Marital Affairs & The Media

A first-person perspective of channel surfing.

Article Abstract

Many pop culture media sources use the topic of infidelity as a staple to entice readers. What does pop culture say about affairs? How does this impact a person, the marriage and the family system at large? Pop culture does still take a morally lose or relativistic stance, but not in all cases. Many pop culture media sources are beginning to dig deeper into the subject of infidelity, what causes it and whether or not it is healthy or if a marriage is reparable in the aftermath of betrayal. In this research paper 15 pop culture media sources are summarized and then viewed against creditable academic sources specialized in the research and development of healthy sexuality and marriage. Surprisingly, media sources seem to be taking a turn towards monogamy and affair recovery. Some even take a close look at the damage caused to children who are caught in the collateral damage caused by an affair.

Affairs portrayed in the media

Many themes presented among the 15 pop culture articles found in the media.  Most interesting to start was the varying rates of infidelity reported. Foston states that women are raised to be chaste, while only men are reared to be casual about their sexual endeavors (2002). Although women today are 40% more likely to cheat on their spouses compared to 20 years ago (Jackson, 2014). Feifer states that 14% of women cheat on their husbands today, men 20% (2014). According to the research study cited by Feifer, the 20% rate of infidelity for men has held steady over the past 20 years. Another source claimed 22% of all partners in a monogamous relationship have cheated (Stacey, 2008). Cosmopolitian (2006) reported that 1.5% of women under 35 admitted to being unfaithful. One article stated that 75% of all men cheat on their partners (Ebony, 1998).

Fantasy and reality, cheating in the age of technology

Defining infidelity was an easier task in the pre-technological age of the boomers and before. Parker and Glass (2003) remind that adultery isn’t just about vaginal intercourse; romantic kissing and oral sex qualify just as well. What about the definition of infidelity in the context of the ever-expanding virtual community that invades all aspects of every day life? Facebook, chat rooms, online pornography, cyber-sex to name a few.  Douthat, 2008 reports that the United States of America is split 50/50 when asked the question whether or not pornography is damaging to partnerships. Health Magazine (2005) states there is confusion around what to make of the online realm of pornography and such.

A study conducted in 2004, correlated online pornography to real life infidelity at a rate of three to one (Douthat, 2008). Some believe that the online world of pornography is just as damaging and hurtful as a flesh and blood affair. The components of on-camera sex, masturbation, mutual exchanges via chat and webcam from a moral standpoint should be plotted firmly on the continuum that is sexual betrayal (Douthat, 2008).  Some argue that pornography is natural for men because they cannot go without sex for any long duration of time, and claim that it’s a sign of progress in modern day society, a release from the burden of monogamous marriage (Douthat, 2008). When argued against realism, online sexual activity is as perfectly acceptable, bring up the concept of human decency, and one is met with sounds of silence (Douthat, 2008).

Why men and women commit adultery

Differences were presented and debated as to why men cheat compared to why women cheat. And whether or not men cheat more, or are genetically programmed to cheat.  Dumas (1996) writes the biological argument still exists, claiming males are engineered for infidelity because they are driven to carry on their blood line. Another source notes the difficulty for a man who is approached by an aggressive woman, he does not know how to turn off his hormones and turn down her sexual advances (Ebony, 1996). Lucia states that men in general are geared for a higher rate of infidelity (2008). Some biologists claim that both men and women are equally created to cheat (Dumas, 1996). Koli writes that men who are unfaithful cheat not because of the sexual act but because of some deep psychological deficit (2004).

Emotional abandonment can play a part in the inability to faithfully commit to one partner (Foli, 2004). Parker and Glass (2003) point out that a happy marriage is not a guarantee of fidelity. Men are viewed as usually cheating based on physical attraction, or lust (Parker & Glass, 2003). A man can report that he is happy in his marriage, yet still fall to the temptation of an affair. Men are also posited to cheat because they are raised with a casual moral compass about sex (Foston, 2002).  Or also due in part to being raised in a family of origin that does not uphold fidelity, where instead infidelity was modeled by the father (Koli, 2004).

Zimmerman states that men fall into delusional thinking that they can give in to temptation and there will not be any consequences, because no one will ever know (2005). Also men do not critically ask themselves why a woman would have an affair with them, instead they let it feed their ego instead of realizing that the woman is just doing it to feed her own ego (Zimmerman, 2005). Koli states that men who are in high profile, successful positions in life can be more apt to cheat out of superiority and self-entitlement, otherwise known as a raging ego (2004). Stacey (2008) writes that men cheat because of they are immature and insecure; affairs become a false-way to boost self-esteem and ego. Another source states that men cheat for one simple reason: lack of impulse control over seeing something they want (Ebony, 1998).

Addiction and personality disorders also were cited as reasons for male infidelity. Sexual addiction, otherwise known as hypersexuality disorder, is when a partner sexually betrays his spouse even against his own will (Foli, 2004). A small percentage of men fall into this category of sexually addicted men (Cosmopolitan, 2006). Generally this type of spouse is happy in his marriage but cannot control his obsessive-compulsive behavior (Foli, 2004). Narcissistic Personality Disorder is another reason men cheat on their wives (Foli, 2004). For someone with Narcisistic Personality Disorder the unconditional admiration and adoration is a supply he cannot go without, thus he is constantly and chronically seeking romantic attention outside of the marital relationship (Foli, 2004).

Dumas states that women have affairs when they feel disconnected either from their partner or from themselves (1996). One article stated that women are biologically structured to seek out more genetically fit opportunities to conceive and rear children (Dumas, 1996). Parker and Glass write that emotional detachment in the marital relationship is key for females especially in making space for an affair to occur (2003).

Unfortunately, some mental health professionals validate that when a wife cheats, it is the fault of the husband because he has not met her emotional needs (Dumas, 1996). The sheer exhaustion that is part of rearing young children also plays a part in setting one up for an affair (Parker & Glass, 2003). One woman reported that the romance, newness and conversation hooked her into an affair (Parker & Glass, 2003). It is also reported that once a female crosses the line into sexual infidelity, it is harder for her to come back emotionally to the marriage (Dumas, 1996). Today some women have reported sexually betraying their spouses for the seemingly shallow motivation of sexual variety (Foston, 2002).

Speaking on behalf of infidelity in general, several reasons affairs may occur were presenting in the many articles. Stress, first and foremost was listed as a main contributor to infidelity, due in large part to the heavy dose of stress-reducing fantasy that plays a key role in cheating (Jackson, 2014). Infidelity could be in fact synonymous with the word fantasy (Dumas, 1996). Tension is a natural part of partnerships, if tension builds and turns into resentment and bitterness it opens the door to a third agent breaking into the marriage, infidelity is just one possible imposture (Dumas, 1996).

An environment characterized by chronically high amounts of stress can lead a spouse down a path that otherwise would never have been traversed (Jackson, 2014). Other reasons sited: losing weight, retaliation after discovery that one’s spouse has been unfaithful, getting a new job or moving (Jackson, 2014). Parker and Glass note that feelings of neglect or emotional and physical abandonment call also make one vulnerable to an affair (2003). The cultural atmosphere today perpetuates a climate of infidelity due in part to the multiple partners many have before settling into marriage (Cosmopolitan, 2006). Americans are conditioned now for novelty in general, lack of novelty is associated to dissatisfaction as the passion of a new sexual relationship eventually can become routine (Feifer, 2014). A lack of spirituality has also been listed as the deeper, underlying root of infidelity (Ebony, 1998). The temptations of our culture make it difficult to uphold vows of fidelity, in a marriage that lacks a strong spiritual grounding, it may be impossible to withstand (Ebony, 1998).

Morality and impact of infidelity

Some may ask whether or not infidelity is either morally wrong or personally and relationally damaging? Timothy Dumas (1996) writes that professionals do exist who would classify marital infidelity as a self-awakening and awareness-enhancing experience. In a culture classed by doing whatever it takes to find personal happiness, cheating has been treated as a way to fill in any gaps that exist in the marital relationship (Dumas, 1996). Dumas (1996) declares that infidelity for women especially can be a positive affair, even using the word wholesome.

Another article writes of a woman who described her affairs as exhilarating and all about her (Charreach, 2014). Some women report that they view cheating as reaching the point in the marriage where they maturely realize that they will have to find their prince-charming elsewhere (Dumas, 1996). Interestingly enough, infidelity may be on the rise along with an impetuous attitude towards the subject, it still is reported that when one chooses a partner, fidelity is high on their list of expectations (Foston, 2002). Dumas reports that when an unfaithful spouse discovers his or her partner has been also been unfaithful, hurt feelings are painfully present (1996).

One source compares the discovery of infidelity to a stick of dynamite going off, nothing is so personal as sexual betrayal by one’s spouse (Ebony, 1996). Discovery of an affair can bring one to the point of raging fits of violence and uncontrollable sobbing, leaving the betrayed spouse feeling victimized and humiliated (Payne-Robinson, 1992). Foston (2002) reported that women who cheat have the stigma to carry of being less honorable, so it’s not about infidelity being immoral or harmful but socially unacceptable.

According to Parker and Glass (2003) infidelity depletes the marital relationship of emotional intimacy. Parker and Glass (2003) also state that infidelity destabilizes the family system, with negatively impacts children. Morris (2013) states in his self narrative about his cheating escapes that if he discovered his partner was unfaithful he would be devastated, and that even though he struggles to maintain fidelity, it’s his goal because once he has children they lose the most when infidelity enters the marital relationship. Children at best should be raised in a secure and safe environment; marriages impacted by affairs create insecurity in children (Parker & Glass, 2003).

Protecting your marriage from an extramarital affair

Today the temptation and opportunity to cheat is higher compared to the past, for both men and women (Parker & Glass, 2003). Many suggestions were made on the topic of affair proofing a marriage. If one notices a physical, emotional or intellectual attraction to another, limit the amount of time spent with that specific person (Parker & Glass, 2003). Another approach is to treat temptation as a challenge, acknowledge that feeling desire for another is human nature and vow to fight it with stealthy, savvy tools and techniques (Zimmerman, 2005). Lucia recommends keeping physical intimacy high on the list of priorities in the marriage in order to protect from outside threats (2008). Reading up on new positions from various books to keep the physical dimension of sex exciting is another way to protect the marriage (Lucia, 2008). Zimmerman (2005) suggests intentionally weighing the consequences of an affair, what will be lost, the impact on not just one’s spouse, but the entire community surrounding the union.

Parker and Glass (2003) write that it is just as hard for a woman in today’s culture to keep her vow of fidelity, as it is a man. And that monogamy within marriage is about choices made, the character and integrity of the person and a decision to honor another fellow human being (Parker & Glass, 2003). Falling in love, falling into an affair, and feeling attraction to another is human nature, living day in and day out with choices that show respect to the marital agreement is hard work (Parker & Glass, 2003).  Intentionally staying emotionally connected and making time to talk honestly about hurts and disappointments in the marriage are ways to keep your marriage from becoming vulnerable to an affair (Parker & Glass, 2003).

Setting boundaries in social situations, in the office, on business trips are ways to also demonstrate a high commitment to fidelity (Parker and Glass, 2003). If there are issues in the marriage, another way to avoid a potentially dangerous situation is to only discuss marital problems with someone of the same sex, someone who is in line with the values of family, marriage and fidelity (Parker & Glass, 2003). Codepedence, or a low level of differentiation in marriage puts a marriage at risk for infidelity (Payne-Robinson, 1992). A healthy level of spiritual and emotional separateness is another way to protect from the threat of an affair (Payne-Robinson, 1992).

The aftermath of betrayal

How does one repair a relationship after the trauma of infidelity? Is it even possible to heal the relational and personal destruction incurred by sexual betrayal? According to Foston (2002) men struggle more with over-coming the hurt and betrayal from infidelity. Another source claims that women can forgive a remorseful unfaithful spouse once, but never twice (Ebony, 1998). According to Men’s Health (2014) a partner who felt a high level of relational satisfaction in the marriage is more likely to internalize the discovery of an affair at a much deeper level. Men’s Health (2014) reports that a partner who was happy in the marriage has a higher chance of breaking up the relationship upon discovery of an affair.

Supporting a betrayed spouse means seeking help to uncover the true motivation for having an affair (Men’s Health, 2014). Building trust is also a key aspect of affair recovery, and can take months to repair (Men’s Health, 2014). Full-disclosure is also noted as a necessary ingredient to healing after an affair, Ebony (1998) states that confessing indiscretions decreases the chances of repeat offenses. Displaying genuine remorse is another required element to healing after infidelity has occurred (Ebony, 1998).

Sex, brain chemistry & trauma

According to McIlhaney and McKissic (2008) sex causes a powerful neurochemical bond. McIlhaney and McKissic (2008) defines sex as any activity that triggers the neurochemical reaction in the reward center of the brain, this includes but is not limited to romantic touching, kissing and sexual orgasm. Similar to Parker and Glass’s claim that sex is not just traditional sexual intercourse (2003). When contemplating whether or not pornography and other online sexual activity is infidelity Douthat (2008) stated that 50% of the nation believes pornography is not a form of sexual betrayal. In light of the information presented by McIlhaney and McKissic (2008), if the activity flips the sexual switch and chemicals in our brain, pornography would for sure be considered infidelity.

When the bond created during sexual intimacy is repeatedly broken, it damages a person’s ability to attach in intimate relationships. Using sex just for the dopamine high trains the brain to experience this as normal, making it difficult if not impossible to remain faithful in a marriage (McIlhaney & McKissic, 2008). In the self-narrative article by Morris (2013) he discusses his sexual escapades as a force outside of his control, regardless of his true desire to be faithful to the woman he loves, he cannot. McIlhany and McKissic (2008) write that lust centers of the brain are activated in a separate region as love (p. 51). So comparing the above pop culture reports that a spouse can love his or her partner, yet continue to be unfaithful, seems to have some validity. As Foston (2002) stated above, women who have had multiple sexual partners before marriage find it hard after settling down to remain faithful to only their spouse. Foston (2002) reports this is because the women are used to a variety of men, in fact both cases look like an issue of broken bonding and attachment system where multiple partners have abused the neurochemicals in the reward center of the brain (McIlhaney & McKissic, 2008, p. 43).

Pornography impacts neurochemicals in the brain as well that can deteriorate the synapses needed to form life-long monogamous attachment (McIlhaney & McKissic, 2008). In conflict with some pop culture media claims that pornography is not harmful and a necessity for men (Douthat, 2008). In fact, it is proven to damage the brain and its bonding functions (McIlhaney & McKissic, 2008). Taking into considering the dehumanizing aspects of porn (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 275) and the degradation of human dignity, it is amazing that 50% of the nation truly believes it is normal and healthy behavior (Douthat, 2008). Balswick and Balswick (2008) posit that the use of pornography is truly an attempt to dull the narcissistic wounds that are classically at the bottom of sexual addiction (p. 279). A correlation between feelings of loneliness and online sexual activity has also been made (Balswick & Balswick, 2008).  A much deeper look than what the Douthat (2008) article notes that pornography is basically just another enjoyable pastime for humanity.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the human functions of impulse-control, prioritizing and cognitive abilities such as weighing consequences and pondering morality (McIlhaney & McKissic, 2008). As was noted in the article written by Dumas (1996), some women self-report that they feel cheating on their partner is in fact a mature and wholesome activity. McIlhaney and McKissic (2008) would argue otherwise given the neurobiological implications of multiple sexual partners, intense romantic relationships and including online cybersex, chat and pornography. Parker and Glass (2003) described women who are drawn in by the newness of romantic intrigue offered by infidelity. McIlhaney and McKissic (2008) state that those involved in sex before marriage have a difficult time not craving this exact type of sexual activity, it is reasonable to wonder how many of these unfaithful women were sexually active prior to marriage (p. 65). As Foston (2002) notes one woman’s complaint that she missed the variety she experienced in her sexual endeavors prior to marriage.

The rate of infidelity presented in the course material adds further variety to the already myriad of conflicting data on this subject. One study indicated that at least 50% of women are unfaithful and at least 75% of men (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 202). Another seemingly more reliable source found that 25% of men and 15% of women reported sexual infidelity in the marriage (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 202). Considering these studies all are based on self-reports, and must consider the population sample chosen, it appears a bona fide percentage on the rate of infidelity is probably unrealistic to achieve.

The reasons cited for having an affair by Balswick and Balswick (2008, p. 203) include sex before marriage, an absence of spirituality, attachment issues, family of orgin divorce and an unequal distribution of power within the marriage. Parker and Glass (2003) also cited attachment issues as a proponent of infidelity. Ebony (1998) cites low levels of spiritual commitment as a possible protagonist for affairs. It is not surprising that not one of the 15 pop culture media sources correlated sexual activity before marriage as an indicator of cheating. Balswick and Balswick also stated that Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was correlated to higher chances of marital infidelity (2008, p. 204). Balswick and Balswick are in line with the article by Foli (2004) that also lists NPD as a key indicator of unfaithfulness in marriage. Low levels of couple differentiation, or codependence, were also noted as possible causes for infidelity (Balswick and Balswick, 2008, p. 205); same as discussed by Parker and Glass (2003).

The situational factors such as men and women working long hours in careers and business travel also were discussed by Balswick and Balswick (2008). Parker and Glass (2003) also stated this was an issue that can cause marital infidelity to occur. Of the 15 pop culture articles fear of emotional intimacy, or emotional avoidance was not discusses as a reason for a spouse to be unfaithful. In the Balswick and Balswick text, infidelity is reported to be more likely and happen more often for a spouse who is intimacy adverse (2008, p. 206). Balswick and Balswick are also clear to state that affairs are about ego, an unfaithful spouse is seeking a source outside of him or her for validation (2008, p. 208).

The text is in agreement with Foli (2004), Stacey (2008) and Zimmerman (2005); that the ego is usually a very likely protagonist for infidelity. There also were many articles that cited lack of emotional attachment as a primary reason for wives to stray. This claim is validated by the McIlhaney and McKissic text when the authors state the human brain is wired for emotional attachment via communication and that for women sex is most often driven by a desire for intimacy (2008, p.61). Although lack of marital satisfaction is stated in the course text and also many pop culture articles, as a pre-existing condition to an affair, Balswick and Balswick are direct when they write no one and nothing can force a spouse to have an affair (2008).

Many are the ways that a marriage and an individual are damaged by the trauma of infidelity.  Stated in the course text, the choice to sexually betray one’s partner negatively shapes the character of the betrayer (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 207). It leaves the betrayed spouse in a state of shock, fear and destabilization (Balswick & Balswick, 2008). Similar to what Dumas (1996) and Ebony Magazine (1996) report as well, that infidelity causes a pain like no other. The text also explicitly states that infidelity is not normal or healthy behavior, a stark contract to the haughty claims that infidelity is only wrong for women because it is not socially unacceptable (Foston, 2002) or that it is a sign of maturity or a positive self-awareness enhancing process (Dumas, 1996; Charreach, 2014). Infidelity destroys the trust that marriage is based, and this causes great suffering to the betrayed, unfaithful and children in the family (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 212).

The impact infidelity has on child-rearing is discussed by McIlhaney and McKissic when they state that marital fidelity and the long-term significance of monogamy can create the stability of a peaceful, solid and safe home life which is optimal for children to thrive (2008, p. 56) Consider that children learn by mirroring, if a home is destabilized and littered with infidelity, it’s no wonder this behavior is passed to the next generation (Koli, 2004; McIlhaney & McKissic, 2008). The neurobiological case for monogamy presented by McIlhaney and McKissic is in line with what Parker and Glass (2003) posit as the needs of children. Balswick and Balswick (2008) also note that children intuitively sense the distance between their parents and by their parents during an affair, this creates insecurity and fear for the children (p. 207).

Healing after an affair, according to Balswick and Balswick (2008) is possible. Even though the devastation caused is great, if true remorse and empathy are present in the heart of the unfaithful spouse a chance for repair is possible (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 210). Ebony Magazine (2008) is in agreement that remorse and empathy are required agents to heal the wounds caused by infidelity. The text also agrees that full-disclosure is necessary to make a full marital recovery (Balswick & Balswick, 2008). Therapy is shown to improve the chances of healing and recovery (Balswick & Balswick, 2008).

Affair prevention in the course material hinges greatly on the aspect of firm and intentional boundary setting (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 213). Parker and Glass (2003) also advocate clear and strategic boundaries as a way to prevent infidelity and protect your marriage. Both agree that limiting emotional intimacy with anyone of the opposite sex is a smart idea for guardrails against infidelity (Balswick & Balswick, 2008; Parker & Glass, 2003). Another way to protect from marital infidelity is to not keep secrets (Balswick & Balswick, 2008, p. 217). Parker & Glass (2003) state this in a similar way by encouraging couples to be open and honest with their partner, including the disclosure of disappointments and hurts incurred in the marriage relationship.

References

Balswick, J. & Balswick, J. (2008). Authentic human sexuality: An integrated Christian approach. (2nd ed.).Downers Grover, IL: Intervarsity Press

Bigger bang theory (2014, September). Men’s Health, 29(7), 36.

Douthat, R. (2008, October). Is pornography adultery? Atlantic, 302(3), 80-86.

Dumas, T. (1996, July). Out cheating hearts, is fidelity feasible? Cosmopolitan, 211(1), 176.

Feifer, J. (2014, April). Why she cheats. Men’s Health, 29(3), 106-107.

Foston, N. (2002, September). Why women (and men) cheat. Ebony, 57(11), 162.

Infidelity why men cheat (1998, November). Ebony, 54(1), 116.

It’s just torrid typing, but it’s still cheating. (2005, September). Time Inc. Health, 19(7), 174.

Jackson, C. (2014, May). The cheating chronicles. Essence, 45(1), 109.

Koli, A. (2004, January). Why guys cheat on hot women. Cosmopolitan, 236(1), 106.

Lucia, V. (2008, August). Why guys cheat in the summer. Cosmopolitan, 245(2), 136-138.

McIlhaney, J.S. and McKissic-Bush, F. (2008). Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is affecting our Children.Chicago: Northfield Publishing

Morris, A. (2013, July). There is such as thing as respectful infidelity. New York, 46(23), 35-38.

Parker, L. & Glass, S. (2003, April). Why she’s gotta have it. Essence, 33(12), 160.

Payne-Robinson, L. (1992, February). Infidelity. Essence, 22(10), 61.

Stacey, M. (2008, March). Juicy stuff the “other woman” knows. Cosmopolitan, 244(3), 196-198.

Zimmerman, M. (2005, October). Monogamy rules. Men’s Health, 20(8), 175.

Amanda Asproni

Amanda Asproni

Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Healing Affairs

Amanda has her Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling & is a Professional Life Coach specialized in infidelity recovery & problematic sexual behavior. She began facilitating affair recovery groups for unfaithful, betrayed & couples in 2011. She is a member of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH.net) and has trauma training in the Emotional Transformation Therapy (ettia.org).

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