Was an extramarital affair at the root of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner’s pending divorce? Did Tiger Woods step out on former longtime girlfriend Lindsay Vonn? Is Kardashian beau Scott Disick a serial cheater? If you couldn’t care less, you might be the only one. Americans are endlessly clamoring to know the ins and outs—especially the outs—of their favorite famous-people romances. Nothing makes us feel better about celebrity success, apparently, than celebrity tragedy.
But what about when such scandals hit closer to home? Unlike the high profile stories we read about, when actual people we know cheat, few of us want to savor in the gory details. Our friends, after all, aren’t so removed from our own realities. And when they betray the ones they love, it’s easy to wonder if they’d do the same to us—and to question our own circumstances, too. We start to wonder: Is my partner happy in the relationship? Am I? Could we be next?
Extramarital affairs are on the rise. For the first time in history, studies, including one published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, have found that women are cheating at the same rate as their male counterparts. Cheating: now an equal opportunity endeavor.
Although existing studies have not specifically looked at whether or not extramarital affairs are contagious, other forms of deviant, or at least undesirable, behavior have certainly proven to be. A 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that obesity has grown through personal networks. Follow up studies found that behaviors like smoking, drinking, happiness and even loneliness appear to spread through social contact. When writing his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that lying—and, in fact, the way other people behave in general—is contagious. Much of this is because people don’t think about the punishment before acting; we’re a society of impulsives.
So what does this mean for our marriages? If you believe Freud, you believe that we’re all motivated by our sexual desires. If you believe Mr. Ariely and his contemporaries, you believe that we’re inclined to follow along with what our peers are doing—perhaps especially if they’re also getting away with it.
Hearing about an affair between close friends, whether or not the affair results in the end of the relationship, can be powerful—and disruptive. It might remind people in long-term relationships of feelings that may, by now, be but a distant memory: the butterflies in the stomach, the adrenaline rush, the nervousness of a new relationship. What it feels like to have sex with an unfamiliar person. What it feels like to be attracted to someone new—and realize they’re attracted to you, too.
Safety and security, of course, are very valuable. But they’re not always the best aphrodisiacs, and we know, from studies and from experience, that after a while most couples have to work harder at having sex in the same way, and at the same frequency, as they might have when their relationship was brand new. Couple that with the stresses that often accompany a marriage—managing a house, raising children, and sharing all those other aspects of every day life—and the baggage-free promise of someone different can sound pretty good.
So what should you do if you decide it does—sound pretty good, that is? If your goal is to avoid an affair, you may need to reevaluate whether or not you can be a part of your philandering friend’s life. It’s not about judging; it’s about listening to yourself and understanding your impulses. If news of your friend’s dalliances brings up temptations of your own, it’s best to steer clear of any updates. Because as messy as an affair can be, it can also be exciting and renewing and, given the green light, your friend will likely want to talk about it as much as she or he can.
If you can, however, remain in your friend’s life—and not take his cheating personally, or as a call to action yourself—do. Remaining friends with someone isn’t the same as condoning his or her behavior. Just don’t get involved—as an alibi, for instance.
And in either case, use the news of cheating friends to engage in conversation with your partner about the state of your marriage. Ask are you happy? Is anything missing? What could you each be doing better? All marriages need attention and work. Using a friend’s affair as a reminder of that might be the most positive outcome of all.
Peggy Drexler is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family. Her website is: peggydrexler.com