Marriage and Sexual Fidelity

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In the wake of recent news stories of marriage problems (Governor Mark Sanford, pictured at left with his wife Jenny in happier times; note also Jon and Kate plus 8), the New York Times ran a fairly upbeat article about the state of marriage today. It’s worth a look, as a great backdrop to the discussions we’re having about marriage and sexual fidelity today. It’s also worth a look for couples dealing with sexual struggles in their own marriage … if for no other reason than to see our challenges in the context of our culture as a whole. Here are a few notable quotes from the article:

Despite strong social riptides working against it — the liberalization of divorce laws, the vanishing stigma of divorce, the continual online temptations of social sites like MySpace or Facebook — the marriage bond is far stronger in 21st-century America than many may assume. Infidelity is one of the most common reasons cited by people who divorce. But surveys find the majority of people who discover a cheating spouse remain married to that person for years afterward. Many millions more shrug off, or work through, strong suspicions or evidence of infidelity. And recent trends in marriage suggest that the institution itself has become more resilient in recent years, not less so.

“People tend to assume that bad people have affairs, and good people don’t, or that affairs only happen in bad marriages,” said Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego-based researcher who runs the Web site dearpeggy.com, and author of a forthcoming book on infidelity and marriage, “To Have and to Hold.” “These assumptions are just not based in reality.”

In any given year, about 10 percent of married people say they have had sex outside their marriage. These numbers say nothing about whether the affairs were discovered; but researchers have surveyed couples in which they were. In one survey, among 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs, Ms. Vaughan found that 76 percent of both men and women were still married and living with that spouse years later. Similar surveys have found rates of about two-thirds and higher.

Perhaps the strongest risk factor for infidelity, researchers have found, exists not inside the marriage but outside: opportunity.

The investment in a marriage lasting more than a few years usually includes more than fidelity. Spouses share history and goals, children and strong bonds to friends and community. And there is some reason to believe that in recent years, such deeply integrated marriages have become more prevalent.

For instance, one of the most commonly cited statistics about marriage is that half of marriages end in divorce. But that number reflects the expected lifetime divorce rate of people married in the 1970s.

The story is different for more-recently married couples. A comparison of 10-year divorce rates among college-educated men married in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s shows that divorce is becoming less common, said Dr. Stevenson, the Wharton researcher. Among men who married in the 1970s, for example, about 23 percent had divorced by the 10th year of marriage. Among similar men married in the 1980s, about 20 percent had divorced by the 10th year. Men married in the 1990s are doing even better — with a 10-year divorce rate of 16 percent.

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