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What percent of married couples have affairs?

New Survey Finds Only 16 Percent of Couples Survive an Affair

Whether you stay or go has a lot to do with your gender and relationship status.

May 7, 2019

May 7, 2019

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While why men cheat and why women cheat tend to differ, there’s no denying that infidelity is not uncommon for both sexes. We often talk about why and how many people cheat—the most recent General Social Survey found that 20 percent of married men and 13 percent of married women had admitted to cheating. But how many survive the affair is a less often discussed. Now, a new survey by the healthcare company Health Testing Centers may just have an answer.

The survey polled 441 people who admitted to cheating while in a committed relationship, and found that more than half (54.5 percent) broke up immediately after the truth came out. Another 30 percent tried to stay together but broke up eventually, and only 15.6 percent survived this break of trust.

Interestingly enough, the statistics surrounding whether or not people decided to stay together varied significantly based on their relationship status. Almost a quarter (23.6 percent) of married couples decided to try to work things out, versus only 13.6 percent of people who were in a committed partnership.

There are also gender disparities, as women were almost twice as likely to say they were still with their partner following a confession of infidelity. And the nature of the affair also played a role, considering that 19.7 percent of couples chose to stay together after a one-night stand, versus only 12.7 percent of couples who found out their partner had engaged in a longterm affair.

The biggest reasons for confessing to an affair were guilt (47 percent), followed by wanting to let their partner know they were unhappy (39.8 percent), and feeling like their partner had the right to know (38.6 percent). But, worryingly, only one in four people who cheated said they admitted it to their partner, and roughly the same amount said they got caught, pointing to the fact that signs of infidelity are often easier to miss than we might want to believe.

People who were married were also more likely to wait longer to confess than those in committed relationships—52.4 percent of non-married cheaters admitted to the deed within the first week, whereas 47.9 percent of married cheaters waited six months or longer.

Among those who decided to not break up immediately, 61 percent of cheaters said their partner implemented rules and consequences as a result of the affair. The majority (55.7 percent) said that they allowed their partner to look through their phone. Other common regulations included avoiding certain friends, limitations on going out, letting their partner access their social media, and withholding sex. ae0fcc31ae342fd3a1346ebb1f342fcb

Interestingly enough, only roughly 30 percent of cheaters said their partner demanded that they end the affair, and 27.8 percent of them said their partner told them they couldn’t even communicate with the opposite sex without their explicit permission. Once again, there was a gender disparity when it came to post-affair life: Male cheaters were more likely to be asked to go out less and have sex withheld from them, whereas female cheaters were more likely to have their phones monitored and not be allowed to see certain friends.

One way or another, it’s clear that infidelity can get messy, and the decision on whether to stay or go is not an easy one to make. For a personal testimony on this, read My Spouse Cheated. Here’s Why I Didn’t Leave.

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Diana Bruk

Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more

Do Married Millennials Cheat on Each Other?

For young couples these days, there seems to be more adulting, less adultery.

A couple kisses following their wedding ceremony by a lake in Milford, Iowa.

May 1, 2019
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This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

Millennials have killed malls, cheese, and bar soap. Their thirst for blood unslaked, they’re now coming for good, old-fashioned cheating.

At least, that’s according to an analysis that the sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger published in 2017 on the Institute for Family Studies website. When asked the survey question “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” Americans older than 55 turned out to be more adulterous than people younger than 55. In fact, people born between 1940 and 1959—that is, people currently between 60 and 79 years old—were the ones who reported the highest rates of extramarital sex.

Americans have been asked the infidelity question in every iteration of the General Social Survey, a broad questionnaire about cultural attitudes, since 1991. Wolfinger’s analysis found that in the early 2000s, 18-to-55-year-olds were more likely to have extramarital affairs than older people were. But right around 2004, the lines cross, and younger people became more chaste than their parents:

Wolfinger takes these data to mean that Ashley Madison’s days might be numbered. Today, the hot new thing for married couples, apparently, is having sex (albeit rarely) with each other until they die. “Barring any unforeseen developments,” Wolfinger writes, “we should anticipate a future of more monogamous marriage.”

Whether or not Millennials are doing marriage differently, they’re certainly changing other parts of courtship. Unmarried couples are more likely to cohabit than they were a decade ago, and the once-fringe online-dating scene has become as mainstream as dinner and a movie. Some people engage in polyamory, while others have open relationships, and more people are talking about those arrangements openly. Both marriage and divorce have become more rare since the 1980s. Between it all is an array of “fuckboys,” ghosts, and friends with benefits.

All these factors together complicate Wolfinger’s claim that marriages of the future will be monogamous. Other researchers I spoke with say it’s not possible to know yet whether Millennials are actually going to have more faithful marriages than Boomers. Several pointed out to me that the Institute for Family Studies is a think tank that explicitly promotes marriage and family; its blog, where the analysis was posted, is not a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Wendy Manning, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, told me there’s no evidence that young adults who are between the ages of 24 and 32 today are more likely to be faithful than the same age group was in 1980. The difference Wolfinger is picking up on, she said, seems to be just that people over 50 are simply older and possibly have been married longer, so they’ve had more opportunities to cheat. We’d have to wait until Millennials get older before determining whether they are, truly, the faithful generation.

There are some limited data to bolster Wolfinger’s point, however. In 2017, Lindsay Labrecque and Mark A. Whisman at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that even though the percentage of Americans who think extramarital sex is “always wrong” significantly declined in the General Social Survey from 2000 to 2016, the survey’s respondents reported a small but statistically significant decline in the lifetime prevalence of extramarital sex in the same time period. That could mean that the people who were eligible to participate in the survey in 2016 but not 2000, including Millennials, are more open to cheating philosophically, but still less likely to do it.

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It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about generations, but Wolfinger’s analysis might be pointing to changing behavior among the subset of Millennials who do choose to get married. To get a sense of how married Millennials think about commitment, I reached out to married Millennials and Gen Xers through Twitter to ask those who are convinced they would never cheat on their spouse: Why? Dozens replied via email and direct message. Twitter, obviously, is not a representative sample of the U.S.; its users tend to be more liberal and educated. However, even among this relatively left-leaning group, many people said they knew of very few cheaters in their social circle, and those who did cheat were looked down upon by their friends.

Junie Gray, a woman from Austin, Texas, told me she doubts she could find someone who “understands, supports, and loves” her like her husband does. Because people today wait longer than previous generations to get married, many simply might be selecting the actual right person for them. There’s no need to cheat when your spouse is your best friend, your soulmate, your “everything.” There’s no “one that got away”; you caught him. It just took you until you were 36 to do so.

As the Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin put it to me, “over the past few decades, marriage has become more selective.” Today, the people most likely to have lasting marriages are those who have gone to college. And college graduates seem “more committed to each other and to the marriage,” Cherlin said. He pointed out that the divorce rate has gone down significantly for college-educated couples, but not for couples in which neither person has a college education.

I heard from a lot of people who prudently dated their partners for several years before getting married, then waited still more years before having children, just in case. There’s less societal browbeating these days to move faster. “There isn’t pressure to be in relationships like there used to be, so people are less likely to settle for a bad partner,” says Skylar Dallmeyer-Drennen, an energy consultant in Washington, D.C. “Why put up with a cheater if no one needs you to be dating?”

This trend is intertwined with what my colleague Kate Julian described as “the sex recession.” Young people today have less sex in general, so it follows that they are likely having less of it extramaritally, too. “We’re living in an astonishingly sexless age,” Wolfinger told me.

Of course, we are also living in the midst of a sexual-harassment crisis. But a number of #MeToo offenses seem to be perpetrated by older men, some of whom blame changing mores for their alleged transgressions. Though there are also stories of young men who don’t know where to draw the line between friendship and romance, experts say that in general, young people tend to be more supportive of gender equality. Cheating, meanwhile, can feel deeply inequitable. Infidelity sometimes gets lumped in with other types of harm against women: Several of the entries on the “shitty media men” list that was circulated a few years ago involved allegations of affairs.

Or maybe it’s something about being Millennial, rather than a married Millennial, that deters two-timing. A few people who responded to my Twitter inquiry suggested that maybe Millennials in general are still young and idealistic. My generation wants jobs with a purpose, and we want relationships that feel purposeful, too. Or, as a Gen X friend of mine speculated, perhaps Millennials are terrified of breaking rules. We’re so preoccupied with getting recommendation letters and maintaining our brands that we would never sully ourselves with something so carnal and impulsive as infidelity. (My friend asked to remain nameless, because he didn’t want to seem like he was justifying adultery.)

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In line with this moral-Millennial hypothesis, many young, married people told me it feels less honorable to leave your spouse for someone else. That would imply there was “emotional cheating” going on while the relationship was in progress—another taboo. “You need to spend some time mourning the end of what had become a formative part of your identity,” says Kae Lani Palmisano, a writer and an editor in Philadelphia.

There’s also the usual explanation behind the “Millennials are killing …” trend stories: It’s that Millennials are broke, and they simply can’t afford to buy whatever it is that’s being killed. In this case, some Millennials are still traumatized by the recession and struggling to launch their careers. They can’t afford to buy a house without a second, steady partner. When so much of your life is in flux and unstable, it’s nice to have one person who will definitely be there for you. Why screw it up?

Beyond lingering economic worries, many Millennials and Gen Xers are scarred by their parents’ divorces. The peak in the divorce rate was in 1979, right as the oldest Millennials were being born and younger Gen Xers were reaching their tender grade-school years. Millennials are much more likely to be the children of divorce than their children will be, if current trends continue. “The specter of divorce looms large,” said Manning of Bowling Green State University. “And it seems like it’s a big reason why a lot of young adults want to live with someone first. They want to divorce-proof their marriage.”

For some young people, fidelity is a way of vowing to do better than your own parents did. A few people told me they had been so rattled by their parents’ divorce that they resolved never to do the same thing to their kids. “My parents divorced when I was 2,” says Cole Novak, a pastor in Texas. “My entire life has been marked by the effects of my parents’ divorce. And I never wanted my kids to grow up the way that I did.” When women send him flirtatious texts, Novak says he responds by adding his wife to the thread.

Even as Millennials murder America’s cultural standbys, they continue to be somewhat inscrutable. For now, it does seem as if their marriages, when they do happen, are more faithful than those of their elders, but it’s just too soon to know for sure whether that will continue. In fact, Wolfinger accepts some of the alternative explanations for what’s going on here. “Do people in their fifties and sixties have the most extramarital sex because they’re in midlife and have been married for 20-30 years, or because they came of age at a time that fostered greater sexual exploration?” he writes. “The answer is probably ‘both.’”

In other words, yes, it might simply be the case that people over 55 are getting older, growing uninterested, and applying the looser sexual mores they grew up in to sex lives that have gotten a little stale. “Being married for a long time means a couple of things: Your kids might be out of the house; you might be bored having sex with your partner,” Wolfinger told me.

Or as a Boomer might say, it might just be that Millennials will understand when they’re older.

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Who Cheats More? The Demographics of Infidelity in America

The last few months of 2017 treated us to a whirlwind of news coverage on sexual harassment and abuse, with powerful men from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. falling because of sexual misconduct. It continues into the new year, with Missouri Governor Eric Greitens the latest to fall. And most of these men are married.

When Time magazine picked the silence breakers as the 2017 “person of the year,” few people paid attention to the other group of women negatively impacted by the fallout—the spouses of the men who engaged in inappropriate or even criminal (in some cases) sexual behavior. To these women, sexual harassment/abuse also means infidelity.

In general, men are more likely than women to cheat: 20% of men and 13% of women reported that they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse while married, according to data from the recent General Social Survey(GSS).

However, as the figure above indicates, this gender gap varies by age. Among ever-married adults ages 18 to 29, women are slightly more likely than men to be guilty of infidelity (11% vs. 10%). But this gap quickly reverses among those ages 30 to 34 and grows wider in older age groups. Infidelity for both men and women increases during the middle ages. Women in their 60s report the highest rate of infidelity (16%), but the share goes down sharply among women in their 70s and 80s. By comparison, the infidelity rate among men in their 70s is the highest (26%), and it remains high among men ages 80 and older (24%). Thus, the gender gap in cheating peaks among the oldest age group (ages 80+): a difference of 18 percentage points between men and women.

Trend data going back to the 1990s suggests that men have always been more likely than women to cheat. Even so, older men were no more likely to cheat than their younger peers in the past. In the 1990s, the infidelity rate peaked among men ages 50 to 59 (31%) and women ages 40 to 49 (18%). It was lower for both men and women at the older end of the age spectrum. Between 2000 and 2009, the highest rate of infidelity shifted to men ages 60 to 69 (29%) and women ages 50 to 59 (17%). Meanwhile, the gender gap at ages 80+ increased from 5% to 12% in two decades.

A generation or cohort effect is likely to contribute to this shifting gender gap in infidelity. As Nicholas Wolfinger noted in an earlier post, Americans born in the 1940s and 1950s reported the highest rates of extramarital sex, perhaps because they were the first generations to come of age during the sexual revolution. My analysis by gender suggests that men and women follow a slightly different age pattern when it comes to extramarital sex. Women born in the 1940s and 1950s are more likely than other women to be unfaithful to their spouse, and men born in the 1930s and 1940s have a higher rate than other age groups of men. The higher infidelity rates among these two cohorts contribute to the changing pattern in the gender gap as they grow older over time.

In addition to gender and age, the infidelity rate also differs by a number of other demographic and social factors. For example, cheating is somewhat more common among black adults. Some 22% of ever-married blacks said that they cheated on their spouse, compared with 16% of whites and 13% of Hispanics. And among black men, the rate is highest: 28% reported that they had sex with someone other than their spouse, compared with 20% of white men and 16% of Hispanic men.

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A person’s political identity, family background, and religious activity are also related to whether or not they cheat. Overall, Democrats, adults who didn’t grow up in intact families, and those who rarely or never attend religious services are more likely than others to have cheated on their spouse. For example, 15% of adults who grew up with both biological parents have cheated on their spouse before, compared with 18% of those who didn’t grow up in intact families.

On the other hand, having a college degree is not linked to a higher chance of cheating. Almost equal shares of college-educated adults and those with high school or less education have been unfaithful to their spouse (16% vs. 15%), and the share among adults with some college education is slightly higher (18%).

Given that many of these factors could be interrelated, I ran a regression model to test the independent effect of each factor. Basically, holding all other factors equal, will each factor still be related to the odds of cheating? It turned out that most of these differences (such as age, race, party identity, religious service attendance, family background) are significant, even after controlling for other factors. And a person’s education level is not significantly associated with cheating.

However, when it comes to who is more likely to cheat, men and women share very few traits. Separate regression models by gender suggest that for men, being Republican and growing up in an intact family are not linked to a lower chance of cheating, after controlling for other factors. But race, age, and religious service attendance are still significant factors. Likewise, men’s education level is also positively linked to their odds of cheating. By comparison, party ID, family background, and religious service attendance are still significant factors for cheating among women, while race, age, and educational attainment are not relevant factors. In fact, religious service attendance is the only factor that shows consistent significance in predicting both men and women’s odds of infidelity.

Infidelity is painful to the person who is being cheated on and can be detrimental to the relationship. Although statistics on the link between infidelity and divorce are hard to find, my analysis based on GSS data suggests that adults who cheated are much more likely than those who didn’t to be divorced or separated.

Among ever-married adults who have cheated on their spouses before, 40% are currently divorced or separated. By comparison, only 17% of adults who were faithful to their spouse are no longer married. On the flip side, only about half of “cheaters” are currently married, compared with 76% of those who did not cheat.

Men who cheated are more likely than their female peers to be married. Among men who have cheated on their spouse before, 61% are currently married, while 34% are divorced or separated. However, only 44% of women who have cheated before are currently married, while 47% are divorced or separated.

This gender difference could reflect the fact that men are more likely to be remarried than women after a divorce. A portion of currently married “cheaters” may be remarried, since we can’t tell from the data whether or not the person who cheated is still married to the spouse he or she cheated on.

Wendy Wang is director of research at the Institute for Family Studies and a former senior researcher at Pew Research Center, where she conducted research on marriage, gender, work, and family life in the United States.

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