About one in five adults in monogamous relationships, or 22 percent, have cheated on their current partner. The rate is even higher among married men. And nearly half of people admit to being unfaithful at some point in their lives, according to the results of an MSNBC survey.
More than 70,000 adults completed the online reader survey in February, answering about 30 questions that revealed their intimate feelings about adultery and what makes them stray or stay faithful.
About three-quarters of the survey takers say they’ve made a monogamous commitment, with a majority either married or remarried. But a significant portion found it easier to make that promise than keep it.
Spending years together, exchanging wedding rings, even having children doesn’t inoculate a couple against cheating. In fact, married folks with kids — including women with very young children — are nearly as likely to commit adultery as childless couples.
The bright side is, while many of us are tempted by the fruit of another, it seems we fear cheating more than we need.
We’re bombarded with images of infidelity in popular culture and the news, so it’s no surprise we think it’s a world of callous cads and desperate housewives.
Survey takers guessed that twice as many people are having extramarital affairs as really are, estimating that 44 percent of married men and 36 percent of married women are unfaithful. The reality is it’s not as rampant as we think, with 28 percent of married men and 18 percent of married women admitting to having a sexual liaison, the survey found.
"We think everybody is out there doing it," says Janet Lever, a sociologist at California State University, Los Angeles, and the study’s lead researcher. "Well, they’re not."
In fact, the rate of cheating has stayed pretty consistent, according to research expert Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Smith conducted the highly respected study “American Sexual Behavior,” a poll of 10,000 people over two decades. The study found that 22 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women have cheated at least once — similar to the results from the MSNBC.com/iVillage survey.
— Total participants: 70,288
— Average age:
Men, 43; Women, 38
— Gender: Men, 54%; Women, 46%
— Age range: 18-76+
— Married or remarried: 60%
— Length of relationship: 1 year, 5%; 3-5 years, 15%; 11-20 years, 25%
— Living with partner: 11%
— Dating one person: 13%
— Heterosexual: 94%
— Average number of lifetime sexual partners:
Men, 17; Women, 11
Still, much of this depends on your definition of cheating. Nearly everybody considers sexual intercourse or oral sex to be cheating, but there are some other behaviors that fall into grayer areas.
Nearly 20 percent of survey takers in committed relationships have romantically kissed someone else, a breach that 83 percent of people consider to be cheating. And 15 percent of men (though only 7 percent of women) have engaged in online sex or sexual Webcamming, which 66 percent of people consider to be cheating.
Blind to the affair
Ironically, while we tend to overestimate cheating in society, we are often blind to it in our own lives. If your partner is cheating, chances are, you have no idea.
Six in 10 cheaters believe they totally got away with their affair and another one in 10 felt their partner was suspicious, but never found out for sure. Few cheaters — only 2 percent — were busted in the act. And even when confronted with a partner’s suspicions, only 6 percent of both men and women confessed to having an affair.
"It is surprising that the wives and husbands and girlfriends aren’t more suspicious," says Lever. "Even when they know something’s amiss — a sex life that’s fizzled or intimacy waning — they count on their partner’s love to keep them from straying."
Philanderers are so inscrutable partly because there’s no single profile for a cheater.
The survey did find some common scenarios, however. Cheating tends to happen well into the relationship — especially in the three- to five-year zone — by a man who is dissatisfied with his sex life or a woman who feels emotionally deprived. The new lover is most often a friend or co-worker, and the typical fling lasts less than a week.
"It can be the 30-year-old guy who’s been cohabiting for six years with his girlfriend, or the 45-year old guy who has seemed happily married for 15 years, or, perhaps most surprising, it’s the young mom who seems totally wrapped up with her infant and toddler," says Lever.
Indeed, having kids is no deterrent. According to the survey, 15 percent of women and 16 percent of men with children ages 2 to 5 years had an affair. An unexpected 7 percent of women and 9 percent of men cheated while there was a baby under the age of 2 in the home.
It also appears that money doesn’t buy marital happiness. For men with money, infidelity is just another perk. Among men making more than $300,000 a year, 32 percent report cheating, compared to 21 percent of men making less than $35,000 a year. Wealth isn’t much of a factor in women’s cheating.
“Wealthy men may simply have more dating opportunities than men with less income,” says David Frederick, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped analyze the survey findings.
‘I like variety’
What drives people to cheat? Boredom? The thrill of the forbidden?
Many thrive on the excitement they get from a fling (30 percent overall), but men and women are generally prowling for different things. Men want more sex (44 percent), more satisfying sex (38 percent) and variety (40 percent), findings that closely resemble the 2006 MSNBC.com/Elle magazine survey
“Mostly I’ve cheated because of the excitement,” writes a 38-year-old man who took the survey. “I like variety and a more wild sex life than I’ve been able to enjoy with relationship partners."
Women’s motives range from the need for more emotional attention (40 percent) to being reassured of their desirability (33 percent) or falling in love with someone else (20 percent).
While women tend to cheat once, guys of all ages are twice as likely to be serial offenders.
“Men are more likely to look for sexual novelty. They might be looking for a sexual outlet without the expectation of continuity,” says Sandra Leiblum, director of the Center for Sexual and Relational Health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J., who was not involved in the survey. “And once you satisfy the itch, it recurs.”
A gender split between sexual and emotional drivers can also be seen in attitudes toward wandering partners. Women say they would be more upset if their partner fell in love with someone else than if their partner had sex with that person (65 percent, compared to 47 percent of men), but men say they’d be more distressed by their partner having a sexual affair than falling in love (53 percent, compared to 35 percent of women).
“Men are more threatened sexually by the sense of competition and comparison; women are more threatened by the loss of the emotional intimacy,” says Leiblum. “Whenever there is an affair there’s a sense of competitiveness with the third party. Men see it as a comment on their sexual competency and masculinity, whereas for women it’s not the sex, it’s the meaning of having the emotional bond with someone else.”
It’s not all about mushiness for ladies — one in five who cheated said they were looking for more satisfying sex than they were getting from their primary partner.
“I was miserable in my marriage of nine years,” writes a 28-year-old woman who ended up divorcing her husband to be with her affair partner. “My husband and I never had sex and the sex we did have was boring!”
Women are also twice as likely to use an affair to get out of a bad relationship.
Actions aside, 71 percent of people say it’s never OK to be unfaithful. Yet, one in four men and one in 10 women think cheating is justified if a partner has no interest in sex.
“People who engage in marital infidelity think they have a good reason, but this is an area where our behavior doesn’t fit our attitudes in a very large way,” says Howard Markman, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. “People are amazingly adept at justifying their negative behavior; it’s one of the biggest problems in marriages.”
About two-thirds of cheaters say they don’t regret their actions, and 12 percent of men and 13 percent of women say they’re glad they cheated.
For many "it was a life experience, or a daring adventure," says Lever, the survey’s lead researcher. "They had some fabulous sex for a week and they didn’t regret it."
But many did face lingering feelings of sadness (25 percent), stress (32 percent) and guilt (49 percent).
"The only thing that turned out from cheating was feelings of guilt and shame," writes a 31-year-old woman who is currently single. "It most definitely made me realize how much I loved my primary partner and that anyone else was not worth it!"
No doubt infidelity is a serious problem that often leads to divorce or damaged relationships — 19 percent of people who were cheated on ended the relationship right away and 22 percent eventually broke up because they couldn’t get over the betrayal. Sexual infidelity played a role in just over half of divorces, the survey found.
"The fallout from affairs is not as much fun as the fling," says Leiblum. "When affairs come to light, the damage to the relationship is quite substantial. It can take months and even years to lessen the toxic effect of disbelief, anger, hurt and betrayal and even then it’s not totally gone."
A 29-year-old woman who has been on the receiving end of such a betrayal agrees. "When someone cheats on you, it destroys your self-worth."
Love keeps us true
What about the true blue among us? What motivates those who stay faithful? It’s not lack of opportunity. Only 8 percent of men and 4 percent of women say they’ve never had the chance to fool around.
For the most part, love does keep people faithful. While 68 percent of men in a monogamous relationship say they’ve desired someone else and 43 percent of women have had the hots for another person, they’re not lighting their fires with someone else’s match.
More than three-quarters of participants say they are too much in love to be unfaithful and 68 percent don’t want to risk losing their partner. Love of one’s partner was also one of the main reasons why people stopped cheating (20 percent).
Even among couples that have been together for more than 30 years, four-fifths of women and two-thirds of men report being faithful during the entire relationship.
For some, remaining faithful is the ultimate symbol of dedication. "She is the love of my life," writes one 31-year-old man about his wife. "I searched years to find her and I would never want to ruin what took so long to find."