Public opinion surveys find that 70-80% of North Americans say that infidelity is “always wrong,” and most others express some disapproval.1,2 Researchers find that most married and dating partners expect romantic and sexual exclusivity.3,4 If you’re like a good number of people, you may think that you have in place an agreement to be exclusive. But, like many people, odds are that your understanding of this agreement is based far more on assumptions than actual explicit discussion.
In a recent study of 474 young adults (18-26 years) in established dating relationships, most individuals (84%) reported that they had an agreement with their partner to maintain monogamy.5 That’s great, if that’s what you want. And that is what most of us want. Almost all participants reported expecting romantic (97%) and sexual (95%) exclusivity in their current relationship, which is consistent with earlier surveys.2
But when asked to elaborate on the nature of their monogamy agreement, over half of participants (55%) said that they had never talked directly with their partner about monogamy at all. Another 6% said they had had a one-way discussion about it (along the lines of “Don’t!”) or else indirect conversation, such as how wrong it is for people to be unfaithful. Just a little more than one-third (39%) reported actually having a mutual discussion about monogamy with their current partner, a discussion that involved explicitly agreeing to be exclusive.
These statistics are interesting when we think about how varied our views are about what constitutes infidelity. Sure, most people agree that any interaction involving touching of sexual parts with someone outside the relationship doesn’t fly. But there is far less consensus when it comes to more romantic or affectionate forms of contact, such as close hugs or sharing secrets, or online forms of infidelity, such as flirty exchanges with an ex.6 Given the notable variation in people’s views about what counts as infidelity, what are the chances that your view perfectly matches your partner’s view? Probably pretty low.
Frank discussions about monogamy are difficult for couples because they can emphasize unmet needs, and expose areas of discord and vulnerability. But far better to struggle through this talk than to try to explain to your partner why you did something (unwittingly!) that strongly violated their sense of this implicit monogamy agreement. Get talking.
Dr. Lucia O’Sullivan
Professor of Psychology – University of New Brunswick
@LuciaOSullivan on twitter
Lucia’s research centers primarily around sexual communication and decision-making among young people, sexual health, functioning, and changes in the roles and interactions defining the intimate relationships of adolescents and young adults. A particular focus of her work in recent years has been the impact of technology and social media on intimate relationships, and has studied topics as far reaching as infidelity, fandom, romantic scripts, pornography, oral sex, and kissing. She is the Canada Research Chair in Adolescents’ Sexual Health Behaviour and has a long history of international collaborations on issues relevant to youth sexual and reproductive health.
1Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2Roggensack, K. E., & Sillars, A. (2014). Agreement and understanding about honesty and deception rules in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 178-199.
3Allen, E. S., & Baucom, D. H. (2006). Dating, marital, and hypothetical extradyadic involvements: How do they compare? Journal of Sex Research, 43, 307-317.
4Riehman, K. S., Wechsberg, W. M., Francis, S., Moore, M., & Morgan–Lopez, A. (2006). Discordance in monogamy beliefs, sexual concurrency, and condom use among young adult substance involved couples: Implications for risk of sexually transmitted infections. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 33, 677-682.
5Gibson, K., O’Sullivan, L. F., & Thompson, A. E. (in press). Love thy neighbor: Personality traits, relationship quality and attraction to others as predictors of infidelity. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality.