A Sad State of Affairs

09/09/2011 13:53 BST | Updated 07/11/2011 10:12 GMT

Extramarital affairs are no longer the leading reason why couples split up. Infidelity has been replaced by 'growing apart' and falling out of love as the most popular motivation for filing for divorce.

So are we just getting more tolerant of affairs? Well-not necessarily.

If we look at stats from the USA, we see that Americans are less likely to break up a marriage because of an affair today as compared with 10yrs ago. Now only 50-60% say that adultery would be an automatic deal breaker for their marriage, whereas a decade ago that number was closer to 90%. Also affairs are more common today than they used to be. Research from the 1970s shows some 27% of men and 23% percent of women had affairs. 2002 studies re-estimated those figures at 50% of married women and 55% of married men.

The fact that affairs are on the rise is probably not that surprising, as increasing infidelity might have been anticipated to come as part and parcel of economic independence for women and a decrease in religious fundamentalism, leading to an overall relaxation of moral standards or stigma by society.

But what is surprising is the next fact. Bizarrely, Americans are more intolerant of extramarital relationships nowadays than they were in the past!! In 2006, 80% percent of Americans said that infidelity is always wrong, which is up from 73% percent in 1991. Compare this to the mid-1970s, when only 51% of well-educated Americans thought adultery was always wrong and it really is quite a difference. To put it into context, nowadays Americans think affairs are worse than cloning humans!

So what does all of this mean? To summarise, the Western world is having more affairs than ever before. In practical terms, on the outside we appear to cope with affairs better by not letting them we break up a marriage (possibly due to the abundance of relationship counselors, sex gurus and self-help industries) but privately we are more strongly opposed to them than ever before. Hypocritical? Yes, but more than that, its sad. It's yet another symptom of the schizophrenic culture that we're developing about marriage. Most adults still want to be married, even though statistically speaking they're much more likely to fail at it. We still aspire to marriage, we still have ideals about marriage, we still value marriage-but we also value thinking about ourselves - what makes us happy, what makes us most fulfilled. So we hate adultery but we get tempted, just like we like commitment but hate duty. It's a minefield, and the way I see it, unless we manage to bring our expectations and our behaviour more closely together, we are only going to move further away from our potential for happiness.

And I wonder-what do others make of this quandary?