Can Marriage Survive Infidelity--and Should It?

It's not just celebrities who are straying. Adultery is becoming more common

Marital monogamy ain’t what it used to be. Nowadays, judging by the headlines, it seems like everybody is getting a little something on the side--whether it's sports figures like uber-golfer Tiger Woods, celebrities like Jesse James, or politicians like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Is it just a coincidence that we're seeing a spate of high-profile infidelities in recent months, or are affairs really more common than they used to be? And, if so, what does this mean for the state of our marriages?

Though it’s tough to get reliable infidelity statistics--who really wants to admit cheating to a researcher?--there is evidence that the landscape of marital fidelity is changing somewhat. The General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago finds that every year about 10 percent of spouses admit to cheating: 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women. But while these numbers have stayed constant over the years, a more detailed analysis by University of Washington researchers shows that two groups, older men and women and young couples under age 35, are cheating more. According to these researchers, the lifetime rate of infidelity for men older than 60 was 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in the early 1990s. For older women, it’s 15 percent, up 10 percentage points since 1991. And young couples? Yikes. Some 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under age 35 say they’ve strayed, up from 15 and 12 percent, respectively.

What’s strange is that we aren’t seeing more divorces--yet anyway. While there was an uptick in America’s divorce rate in the 1970s and1980s due to the adoption of no-fault divorce laws, the divorce rate today is at about 3.5 divorces per 1,000 Americans. That's the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. Whether that means more marriages are surviving infidelity, or just that spouses are being more honest about it, isn't clear. But it is clear that infidelity is still one of the biggest roadblocks a marriage can face. Ruth Houston, founder of and author of Is He cheating on You? (Lifestyle Publiations, 2002), estimates that approximately half of all marriages affected by adultery don't survive.

What determines whether a couple does--or should--stay together after an affair? Experts are reluctant to generalize. The decision is “very personal, based on a many factors," says infidelity researcher Kristina Coop Gordon, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. There are often other issues that come into play, from money concerns and religious beliefs to the oft-used rationale “for the sake of the kids.” And there are many different types of affairs, from the one-night stand to a long-term relationship.

Still, experts agree that there are some transgressions that are hard to overcome. If other issues compound infidelity like alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse, drug addiction, and even sex addiction (see our related story), that can cause seemingly insurmountable problems for couples. Another common relationship wrecker? Sometimes a partner may stray and believe he or she has fallen in love or found a "soul mate,” as in the case of Gov. Sanford, whose wife of 20 years, Jenny, divorced him after learning of his yearlong affair with a woman from Argentina. “Emotional affairs are tough for spouses to accept,” says Houston. “Some women can get over a sexual affair, a one-time thing. But when there is love, longing and emotions involved, it often makes it tougher.”

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