Is Monogamy Possible? This Emotional Life - PBS

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    Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D.

Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Bradbury studies how intimate relationships develop and change.

Is Monogamy Possible?


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Amidst an unceasing media-fueled stream of reports about infidelity, it is natural to wonder whether it is even possible for two people in a committed partnership to remain faithful to one another. 

The short answer is:  yes, it is absolutely possible, and indeed it is the norm.  In a 2005 review article, clinical psychologist Elizabeth Allen and colleagues estimate that some 22 to 25% of all men and 11 to 15% of all women report engaging in extramarital sex.  They acknowledge that these are likely underestimates, given the stigma associated with infidelity and adultery.  These are high numbers, to be sure, but we are probably safe in assuming that a healthy majority of married men and women do not cheat on their partner.  Analysis of a large population survey by clinical psychologist Mark Whisman and colleagues suggests further that an estimated 2.3% of all married spouses have extramarital sex in any given year.

Is infidelity like a bolt out of the blue?  For many unsuspecting spouses, the answer is undoubtedly yes.  But infidelity is far from a random occurrence, and several risk factors have been identified by Whisman and others. 

Foremost among these risk factors is unhappiness in the marriage – no surprise here – as well as a number of factors likely to reflect or contribute to this unhappiness:  sexual dissatisfaction, suspicion that the partner has been unfaithful, a high level of negative emotionality, and low self-esteem. 

On this latter point, novelist Norman Mailer’s sixth – and final – wife, Norris Church Mailer, was interviewed recently in the New York Times about his affairs:

      When Norris discovered the scope of Mailer’s infidelities, she was struck by how many of the women were either his age — he was near 70 then — or significantly overweight. “He made the remark, ‘Sometimes I want to be the attractive one.’ I think he felt if it wasn’t somebody young and beautiful, he wasn’t betraying me as much. He just couldn’t resist someone who told him what a great man he was and what a great writer he was. Every time he fell for it.

Infidelity is also higher among people who have had a lot of sexual partners over the course of their lifetime, and among women who have a history of childhood sexual abuse, according to Whisman’s work – perhaps because this difficult history contributes to sexual problems in their marriage.  And some key factors, like religiosity, seem to combine with relationship distress to increase the likelihood of infidelity.  People who are in unhappy relationships but who are more religious are less likely to have affairs than an equally unhappy person who is less religious.  Or, in plain English, being religious does seem to prevent spouses from having affairs, especially when they grow unhappy.

Similarly, unhappy men with pregnant wives are far more likely than happy men with pregnant wives to have affairs, by a ratio of .2% to 11.9% in any given year.  Among husbands whose wives are not pregnant, the comparable figures are 1.2% for happier men and 2.8% for unhappy men. 

What is the take-away message?  In an old comedy routine, Steve Martin would promise his audience unique insights into how to grow rich.  ‘After you get a million dollars,’ he would say, ‘the real trick is to invest it well.’  So how do you prevent infidelity?  We would be equally facetious to say, “First, have a great marriage, and then maintain it as best you can” and yet that really is the best answer. 

Affairs are likely to be a symptom of marriages characterized by unhappiness, sexual or otherwise – and even still not all unhappy marriages will be – pardon the pun -- breeding grounds for infidelity.  The better question is not whether monogamy is possible, but how we can create and sustain relationships that are better than all the alternatives.