September 26, 2017
Midlifers are reporting extramarital sex at a higher rate than their younger counterparts. But what do these numbers really mean? I have a few thoughts about that, so let’s first take a look at what this research from the University of Utah revealed.
Initially, it looks like nothing much has changed. The overall numbers of people who have extramarital sex have pretty much held steady over the years. But this report, “America’s New Generation Gap in Extramarital Sex,” revealed a new pattern by age: Midlifers show an upsurge in their frequency of sex outside of marriage.
As the lead author, Nicholas H. Wolfinger explains in this summary, midlifers have been reporting increased rates of extramarital sex since the mid-2000s when the numbers reported by people in their 50s and beyond and those married for 20 or more years began to diverge. (The full report was published by the Institute for Family Studies.)
In my view, there are both overt and less visible reasons behind this shift. The report suggests some that are more obvious; visible in many psychotherapy patients as well as the general public: The rise in boredom, disenchantment, or conflict during the course of a long-term marriage. That, coupled with a broader experience of midlife crisis that some experience—about their relationship, career, and sense of life purpose—can trigger a desire for looking outside the marriage for renewed vitality and excitement via a new partner.
I’ve previously written about some of those issues. For example, what enables couples to sustain long-term emotional, sexual and spiritual connection, and avoid descending into the “death spiral” of their relationship; or turning it into one that’s functional, but lifeless.
Those are difficult challenges. And they are likely exacerbated by a second reason: The legacy of the 1960s sexual revolution. Most current midlifers came of age during that period or absorbed its legacy. The impact of that cultural and social experience likely diminished the taboo about having sexual relationships outside the marriage for many people, and that attitude extended into the midlife years. At the same time, midlife has aroused new conflicts for many: Between “settling” for the trade-offs of marriage and family, and “longing” for restoring excitement and passion about life, as I’ve written about in previous essays.
How people deal with those issues has likely contributed to affairs, which have become more acceptable in the culture; almost a norm. People recognize that there are different kinds of affairs, and some are begun for understandable and even healthy reasons.
So those are among the more visible explanations for the rise of extramarital sex among midlifers. But those men and women live within a larger cultural and social shift, especially visible among younger generations. That context plays a role in shaping and influencing people’s attitudes and conduct in their intimate partnerships—what they look for, desire, and find acceptable.
Wolfinger alludes to that larger evolution when he points out that the survey asked about sex outside of marriages; not about “adultery” per se. He speculates that some couples may mutually agree to have extramarital relationships, and that could be reflected in the data.
I think there’s evidence for that, and midlifers’ extramarital sex likely reflects two converging social and cultural forces. One is what I described above, more specific to relationships among today’s era of midlifers. But at the same time, the younger generations are showing more openness to and interest in a variety of different forms of coupling, emotionally and sexually. In brief, they include:
Polyamory, or multiple partnerships at once. There’s now even an annual conference on the phenomenon.
Consensual Non-Monogamous relationships. Research suggests 40 percent of men and 25 percent of women would switch to one if the world were more widely accepting of them.
Permanent Cohabitation and child-rearing without legal marriage.
Redefining the Family away from the traditional model in our society.
Polygamy? Yes, some are even pushing the boundary to advocate legalizing polygamy as another acceptable form of relationship.
All of these shifts continue to penetrate the culture and likely contribute to an increased willingness among midlifers and aging baby boomers to try new forms of connection…outside of their marriages.
What we’re seeing may be both a response to the past among the older generation and a harbinger of the future for younger generations.
A version of this article also appeared in Psychology Today.