There’s a lot of research out there on infidelity. Most of it has examined topics such as how many people have ever cheated and the main reasons people step out on their partners. However, we don’t actually know all that much about what actually happens during an affair itself. Specifically, what do people do and say, and how do they feel about it?
A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy offers some revealing insight into the actual dynamics of an affair, and how those dynamics differ based on people’s motivations for cheating in the first place.
In this study, researchers examined the infidelity experiences of 495 young adults (average age of 20, 88% of whom identified as heterosexual). In an online survey, participants were asked to describe an instance of infidelity in either a current or past relationship, which included reporting on the sexual and intimate behaviors that took place, how satisfied they were with the encounter(s), how long they carried out the affair, and more. Here’s what they found:
How Long Do Affairs Usually Last?
Affairs can be short- or long-term. In fact, participants reported affairs lasting anywhere from less than one day to over 5 years, with the average length being about two months and the median (50th percentile) length being about two weeks. However, it’s worth noting that women reported having longer affairs on average than men: 75 days vs. 53 days, respectively.
Longer affairs were also linked to cheating due to a lack of love in the primary relationship, seeking to boost one’s self-esteem, and desiring more sexual variety.
Which Sexual Behaviors Occur in an Affair?
In terms of the behaviors participants reported engaging in with their affair partners:
· 87% reported kissing,
· 73% reported cuddling or close touch,
· 54% reported mutual masturbation,
· 53% reported vaginal intercourse,
· 46-47% reported giving or receiving oral sex,
· 6% reported anal intercourse
· 6% reported that their affair was not physical or sexual in nature.
It’s notable that, in a sample of predominately heterosexual persons, only about half of affairs involved vaginal intercourse and that the most common behaviors were kissing and intimate touch. This points to something we’ve long known about affairs, which is that many of them are not really driven by unmet sexual needs, but rather unmet needs for intimacy and emotional connection.
In terms of sexual satisfaction, men were more likely than women to say that the sex they had with their affair partner was better than sex with their primary partner; however, men and women did not differ in their reports of how sexually satisfied they were with their affair.
Those who were more sexually satisfied with their affair had affairs of longer duration and were more likely to be cheating due to lack of love, desire for sexual variety, and because there was a desire discrepancy in their primary relationship (e.g., their partner lost interest in sex).
Lack of love was also linked to people taking their affair partners on more public dates and engaging in more public displays of affection with them.
What Do People Say During an Affair?
Given that sex is often (but not always!) a big part of affairs, it’s not surprising that 61% of participants reported having sexually explicit dialogue with their affair partners. However, even more (63%) reported expressing fondness and affection, and many (38%) reported engaging in intimate conversations.
Also, just over 1 in 10 participants said “I love you” to their affair partner. Those who exchanged these words tended to have longer affairs and were the most emotionally satisfied with them.
Men and women did not differ in rates of sharing intimate dialogue, nor in terms of how emotionally satisfied they were with their affair. However, men were more likely to report sexually explicit dialogue with their affair partner than women.