Infidelity is about being emotionally or sexually unfaithful. It is closely equated with non-monogamy, and as such is usually examined in the context of marriage. However, as constructions of marriage have changed since the middle of the twentieth century, the meanings attached to infidelity (or unfaithfulness, betrayal, or disloyalty) are no longer associated so exclusively with marriage. Awareness – and direct experience – of the fragility of marriage is high, ensuring that marriage is no longer uncritically perceived as a monogamous lifelong relationship. This is reflected in the popularity of prenuptial contracts, civil ceremonies, and the sharing of ”relationship aspirations” rather than traditional marriage vows.
In his analysis of The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), Anthony Giddens provides a theoretical reappraisal of the nature of contemporary marital and partner commitment which is particularly interesting in the context of examining infidelity. In it, he describes the emergence of ”confluent love,” a form of intimacy-based on mutual self-disclosure. The essence of confluent love lies in its contingency; couples construct a relationship of mutual trust and commitment alongside the knowledge that their relationship might not last forever. The relationship will only last for as long as each member finds it emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Moreover, within confluent love, sexual exclusivity may or may not be significant, depending on the understandings negotiated by the couple.
Such views about transformations in the character of commitment in marriage and marriage like relationships carry implications for under standings of infidelity. Of itself, a movement towards confluent love does not necessarily indicate that infidelity within partnerships is more acceptable than it once was. Indeed, it can be argued that monogamy (albeit serial rather than lifelong) remains a highly salient marker of commitment and stability in relationships because of the additional emphasis now placed on personal compatibility and long term satisfaction (Allan & Harrison 2002). Nevertheless, the recognition that individuals have a right, and perhaps a responsibility, to seek fulfilment within their personal relationships, creates a cultural climate in which the exploration and development of new relationships is socially more acceptable than it once was.
Popular discourses around infidelity reflect these complexities. The terms ”having an affair” or ”becoming involved (or intimate) with someone else” carry different meanings and emotional overtones from ”committing adultery” or ”engaging in extramarital sex.” The first two expressions convey greater tolerance and therefore a more ambiguous and muted moral message; the second two expressions retain a strong sense of social disapproval. In other words, responses to infidelity are shaped by the current understandings of marriage in the society and the social circle in question. Expressing this point slightly differently, the ”rules” against infidelity are applied more readily to some people, and some groups, at some times, than others. An obvious example of this is the degree to which husbands’ and wives’ extramarital affairs have been understood very differently, with men’s infidelity being condoned more readily than women’s.
Attention must also be paid to the social or cultural variables that influence an individual’s behavior. In agricultural societies, for example, marriage and kinship – with their associated land rights – represent the key structures around which social and economic organization is built. Under these conditions, it is likely that infidelity would be seen as a threat to the social order as well as to the marital relationship, and would be condemned through a range of religious, moral, and social sanctions. Even today, there are some fundamentalist Muslim countries where infidelity may be punished by death. Cross culturally, infidelity is the most frequently cited reason for divorce, and actual – or suspected – infidelity (usually on the part of the woman) is a primary cause of domestic violence and spousal homicide. These last two points, of course, indicate that for some women engaging in an affair carries very different risks and repercussions than it does for men, and therefore we should be cautious of an analysis of infidelity that is gender free.
However, recent research in Britain (Lawson 1988; Reibstein & Richards 1992; Wellings et al. 1994) has suggested that the incidence of affairs is increasing, and that behavior by men and women is converging. There is some evidence that many (or even most) men and women admit to having at least one affair in their first marriages (Lake & Hills 1979), indicating a move away from stereotypically gendered understandings of affairs based on ”double standards,” and suggesting a more complex understanding of sexuality, fidelity, and commitment where women’s and men’s needs are not highly differentiated. And yet both men and women in social attitude surveys in Britain and the US demonstrate continued disapproval of extra marital sexual relationships, with the percentage of people saying that such relationships were ”always” or ”mostly” wrong consistently being over 80 percent (Scott 1998). This would suggest that there is significant dissonance between what individuals feel their relationship practices should be like, and what they actually are like, making it increasingly difficult for people to make sense of affairs within the context of shifting normative frameworks.
Nevertheless, affairs – whether within heterosexual marriages or other forms of exclusive partnerships – are clearly important life events for those who have them. Unfortunately, despite the significance of affairs, there has been very little empirical research undertaken. This is a curious omission, given that sexual matters are now discussed far more openly and when there is greater ambiguity around the moral status of affairs. The recent resurgence of interest in family diversity and family practices has generated a lot of research on or about divorce, family dissolution and reordering, remarriage and, more recently, stepfamilies. However, little attention has been paid to the part that affairs might play in the process of marital breakdown and the character of new domestic arrangements. In other words, there would seem to be some disparity between the predominance of affairs on the one hand and the extent to which they have been studied academically on the other.
Among the reasons for the lack of sociological research into infidelity and marital affairs are the methodological issues and problems associated with the topic. Conducting research on issues of sex and secrecy raises serious ethical considerations, while the sheer variety of affairs makes any generalization difficult. This is a point that has been made by a number of authors who have investigated the broad nature of affairs and their consequences (Duncombe et al. 2004). Passion, transgression, secrecy and lies, betrayal, power, emotion work, identity construction, and gossip as a means of social control are common themes in Duncombe et al.’s edited collection, demonstrating the complex set of issues that face people who engage in affairs. There are few clues, however, as to why individuals might engage in affairs in the first place. Research is still in its early stages, but affairs tend to occur at different stages of marriage, possibly for different reasons. Early on, where partners have already engaged in premarital sex with others; after childbirth, when marital satisfaction dwindles; in early middle age, when individuals seek reassurance that they remain attractive; and in later years, when an affair may end an otherwise “empty” marriage. Men’s affairs tend to cut across class, age, and marital status, whereas married women have markedly fewer relationships with young single men – a reflection, perhaps, of older men’s greater resources and freedom, compared with women’s ”social depreciation” with age.
While the individuals involved (directly and indirectly) in affairs are important, it should also be remembered that these relationships develop, endure, and sometimes end within a wider complex of interacting forces. In other words, the patterns and pathways of affairs are framed within a societal context. The form affairs take, their importance in people’s lives, the extent to which they are ”allowed” to continue, and whether they are condemned or condoned, are all shaped by broader social and economic influences. The sociological study of how affairs are constructed at different historical points in time, among different social groups, would certainly contribute to an increased understanding of institutions and practices such as marriage, sexuality, morality, and gender relations.
- Allan, G. & Harrison, K. (2002) Marital Affairs. In: Goodwin, R. & Cramer, D. (Eds.), Inappropriate Relationships. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 45 63.
- Duncombe, J., Harrison, K., Allan, G., & Marsden, D. (Eds.) (2004) The State of Affairs: Explorations in Infidelity and Commitment. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.
- Jamieson, L. (1998) Intimacy. Polity Press, Cam¬bridge.
- Lake, T. & Hills, A. (1979) Affairs: The Anatomy of Extramarital Relationships. Open Books, London.
- Lawson, A. (1988) Adultery. Basic Books, New York.
- Reibstein, J. & Richards, M. (1992) Sexual Arrange ments: Marriage and Affairs. Heinemann, London.
- Scott, J. (1998) Changing Attitudes to Sexual Mor¬ality: A Cross-National Comparison. Sociology 32: 815 45.
- Wellings, K., Fields, J., Johnson, A., & Wadsworth, J. (1994) Sexual Behaviour in Britain. Penguin, London.