March 19, 2008 -- More than half of Americans -- 54 percent -- know someone who has an unfaithful spouse, according to a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,025 adults.
That's more than twice the rate in 1964, when 24 percent of those asked in a Harris Poll knew someone with a cheating spouse.
The USA TODAY/Gallup telephone survey of public attitudes about marriage and infidelity was conducted last weekend on the heels of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer's reported extramarital encounter with a prostitute. Newly sworn New York Gov. David Paterson this week disclosed his own past extramarital affairs as well as infidelity by his wife.
The revelations and survey findings clearly indicate times have changed, but whether there are indeed more affairs than decades ago or whether people just talk about it more is still a question.
"My inclination is that there has not been a change in the actual behavior of people, but there has been a change in the inclination of people to discuss it," says David Barash, co-author of books on monogamy.
Says Tiffany Olson, 30, of Sykesville, Md., who has been married nine years and who was among those polled: "People are more aware of other people's affairs. They're not keeping them a secret."
Jennifer Sheppard of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., told the pollsters she knows of at least one unfaithful spouse and suspects others. "Any sexual relationship outside marriage is unacceptable," says Sheppard, 28.
The poll also reveals some gender differences. When asked which is worse for a husband to do -- have paid sex with a prostitute or have a romantic extramarital affair -- more men said an affair was worse, and more women said a prostitute was worse.
Gerald Blondin, 57, a retiree in Bay City, Mich., has been married 30 years. He was among the one-quarter of men who told pollsters both were equally wrong.
"They both amount to lying," he says. "It's a secrecy matter. I would probably not forgive. I could live with it, but I couldn't forgive it."
The poll shows married people are slightly more likely to forgive a sexual affair, however; 37 percent would definitely or probably forgive, compared with 30 percent of unmarried respondents.
Barash, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Washington, suggests an evolutionary human tendency toward multiple partners. But, he says, that doesn't mean people are obligated to cheat.
"It's important to understand the inclination is there," he says. "Monogamy is difficult. It's not dead. Realize it is possible, but you have to work at it."