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Extramarital Affairs

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Abstract

Infidelity is a widely disapproved form of relational transgression, but also relatively common. Infidelity can involve sexual activity or more emotional forms of intimacy. The occurrence and discovery of infidelity are risk factors for communicable diseases, intimate partner violence, and relationship dissolution. There are various communicative aspects of infidelity, including the ways in which partners may signal and interpret one another's intent or actual transgression, and how the partners negotiate the effects of the transgression discovery or disclosure.
The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication, First Edition.
Edited by Charles R. Berger and Michael E. Roloff.
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI:10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic0145
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Extramarital Affairs
Brian H. SpitzBerg
San Diego State University, USA
Infidelity is a prototypical relationship transgression in most societies, and represents a
significant risk factor for sexually transmitted disease, violence, and relationship disso-
lution. Given the evolutionary advantages of forming strong, long‐term pair‐bonded
mating relationships, virtually all cultures have developed rituals and institutions
surrounding marriage and fidelity, and normative proscriptions against infidelity.
Across cultures, nations, and societies, the endorsement of sexual exclusivity in com-
mitted relationships is highly valued by strong majorities of people, and infidelity is
strongly disapproved of by similar majorities. The normative disapproval of infidelity is
partially moderated by particular contextual factors. For example, if a partner has been
violent or unfaithful, cheating on that partner is less disapproved. Thus, on the one
hand, infidelity is almost universally considered a relational transgression, especially in
marriage, yet most individuals are capable of envisioning particular circumstances in
which it may be tolerated or justified. When discovered or disclosed, it tends to be
highly disruptive to the relationship, and yet it is often not discovered, its disruptions
are often overcome, and there may be circumstances in which its occurrence leads to
significant growth in the primary relationship. Such are some of the paradoxes that
need to be unraveled in understanding infidelity.
Infidelity has spawned manifold synonyms and overlapping concepts, including:
affairs, adultery, cheating, cuckoldry, nonmonogamous relations, sexual betrayal,
unfaithfulness, and extra‐pair or extra‐dyadic or extra‐marital sex, copulation, or
involvement. Investigations have sought to examine the extent to which a variety of
actions occurring with a person other than an extant sexual partner represent i nfidelity.
Different types of activities may be viewed as constituting forms of infidelity, including:
flirting, kissing, engaging in commercial sex, consuming pornography, oral sex, sexting,
interacting sexually or romantically online, and even developing emotionally close
andintimate relationships, constitute a form of relational transgression, betrayal, or
infidelity. For example, social media have opened up an entirely new arena in which
people may become involved with others both in and out of a partner’s social network.
Flirtatious icons, sexual innuendo in texts or e-mails, sexting of photos, online interac-
tion with commercial sex workers, and other forms of cybersex and cybersex addiction
have enabled new c ategories and definitions of infidelity.
Such diversity of terminology illustrates that infidelity can be defined objectively or
subjectively. Objective definitions specify the nature of sexual behaviors that would
constitute infidelity, most typically, copulation with one or more persons other than
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the partner viewed as a sexually exclusive partner. Subjective definitions allow indi-
viduals to specify what they view as a violation or betrayal of relationship rules
regarding extra‐dyadic activities. From a subjective approach a person might consider
intimate d isclosures, flirting, kissing, or other romantically or sexually oriented
activities such as consuming pornography as constituting infidelity. Objective defini-
tions, especially when confined to sexual intercourse outside of a primary exclusive
relationship, is g enerally considered sexual infidelity, whereas subjective definitions,
especially when applied to less physical forms of extra‐pair interaction, is generally
considered a form of emotional infidelity. Emotional infidelity, in particular, reflects
the sense in which infidelity is a transgression of culturally defined boundaries of
pair‐bonded relationships. For example, to the extent that a partner is expected to
only disclose intimate information to a primary relationship partner, intimate interac-
tions with individuals outside of that relationship might be viewed as inappropriate
transgressions.
Prevalence
Given that the vast majority of people in the world disapprove of infidelity, demon-
strating the prevalence of the phenomenon is challenging. Most estimates of prevalence
are based on surveys or interviews, which are limited by social desirability biases. Given
such biases, annual rates of infidelity range from 2 to 15 percent (Whisman & Snyder,
2007; Zhang et al., 2012), and lifetime rates range from 25 to 50 percent (Zengel,
Edlund, & Sagarin, 2013). In general, such estimates are likely to be conservative,
although they are also s ubject to a variety of methodological problems with measure-
ment. To the extent that people vary in what they define as infidelity, it is difficult to
center a definitive estimate of prevalence when using subjective bases or methods.
An alternative approach to estimating infidelity relies on evidence of paternity
d iscrepancy. This approach is more objective in terms of its evidence, but is not a pure
proxy for infidelity, as there are multiple scenarios in which a titular parent might not
be the genetic parent. Depending on the types of evidence available, paternity dis-
crepancy rates range from 1 to 30 percent, with averages around 4 percent (Anderson,
2006). With the wide availability of birth control options and the fact that not all extra‐
pair copulations result in pregnancies brought to term, paternity discrepancy can also
be considered a relatively conservative lower‐bound estimate. Overall, the wide dispar-
ities in prevalence estimates likely reflect the social undesirability of admitting such
behavior, sampling variations, and the broad range of interpretations of what c onstitutes
infidelity.
Sex and gender
The most studied sex differences in infidelity are in regard to prevalence, and in
particular the difference between the stimuli and responses of emotional and sexual
infidelity. The prevalence of male sexual infidelity is greater than that for females. By
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one descriptive aggregation of over five decades of such estimates, approximately 25
percent of females and 35 percent of males in presumably sexually exclusive relation-
ships admitted to having engaged in sexual infidelity (Tafoya & Spitzberg, 2007). In
general, this disparity seems consistent with the extent to which, compared to females,
males think and fantasize about sex more, masturbate more, consume more pornog-
raphy, expect sex earlier in developing relationships, and claim more sexual partners
over their lifetime. Males live in a more sexually motivated world than females in
g eneral, and they engage in more sexual infidelity than females.
The difference between sexual and emotional infidelity is a more complex issue.
Socio‐evolutionary theory proposes a distinction between sexual and emotional
i nfidelity, based on a predicted sex difference in adaptive evolved sex differences. Males
are expected to care more about assuring their investment in parenting only for their
own genetic progeny and are therefore motivated to be vigilant and on guard of the
female’s sexual fidelity. Furthermore, males are expected to be capable of spreading
their genetic material more frequently and expansively through infidelity. In contrast,
females are expected to care more about assuring the males investment and commit-
ment of status and protection for child‐rearing and the family, so female motives are
expected to focus on the male’s emotional commitment to the relationship. Research
clearly demonstrates that sexual and emotional infidelity elicit different reactions from
males and females (Sagarin et al., 2012), but the evidence for the predicted socio‐
e volutionary hypothesis is mixed (Carpenter, 2012). Both forms of infidelity elicit
j ealousy and negative emotional reactions, but the question of whether there is an
adapted sexually dimorphic jealousy response is still under extensive investigation.
Motives
Infidelity is typically sexual in nature, but this does not mean that its motivation is
f undamentally sexual. Infidelity is often motivated by a complex of factors. Infidelity
can be motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the pursuit of genetic diversity of
offspring, sexual arousal and satisfaction, out of opportunistic and situational factors,
gaining a partner’s attention, boredom, peer pressure or status promotion, or revenge.
Males tend to report more sexual motives for infidelity, whereas women tend to report
more emotional motives. Further, research indicates that up to a quarter of people who
have engaged in infidelity are able to report a motive such as revenge or restoring
relational balance (Tafoya & Spitzberg, 2007). Such reports indicate that infidelity can
therefore function as a strategic communicative act.
Risks and responses
Extra‐dyadic sex represents a set of contextual, individual, and relational processes, in
which (1) various factors increase the risk and continuance of extra‐dyadic sex, (2)
various factors affect the discovery or disclosure of such transgression, and (3) various
factors affect the process of negotiating the individual and relational evolution resulting
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from such experiences, discovered or not. These processes of negotiating infidelity will,
in turn, be a function of opportunistic or contextual factors, individual factors, and
relational or interactional factors.
There may be significant contextual opportunistic features associated with infidelity,
for example, being tempted due to opportunity and circumstance. The more opportu-
nity people have to interact with extra‐pair persons (Atkins, Yi, Baucom, & Christensen,
2005), the more homophilous or interdependent those persons, and the more covert or
hidden their interactions are from their (respective) partners, the more probable infi-
delity becomes. Research demonstrates, for example, that sexual permissiveness and
risk‐taking increase on holidays and trips, suggesting a bracketing of sexual norms
based on context (Eiser & Ford, 1995).
With regard to individual factors, various aspects of personal history (e.g., previous
infidelity) and attitude (e.g., sexual permissiveness; Walters & Burger, 2013), person-
ality (e.g., neuroticism, narcissism), relational factors (e.g., the man cheating while his
wife is pregnant), precipitating factors (e.g., drinking), and social context factors
(e.g.,fraternity membership) slightly but significantly increase the risks of infidelity in
a relationship (Whisman et al., 2007). Personal and partner characteristics, such as
attachment anxiety, also increase the likelihood of a person engaging in infidelity (Fish,
Pavkov, Wetchler, & Bercik, 2012). A partner who cheats also increases the risks of the
other relationship member engaging in cheating (Fish et al., 2012). Whether this is
p rimarily a result of general relational disaffection m otivating interest in partners
outside of the primary relationship, or revenge or reciprocity on the basis of discovered
partner transgressions, is not clear. With respect to interactional and relational factors,
more satisfied couples, with more competent communication and conflict patterns,
less dishonesty, and fewer arguments about trust are expected to be less prone to
i nfidelity (Atkins et al., 2005). Such dysfunctions in relationships may increase distrust,
which may both propel a partner to seek sexual solace in more attractive alternative
relationships, and increase the sensitivity of a person in seeking to detect such straying
in that partner.
Even in healthy relationships, however, partners may engage in partner monitoring
and surveillance. People in sexually exclusive relationships also vary in their use of
passive and active forms of monitoring and surveillance of infidelity cues. Men appear
to monitor and suspect their partners of cheating more than women (Andrews et al.,
2008). In general, partners tend to reveal a relatively high degree of accuracy in judging
that their partner has cheated (Andrews et al., 2008). Such judgments of partner infi-
delity appear based in part on several cues that fairly reliably indicate a partner’s infi-
delity (Shackelford & Buss, 1997). Partners who seem unusually distracted, avoidant, or
vague about their lives may be consciously or unconsciously signaling their infidelity.
Although infidelity tends to rely significantly on secrecy for its maintenance, up to a
third of cheaters elect to disclose their infidelity to a partner (Vail‐Smith, Whetstone, &
Knox, 2010). When it occurs, infidelity disclosure appears to be planned more than
spontaneous, and equally likely to be d isclosed face‐to‐face as by phone (Walters &
Burger, 2013). Many of the particular characteristics that may moderate the form and
nature of infidelity disclosure as it influences relationship outcome have yet to be
researched extensively.
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Infidelity, when discovered or disclosed, is associated with relational disruption.
There is little consensus, however, on the extent to which such disruption is a result of
ongoing dysfunctions preceding or leading to the infidelity, or if the disruption is a
result of the sense of betrayal or new relational alternatives provided by the infidelity
and its discovery. In one study of sex addicts, for example, over half of partners
expressed their intent to leave the relationship after disclosure, but only a quarter
a ctually did (Schneider, Corley, & Irons, 1998). Disclosures were overwhelmingly
accepted as the right thing to do, and worked better when avoiding extremely detailed
narrative reconstructions of the infidelity. Disclosures offer opportunities to rene-
gotiate self and the relationship (Walters & Burger, 2013).
With regard to disclosure and discovery factors, infidelity can be disclosed by the
cheating partner, but may be discovered by a partner in a variety of other ways. A
p artner’s infidelity can be discovered by active surveillance, by accident, by in‐flagrante
direct observation, by indirect evidence, or by third‐party disclosure. Most of these
discovery methods can also involve varying degrees of interactional interrogation or
solicitation of partner disclosure (Afifi, Falato, & Weiner, 2001). In general, disclosed
infidelities have substantially better outcome prospects for the r elationship than
d iscovered infidelities (Marín, Christensen, & Atkins, 2014). The communicative
approach a partner employs having experienced the transgression may also moderate
relational outcomes. People who are more invested and satisfied with their relationship
prior to infidelity discovery are more likely to engage in integrative approaches to
m anage the transgression, compared to individuals who feel less invested or satisfied in
the relationship (Guerrero & Bachman, 2008).
Just as the method of discovery moderates relationship outcomes, so do the accounts
offered by the disclosing or discovered cheater. Cheaters have a variety of accounts
available in their repertoire, including excuses (e.g., “I was drunk and didn’t know what
I was doing”), minimizing (e.g., “It didn’t mean anything”), justification (e.g., “If you
paid more attention to my needs, I wouldn’t need to look elsewhere” or “After the things
you’ve done, I had every right to stray”), avoidance or silence (e.g., “Can’t we just move
on and not talk about it”), refusal (e.g., “I’m not going to talk about it”), denial (e.g., “It’s
not what it looks like” or “It never happened, despite what it looks like”), apology (e.g.,
“I am so very, very sorry”), concessions (e.g., “I have to admit something awful—I
cheated on you”), and attempts at forbearance (e.g., “If you give me another chance, I
promise I will never even look at another person”) and repair (e.g., “I promise I will
make this up to you”). Concessions with apologies tend to be most mitigating, whereas
refusals or silence tend to be more aggravating, and justifications and excuses are more
ambivalent in motivations and effects (Mongeau, Hale, & Alles, 1994). Women may be
more inclined to forgive a male’s infidelity, whereas men may be more inclined to break
up (Shackelford, Buss, & Bennett, 2002). There may also be a restorative justice and
therapeutic potential that results from the offended partner giving voice to appropriate
anger and indignation in response to infidelity discovery or disclosure.
Another moderator of relationship outcomes may be the motivations of the i nfidelity
itself. Some cheating is explicitly intended to send a message to a partner, including the
use of infidelity as a way of making a partner jealous, or as a form of revenge or reci-
procity for a partner’s prior transgressions, real or perceived (Tafoya & Spitzberg, 2007).
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Furthermore, despite expressions of guilt and remorse, cheaters may a mbivalently
express excitement, arousal, personal fulfillment, and a sense of self‐efficacy in response
to their affair (Walters & Burger, 2013). Despite potential subtleties in the communi-
cative intentions that infidelity may serve, the severity of the betrayal itself often
o verwhelms the potential for relationally negotiating the meaning or motives.
Consequences and the prospects for reconciliation
Because infidelity typically involves efforts to keep the activity covert, it often r epresents
a compounded betrayal—both violating the presumed sexual exclusivity, and the
presumed honesty of a partner. Furthermore, the sexual activity exposes a partner to
potential sexually transmitted diseases, of which the violated partner has no knowledge,
and therefore no inclination to seek protection. Such secrecy therefore poses an a dditional
risk factor for spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Because it represents a significant
violation of relationship expectations, it increases the risks of relationship conflict, inti-
mate partner violence, and relationship breakup and divorce. The causal directions of
such relationships, however, are difficult to establish, given that more troubled or dissat-
isfying relationships may make the attractiveness and justifications of seeking sexual or
relational gratification outside of the primary relationship more appealing. For example,
infidelity may elicit jealousy from a partner, jealousy expression may instigate a partner’s
relational dissatisfaction and subsequent infidelity, and jealous partners may themselves
initiate violence even if their partner is the cheater. Nevertheless, research attempting to
control for the quality of the relationship prior to infidelity still indicates that infidelity is
a disruptive event in relationships (DeMaris, 2013), and infidelity may still represent a
significant threshold event in precipitating dissolution in the context of other dysfunc-
tional features of the relationship (Scott, Rhoades, Stanley, Allen, & Markman, 2013).
Although infidelity is a clear risk factor for relationship breakup, many relationships
survive such transgressions. Forgiveness and reconciliation processes tend to involve
significant disruption of prior relational norms, power relations, and communication
processes, and may depend significantly on whether or not such endeavors involve
professional therapy that seeks to redress cultural, gendered, and relational asymmetries
in the relationship. Given that relational trust is typically slow and difficult to achieve,
but easily destroyed in the face of a single incident of infidelity, relationship development
typically requires extensive time and professional guidance in charting a course back to
normalcy. One of the few reasonably sized studies of therapeutic outcomes indicates
that couples with infidelity experience entered therapy with greater distress and depres-
sion than couples entering therapy for other reasons, but at six months post‐therapy
follow‐up, the infidelity couples were indistinguishable from the non‐infidelity couples.
Thus, as disruptive as infidelity is to the stability of a relationship, it appears to be at least
as responsive to therapy as other types of relational sources of distress.
See aLSO: Apologies/Forgiveness and Conflict; Divorce; Hurtful Communication;
Models of Relationship Disengagement; Problematic Events in Relationships;
Relationship Transgressions
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Further reading
Allen, E. S., Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K. C., & Glass, S. P. (2005).
Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and contextual factors in engaging in and responding to extramar-
ital involvement. Clinical Psychology Science and Practice, 12, 101–130. doi: 10.1093/clipsy/bpi014
Blow, A. J., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review.
Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31, 217–233. doi: 10.1111/j.1752‐0606.2005.tb01556.x
Duncombe, J., Harrison, K., Allan, G., & Marsden, D. (Eds.). (2004). The state of affairs:
Explorations in infidelity and commitment. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Platek, S. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (Eds.). (2006). Female infidelity and paternal uncertainty:
Evolutionary perspectives on male anti‐cuckoldry tactics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
Brian H. Spitzberg is Senate Distinguished Professor in the School of Communication
at San Diego State University, USA. His research interests are communication compe-
tence, communication assessment, meme diffusion, conflict management, the dark
side of communication, and stalking. He is author of a model of meme diffusion in
Communication Theory, and coauthor of The Dark Side of Relationship Pursuit: From
Attraction to Obsession and Stalking.
... Estimates of prevalence are limited by social desirability biases and we need to rely on self report surveys. However, 20-40 percent of American heterosexual married men and women admitted to have had an extramarital affair (Spitzberg, 2015). According to Hunt (1974, as cited In Tsapelas, Fisher & Aron, 2010 41% of men and 25% of women reported infidelity in the 1970s, and data collected in the 1980s bring even higher figures -72% of men and 54% of women were unfaithful to their partner at some point during marriage. ...
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The theory of evolved sex differences in jealousy predicts sex differences in responses to sexual infidelities and emotional infidelities. Critics have argued that such differences are absent in studies that use continuous measures to assess responses to hypothetical infidelities or in studies that assess responses to real infidelities. These criticisms were tested in two random-effects meta-analyses of 40 published and unpublished papers (providing 209 effect sizes from 47 independent samples) that measured sex differences in jealousy using continuous measures. A significant, theory-supportive sex difference emerged across 45 independent samples using continuous measures of responses to hypothetical infidelities, g*=0.258, 95% confidence interval (CI) [0.188, 0.328], p<.00001. Measured emotion significantly moderated effect size. Effects were strongest when measures assessed distress/upset (g*=0.337) and jealousy (g*=0.309). Other commonly measured negative emotions yielded weaker effects, including hurt (g*=0.161), anger (g*=0.074), and disgust (g*=0.012). Across the 45 independent samples, six significant moderators emerged: random sampling, population type (student vs. nonstudent samples), age, inclusion of a forced-choice question, number of points in the response scale, and year of publication. A significant, theory-supportive effect also emerged across seven studies assessing reactions to actual infidelities, g*=0.234, 95% CI [0.020, 0.448], p=.03. Results demonstrate that the sex difference in jealousy neither is an artifact of response format nor is limited to responses to hypothetical infidelities.
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Although commonly believed that males are more promiscuous than females, new research has revealed that female infidelity is a common occurrence throughout the animal kingdom. Female Infidelity and Paternal Uncertainty is the first book to address how males deal with the consequences of female infidelity and the strategies they have evolved to try to avoid the possibility of raising an offspring they unknowingly did not sire. Each chapter deals with a specific evolved strategy developed to aid males in either limiting opportunities for their mate to be unfaithful or to ‘correct’ the by-products of infidelity should it occur. With sections including mate guarding, intra-vaginal tactics and paternity assessment, this book will appeal to researchers and graduate students in behavioral biology, evolutionary psychology, human sexuality, anthropology, sociology, reproductive health and medicine.
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