Does extramarital sex cause divorce?
The answer seems to be common sense. Ask anyone about whether having an affair affects marriage and they will likely say that infidelity is severely damaging. So what has been the view of family scientists and clinicians?
Until very recently, there was a general belief among family scientists and clinicians that extramarital sexual relationships had little impact on whether or not a couple divorced. Huh? Why is that? Many scientists view extramarital sex as the result of a marital relationship that is already in bad shape. In short, extramarital sex isn't the cause, it's the result. Also, clinicians who work with couples in which there has been infidelity report moderate success in helping couples overcome the issues associated with an affair. In other words, for some couples, the affair prompts them to deal with marital issues and improve their relationship.
Most of the past research indicates that extramarital sex has little effect on divorce. However, a closer look at the research indicates that there are significant flaws in the samples of couples studied that raise doubts about whether these findings can truly be generalized to American society.
But very recently, Elizabeth Allen and David Atkins analyzed data from 16,090 individuals than gives some new insights into this issue.
Using data from 1991 to 2008 compiled in the General Social Survey, which studies approximately 3,000 representative Americans each year, Allen and Atkins looked at the martial histories of people who reported having an extramarital affair compared to those who did not.
What did they find about the overall rate of extramarital sex among Americans over the last two decades? They concluded that less than one-fifth (17.7 percent) of ever-married individuals reported having extramarital affairs. As might be expected, rates were different for men and women. Fourteen percent of women reported having affairs while 23 percent of men engaged in sex outside of marriage -- roughly a 10 percent difference.
To consider the impact of affairs on marriage, the researchers compared four groups of individuals -- those who were married (never divorced), remarried, currently divorced and currently separated. They asked each group about extramarital affairs, and the differences in responses were dramatic. Only 10 percent of married individuals engaged in sex outside of marriage while 23 percent of remarried, 31 percent of currently divorced and 38 percent of currently separated people reported having extramarital sex.
Based on their findings, Allen and Atkins calculated the probability of divorce following an extramarital affair. They conclude that "over half of the participants in this representative community sample who report extramarital sex will eventually divorce." These results contrast sharply to the previous studies that marital affairs have little consequence on marriages. The results suggest that the odds of divorce increase dramatically as a result of affairs.
Despite these findings, extramarital affairs do not automatically lead to divorce. Though half of the group may divorce, the other half may not. Clinicians who work with couples in which there has been sex outside of marriage report moderate success in helping couples rebuild their marriages. For example, in her book "Not Just Friends", Shirley Glass provides helpful ideas to couples about how they can repair their relationships following an affair. Many marriage and family counselors provide help to couples dealing with these issues as well.
Although this study finds that extramarital sex increases the likelihood of divorce, there are many issues that remain unresolved. This study does not include a partner's experience with emotional affairs or virtual affairs. Marriages are complicated, and one factor like extramarital sex cannot completely predict the trajectory of the relationship.