy can still work, though it’s hard and couples take it for granted, he adds.
“There certainly are people who stay together and don’t cheat on each other, but I think it requires a lot more effort than people might be aware of or willing to put into it,” Selterman, as associate teaching professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, tells TODAY.com.
“People may assume that monogamy just comes naturally to us, and people might also assume if they really love each other, their partners won’t have a desire for others outside their marriage, and those are unwise assumptions.”
The findings are based on responses from almost 2,000 registered users of Ashley Madison, a dating website that calls itself “the international leader in the married dating space” and uses the motto “Life is short. Have an affair.”
Selterman and his co-authors created a survey to find out how they felt about their main relationships, why they were seeking out an affair and whether they regretted cheating. Ashley Madison advertised the survey among its users and anyone who wanted to participate could, Selterman says.
The majority of respondents were straight men between 40 and 60 years old on average.
When asked how satisfied they were in their relationship with their spouse or partner, the average score was just below 3 on a five-point scale, with 5 being the highest possible score. They rated their love for their partner at 4, but sexual satisfaction hovered at around 2.
When those who cheated were asked about the emotional and sexual satisfaction they received from the affair, the average score topped 4 on a five-point scale. Regret about the affair was low at just below 2.
It could be that their feelings might be different if their spouses found out about the affair, Selterman says. But about 80% said their partners didn’t know about it.
Not the norm, therapists say
Relationship experts urged caution about the findings.
The paper likely doesn’t shed light on the average affair, says Jared Anderson, a professor of couple and family therapy at Kansas State University, and a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Kansas City Relationship Institute.
The participants were enthusiastic about seeking out an affair, which is not the norm, so it makes sense they had little regret, he notes. Anderson also considers them dissatisfied with their marriages based on how they rated their relationships on a five-point scale.
You can love someone and still not be satisfied in your sexual or overall relationship, but that’s much different than saying a highly-satisfied relationship is threatened by infidelity, Anderson says.
“This study has little relevance to the average person in a satisfied partnership and people should not panic because these findings likely do not apply to their relationship,” Anderson tells TODAY.com.
Other experts were skeptical, too.
“In over 30 years of being a family therapist, I have never seen anyone report being happily married while having an affair,” says Jeffrey Bernstein, a psychologist in Exton, Pennsylvania, and the author of “Why Can’t You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship.”
“While there are no assurances of anything, the more we try to communicate in healthy ways, lead with empathy, and give our partners — within reason — the benefit of the doubt, the less we have to worry about.”
People in happy relationships sometimes do cheat, but they tend to fall into an affair rather than purposely seek it out, Anderson says. Opportunity coupled with bits of personal stagnation — such as seeds of discontent with life or boredom in the bedroom — can lead to what he calls “slow leaks in our relationship tires.” This can create the conditions for allowing a work friendship to deepen, for example.
“The antidote to this is to be honest with yourself about those areas of discontentment or stagnation with your life and your relationship. What needs to change? How? What unshared longings need to be shared?” Anderson advises.
“Then, have these important conversations with your partner and work together to grow individually and as partners in order to create a more fulfilling, intentional partnership. You might just find that your partner is feeling the same way.”
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