How Marital Infidelity Became America's Last Sexual Taboo

As Americans increasingly embrace a range of behaviors, they're less and less permissive of cheating.
Universal Pictures

Having an affair is one of the most immoral things you can do, according to a new Gallup poll. As Eleanor Barkhorn reported last week, a survey of 1,535 American adults found that 91 percent considered extramarital infidelity to be morally wrong, a higher percentage than objected to human cloning, suicide, and polygamy. The poll aside, it's difficult to think of any other relatively common and technically legal (adulterous affairs are no longer subject to criminal sanction) practice of which more of us disapprove.

A special report on how the institution is changing
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While this same poll showed growing acceptance of divorce, pre-marital sex, and having babies out of wedlock, the 91 percent disapproval rate for cheating is nearly twice what it was 40 years ago, when similar surveys showed that only half of American adults believed that having an affair was always wrong. As political scientist John Sides notes in a recent detailed analysis of changing attitudes towards adultery, "Americans, and especially better educated Americans, have become less accepting of adultery with the passage of time." Pointing out the simultaneously growing acceptance for ending an unhappy union, Sides summarizes what he sees as our contemporary attitude: "If you're in an unhappy marriage, don't cheat. Just get divorced."

These dramatic shifts in attitudes towards both divorce and infidelity are driven by a changed but still seductive marriage ideal. The culture war over same-sex marriage may or may not be nearly over, but one thing is clear: So many people care about who can get married—and what constitutes a marriage—that the issue of marriage equality has become the defining civil rights cause of our era. If marriage no longer held much of a hold on our collective and individual imaginations, we wouldn't be having the impassioned arguments we're having in state capitals, in the Supreme Court, and at the family dinner table.

The polls show that a growing number of us want our fellow Americans to be able to marry whom they love, regardless of biological sex. Those same polls show that we also want to have the right to leave a miserable marriage as easily as possible. Those aren't inconsistent positions. They reflect the modern sense that marriage is primarily about individual happiness rather than making babies or ensuring communal stability. Everyone should be able to take their chance at the unique set of rewards we imagine that only marriage can offer; everyone should be able to leave if those rewards are not forthcoming.

The growing abhorrence of infidelity is linked to this more individualistic view of marriage. Just a few decades ago, divorce was scandalous; if your marriage came to an end you and your spouse were likely to face cruel gossip and painful social ostracism. The fear of the public humiliation that attended divorce kept people in unhappy marriages. That fear is gone, replaced by a growing anxiety about the more private humiliation of sexual betrayal. "I'd rather be left than lied to" is the prevailing sentiment that the polling reveals; it's not a stretch to suggest that the reverse would have been true just a few decades ago.

As Karen Swallow Prior wrote here at The Atlantic in March, young people are marrying later because they see marriage as a "capstone" to a well-ordered life rather than a "cornerstone" upon which to build. Whatever the wisdom of delaying first marriage for the sake of a richer set of life experiences as a singleton, there's little doubt that the "cornerstone" model builds in an expectation of difficulty that the "capstone" paradigm doesn't.

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Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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