The Surprising Reality of Infidelity: High Satisfaction, Low Guilt

Broken Marriage Cheating

A study on the psychology of infidelity finds that extramarital affairs, mostly undertaken due to sexual dissatisfaction or desire for novelty, do not harm perceived marital happiness, with participants expressing high satisfaction and little remorse.

Infidelity survey uncovers minimal remorse and high levels of satisfaction.

A recently published study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior reveals that individuals who engage in extramarital affairs often find these affairs highly fulfilling and experience little guilt. Furthermore, they believe that their infidelity has not negatively impacted their otherwise healthy marriages, according to the study.

The extensive survey of people using Ashley Madison, a website for facilitating extramarital affairs, disputes common assumptions about the motivations and experiences of those committing infidelity.

“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 lead author Dylan Selterman, an associate teaching professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences who studies relationships and attraction. “Ratings for satisfaction with affairs were 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.”

Researchers conducted this study to better understand the psychological experiences of those who seek and engage in extramarital affairs. Working with researchers at the University of Western Ontario, Selterman surveyed nearly 2,000 active users of Ashley Madison, before and after they had affairs.

Participants were asked about the state of their marriage, why they wanted to have an affair, and about their general well-being. Respondents, generally middle-aged and male, reported high levels of love for their partners, yet low levels of sexual satisfaction.

Participants reported high levels of love for their spouses, yet about half of the participants said that they were not sexually active with their partners. Sexual dissatisfaction was the top-cited motivation to have an affair, with other motivations including the desire for independence and for sexual variety. Fundamental problems with the relationship, like lack of love or anger toward a spouse were among the least-cited reasons for wanting to cheat.

Having great marriages didn’t make cheaters any more likely to regret affairs, the survey found. Participants generally reported that their affair was highly satisfying both sexually and emotionally and that they did not regret having it.

The results suggest that infidelity isn’t necessarily the result of a deeper problem in the relationship, Selterman said. Participants sought affairs because they wanted novel, exciting sexual experiences, or sometimes because they didn’t feel a strong commitment to their partners, rather than because of a need for emotional fulfillment, the report found.

“People have a diversity of motivations to cheat,” Selterman said. “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.”

Selterman hopes to advance this work by looking closer at how other populations of cheaters compare to the Ashley Madison population.

“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. 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.”

Reference: “No Remorse: Sexual Infidelity Is Not Clearly Linked with Relationship Satisfaction or Well-Being in Ashley Madison Users” by Dylan Selterman, Samantha Joel and Victoria Dale, 3 April 2023, Archives of Sexual Behavior.
DOI: 10.1007/s10508-023-02573-y

9 Comments on "The Surprising Reality of Infidelity: High Satisfaction, Low Guilt"

  1. And we wonder why there are so many problems in our society?
    Articles like this are just meant to promote adultery by giving the reader the perception that it is ok, does little or no harm, and everyone else is doing it mentality.

    We need strong faith based marriages and families where children have both a mother and father in a committed and faithful marriage.

    • I disagree, with the former argument. We can ignore the problem, suppress it, not study it or discuss it. But if we want the latter argument’s strong marriages and families, we first need to understand the causes of the problem. I haven’t read the study, but this study article gave some excellent conclusions, that problems in marriage potentially leading to adultery are commonly pretty low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a simple biological need for intimacy. That can be addressed. John below is right about the sample size, as it’s people seeking an affair, which will not yet be discovered, so satisfaction will be high. This is a study of who is trying to have an affair, not who has one, or has ended a marriage, or even who isn’t trying to have one. If you want to solve relationship problems, these are the people to study.

  2. I agree Tennisguy. Also, quizzing people who have signed up for infidelity aren’t a cross section of normal folks! Common error I learned about 5 decades ago in statistical classes. Cmon…
    Ok folks, name a couple who survived and thrived after multiple affairs…rare. Very.

  3. And a survey of Ashley Madison subscribers is supposed to be remotely representative of the whole population of cheaters??

  4. Clyde Spencer | July 17, 2023 at 5:35 pm | Reply

    Because we are talking about an activity at least partly driven by hormones, and selection was from those comfortable with using the internet, I think that we can safely say that there is a bias in the sampling for younger people, and we are not seeing a typical cross-section of American society. Might it be that what the authors think they see is actually a change in cultural values, particularly the morality of younger people?

  5. Biology doesn’t gaf what primitive superstitious ideologies have to say about human nature. Myths aren’t reality. Humans aren’t “wicked,” sex is not shameful, and “sin” isn’t real. Enjoy the one life you have. Better to be honest about your polyamory, but as you can see in the comments, puritanism and magical thinking still runs deep in the US, even in the 21st century.

  6. Clyde Spencer | July 18, 2023 at 10:28 am | Reply

    “Biology doesn’t gaf …”
    On the contrary. Social behaviors that don’t support survival of offspring will lead to reduced net reproductive rates and potentially decline below the replacement rate. There are usually reasons for social mores encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors, usually arrived at after long periods of observing how behaviors impact survival and standard of living. There are good reasons why inbreeding is strongly discouraged by almost universal taboos against incest, although the definitions of familial lines not to be crossed may vary with the culture. Similarly, adultery is usually discouraged because it reduces resources available to a family to properly raise the children. Perhaps more importantly, a successful marriage depends on trust. That trust is broken when one partner discovers that the other has been lying to them, not only about their faithfulness, but about how and where they are spending communal resources and where they are at certain times.
    Sin may not be real in the sense that one will be eternally damned for sinning, but it is real in the sense that is has proven in the past to be a means of controlling social behavior to make for a more cohesive and cooperative society that can protect itself from encroaching enemies.

  7. Humans aren’t built for monogamy. Many biblical “heroes” had multiple wives and “concubines” (which were actually sex slaves, not side-pieces).

    No one is under any obligation to propagate the species, nor to perpetuate social constructs surrounding it – monogamous marriage, “social mores,” etc.

    The notion that women are incapable of raising a child without “the resources” and support of a man is primitive chauvinist thinking.

    • Clyde Spencer | July 19, 2023 at 3:15 pm | Reply

      “The notion that women are incapable of raising a child without “the resources” and support of a man is primitive chauvinist thinking.”

      You are projecting! I said nothing about women being “incapable.” What I meant was that when two people get married, they effectively enter into a social and legal contract where they are expected to contribute to the raising of the children. If the contract is dissolved, the courts will force both to contribute to that effort. If one of the married partners is wining, dining, and gifting another person, then that money is not available to provide for the children or spouse. It is essentially a breach of contract. And, in many situations, if one spouse becomes aware that the other is or has violated the terms of the contract, they will dissolve the contract through what is called divorce.

      You are right, no one is under any obligation to propagate the species. I would suggest that if you or anyone chooses not to do so, that they not get married. However, society has a role in maintaining order and being sure that one or the other partner in a relationship is not abused. Thus, laws are passed to help insure that.

      You assert without evidence that humans aren’t built for monogamy. Yet, many, if not most couples, are perfectly content with a monogamous relationship because of the benefits it brings, particularly as the partners get older. It may be that those who aren’t content are examples of arrested maturity.

      As to the point about “biblical ‘heroes,'” I’m reminded of what Lord Acton observed: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” With birth ratios being approximately equal, such behavior means that for every woman that the ‘hero’ claims, there is a man left without options.

      There are many aspects of human behavior that put self-interest first over that of a well functioning society. Many of those have been defined as ‘malum in se’ crimes and have severe punishments. Inconsiderate behavior is often referred to as being antisocial, if not criminal. Civilization requires that selfish interests be suppressed for the benefit of the whole. A mature person would understand that.

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