The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Open Marriage? No Marriage

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

been attacking the ideal of marital fidelity, urging their fellow Americans to make their unions “open marriages” that allow for extramarital adventures. But a new twenty-first-century study indicates that such radical theorizing remains irrelevant to the way marriage actually works: extramarital affairs, it turns out, are still marriage killers.

Completed at Bowling Green State University by sociologist Alfred DeMaris, this new study of extramarital affairs draws on data collected between 1980 and 2000 from a randomly selected sample of 962 adults who were at least 18 in 1980. In DeMaris’s simplest treatment of the data, “the occurrence of EMS [extramarital sex] was associated with nearly a four-fold risk in disruption.” When he reassesses the data using a statistical model that takes into account “demographic factors such as race, education, [and] income,” DeMaris find that extramarital sex still means a two-and-a-half-fold increase in the risk of marital disruption.

In further analysis, DeMaris establishes that extramarital sex raises the likelihood of marital disruption by two-thirds even when he statistically adjusts for differences in marital quality. In other words, “regardless of how well-adjusted the marriage appears to be, extramarital sexual involvement extracts a cost on marital stability.”

DeMaris acknowledges that he started his study “anticipat[ing] that wives’ EMS would have a stronger effect on disruption than husbands’.” But that is not what the data show: “It does not matter who the perpetrator is; the elevation in the risk of disruption that ensues is the same.”  The data do reveal that extramarital sex is especially likely to disrupt the marriages of “very religious” couples, a statistical linkage that DeMaris explains as the result of “the elevated sense of desecration experienced by the religious regarding the breach of such a strongly held moral principle.”

On the other hand, the likelihood that extramarital sex will disrupt a marriage was statistically “weaker when the wife was in the labor force.” (Could it be that wives’ employment makes couples somewhat more insouciant about the violation of marriage vows?)

Still, DeMaris identifies the study outcome that is the “greatest surprise” for him to be the statistical isolation of “so few factors . . . [that] condition the effect of EMS on [marital] disruption. . . . Regardless of how satisfactory the marriage had been, how long the couple had been married, how disapproving of divorce the respondent was, whether outside counseling had been received, or whether there were young children in the household, the damaging effect of EMS was the same.”

The idea of an open marriage may once have appealed to emancipated sexual revolutionaries. But in the real world, it appears that “extramarital sexual involvement [still] has the potential to be very destructive to marriages and families.”

(Alfred DeMaris, “Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Extramarital Sex as a Precursor of Marital Disruption,” Journal of Family Issues 34.11 [2013]: 1,474-99.)