Americans place cheating on a spouse dead last on a list of acceptable behaviors, behind abortion, cohabitation, pornography, out-of-wedlock births and divorce, among others. A puny 6 percent say adultery is acceptable, according to a Gallup poll conducted last May.
American social taboos on many issues — especially issues of personal sexual choice — have been changing over time, but views on infidelity have not budged. It has been consistently frowned upon by the masses across decades and demographics. Adultery is less popular than cloning humans, polygamy, suicide and teenagers having sex — all of which were also close to the bottom of Gallup's list.
That disapproval has not ended infidelity, which may in fact be on the rise today among women, though men are still more likely to be unfaithful. The General Social Survey of the National Science Foundation found in 2010 that 19 percent of men said they had been unfaithful at some point, a drop from 21 percent in 1991. The number of unfaithful women increased from 11 percent in 1991 to 14 percent in 2010.
Other research shows a higher count, putting the proportion of cheating men as high as nearly one-fourth and women up to one-fifth. There are obviously problems with self-reported statistics on this question. A Wall Street Journal article theorizes that infidelity is undercounted, noting that "any such survey is asking for confessions from people who are presumably lying to their spouses."
A potential for explosive impact and collateral damage may keep adultery at the bottom of the list, experts told the Deseret News. Infidelity "seemingly has a larger ripple effect than other things like cloning or abortion. It continues to painfully impact a family as they interact at family events and have to raise children together. It affects the lives of children and the extended family as well," said Kristin Hodson, therapist and founder of Salt Lake-based The Healing Group, who co-wrote "Real Intimacy: A Couples' Guide to Healthy, Genuine Sexuality."
Many people — the adult who as a child saw the fallout from a parent's affair, the boyfriend or girlfriend who was cheated on, the spouse who feels betrayed — have wounds from infidelity, said Hodson. The seventh of the Ten Commandments is not a distant concept today, but something raw: "It's an issue that hits close to home for many that often is surrounded by a lot of pain," she said.
Rachel, 42, a Salt Lake City wife and mother, doesn't question husband Tim’s assertion he was never physically intimate with another woman. Still, she considers business trips during which he visited strip clubs and the hours he spent lusting over pornography to be infidelity, and he agrees with her.
“Calling it betrayal doesn’t even really describe it. It’s not a deep enough word to describe the pain this has caused,” said Rachel. “It doesn’t begin to cover the fact that he has seen other women. Some women say it hurts their self-esteem. That’s not it for me. I don’t feel less desirable, but I don’t want him thinking about someone or something that he’s seen when he’s with me. Worse, he broke his vow to me.”
That she feels betrayed, although he never touched another woman, is an example of why even defining infidelity is so complicated.
"I see many couples where one partner engaged in an emotional affair, a sexual affair, pornography use that was hidden — and it’s all under the umbrella of 'cheating,'” Hodson said.
It’s a shame that couples don’t talk explicitly about their expectations of what life together will be, said Lesli M. W. Doares, a marriage coach in Raleigh, N.C.
"We don't even make sure we share a definition of faithfulness, much less what forms infidelity might take," she said. "Is it physical? Emotional? Is it okay to have a 'work spouse?' To talk about intimate information?”
While virtually everyone recognizes sexual intercourse as cheating, many don't consider an emotional relationship or even one involving passionate kisses to be infidelity, she said. Hodson told the Deseret News that any affair of the heart can cause harm, eroding the baseline of trust: "Would you be doing whatever you're doing in front of your spouse?" she asked.
It can be slippery terrain. Adulterous relationships often start quite innocently, said Dusty Lefdal, owner of Employer’s Investigative Services in Orland, Calif., who investigates unfaithful spouses.
He's called after an affair is underway, so he doesn’t always know how it started.
“I can say, however, that a large amount seem to have met each other at work,” he said. “Almost all the cheating cases I’ve worked involve the subject knowing in some capacity the other person” before the relationship became an affair. “It does happen where he or she meets a stranger at a gathering or a bar and has a one-night stand, but it is rare, in my experience.”
Dishonesty is one of the most harmful aspects of infidelity, Doares said.
"When I promise to love and honor and get married, I'm making a public and private commitment that I am no longer walking through life by myself," said Doares, author of "Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After With More Intention, Less Work."
"How does that play out? There’s a tension between what I want for me and what’s best for our family, and how do we negotiate that?" she said. "I think if you share anything that rightfully belongs to your spouse, that’s a problem."
Experts say it’s hard to tell whether more people are cheating than in the past because of differences in definition and because more people are forming very personal, marriage-like relationships without actually marrying. Is it adultery if there’s no spouse?
"I believe that women are catching up because they have greater exposure to other men in the workplace, the gym, on social media, etc.," Doares said. "There is also a diminishing emphasis on marriage itself. This is driven by an increased focus on self and personal happiness, as well as a lack of support for the institution in society at large."
People have more opportunity than ever before to have an affair, too. Hodson said she sees more women engage in affairs because it's much easier than in the past to connect with ex-boyfriends, meet new people and get one's personal needs met beyond a marital relationship. The same is true for men: "I mean, we live in a time where you can be cheating on your spouse while sleeping right next to him," Hodson said.
Virginia Rutter is pretty sure that young women cheat at a higher rate than young men. They have more opportunities than women of previous generations had and they don't worry about the same kind of reputation effects that those women faced.
"It's a norm that nonmarital sex is not uncommon or shocking to talk about in the way that is has been in other periods of time," said Rutter, professor of sociology at Framingham State University and a senior scholar for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Besides that, women are more economically independent than in previous generations. They are catching up in terms of many kinds of freedom.
However, it is also true that greater equality in marriage because of the economic contributions of women has also led to greater relationship stability and satisfaction, Rutter noted.
Gloria, 38, has been cheated on and she has cheated. But she is no fan of it. It’s a case of “lesson learned,” the Los Angeles-area woman said.
“I would agree that the worst part is the broken promise, the loss of commitment,” she said. “I cheated first, not knowing the value of the commitment. It was definitely damaging.”
She lost him. Later, she was betrayed by someone else, she said. He lost her: “All the relationships are over now,” she said.
As for what people should know, “I would say that you need to love yourself first.” Self-love and respect go a long way to stop people from straying, she added.
Seattle therapist Christopher Franklin said an astonishing number of affairs are fueled by sexual addiction. It's easy to find porn online or communicate with someone sexually online in an era of less-restrained cultural expectations. Current culture also makes it seem more acceptable. Sexualized images of women are “pervasive. It sets up an environment where it's acceptable to use sexuality as a leverage on both the male and female side," he said.
Hodson believes the fact that divorce rates are holding steady instead of rising means "couples do want to work things out and turn toward each other during marital crisis, not away from each other."
She often counsels couples who want to fight their way back on the condition that "the partner who breached the monogamy agreement is invested in figuring out what went wrong and repairing the situation." Hodson said it's sometimes a relief to find out a partner is cheating because it offers a reason for distance and indifference and orneriness.
"They often feel like now that all of the cards are out on the table, they can start really repairing their relationships because there are no more secrets," said Hodson. "They can explore what wasn't working; what went wrong. Many see the affair as a symptom of a bigger problem."
Others handle adultery differently.
When Steve first cheated on Vanessa, she took her vows seriously and didn’t try to divorce him, but she didn’t budge on what was right or wrong. For the sake of the kids, she tried to hold things together. But he was a serial cheater, and when they eventually did divorce: “I felt like I’d been let out of jail,” said Vanessa, also from Salt Lake.
Randy, who lives in Cincinnati, is holding on for dear life, but he doesn’t sugarcoat how much damage his wife’s infidelity has done.
“It tears my heart out. I don’t want another wife. She is the one. ... (But) I haven’t hugged her in years," he said. "The lying and the betrayal cause me to recoil inside any time she touches me. I don’t recoil on the outside. I just don’t respond. She’s the one, but I can’t have her.”
Because humans are programmed for intimacy, Franklin said, its violation creates great trauma.
"A lot of people I work with develop post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as a result of affairs," he said. "It's very damaging to people."
Doares is among experts who believe that good relationships require active maintenance and preventive work. Relationships lived on autopilot are more likely to fall apart, she said.
“It requires intent and action, communicating expectations — being willing to really listen to a partner’s perspective about the level of satisfaction in relationships and being willing to make room for a partner’s viewpoint even though it’s different," Doares said.
“I would love to see a relationships and life skills course in every college or high school across the country. A few do have it, and I think it’s really helpful," she said.