Image: Wandering eye
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Our ideals can be pretty strict when it comes to fidelity. Majorities of both men and women consider sending a sexually flirtatious e-mail cheating. And 21 percent of women say even sexually fantasizing counts as cheating; only 12 percent of men agree with that.
By msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/17/2007 1:01:24 PM ET 2007-04-17T17:01:24

For those who worry about infidelity, there is good news to be found in the MSNBC.com/iVillage Lust, Love & Loyalty survey. Bed hopping is not as common as we think, and a big reason why more people aren’t wandering is that we love our boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses.

But no matter how loving and well-intentioned we are, some people do stray — 22 percent of survey takers in monogamous relationships say they've cheated on their current partner.

The survey backs up earlier research that shows, despite a persistent belief that many more people are cheating, the infidelity rate usually hovers around 25 percent over the course of a relationship, says Adrian Blow, a marriage and family therapist and assistant professor at Michigan State University.

The survey also shows there is no one type of cheater. Young or old, married or living together, kids or no kids, assorted relationships show similar rates of infidelity. In that sense, "everyone is vulnerable," Blow says.

Why even a strong marriage might be susceptible is partly illustrated by another of the survey’s results. People do not tend to cheat with strangers. By far, most paramours are found among the ranks of friends and co-workers.

"If someone has a great marriage, but some hot opportunity comes along, like a colleague you are attracted to, you can be vulnerable," Blow says.

Infidelity, to borrow cop talk, is often a crime of opportunity.

But why, after months or years or even a lifetime of faithfulness, does anybody take the opportunity? And is there anything we can do immunize our relationships against wandering?  

The obvious answer to the first question is sex. Men and women both cited a strong physical attraction, and men especially cited a craving for more sex and sexual variation, as reasons for straying. And while most people — 70 percent — say cheating is never OK, of those who felt it could be justified, the top rationale picked was a partner losing interest in sex (18 percent).

But "sex" is complicated.

Research into why people seek sex outside their committed relationships has been going on for decades, but experts still don’t think they can say much of anything with certainty.

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Battling biology?
University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz, author of "Prime: Adventures and Advice About Sex and Love in the Sensuous Years," thinks the very idea of monogamy explains why some stray. Biologically speaking, she says, human beings aren’t built for it.

"I think what most of us say is, 'I want to make myself precious to someone. I do not want to lose him or her. I do not want to fight. I want to follow my religious teachings.' But these are cultural, religious or practical reasons for being monogamous, not biological," she says.

When we fight biology, we often fail to live up to our own ideals. "It’s like how people say, 'I am always on a diet, so why I am still so fat?’" Schwartz says.

Our ideals can be pretty strict when it comes to fidelity. Majorities of both men and women consider sending a sexually flirtatious e-mail cheating. And 21 percent of women say even sexually fantasizing counts as cheating; only 12 percent of men agree with that.

This variation, these differing standards of what cheating is, is why Dr. Stephen Levine, co-director of the Center for Marital and Sexual Health in Beachwood, Ohio, and author of "Demystifying Love: Plain Talk for the Mental Health Professional," wishes we would drop words like "cheating" and "infidelity" altogether. He believes they are so pejorative, they prevent our society from addressing the issue in realistic terms. "The trouble is the public, and especially political discussion, that puts everything in black and white, right and wrong and alienates everybody, keeps everybody silent." So human motivation is rarely addressed because cheating is just "wrong," period.

Beyond sex
Whether we are biologically predisposed toward monogamy or not, many people never go outside their relationship for sex. Why not? Well, experts believe that sex is often a secondary consideration. How can that be when so many cited it in the survey?

Men and women both have emotional needs for intimacy, mental connection and esteem. For many, sex is the currency used to purchase these. Often, we want to know we could have sex with somebody outside our relationship more than we want the actual sex. We want to feel wanted and important. And somebody must really want us if they’re willing to sex up a married person.

If we already have those feelings of being wanted and needed and desired, we are less apt to seek them elsewhere even if we lust for sex. As Schwartz points out, if it really were just sexual release men were after they could always hire a prostitute or try a casual hookup, but most men don’t.

Of course, some men — and women, too — can be so ego driven or immature they need constant affirmation of their desirability, no matter what. But all people crave a sense of freedom to be themselves in their relationships, to be fully open to another person, to be accepted.

Levine believes that over the course of a life, people change, as do our circumstances. There is no other relationship — not with friends, business associates, or even our children — in which we are expected to live with one other person for years, perhaps for the rest of our lives, and not only be able to get along, but to remain intimate with only that person, no matter what life brings us. The entire enterprise is fraught with possible failure.

But our desires and the fact of change may themselves hold the keys for success. They can be opportunities for deeper intimacy.

A woman who never fantasized about the UPS guy may suddenly develop an interest in brown shirts and shorts, but be afraid to express this new tick for fear of raising questions in her lover’s mind. Being able to tell her lover opens a door onto a new way to play.

Blow believes such openness is vital. For example, he says, some couples may enjoy using porn together or separately, and the survey indicates that a minority believe using porn separately constitutes cheating. Where things get sticky is when porn use is kept secret, Blow says. "The harmful thing is secrecy."

He isn’t referring just to secrets about having sex with another person or using porn, but all kinds of secrets. We tend to accumulate secrets during a relationship. We hide our distaste for a partner’s clothes, their family, the way they behave at parties, the fact they’ve gained so much weight, or that we would really like to chuck our secure job and live on a boat. We are afraid of hurting a loved one, or just don’t want an argument. So things fester and space is driven between lovers.

Work with me, baby
"Take fantasies," Blow offers. "A guy worries 'Oh my wife might judge me, shame me, I have to keep this part of me inside. I must hide from her' instead of saying 'I am having this fantasy, work with me on it.'"

When we feel we have closed off part of ourselves, our need for intimacy can lead us to open it to another. A truly intimate relationship in which such sharing is accepted can move toward greater levels of intimacy, Blow says. "I think when you hide things, cannot talk about things, in relationships where lots of things are off the table, people become ripe for plucking."

Nothing is foolproof, of course, but being willing to defy the social, personal, or religious views we carry into a romantic relationship, by understanding how idealized — and therefore unrealistic — love and marriage have become in popular culture, it’s possible to let go of secrets "and create familiarity and intimacy and trust in an otherwise sex phobic society," Schwartz says.

We all have fantasy lives. But couples who create taboos around those fantasies, she says, leave "no room for your psyche, and you might get it elsewhere."

You're likely to stay monogamous, she continues, "if you have a very hot relationship, with lots of friendship, if you turn each other on, go away for weekends, watch erotic movies, call her at work and say 'If you come home for lunch, I’ll make it worth your while."

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer, MSNBC.com Sexploration columnist and Glamour contributing editor is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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