Excerpted from the book THE NORMAL BAR. Copyright © 2013 by Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte. Published by Harmony, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. The Normal Bar is the world's most extensive survey on romantic relationships, polling over 100,000 people and collecting over 1 million data points. The survey was conducted in 2011 using a powerful interactive survey tool called OnQ with the help of media partners The Huffington Post, Reader's Digest, AARP, iVillage, & AOL.
According to the Normal Bar data, total fidelity of mind as well as body is the rare exception. It’s not abnormal to be tempted to stray. However, for many people, this temptation poses a moral dilemma. In Western society, men and women prize the freedom to mingle freely, yet this easy access to members of the opposite sex can raise anxiety in our partners and in ourselves. No one is policing our every movement, so we have to be responsible for our own reactions when our hormones start percolating. For some, this responsibility is a real burden.
Why are fantasies about sex outside one’s primary relationship so common? In part because lust is the key to our species’ survival, as it is for most animals. Geese are the only species we know of that pair only once during a lifetime; if one mate dies, the bereft partner stays unmatched until death. This is not a great model for repopulating the species, so humans have developed a strong sex drive that isn’t limited to one partner. Being able to imagine sex with alternative partners prepares us to start over in the event of death or divorce. In a sense, then, we need those fantasies of infidelity. On the other hand, because we’ve promised to be faithful, and because we know the likely and unpleasant consequences if we break that promise, most of us constrain ourselves to looking without touching.
Sexually fantasizing about other people
Just meeting another person can arouse physical or emotional attraction. This response does not turn off just because you’re in a committed relationship. The Normal Bar shows that 61% of women and 90% of men fantasize sexually about people they meet. There’s no stopping imagination!
Supporting the premise that this is an instinctive response — rather than a reflection on the primary relationship — we found no correlation between the duration of a relationship and the amount of lusting that goes on outside it. After your first year as a couple, you may or may not “lust in your heart” for others, but there’s no reason to fear that your partner is daydreaming about others just because you’ve been together so long.
More surprisingly, the Normal Bar data also show virtually no connection between fantasies of infidelity and happiness in the core relationship. Temptation happens; it doesn’t matter if you are unhappy or happy with your main squeeze.
Sex with anybody you wanted for one night
Still in the realm of fantasy, we wondered what some of the secret yearnings of men and women would be if there were no negative consequences for their sexual trespasses. So we asked, “If you had the opportunity to have sex with anybody you wanted outside your current relationship and it would have zero effect on your current relationship or family, as if it never happened, would you do it?” Men went for this fantasy by a ratio of three to two over women! Two- thirds of men (65%) and just under half of women (43%) found this a compelling proposition.
This suggests that many of us harbor a secret longing for sexual adventure and romance, even if we never act on it. We don’t want these attractions to undermine our relationship or our moral commitments, but still... we can’t help thinking about that attractive new colleague at the company picnic.
Given the normalcy of these fantasies, we also wondered if our respondents thought their partners would have sex with somebody else if given the same free pass. The responses were remarkably accurate. Men were spot-on, with 43% of men predicting their partners would go for it; and 58% of women thought their mates would seize the opportunity.
It’s one thing to be offered a “freebie,” however, and another to actually plan, invite, or agree to sex outside the relationship. Some couples joke that each has given the other permission have sex with some cherished movie star (think: Sting, Katy Perry, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron, Taylor Lautner), but would that really happen if the unlikely encounter occurred? And what about going beyond fantasy with that new colleague at the picnic in spite of the repercussions? This is where extreme sexual dissatisfaction can make a difference in the response. Among our dissatisfied couples, 79% of men and 65% of women said they’d jump at the chance to have sex with somebody new for one night. People who are starving are more tempted to eat, even if it’s “forbidden fruit.” But having a very good sex life isn’t a total safeguard; 53% of men and 28% of women who are fully satisfied with sex at home are still interested in the seductive stranger or Hollywood icon.
Would you consider sex outside your relationship with somebody who propositioned you?
We are now leaving the world of fantasy and looking at real reactions to actual opportunities. Not all temptation is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes it takes the form of an overt proposition from the one beheld. And what happens then? Nearly half (48%) of women and two-thirds (69%) of men told us that if they were actually propositioned by someone they were attracted to outside their relationships they’d be tempted to act on it. It’s a good thing people aren’t more sexually forward, or we might have a lot more infidelity!
The Normal Bar does show that people who are more sexually satisfied are less likely to be tempted to have sex outside the relationship, but our overall finding here is that more overt invitations would equal more cheating. The best way to stay monogamous may be to keep your partner close when entrancing alternatives are near.