Contemporary Family Therapy

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 327–332 | Cite as

Risk Factors Associated with Women’s Marital Infidelity

  • Michelle M. Jeanfreau
  • Anthony P. Jurich
  • Michael D. Mong
Original Paper


This study used a qualitative approach to explore the complexity of marital infidelity and understand issues within the marriage that could increase the risk of having a marital affair. Semi-structured interviews were used to explore women’s participation in an extramarital affair(s). The information gathered was audio taped, transcribed, and analyzed using the transcendental phenomenological model (Moustakas in Phenomenological research methods, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1994). All four of the women described a lack of quality time, inability to resolve conflict, and a lack of attention within the marriage as predisposing factors to the affair(s). Clinical and research implications are discussed.


Extramarital affair Infidelity Marital infidelity Marriage 


Research has shown that marital infidelity can have negative effects on the marriage and can lead to divorce (Amato and Rogers 1997; Christian-Herman et al. 2001; Shackelford 1998). The increased coverage of marital infidelity within the media highlights the prevalence of marital infidelity within our society today. In summarizing findings from previous research, Glass and Wright (1992) estimated between 30–60 % of men and 20–50 % of women have been involved in some type of marital infidelity. Shackelford and Buss (2000) provided even higher estimates based on the research, with estimates ranging from 33–75 % of men to 26–70 % of women having been involved in an extramarital relationship. To help explain the complexity of marital infidelity it is important to understand what occurs within the marriage, and the predisposing factors that make the idea of having an extramarital affair enticing. Allen and Atkins (2005) discussed four domains when examining potential causes of marital infidelity. The intrapersonal domain includes the qualities of the individual who is engaging in the affair, such as demographic or psychological issues. In the second domain, the spouse/primary partner looks “at the qualities of the spouse or primary partner that may have contributed to the context in which the participating partner decided to have an affair” (p. 1372), such as not being emotionally available to his or her partner. The third domain emphasizes the marriage/primary relationship and the characteristics occurring that may have contributed to the development of an affair, such as low sexual satisfaction. The final domain, discussed by Allen and Atkins (2005), is contextual and focuses on external factors (outside of the primary relationship), such as culture, work environment, peer networks, or the behavior of the outside affair partner. The domains are important in identifying specific risk factors within the marital relationship that may increase an individual’s potential of engaging in an extramarital affair.

Events or actions occurring within the previously discussed domains are seen as risk factors within the marriage as they can be damaging to the marital relationship, which open the opportunities for an affair to occur. When these risk factors occur, an individual may be more attracted to the prospect of marital infidelity because it will give the individual a different experience than he or she is having within his or her own marriage. For example, if the individual engaging in the extramarital affair is grandiose, the individual may believe he or she is entitled to participate in any behavior he or she may choose without remorse. On the other hand, if an individual is married to someone who is emotionally withdrawn and unable to connect intimately, the extramarital affair will act to compensate for unmet needs within the marriage (Gass and Nichols 1988) and s/he will find a more intimate connection in an affair partner. If the marriage is unstable and full of conflict, or there is low sexual satisfaction, an individual may engage in an extramarital affair to express his or her hostility toward the spouse or to seek sexual satisfaction with a different partner. Finally, contextual factors, such as, having friends who are engaging or who have engaged in an extramarital affair, may encourage extramarital behavior by hearing the exaggerated experiences from friends or family members. Much of the current literature regarding marital infidelity uses quantitative measures which make it difficult to understand the process of relationships (Allen and Baucom 2004; Amato and Rogers 1997; Wiederman 1997). The current study uses qualitative methods to understand the relational processes within the marriage that may have influenced a woman’s decision to have an extramarital affair. The current research is important for researchers and clinicians to help further understand the occurrence of marital infidelity and help identify protective measures within the marriage.


Some qualitative researchers focus on themes and patterns that contribute to how an individual makes meaning of the processes in which he or she may experience. According to Esterberg (2002), there are three ways in which qualitative data can be collected: (1) observation: participant and otherwise, (2) interviews, and (3) unobtrusive measures: analyzing texts and material artifacts. The present research was conducted utilizing open-ended, in-depth interviews, which gave the participants an opportunity to describe the processes occurring within their marriage before engaging in the extramarital affair. This allowed for the identification of patterns and themes experienced by the sample of women who have had an extramarital affair.

The theoretical/philosophical framework which corresponds best with the present study is phenomenology. Phenomenology allows the researcher to focus on the knowledge of a particular phenomenon as experienced by the people in this study who experienced it, marital infidelity. Phenomenology is an approach that focuses on how human beings make sense of an experience and transform that experience into consciousness, both individually and as shared meaning (Patton 2002). This methodology requires being able to capture the essence of a person’s experience, “how they perceived it, describe it, feel about it, judge it, remember it, make sense of it, and talk about it with others” (p. 104).

Participants were recruited from the Gulf Coast area. Purposeful sampling was used to ensure the issue of marital infidelity was of central importance. Patton (2002) explained that the logic and power of using purposeful sampling comes from the importance of an in-depth understanding, which requires selecting information-rich cases, from which the researcher can learn about issues of central importance. Four Caucasian women ranging in age from 24 to 51 participated in the study. The analysis for this study included four main aspects: (1) organization of the data, (2) protecting the data, (3) coding and finding themes, patterns, and categories, and (4) determining substantive significance. The primary steps of the Moustakas (1994) transcendental phenomenological model were used to code the data. Moustakas (1994) described a four-step method; (1) epoche, (2) phenomenological reduction, (3) imaginative variation, and (4) synthesis of texture and structure. Phenomenological data analysis involves a back-and-forth movement from one participant’s stories to another’s, while looking for meanings that connect and meanings that differentiate between the stories (Hess and Handel 1959).

Description of Individual Participants

At the time of the interview, Linda was 51 years old and divorced from her husband after 21 years of marriage. She had never remarried but was hopeful that she would meet the right man one day. She reported getting married at the age of 19 and stated she had been married for approximately 6 years when she began having an extramarital affair. She reported that she met her husband when she was in high school and, while they were dating, she found out she was pregnant with another man’s child. They broke up for a while but then resumed dating. Linda reported that her husband accepted the child as his own and adopted her when she was 9 years old.

Bella was a 48 year old woman, and had been divorced from her first husband; remarried her second, which ended in divorce; and then married her third husband, to whom she is currently married. Bella was married at 18 years old to her first husband and reported being married for approximately 3 years before having an extramarital affair. She also reported being pregnant when they got married.

Zoie was 24 years old, and was currently divorced from her husband but was hopeful that they might be able to reconcile and get back together at some point. She reported getting married at the age of 23 and having a extramarital affair 7 months after they had been married. Zoie and her husband had met in high school and had dated 6 years before getting married. She reported that they rarely saw each other and they began arguing about the amount of time they spent together. They began living two separate lives.

Kate was 36 years old and currently married to her second husband. Kate reported marrying her first husband at 19 and having an extramarital affair about 5–6 years into their marriage. She reported that “he was real nice and wined and dined me and liked to take me out on nice dates…. he was cute and sexy”.


Each of the women described a lack of quality time for the marriage as an issue in their marital relationship. After being married for 4 years, Linda explained that the marital relationship began to change: “My husband started drinking and he started doing drugs too. But I didn’t know he was doing drugs, I just thought he was drinking a lot, he’d stay gone all the time. He’d work two or three jobs.” Similarly, Bella said, “After we had our first child, he’d come in from work, take his bath. I had supper ready, take him a little nap, get up and go out partying all the time and leave me home with the kids.” When asked how it made her feel, she responded, “Angry, he didn’t spend time with me and our child”.

Zoie discussed her husband’s work schedule as a contributing factor as to why they were having difficulties being a newly married couple. She compared her relationship with her husband to that of a father and daughter. She explained:

He worked a lot of night shifts, at first his schedule was a month of days and a month of nights but was…. kind of like three days on, two days off. But the nights and days would shift….then he got [a new position], that half the week was days and half the week was nights. So it was constant change..…I was by myself a lot. Even if he was off he would say he had to keep his schedule..his body time clock or whatever. So when I would go to bed at like ten or eleven, you know, he would come up there tell me goodnight and then he would might [sic] go to bed at like four or five. We never went to bed at the same time. I mean, I felt like I was being tucked in by my dad.

Zoie stated:

“I would have to schedule in a time to talk to him….(and) when we would have time for us, like on his days off, he was always wanting to do stuff with other couples, which, to me, was fine sometimes, but not every single day that you’re off.”

In Kate’s case, she became more susceptible to having an extramarital affair after her husband started a new job a year into their marriage. She explained, “He started coming in late at night and he would leave early in the mornings and it’s like we never saw each other.” She continued, “We would always argue. I wanted him to spend time with me and he would always make other plans….do his thing.”

Three of the four women discussed the use of drugs or alcohol by their spouses. Since it was too late to pursue this further, the evidence discussed does not yield enough data to say conclusively that this was a repulsion in their marital relationship. The inference could be made that any time spent doing drugs or drinking was time taken away from paying attention to their spouse. There were additional issues within the marital relationship that were reported by the participants.

Each woman described negative components of her marital relationship that allowed her to be drawn towards marital infidelity. The women found comfort in their affair partners because the affair partners were able to fulfill needs that were not being met in their marital relationships.

Prior to becoming involved in an extramarital relationship, the women all expressed the inability to resolve conflict within their marriages. Two of the four women discussed ignoring conflict, while the other two tried, but were unsuccessful at discussing the issues with their husbands. Both of these women explained that their husbands would hear them and agree to work on the issues, but things would never get better. When asked how conflict was resolved, Bella responded with, “I’ll say really ignored it. Went on about our own little way. Do what we did [sic].” Similarly, Linda stated, “I’d usually just leave until he cooled off and then I’d come back and pout and not say nothing to him.” When questioned about finding a solution, she responded, “we would kind of make up at the end….he would probably wind up giving into whatever I said.” Kate, on the other hand, stated, “We would try and he would say, you know, I’m (going) to do better….and he never would.” Similarly, Zoie stated,

resolving conflict, when he would actually sit down and listen to what I was saying and think about it, he was able to see it…it was just the point of sitting down or having the time to do it…There was never a solution for his schedule…..or for spending time with the other couples. He would try…if it was an ongoing issue, maybe the next time he was off, he would do something with me, but it would seem like then it would be back at the same point

Zoie also discussed issues that she said bothered her for years, such as issues with his family and wanting everything to be his way that she said she had just ignored.

When discussing how solutions to conflict were reached, none of the women talked about coming to an agreement with their husbands. Instead they explained that the issues would either be ignored, even if they did make up, or it involved one partner unilaterally giving into the other. In each case, the attraction to marital infidelity began to grow for the women because the unresolved issues continued to be a source of conflict in the marital relationship, pushing the women further away from their spouses.

The women in the study explained that the lack of attention they received from their husbands was also a significant contributing factor to why they were unhappy in their marriages. This became apparent as they discussed their extramarital relationships and the void that was being filled by the affair partner. Linda explained:

I want somebody in my life that would love me for me. That would just show attention to me for me…And you know made me feel like I was worthwhile. It was just somebody there to have attention with, show me attention…make me feel better about myself.

Bella explained starting to think about having an extramarital affair when “somebody started showing me the affection that I needed….the touching and feeling and being wanted.” Similarly, Zoie stated,

Most of the time (my husband) wasn’t giving me five minutes in a day to talk to him and, if I did, he would just be like tell him what I had to say and it’d be like okay…there was no conversation about anything.

Zoie continued by explaining her relationship with the affair partner:

Just to know that there would be attention you know and that, even though he would probably not want to hear anything I had to say, but no matter what I wanted to talk about he would talk about it to me, you know.

Kate also stated experiencing a lack of attention in her marital relationship; she stated the following to describe how she felt, “I felt like he (affair partner) was giving me the attention that I was not getting from my husband”. She went on to describe that the affair partner “would call me and sweet talk me, just, he even sent me roses to work….it was the attention that I never got.”

None of the women described actively seeking to have an extramarital affair. The women’s susceptibility to having an extramarital affair involved an ongoing process that included an inability to spend quality time in their marital relationship, resolve conflict, and a lack of attention from their husbands, all of which increased the repulsions within their marriages. In turn, the repulsions within the marriage began to act as an attraction to extramarital infidelity due to the level of dissatisfaction the women were experiencing in their marriages. Therefore, these repulsions gave rise to dissatisfactions which made the affair partner appear to be more desirable than the spouse. The women began having extramarital affairs when the opportunity arose and they started to receive the positive attention from the affair partners that they were not receiving in their marital relationships.


The women in the study explained that the lack of attention they received from their husbands was a significant contributing factor as to why all of them were unhappy in their marriages. All four of the women described feeling a yearning for intimacy that they were not getting from their husbands and that each of their affair partners was able to fulfill. The women described wanting to have a stronger connection with their husbands, whether it was by being shown more attention, physical affection, or simply by spending more time talking. According to the participants’ perceptions, their husbands did not reciprocate the same level of desire the women were having for the stronger connection within their marriages.

Research suggests there are many different variables that make marriage desirable, including a sense of commitment, intimacy, and the ability to communicate openly with his or her marital partner. Greeff and Malherbe (2001) found a significant positive correlation between the experience of intimacy and marital satisfaction. Examples of intimacy included social intimacy (i.e. the ability to share mutual friends and similarities in social networks), emotional intimacy (i.e. the ability to feel close to someone), and recreational intimacy (i.e. shared interest in hobbies or joint participation in sport). Marital satisfaction was based on issues such as communication, conflict resolution, handling of spare time, relationship with family and friends, and religious orientation. Their research suggests that one of the reasons individuals are attracted to marriage is because of the level of intimacy a marital relationship can generate. Individuals in the current study expressed feeling that their spouses were not providing them the appropriate level of attention or intimacy they needed, which led to an increased risk of marital infidelity.

All four of the participants believed that there was a lack of quality time for the marriage. The women used various examples to describe the lack of quality time they had in their marriages, including their spouses being gone all the time either working too much or going out with friends. It appeared as if the participants’ husbands had commitments that took precedence over their marital relationship. Swensen and Trahaug (1985) measured the expression of love and level of commitment between husbands and wives and found that those whose commitment was to each other as persons, as opposed to a job or social group, had significantly fewer problems. In the current study, the participants discussed feeling as if their respective marriages were a second or third priority to their husbands’ jobs or social lives. The results of this study suggest that low levels of commitment from the participants’ husbands acted as an increased risk factor to having an extramarital affair.

Prior to becoming involved in an extramarital relationship, the women all expressed the inability to resolve conflict within their marriages. Two of the four women discussed ignoring conflict, while the other two tried discussing the issues with their husbands. Both women stated that after the discussion, things would continue to be the same. None of the women discussed finding solutions to conflict, so resolution was made by either ignoring the issue at hand or both partners just letting the conflict go. Research has shown a connection between effective communication and marital satisfaction (Carrere and Gottman 1999; Christensen and Shenk 1991; Gottman and Levenson 1988; Litzinger and Gordon 2005). Communication enables individuals to challenge each other, resolve conflict, and verbalize a life plan together. In the current study, the lack of communication surrounding conflict within the marriage served as a risk factor for marital infidelity.

Overall, the findings from this study suggest that dissatisfaction within the marriage, which derives from a lack of quality time, inability to resolve conflict, and a lack of attention within their marital relationships, is a key contributor to the participants’ marital infidelity. These results correspond with the literature on marital happiness and satisfaction. If an individual is lacking in the areas that attracted her to marriage in the first place, then the previous three themes identified will act as risk factors within the marriage that can lead to marital infidelity.

Clinical Implications

All of the participants in the current study discussed issues occurring within their marriages prior to and during the extramarital affair. Winek and Craven (2003) also discuss that systemic factors contribute to the occurrence of marital infidelity. These issues have been identified as risk factors in the current paper. It is possible that these risk factors can serve as a red flag to clinicians that something is wrong within the marital relationship. They could help clinicians assist individuals and couples identify protective measures for minimizing the chances of marital infidelity occurring within the marriage. In order to deal with the lack of quality time being spent in the marital dyad behavioral approaches can be used to enhance the marital relationship. Some examples include: (1) having clients schedule date nights, (2) making sure the children are in bed at a reasonable time to ensure private time for the couple in the evenings, (3) scheduling lunch dates during the week, and (4) re-evaluating their participation in outside activities that are taking away from spending time together.

Making sure the couple is establishing the marriage as the top priority will reinforce the notion that the quality of time in the marriage is more important than other aspects of their lives. If, for extenuating reasons, this cannot be done, the therapist can negotiate with the couple how both the needs of the marriage and the needs of other priorities (e.g.; work) can be balanced, to minimize the development of risks of an extramarital affair within the marriage.

Clinicians need to make sure the needs of both partners are being met, which will increase the positive attention within the marital relationship. In order to do this, clinicians should use functional communication skills training, which will serve to open the lines of communicating the needs of both partners and serve to increase their problem-solving skills. Communication skills training should include working with the couple to ensure appropriate active listening skills, such as making eye contact, not interrupting, nodding their head, and paraphrasing what they have heard back to the speaker, to ensure accuracy of the message. Active listening would also include asking clarifying questions when needed. Another component to teaching the couple communication skills would be teaching them to be aware of the nonverbal messages they are sending, either through silence, body language, facial expressions, and/or tone and pitch of voice. The last component of communication skills training is making sure that the partners are able to communicate effectively. It is important for clients to speak clearly and make the covert overt. Many couples expect their spouse to be a “mind reader” but that is an expectation that will set the couple up for failure. Specific needs, wants, or desires should be expressed to the spouse and the expectation of mind reading should be eliminated. Clinicians should focus on making sure the couple does not communicate in a way that is attacking. Teaching the clients to use “I” statements versus “you” statements will help with not putting their partner on the defense.

Although communication skills training will also help with solving conflict, clinicians should also incorporate conflict management techniques. Educating clients about anger management, teaching the couple the skills of negotiation and comprise, making sure the couple can find the appropriate time and place to solve issues surrounding conflict, and setting a date to revisit the solution that was reached, in order to assess its efficacy. Each of these techniques will help the couple solve problems more effectively within the relationship.

Finally, it is important to discuss the idea of creating a model to help clinician’s better serve their clients. The information gathered from this and other research projects will serve as a baseline for future quantitative research that can lend itself to a model for reducing the risk of having an extramarital affair. The model can be used by clinicians, who are working with married individuals or couples, as a way of assessing the level of risk for marital infidelity to occur within the marital relationship. The model will be able to provide a guide for clinicians and future researchers when working with couples.


This study focused on risk factors present in a women’s marital relationship who experienced having an extramarital affair. A limitation of this study is that only the female spouse was included. Therefore, only the wives’ perspectives of their experience were collected. Their ex-husbands may view the phenomenon of the extramarital affair quite differently. In addition, males who have had extramarital affairs, may answer the questions in a very different manner. It is possible that the relationship inferences, made from the results of the study, may not be very generalizable. The small sample size made it very difficult to get a sample that included a wide range of cultures and ethnicities. In future research, it would be important to examine cultural and ethnic differences in order to determine if diverse populations experience the same or different risk factors in the martial relationship that play into an extramarital relationship.

A final limitation was that this study included only women who had experienced marital infidelity within a heterosexual marriage, which means that the results do not apply to women who cohabitate, are engaged, dating, or involved in non-traditional marriages. Therefore, there is little possibility to generalize findings based on sample size, participation criteria, and types of participants. Also, because this was an exploratory qualitative study no confirmatory results can be given. Verification of the results will have to be confirmed in future studies.

For future research it would be beneficial to pursue the unexpected finding that presented itself in the current study. The participant’s discussion about drinking, drug use, and abuse within the marital relationship could be important information with regards to marital infidelity.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michelle M. Jeanfreau
    • 1
  • Anthony P. Jurich
    • 2
  • Michael D. Mong
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Child and Family StudiesThe University of Southern MississippiLong BeachUSA
  2. 2.Kansas State UniversityManhattanUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyThe University of Southern MississippiLong BeachUSA

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