Extramarital affairs don’t necessarily lead to a guilty conscience. According to a new study, most people who cheat are actually pretty cool with it. And they generally think their marriage is going fine too.
For the study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers from Johns Hopkins and the University of Western Ontario surveyed almost 2,000 people who use Ashley Madison, a website that helps married people find partners outside of their marriages. They questioned users pre- and post-affair about their marriages, the reason for the affair, and their overall life satisfaction.
Although most participants reported high levels of love for their spouse, many also reported sexual dissatisfaction, which was the number one motivating reason to have an affair, followed by a desire for sexual variety or novelty. About half of the respondents were not sexually active with their partners. Surprisingly, lack of love, anger toward the spouse, and feelings of neglect were the lowest-ranked triggers for seeking extramarital relationships.
“People have a diversity of motivations to cheat,” said lead researcher Dylan Selterman, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. “Sometimes they’ll cheat even if their relationships are pretty good. We don’t see solid evidence here that people’s affairs are associated with lower relationship quality or lower life satisfaction.”
When asked how they felt about cheating afterward, most survey respondents reported feeling “highly satisf[ied] both sexually and emotionally, and that they did not regret having their affair.”
“In popular media, television shows and movies and books, people who have affairs have this intense moral guilt and we don’t see that in this sample of participants,” said Selterman in a statement. “Ratings for satisfaction with affairs was high – sexual satisfaction and emotional satisfaction. And feelings of regret were low. These findings paint a more complicated picture of infidelity compared to what we thought we knew.”
A small percentage of respondents said they were in consensually non-monogamous relationships — but many of those who said they were contradicted themselves in later answers. The vast majority of respondents, however, reported that their affairs were secret and their spouse was unaware of the infidelity.
Researchers did note a few limitations in the study. First, close to 90% of respondents were middle-aged and male. Also, Ashley Madison is a paid site, so users were more likely to have already decided to cheat than those who engage in infidelity in more impromptu ways.
More research is needed to determine if Ashley Madison users represent a distinct sect of cheaters or if these results are repeatable across similar sites and with those who do not use websites designed to find willing extramarital partners.
“The take-home point for me is that maintaining monogamy or sexual exclusivity especially across people’s lifespans is really, really hard and I think people take monogamy for granted when they’re committed to someone in a marriage,” Selterman said.
“People just assume that their partners are going to be totally satisfied having sex with one person for the next 50 years of their lives but a lot of people fail at it. It doesn’t mean everyone’s relationship is doomed, it means that cheating might be a common part of people’s relationships.”