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When I wondered aloud, "Is infidelity a sin whose time has come?" my colleague retorted, "It never left!" Indeed, the string of politicians, sports figures and movie stars cheating on their wives is an endless parade of mea culpas.
"Why do men cheat?" I asked Dr. Ruth Westheimer, psychosexual therapist, as faculty and fellows gathered for the Yale commencement this year. Her voice escalated. "It’s not only men! And put an exclamation point there. I have nothing more to say."
Just an hour earlier, a young National Guardsman told us that infidelity was on the rise with military wives. He said, "We now have a coed Army, and wives know that when their husbands are in Iraq these guys are going to cheat and so they do it also."
Despite what we hear about infidelity, the last major survey in 2006 conducted by Pew Research, an independent think tank, found that 88 percent of 1,502 persons said that a married person having an affair is morally wrong.
Good statistics about infidelity are dated. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy in 2002 cited a study identifying some 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands involved with extramarital affairs. Today numbers quoted are much higher, particularly after adding 15 percent of Internet users involved in "online infidelity," undocumented numbers involved in emotional cheating with people they meet on the job, and Web sites that cater to "married but cheating" clientele. And guys, the word is out about Mistress Day, Feb. 13.
What concerns me is the effect of infidelity and divorce on children. A new Dutch study reported on the effects of divorce with 2,149 boys and girls from 10 through 15. The Journal of Marriage and Family noted that girls, though not boys, were at high risk for depression in adolescence.
With the damage that infidelity does to families and children, I thought the "sin" and dishonesty might be peaking and leveling off. A February article in the Journal of Sex Research was discouraging. The team is developing "a scale assessing sexual deception practices." As if it wasn’t bad enough that students are lying about being faithful, 31 percent lied about the numbers of previous partners, and a whopping 69 percent failed to disclose having the human papilloma virus.
Dr. Ruth emphatically reminded me of her concerns about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS. "Just watch. The numbers are going to start going up again," she said.
His and hers reasons that spouses cheat are similar: lack of intimacy and emotional fulfillment, the need for attention, a change in physical appearance, unkind words, and most especially, lack of communication. However, when infidelity is discovered, women tend be more forgiving than husbands, who are generally too angry to reconcile.
Does religion help? Only for those attending church and not just parroting pious words. A new study from the Fuller Theological Seminary reported on 1,439 married participants. They found that those who talked "religious importance" but did not attend church regularly were more likely to have an affair than the churchgoers.
"I am no longer naive enough to think that marriage is made in heaven," said Rabbi Carl Astor, of Congregation Beth-el in New London, Conn. At a recent wedding he told newlyweds and guests, "It takes hard work, flexibility, honesty, and forgiveness." The forgiveness factor is always something most people would rather forget.
W. Curt LaFrance, M.D., a Brown assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology, sees a simple biblical solution. Paraphrasing Ephesians, he said: "Husbands love your wives. Wives respect your husbands."
Nonetheless, often infidelity becomes an irreconcilable difference, and women and children lose out financially. John Skeele, who is with a national mortgage group in McLean, Va., pointed out that "in a divorce, a couple has to set up two households on the income that used to support one."
Mindful of the economics of divorce, one woman we know of was determined to keep her marriage afloat despite a cheating husband. Taking a creative approach, she shocked him into resolving their differences. Just before he returned from a business trip, she posted a large sign on their front lawn. When he arrived back home, he found himself face to face with the words: "House for Sale — Husband Included."
Rita Watson is a daily blogger at www.ritawatson.com.