Infidelity is a complex phenomenon, which may or may not be related to divorce. Discuss.
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Infidelity is a complex phenomenon, which may or may not be related to divorce. Discuss.
The relationship between infidelity and divorce is undeniable, with nearly a quarter of all divorces directly related to it (Fincham 2003). However, the extent to which infidelity contributes to the origins of marital breakdown that finalise in divorce is a much more complex notion to address. There is no single factor that has been identified that results in divorce- only an amalgamation of reasons that contribute to an overall sense of marital breakdown failure (Clarke and Berrington 1999; Glezer 1994; Kurdek 1993; Karney and Bradbury 1995; Ono 1998; Olson and Larson 1989; White 1990). Therefore infidelity alone cannot be singled out as a reason that consistently leads to divorce. There are as many complex reasons for infidelity as there are for divorce but they do not necessarily mirror one another.
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. But a belief in monogamy as an ideal doesn't prevent large numbers of people from having extramarital affairs. Most people don't intend to have an affair and most people don't think it will happen to them—but it does. No one is immune from having affairs that disrupt their lives or the lives of those they care about; they happen to all kinds of people, in all walks of life.
There are different varieties of infidelity; the two main areas of discussion are sexual and emotional infidelity in a monogamous relationship. Some distinction should be drawn between adultery and infidelity. Adultery concerns the religious and legal aspects of marriage. Infidelity is a secret relationship outside the primary relationship involving lies to avoid a partner’s anticipated objection. Although sexual infidelity is the most common, many spouses complain of emotional infidelity which involves flirtation or furtive sexual innuendo, but no intercourse.
Within this paper I will attempt to unravel the causal link between infidelity and divorce and what influence – if any, infidelity has upon the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. I will do this by outlining the main components of each element and then discussing how they interlock during the process of marital breakdown and ultimately divorce.
Although in today’s western society is in increasingly difficult to define infidelity, it is relatively uncomplicated to outline what marriage and divorce both signify to us. One is the legal binding of two people typically within a religious context and the other is the legal means by which you break this contract. The five basic grounds for divorce are the same throughout the UK: adultery, unreasonable behaviour desertion, the parties to the marriage have lived apart for at least two years and both consent to the divorce, the parties have lived apart for at least five years
The first three grounds are ‘faults’ that can be committed by one spouse against the other, allowing the ‘innocent’ spouse to apply for a divorce. The last two statements are ‘no-fault’ grounds requiring evidence of separation.
It is projected that 41% of marriages in England and Wales will end in divorce. Nearly one quarter of divorces occur in the first four years of marriage, one half in the first ten and one third after 15 years of marriage. For many years the UK had the highest divorce rate in the EU. In 1996 the UK had the fourth highest marriage rate in the EU (5.4 marriages per 1,000 population), with only Denmark, Portugal and Holland having a higher rate. However, this is still lower than America where half of all marriages ended in divorce. Within the legal framework it is easy to understand the process and statistics of divorce. However, in reality the reasons behind divorce are much more complex to grasp, and the exact nature of marital breakdown is what makes them so hard to unravel.
The relationship between infidelity and divorce can be seen in the statistics – with between 20-25% of all divorces being explained through its occurrence. However there are a huge variety of other factors that can accompany this factor in contributing to a final marital break up. Divorce has been shown to result from a wide range of causes (Amato and Rodgers 1997; Burns 1984; Cleek and Pearson 1985; Gigy and Kelly 1992; Gottman 1994; Kitson et al.1985; Karney and Bradbury 1997; Wolcott 1984), and in some research infidelity is shown to be as low as seventh in the rank of grounds for the dissolution of the relationship (Kitson Sussman, 1982). To fully appreciate the relationship between divorce and infidelity we must first consider some of the other reasons commonly seen as explanations as to why nearly half of all marriages fail. These factors may not only be reasons for divorce but may also explain why infidelity occurs in the first place. Infidelity within marriage may take place as a consequence of one or more of these issues, and consequently will show the extent to which infidelity is or is not directly related to divorce.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Perhaps increasing divorce rates reflect many anti-family distractions that fill the modern world - or perhaps divorce rates reflect an increasing unwillingness to tolerate unhappy marriages. Factors that affect divorce differ around the world - the following points apply in Western Europe and America:
The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial one undermined many of the family’s traditional functions. Schools, the media, and peers are now important sources of child socialization and child care. Hospitals and nursing homes manage birth and care for the sick and aged. Because the family pays cash for goods and services rather than producing or providing them itself, its members are no longer interdependent. As a result of losing many of its social and economic underpinnings, the family is not a necessity. It is now simply one of the many choices we have. Social integration is the degree of interaction between individuals and the larger community is emerging as an important factor related the incidence of divorce. One study found that urban residence was the highest correlate of divorce (Breault and Kposowa, 1987). Those who live in urban areas, where the divorce rate is higher than in rural areas, for example, are less likely to be subject to the community’s social or moral pressures. They are more independent and have greater freedom of personal choice.
Western culture has traditionally been individualistic. We value individual rights; we cherish images of the individual’s battling nature; we believe in individual responsibility. This has brought about an increased sense of freedom and given a wider range of choices to single and married people, this may have contributed to the increasing divorce rate. Socioeconomic status is probably the most important correlate of divorce. Overall, the higher the socioeconomic status - comprised of employment status, income and education (which tend to be interrelated) - the lower the likelihood of divorce (Guttman, 1993). Unemployment, which contributes to marital stress, is also related to increased divorce rates. Studies conflict as to whether employed wives are more likely than unemployed wives to divorce; overall, though, the findings seem to suggest that female employment contributes to the likelihood of divorce, because the employed wife is less dependent on her husband’s earnings (White, 1991). Wives’ employment may lead to conflict about the traditional division of household labor, child-care stress, and other work spillover problems that, in turn, create marital distress.
In addition, frequency of attendance at religious services (not necessarily the depth of beliefs) tends to be associated with the divorce rate (Glenn and Supancic, 1984). Among Caucasian males, the rate of divorce for those who never attend religious services is three times as high as for those who attend two or three times a month. By religion, the lowest divorce rate is for Jews, followed by Catholics and then Protestants. Furthermore, the greater the involvement in religious activities, the less likelihood there is of divorce. Because the major religions discourage divorce, highly religious men and women are less likely to accept divorce, because it violates their values.
Adolescent marriages are more likely to end in divorce than marriages that take place when people are in their twenties or older. After age twenty-six for men and age twenty-three for women, however, age at marriage seems to make little difference to the overall likelihood of divorce (Glenn and Supancic, 1984).
The divorce rate among those who remarried in the 1980s is so far about 25 percent higher than those who entered first marriages in that decade (White, 1991). It is not clear why there is a higher divorce rate in remarriages. Some researchers suggest that the cause may lie in a ‘sort-of-people’ explanation. The probability factors associated with the kinds of people who divorced in first marriages - low levels of education, unwillingness to settle for unsatisfactory marriages, and membership in certain ethnic groups - are present in subsequent marriages, which increases the likelihood of divorce (Martin and Bumpass, 1989). Others argue that the dynamics of second marriages, especially the presence of stepchildren, increase the chances of divorce (White and Booth, 1985). Stepfamily research, however, does not provide much support for this hypothesis (see Ganong and Coleman, 1994).
The actual day-to-day marital processes of communication, handling conflict, showing affection, and other marital interactions- may be the most important factors holding marriages together or dissolving them (Gottman, 1994). In my opinion it is these little things that hold the foundations of marriage together so that it can remain stable.
Although it seems reasonable that there would be a strong link between marital happiness (or, rather, the lack of happiness) and divorce, this is true only during the earliest years of marriage. Those who have low marital-happiness scores in the first years of marriage are four or five times more likely to divorce within three years than those with high marital happiness (Booth et al. 1986). In fact, alternatives to one’s marriage and barriers to divorce appear to influence divorce decisions more strongly than marital happiness does.
It is not clear what relation, if any, children have to the likelihood of divorce (Raschke, 1987). Children were once considered a deterrent to divorce - people stayed together for the sake of the children - but 60 percent of all divorces now take place among couples who have children. The birth of the first child reduces the chance of divorce to almost nil in the year following birth: this preventive effect does not hold true, however, for subsequent births (White, 1991). Controversially, parents of sons are less likely to divorce than parents of daughters. The research suggests that fathers participate more in the parenting of sons than daughters, thereby creating greater family involvement for the men (Morgan, Lye, and Condran, 1988). In some instances, the presence of children may be related to higher divorce rates. Premaritally conceived (during adolescence) children and physically or mentally limited children are also associated with divorce. Children in general contribute to marital dissatisfaction and possibly divorce, according to one researcher (Raschke, 1987).
If you ask divorced people to give the reasons for their divorce, they are not likely to say, “I blame the changing nature of the family” or “It was demographics.” Personal characteristics leading to conflicts are obviously very important factors in the dissolution of relationships.
Studies of divorced men and women cite such problems as alcoholism, drug abuse, marital infidelity, sexual incompatibility, and conflicts, about gender roles as leading to their divorces. Kitson and Sussman (1982) found that the four most common reasons given were, in descending order of frequency, personality problems, home life, authoritarianism, and differing values. Extramarital affairs ranked seventh. Complaints associated with gender roles accounted for 35 percent of the men’s responses and 41 percent of women’s responses. But because studies included only divorced respondents, it is difficult to tell whether the presence of these factors can predict divorce. It can be noted that from studying research on enduring marriages it has often been observed that marriages continue in the face of such problems.
It is easy to understand then that issues other than infidelity are stated to be related to 75-80% of divorces (Fincham 2003). These factors are only a brief summary of what issues can be associated with divorce; and are not mutually exclusive. Infidelity however can be a result of other issues that have already set in within the marriage and if they are not addressed they are most likely to lead to divorce. Can it be proposed then, that infidelity may not be directly related to divorce but is the result and culmination of other factors that are. This is presuming you assume that infidelity occurs due to something absent within the marriage.
This leads us on to discuss the phenomenon of infidelity and why it occurs. To fully grasp what infidelity really means within marriage it is important to understand the variety of attitudes and assumptions held about modern day wedlock. These beliefs may help us in understanding the how, the why and certainly the why not of any unfaithfulness within the confines of marriage. By understanding these different views we are also able to have a clearer insight into the different affects infidelity has upon modern day marriage and how it relates to divorce.
Reibstein and Roberts (1992) outline the three main perspectives on why people assume and believe that infidelity occurs within marriage. Firstly, many believe it is an indication of a weakness or that something is ‘wrong’ with the marriage. This view implies that if there was nothing wrong in the marriage then an affair or act of infidelity would not occur. In essence what this means is that the infidelity makes up for what is lacking in the marriage, for example, sexual desire, intimacy or passion.
Secondly, some take the view that infidelity takes place to add to an already satisfying marriage and can even improve it. This view is usually adopted by those who have an open contract arrangement, where extra relationships are seen as enhancing to the marriage. However if you hold this view and are not permitted an affair then it is likely you will feel trapped or restricted within it and in your own personal development. These two views are the most prevalent within the western culture, the first being the most common belief about why an act of infidelity takes place.
Lastly there is an alternative theory that infidelity has little or no connection to marriage. The person involved in the affair demonstrates the ability to disconnect areas of their lives, not allowing them to overlap in any way. This is seen as an extension to other areas that also do not overlap, such as separate friends, work, or hobbies. This separation of areas is usually seen by them as a clarification their marriage. Reibstein and Roberts (1992) believe that each of these views depends on an “idealised notion of marriage” (chap 4:p.101).
Each view has a separate concept on what marriage is underlying it. In the first belief marriage is seen as something that must fulfil everything. In the second, marriage is seen to be used for personal growth and does not necessarily have to be exclusive or sexually limited to one person. Finally the third point of view is not as clean cut but can be shown to be redefining the core beliefs about what marriage is, and expresses “segmentation” (chap 4:p.103) of marriage by “cutting it off” (chap 4: p.103) from other areas of your life.
With respect to the conditions of infidelity, individuals appear to accept more responsibility for their partner's infidelity when it is emotional in nature, perhaps demonstrating a belief that their own emotional unavailability led their partner to seek comfort elsewhere. In recognizing a personal role in their partner's actions, emotional involvement by itself may be less distressing. When a sexual element is added to the dynamics of the infidelity, however, individuals appear less willing to take responsibility for their partner's actions. It seems that by infringing upon the sexual exclusivity of the marital relationship, unfaithful spouses force their partner to abandon any responsibility that they might otherwise have considered in the circumstances.
While such an explanation at first may seem counter to findings in gender role research that indicate women more often assume responsibility for the success of relationships, it is not necessarily so. Responsibility for the success of a relationship is not synonymous with responsibility for the infidelity of a romantic partner.
According to Shettel-Neuber, Bryson, and Young (1978), the behavioral association of jealousy due to infidelity in marriage vary between men and women in that men were more likely than women to be angry at themselves, to use drink or drugs, and to verbally intimidate their ‘competition’. Women were found to be more prone to cry when alone, to make themselves more attractive to their husbands, and to make their partners think that they did not care. It seems that men's behavior appears to be aimed more at preserving self-esteem, whereas women's behavior seems to be more oriented toward maintaining the relationship (Bryson, 1976, 1977 as cited in White & Mullen, 1989). Individual behavioral responses to an infidelity situation should be viewed as independent of the eventual marital outcome; this is due to the result being dependent upon the combination of both partners’ responses to the situation. If the couples are willing to ‘work through’ the problems that caused the initial infidelity and the problems caused as a consequence of the infidelity then their marriage will have the chance to survive. There are various ways to conduct this; within couples counselling or just together, but to avoid divorce and encourage a healthy relationship then these issues must be addressed.
Even though surveys vary greatly in their estimate of infidelity (from 25% to 70% of partners), Janus & Janus (1993) found that more than 1/3 of husbands and more than 1/4 of wives have had an extramarital experience, but less than 1/4 of divorces are caused by affairs. So even though 20-25% of divorces are directly related to divorce it appears that in comparison to the large amount of people committing infidelity it is much less significant than it first appears. This then brings about the argument that infidelity is not related to divorce but often connotes a deterioration in the affective and emotional realm of the marriage associated with loss of love, betrayal of trust, indifference and growing apart (Glass and Wright 1997).
Supporting these findings, research carried out at the Australian Institute of Family Studies in June 1999 found that infidelity was perceived as the main provocation for divorce by 20 per cent of both men and women. For the majority, it was a spouse’s infidelity that was the precipitating factor. However the results in this study view the statistics as evidence of a direct link between infidelity and divorce, although it does admit the impact of infidelity as a reason for divorce is variable.
The findings were as follows; only 11 respondents, eight of whom were men, claimed their own infidelity as a reason. The discrepancies between reported spouse and self attributions of infidelity as a major reason for divorce can be influenced by a respondent’s reluctance to admit that his or her own behaviour may have been involved (South and Lloyd 1995). Respondents may also have been more inclined to see personal infidelity as the consequence of other problems (such as lack of communication) that led to the marriage breakdown.
However, the impact of infidelity as a reason for divorce may depend on the meaning individuals attach to its importance. Some may tolerate an affair in the relationship for a variety of reasons, while for others infidelity is a fundamental and unforgivable breach in the marital contract (Vaughn 1986; Hartin 1988). (See table below)
Table 1. Perception of main reason for marriage breakdown by gender (n=633)
3. Perception of main reason for marriage breakdown by gender (n=633)
Despite this study Hopper (1993:p.801) argues that the pathways to divorce can not be conceptualised as an orderly and sequential process and offers the view that: ‘The motives people used to explain their divorces can only be understood as rhetorical devices that imposed a sense of order onto situations that were otherwise fraught with ambiguous and contradictory events, emotions, and inclinations towards behaviour.’ Weiss (1975), too, asserted that partners develop an ‘account’ of the marital breakdown which enables them to accept and integrate the event into their lives. Events in the marriage may be reinterpreted, a partner’s behaviour redefined, and reasons emerge to justify the decision to divorce. Amato and Rogers (1996:p.13) also suggest that ‘spouses define certain behaviours as problems only when they have already given up on their marriages and are about to break up, anyway’. These issues must be taken into account when evaluating the use of data based upon peoples’ opinion of why they got divorced. In light of this spouses using infidelity as an explanation of divorce is likely to be simplifying a much more complex array of problems that probably lead to the marriage breakdown.
However, on the positive side, Greeley, Michael, & Smith (1990) report that a high percentage of married people (ranging from 91% and 94% for men and women under 30 to 95% or more of both sexes over 30) were monogamous, i.e. had only one sex partner, during the last year. But, the years roll on and those 5% and 9 percents add up. However, most marriages today are faithful and the belief in being faithful to your spouse has steadily increased during recent decades, even during the time that premarital sex was being approved of more and more. This could be evidence of a cyclical backlash by the now-married children of parents who experienced infidelity within their parent’s marriage (whether it ended in divorce or not). Marriages in the 1980s and 1990s may have experienced infidelity during a time when the ‘me’ culture was encouraged, preceding this was the era of self expression and freedom in the 1960s and 70s which resulted in sexual promiscuity at a grand level. By learning from parents’ mistakes younger couples today appear to be increasing in monogamous beliefs, and as a result of this infidelity in marriage may fall. We do however need to realise how widely the rules about sex differ from culture to culture: we expect our spouse to be faithful, but 75% of societies are polygamous.
The common conclusion to all studies the causes of divorce is that a constellation of factors, not one dimension, is responsible for ‘the cascade toward marital dissolution’ (Gottman 1994). Hopper (1993) found that although divorced individuals usually mentioned only one or two motives for their divorce, in his view: ‘Divorcing situations were immensely complex – so complex and indeterminate that any number of outcomes could have resulted.’ Thompson (1960) has noted: ‘The aetiology of marital relationships is very complex, and the factors involved operate at different levels. In some marriages a given set of circumstances constitutes a threat which brings about deterioration in the relationship, while in others it calls forth a positive response and a strengthening of the ties between the couple.’
Any attempt to explain the reasons couples separate and divorce must take into account both the nature of marriage as an institution within a given social and cultural context, and its particular meaning for the individuals involved. The dramatic increase in the lifetime divorce probability (from 10 per cent to more than 50 per cent in the United States since the 1960s) cannot be explained only at the personal or micro level. White (1990) aptly states: ‘In addition to asking why some marriages are more likely to fail than others, we also need to examine changes in the social institutions that structure individual experience.’ Contemporary marriage and family relationships are formed and maintained in an environment of greater choice in how people can live their lives than has been possible for past generations (Lewis 1999; McDonald 1988). The social setting of marriage today covers the legal recognition of a variety of personal relationships and sexual behaviours, the removal of the social stigma of illegitimacy and divorce and the availability of effective contraception. All of these elements could be blamed for the levels of infidelity and divorce. However the relationship between the two is neither consistent nor mutually exclusive. There are many more points outside of the boundaries of this essay that could be discussed concerning their interlocking existence, and how if at all they are directly linked.
There is no question that infidelity within the domain of western marriage can have both irretrievable consequences and permanent affects on the relationship. However, it is the context in which the infidelity is committed, revealed and dealt with that will determine whether or not the relationship will end in divorce or will go on and grow to become stronger than before.
Infidelity is a complex phenomenon and can be related to divorce, however how directly affiliated it is to divorce is what we are trying to understand. It can be said that many more people experience infidelity within their marriages and survive, than those who experience and divorce based upon its occurrence. In conclusion then, infidelity is related to divorce but the link between them is variable, dependent upon a wide range of factors independent from the infidelity itself.
For England and Wales see section 1(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. For Scotland see section 1(2) of the Divorce (Scotland) Act 1976. For Northern Ireland see Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978
Population Trends 83, Spring 1996, page 36
Eurostat, Table F-19, pages 148 and 149
See Demographic statistics data 1995-1998, European Commission, Eurostat, 1999, Table F-3, pages 132 and 133