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   Home  > Articles

The Monogamy Myth and the Prevalence of Affairs

By Peggy Vaughan

Monogamy is something most people say they believe in and want for themselves. Every survey ever done on this question shows a high percentage of people think monogamy is important to marriage and that affairs are wrong. And most people, when they marry, "intend" to be monogamous. But a belief in monogamy as an ideal doesn't prevent large numbers of people from having extramarital affairs.

Since we can't effectively address a problem until we properly identify the nature of the problem, the first step is to raise awareness of the prevalence of affairs. Many people question the prevalence of affairs, looking to whatever particular study or survey will reinforce their belief/hope that most people are monogamous.

One reason it's so difficult for people to accurately determine the meaning behind any particular study is that there are such subtle forces involved that affect the outcome. For instance, those studies that look only at the incidence of affairs in the "current marriage" fail to reflect the larger picture of the overall prevalence of affairs. For the people to whom this has happened, the experience LASTS A LIFETIME, regardless of whether it happened in the "current marriage." And statistics that distort this reality by focusing only on the "current marriage" fail to be meaningful.

(By the way, the very fact that divorce and remarriage are so common has also complicated the reliability of any statistics that look at monogamy in a given marriage. Since marriages tend to last a shorter period of time than in the past, some people manage to maintain monogamy during this shorter period of time—NOT a positive indicator for monogamy or for marriage.)

Likewise, those studies that look only at the incidence of affairs in the "current year" also fail to reflect the larger picture. It's like saying that even though lots of women get breast cancer, a small percentage of them get it in "any given year." For those of us who have had breast cancer, the fact that we got it in "one particular year" does not diminish it's significance or relevance to the overall picture. Again, statistics that distort the overall reality of affairs by focusing only on the "current year" also fail to be meaningful.

Those of us who have looked at a wide range of studies recognize the "myth" of believing that most people are monogamous. Here are some statistics based not on any one specific study, but on what we see as the "general consensus" of researchers who have studied this issue:

According to Annette Lawson, author of "Adultery," first published in 1989 by Basic Books.
"The various researchers arrive at a general consensus…suggesting that above one-quarter to about one-half of married women have at least one lover after they are married in any given marriage. Married men probably still stray more often than married women—perhaps from 50 percent to 65 percent by the age of forty."

According to Maggie Scarf, author of "Intimate Partners," first published in 1987 by Random House, re-issued in 1996 by Ballentine.
"Most experts do consider the 'educated guess' that at the present time some 50 to 65 percent of husbands and 45 to 55 percent of wives become extramaritally involved by the age of 40 to be a relatively sound and reasonable one."

According to Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth", first published in 1989 by Newmarket Press, re-issued in 1998 by the same publisher.
"Conservative estimates are that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair. These figures are even more significant when we consider the total number of marriages involved, since it's unlikely that all the men and women having affairs happen to be married to each other. If even half of the women having affairs (or 20 percent) are married to men not included in the 60 percent having affairs, then at least one partner will have an affair in approximately 80 percent of all marriages. With this many marriages affected, it's unreasonable to think affairs are due only to the failures and shortcomings of individual husbands or wives."

Note that the above assessments of the prevalence of affairs were made about a decade ago; so based on changes in society during the intervening years, the current percentage of the population who have had affairs is probably somewhat HIGHER. For instance, the continuing increase of women in the workplace and the increase of women having affairs on the Internet means that the numbers for women having affairs is probably similar to those for men—about 60%.

The effect of believing that most marriages or committed relationships are monogamous is that if an affair happens, it's seen strictly as a Personal Issue requiring "therapy" for the individual who failed to be monogamous. But by acknowledging the prevalence of affairs (and the societal factors that undermine monogamy), we see that this is also a Societal Issue requiring "education" for all of us in using responsible honesty to support our efforts to be monogamous. The irony of the Monogamy Myth (believing that most people are monogamous and that affairs happen only to a few "bad" or "weak" people) is that it prevents us from dealing with the issues that need to be addressed in order to make monogamy a more attainable goal for everyone.


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