Adultery and Divorce

Informed observers claim that as many as two-thirds of all divorces in America are not really necessary, as they split apart couples who report average happiness and low levels of conflict. But what about the other third? Precise statistics are difficult to come by, but adultery may very well be the precipitating cause, judging from a study that establishes that sexual unfaithfulness is far more likely to trigger marriage dissolution than previously thought.

Not satisfied with many existing studies, limited to clinical populations or small sample sizes, which conclude that divorce is not the outcome in the majority of cases of marital infidelity, Elizabeth Allen of the University of Colorado and David Atkins of the University of Washington explore the relationship between adultery and marital breakup using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a large, nationally representative study conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Looking particularly at more than 16,000 ever-married respondents who were queried, in survey years from 1991 to 2008, as to whether they had ever committed adultery, the psychologists established that a history of adultery—what they euphemistically term “extramarital sex” or EMS—significantly raises the possibility of experiencing divorce or marital separation.

Using married (and never divorced) individuals as the baseline, the researchers estimated that currently remarried individuals had more than double the odds of reporting adultery (Odds Ratio, 2.61; p < 0.05); that currently divorced but not remarried individuals had more than four times the odds of reporting adultery (Odds Ratio, 4.13; p < 0.05); and that currently separated respondents had almost six times the odds of reporting adultery (Odds Ratio, 5.81; p < 0.05).

Moreover, the research team found that among respondents reporting no adultery, 60 percent of men and 49 percent of women were currently married with no divorce history, and only 17 percent of men and 22 percent of women were currently divorced or separated. In contrast, among respondents reporting adulterous relationships, only 33 percent of men and 23 percent of women were currently married with no divorce history while 41 percent of men and 48 percent of women either currently divorced or separated.

These findings lead Allen and Atkins to conclude: “More than half of individuals who engage in EMS do, in fact, divorce or separate from their spouse.” Although acknowledging the pattern represents a “relatively high rate of divorce,” they suggest their calculation actually understates the reality because the GSS data measure only the respondent’s infidelity. “There would be even higher rates of divorce,” the researchers claim, “if additional types of extramarital relationships were included . . . and if both partners’ extramarital relationships were evaluated.”

At least the GSS data confirm that marital infidelity is less prevalent in America than what Hollywood would leave the public to believe, as 14 percent of the women respondents and 23 percent of the men respondents confessed to cheating on their spouses. But don’t let your guard down: even if present in a minority of American marriages, the wrecking ball of adultery is clearly implicated in more than half of the failures of these sacred bonds.

(Elizabeth S. Allen and David C. Atkins, “The Association of Divorce and Extramarital Sex in a Representative U.S. Sample,” forthcoming in Journal of Family Issues.)