On one side of the world, a woman stands in a courtroom pleading her innocence. Her husband has accused her of committing adultery. After deliberation the judge finds her guilty and sentences her to death by stoning.
On the other side of the world, a man and a woman walk into their counsellor’s office and discuss how adultery affected their marriage and whether they can move on from this or whether they should get a divorce.
One of the most serious forms of violating relationship norms is being unfaithful to a person’s spouse. While different cultures have different views on adultery, it remains a topic of widespread interest in popular culture, this is partly due to the fact that adultery can lead to divorce (Laumann, Gagnon, Mitchael & Michaels, 1994). The topic is also regularly featured in the media, such as soap operas, talk shows and magazines. As a result of this fascination with adultery in some cultures it has almost become normalised, with influential people admitting to adultery, for example, Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton. This chapter will explore what motivates a person to commit adultery. This chapter will define adultery, discuss the prevalence of this issue, gender, dissatisfaction, opportunity, The Big Five, children, education, the length of marriage and religion will be explored to determine whether these factors can help explain what motivates a person to cheat on their spouse.
The term adultery lacks a consistent operational definition. Psychological literature defines adultery in numerous ways, for example, having an affair, infidelity, an extramarital relationship, cheating, sexual intercourse outside of the primary relationship, emotional connections that are beyond friendship with an individual who is not the spouse or an internet relationship. Due to the complexity of defining adultery, when this chapter discuses adultery it will be referring to, sexual intercourse or an emotional connection that goes beyond friendship by a married person with someone other than their spouse.
The prevalence of adulteryEdit
Many studies attempt to estimate exactly how many people engage or have engaged in adultery. One study indicated that 25% of married men and 15% of married women admitted to having had extramarital sex at least once during their marriage (Laumann, Gagnon, Mitchael & Michaels, 1994). However, in a 1991-1996 General Social Surveys report it was reported that 13% of respondents have had extramarital sex (Atkins, Baucom & Jacobson, 2001). In contrast other authors have reported significantly lower prevalence statistics. For example, in Leigh, Temple and Trocki’s (1993) sample 1.2% of married participants admitted to having had extramarital sex in the last thirty years, 3.6% had extramarital sex in the past twelve months and 6.4% had extramarital sex in the past five years. These statistics imply that there is still debate about the extent of adultery within society, nevertheless, the consequences of adultery have been established with adultery being the most cited reason for divorce in 160 countries (Betzig, 1989)and the leading cause of spousal battery and homicide (Daly & Wilson, 1988). Adultery is a worldwide problem that affects a considerable amount of people, with the consequences being devastating.
Gender has been the most commonly studied variable in extramarital behaviour. As a result a person would expect that it would be relatively easy to determine whether males or females are more motivated to commit adultery. However, the body of research in this area offers no clear answer.
The typical finding has been that significantly more men than women have engaged in adultery (Allen & Baucom, 2004). Furthermore, men report a larger number of extramarital relationships and they express a greater interest in infidelity (Buunk & Bakker, 1995). At the same time other research suggests that men are only slightly more likely than women to engage in adultery (Choi, Catania & Dolcini, 1994). However, resent research suggests that the difference between the sexes in rates of adultery may be decreasing (Oliver & Hyde, 1993). Oliver and Hyde (1993) conducted an experiment in which they examined gender differences and adultery. The report found that the rates of adultery for men and women are becoming similar for younger people. In another study Wiederman (1997) reported that men and women less than forty years of age showed no differences in their reported adultery. These studies reveal that in the past men appear to have been more motivated to commit adultery or more likely to admit to cheating, however, it could be argued that due to the fact that society, in particular women, have evolved over the last few decades that this gender gap is becoming less significant.
Gender also appears to interact with emotional and sexual adultery and the meanings that are associated with that behaviour (Glass & Wright, 1992). For example, women generally appear to place a greater emphasis on the emotional connection of an affair than men, whereas for men, there generally seems to be a greater emphasis on the sexual experience. A study that looked at emotional and sexual adultery supports the notion that emotional experiences in adultery are more important to women than men (Glass & Wright, 1992). Emotional adultery occurs when a person thinks intimately about and craves emotional intimacy from someone other than their spouse (Glass & Wright, 1992). Sexual adultery is when an individual engages in sexual activity with someone other than their spouse (Glass & Wright, 1992). Research also indicates that while men are more likely to engage in an affair for sexual intercourse, women appear to be more inclined to engage in an extramarital relationship that is both sexual and emotional (Glass & Wright, 1992). Therefore, while both sexes are motivated to cheat on their spouses, males and females appear to have different motivations in what they need from the person that they are committing adultery with.
If a person is dissatisfied in their relationship are they more motivated to cheat?Edit
A large body of literature supports the concept that individuals engage in adultery because there is something wrong with their marriage (Atkins, Baucom & Jacobson, 2001). At the very least the relationship dissatisfaction increases the desire for an extramarital relationship (Atkins, Baucom & Jacobson, 2001). Glass and Wright (1985) found a negative correlation between marital satisfaction and infidelity to be significant for all types of extramarital involvement (sexual, emotional and a combination of sexual and emotional). Furthermore, men and women who are involved in both sexual and emotional adultery are more dissatisfied in their marriages than people who engage in either sexual or emotional adultery (Glass & Wright, 1992). Nevertheless, not all studies have shown a relationship between adultery and relationship dissatisfaction. For example, Blumstein (1999) failed to find a statistically significant relationship between adultery and satisfaction. On the whole it appears that a significant body of literature indicates that if an individual is dissatisfied in their marriage they are more motivated to find satisfaction outside of their primary relationship, whether sexual or emotional.
There is also some evidence that other variables may moderate the relationship between dissatisfaction and adultery. Glass and Wright (1985) showed that a sexual affair is less likely to be correlated with marital dissatisfaction than a combination of a sexual and an emotional affair. This research supports the theory that dissatisfaction is more prominent in a marriage when a person seeks emotional satisfaction outside of the primary relationship (Glass & Wright, 1992). Therefore, it could be argued that there are different reasons for affairs and therefore, relationship dissatisfaction may be a contributing factor for some affairs but not others.
While gender and marital dissatisfaction have been the most studied reasons for a person committing adultery, another variable that has been shown to increase the likelihood of a person cheating on their spouse is opportunity. Opportunity is a construct reflecting an individual’s access and desire to commit adultery (Greeley, 1994). The current body of research into opportunity has examined this variable in the workplace. Atkins, Baucom and Jacobson (2001) measured opportunity by considering employment status and income. The study found a positive relationship between adultery and opportunity. Wiggins and Lederer (1984) also finding a significant relationship between opportunity and adultery in the workplace. More specifically, the study found that one-half of their participants who engaged in adultery were involved with co-workers. As a result a person’s perceived opportunity in the workplace can been used to explain the gender differences in rates of adultery (Atkins, Baucom & Jacobson, 2001). Men in the past have been in the workforce in greater numbers than women, leading to contact with a number of people and an increased opportunity to commit adultery (Greeley, 1994). This view of opportunity may explain the closing gender gap in rates of adultery, as greater numbers of women enter the workforce and therefore, they are given a greater opportunity to engage in adultery. Together this body of research indicates that opportunity is one variable that can contribute to a person being motivated to engage in adultery.
The Five Factor ModelEdit
The Five Factor Model or the Big Five are five broad dimensions of personality which are used to describe human personality (Barta & Kiene, 2005). In regards to adultery research indicates that these motivational styles may be contributing factors in why a person decides to cheat on their spouse. The Big Five traits are, Neuroticism, which is the tendency to experience negative affective states, for example, worry; Extraversion, the tendency to experience positive affective states, for example, happiness; Conscientiousness, the tendency to preserver at tasks and follow rules; Openness to Experience, the tendency to expose oneself to novel, unconventional or even difficult and challenging thoughts and sensations; and Agreeableness, the tendency to avoid interpersonal conflict and seek harmonious relationships (Barta & Kiene, 2005).
Current research supports the relationship between the Big Five personality traits and the likelihood of committing adultery. Buss and Shackelford (1997) asked newlyweds to estimate the likelihood of whether they would commit adultery during their marriage. This study found that the likelihood of a person committing adultery was associated with low values on a measure of conscientiousness (Buss & Shackelford, 1997). Barta and Kiene (2005) in regards to Extraversion research found that due to the fact that extraverts are likely to place an especially high value on having an enriching relationship, when their relationship does not fulfil this desire they are likely to seek it outside of the primary relationship. In another study it was found that if participants had in the past participated in extra-dyadic relationships than it was found to be negatively correlated with Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and a positive relationship was found with Neuroticism (Schmidt & Buss, 2001). Currently no research can be found to link adultery and openness to experience.
To explain how these personality traits may offer insight into the motivational styles of individuals who engage in adultery, take an example of an individual who scores high on the personality trait Neuroticism. Neurotic individuals are less likely to experience happiness in their relationship, are insecure and impulsive (Barta & Kiene, 2005), therefore, one could argue that these characteristics would increase the likelihood of a person engaging in adultery. Another example would be someone who scores low on the personality trait Agreeableness, they would be more likely to react to a fight with their spouse with anger, and anger has been found to be a motivation for adultery (Barta & Kiene, 2005). Therefore, a person could argue that low Agreeableness could predict likelihood of adultery.
Does a person having children stop them from committing adultery?Edit
It has been theorised that having children increases a partner’s involvement in a marriage and therefore, children act as a deterrent against adultery (Liu, 2000). However, studies do not appear to support this theory. For example, Gottman and Notarius (2000) found that children can decrease the relational and sexual satisfaction of a couple due to the increased demands, stress and commitments of looking after a child (Gottman & Notarius, 2000). Due to the negative correlation between relationship satisfaction and adultery reported in previous studies, some couples with children may actually be more vulnerable to adultery. Therefore, some people with children may be more motivated to engage in adultery.
Current research has examined the relationship between a person’s level of education and the likelihood of them committing adultery. While literature appears to differ in regards to the extent of the relationship between education and adultery, a significant relationship between the two has been established. The theory that opposites attracts has been around for centuries, however, it would appear that in regards to education this difference can fracture a marriage. According to Forste and Tanfer (1996) a woman is more likely to commit adultery if her spouse and her educational levels differ. More specifically, the study’s results indicate that if a woman has more education than her spouse, she is more likely to seek an extramarital relationship, however, if the husband has more education than the wife, than she is less likely to engage in adultery. Therefore, this research in regards to women, suggests that higher education may be associated with more open-minded attitudes towards sexuality and cheating.
This theory appears to be supported by Atkins, Baucom and Jacobson (2001) who found that highly educated people are more likely to report having sex outside of their marriage. More specifically, the study found that participants with graduate degrees were 1.75 times more likely to have had extramarital sex than participants with less than a high school education. While more research is needed to examine the correlation between education and adultery, it appears that to some extent, education is one factor that may motivate an individual to cheat.
Length of marriageEdit
Another variable that has been studied in regards to adultery is whether length of marriage can have an affect on whether a person will seek an extramarital relationship. Research has found that for women, the longer the marital relationship the less likely it is that the woman will seek an extramarital relationship Forste & Tanfer, 1996). According to Lui (2000) married women reach a peak at the seventh year of marriage and decline steadily thereafter. In contrast, for married men longer relationships correlate with an increased likelihood of adultery. Men reach a critical point in the eighteenth year of marriage, at which time the chance that men will have an affair begins to increase (Lui, 2000). As a result it appears that gender is a contributing factor in regards to length of marriage and whether an individual will engage in adultery.
Religion is another variable that has been examined to establish whether a relationship exists between adultery and religion. Although some studies indicate that no relationship exists between attendance at religious services and adultery, other research implies that attendance at a religious service may lead to lower rates of infidelity (Amato & Rogers, 1997). Lui (2000) reported that that for men religious activities correlates negatively with adultery and Hansen (1987) found that attendance at religious services and a religious belief lead to lower rates of adultery for women. Another study that found a relationship between religion and adultery was conducted by Choi et al. (1994), the study found a similar negative correlation between church attendance and adultery, although the study found that it was only significant for Black and Hispanic participants, not for Caucasian participants. It is theorised that religious behaviour may have an effect on the likelihood of a spouse engaging in adultery through its influence on relationship happiness (Atkins, Baucom & Jacobson, 2001) and through individuals being exposed to messages condemning adultery (Lui, 2000). It is also possible that people who attend religious services have tighter social network services and this exposure helps people follow the norms of the community (Lui, 2000). A significant body of research implies that religion has the ability to encourage a person to stay faithful to their spouse.
This chapter has explored a variety of motivations in regards to adultery. Current research implies that a number of issues can contribute to a person committing adultery, including gender, relationship dissatisfaction, opportunity, The Big Five, children, education and the length of the marriage. Research also implies that one variable that may stop a person from committing adultery is religion. Research implies that no one issue contributes to adultery, instead a variety of factors can cause a person to cheat. It also appears, particularly with gender, that the motivations discussed can change over time. As a result research indicates that a variety of issues contribute to a person committing adultery, however, more research is needed to explore this prevalent issue.
Now for a quiz to test your knowledge on the chapter of sexual motivation.
Adultery: Sexual intercourse or an emotional connection that goes beyond friendship by a married person with someone other than their spouse.
Agreeableness: The tendency to avoid interpersonal conflict and seek harmonious relationships.
Conscientiousness: The tendency to preserver at tasks and follow rules.
Emotional adultery: Occurs when a person thinks intimately about and craves emotional intimacy from someone other than their spouse.
Extraversion: The tendency to experience positive affective states, for example, happiness.
The Five Factor Model (The Big Five): Five broad dimensions of personality which are used to describe human personality. The personality traits are Neuroticism, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience and Agreeableness.
Neuroticism: The tendencies to experience negative affective states, for example, worry.
Openness to Experience: The tendency to expose oneself to novel, unconventional or even difficult and challenging thoughts and sensations.
Opportunity: A construct reflecting an individual’s access and desire to commit adultery.
Sexual adultery: When an individual engages in sexual activity with someone other than their spouse.
Allen, E. S., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Adult attachment and patterns of extradyadic involvement. Family Process, 43, 467-488.
Amato, P. R., & Rogers, S. J. (1997). A longitudinal study of marital problems and subsequent divorce. Journal of Marriage and the family, 59, 612-624.
Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., & Jacobson, N. S. (2001). Understanding infidelity: Correlates in a national random sample. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 725-749.
Barta, W. D., & Kiene, S. M. (2005). Motivations for infidelity in heterosexual dating couples: The roles of gender, personality differences, and sociosexual orientations. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(3), 339-360.
Betzig, L. (1989). Causes of conjugal dissolution across cultural study. Current Anthropology, 30, 654- 676.
Blumstein, P. (1999). American couples: Money, work, sex. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Buss, D., & Shackelford, T. (1997). Susceptibility to infidelity in the first year of marriage. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 193–221.
Buunk, B. P., & Bakker, A. B. (1995). Extraduadic sex: The role of descriptive and injunctive norms. Journal of Sex Research, 32, 313-318.
Choi, K. H., Catania, J. A., & Dolcini, M. M. (1994). Extramarital sex and HIV risk behaviour among UC adults: Results from the National AIDS Behavioural Survey. American Journal of Public Health, 84, 2003-2007.
Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Evolutionary social psychology and family homicide. Science, 242, 519-524.
Glass, S. P., & Wright, T. L. (1992). Justifications for extramarital relationships: The association between attitudes, behaviours, and gender. Journal of Sex Research, 29, 361-387.
Glass, S. P., & Wright, T. L. (1985). Sex differences in type of extramarital involvement and marital dissatisfaction. Sex Roles, 12, 1101-1120.
Feldman, S., & Cauddman, E. (1999). Your chearin’ heart: Attitudes, behaviours and correlates of sexual betrayal in late adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 9, 227-252.
Forste, R., & Tanfer, K. (1996). Sexual exclusivity among dating, cohabiting and married women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 33-47.
Greeley, A. (1994). Marital Infidelity. Society, 31(4), 9-13.
Gottman, J. M., & Notarius, C. I. (2000). Decade review: Observing marital interaction. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 927-947.
Hansen, G. L. (1987). Extradyadic relations during courtship. Journal of Sex Research, 23, 383-390.
Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Mitchael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lui, C. (2000). A theory of marital sexual life. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 363-374.
Oliver, M. B., & Hyde, J. S. (1993). Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 29-51.
Schmidt, D., & Buss, D. (2001). Human mate poaching: Tactics and temptations for infiltrating existing mateships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 894–917.
Wiederman, M. W. (1997). Extramarital sex: Prevalence and correlates in a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 34, 167-174.
Wiggins, J. D., & Lederer, D.A. (1984). Differential antecedents of infidelity in marriage. American Mental Health Counselors Association Journal, 6, 152-161.