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 

Thursday, April 16, 2015 (Volume 4: Issue: 14)

The Topic: Casual Adultery

The News Story: Adultery Website AshleyMadison Seeks IPO as Demand Booms 

The New Research: Adultery and Divorce


The News Story: Adultery Website AshleyMadison Seeks IPO as Demand Booms

With advertisements bearing the slogan, “Life is Short. Have an Affair,” AshleyMadison makes no attempt to hide what it is—a dating website for adulterous spouses. 

In fact, reports Bloomberg, demand for its services is growing, so much so that the site’s parent company is seeking revenue from an initial public offering in Britain. “AshleyMadison had sales of $115 million last year, an almost fourfold increase on 2009,” according to the company’s head of international relations, Christoph Kraemer. Kraemer defends AshleyMadison’s cavalier attitude, arguing “We’ve had stories from members that we’ve returned love to the marital bed and made others realize the grass is not greener on the other side.”

But plenty of research reveals that, clever marketing gimmicks aside, cheating is still a serious offense ending in divorce for many, many couples. 

(Source: Kristin Schweizer, “Adultery Website AshleyMadison Seeks IPO as Demand Booms,” Bloomberg Business, April 15, 2015.)

 

The New Research: 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 were 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.”

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson, “New Research,” The Family in America, Summer 2012, Vol. 26 Number 2. Study: Elizabeth S. Allen and David C. Atkins, “The Association of Divorce and Extramarital Sex in a Representative U.S. Sample,” Journal of Family Issues 33.11 [2012]: 1,477-1,493.)