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What is Adultery?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Adultery is extramarital sex, in which a spouse has intercourse with someone outside the marriage. Historically, this has been regarded primarily as a moral issue, rather than a legal one. Proof of adultery is grounds for divorce, however, and in some regions of the world it may be punishable by law. Attitudes about adultery vary between cultures and between groups within larger societies, and personal beliefs about it are often based in religious values.

In order to be considered adultery, the contact must be consensual in nature and clearly sexual. Simply flirting, for example, is not adultery, but sexual contact is. It may occur once or on multiple occasions. Also known as philandery, infidelity, or an affair, adultery may involve an emotional connection with the partner outside the marriage, or the relationship may be purely sexual.

In many cultures, people believe that marriage is a sacrament between two people, and adultery is subsequently frowned upon. Some people engage in open marriages, however, in which they are committed to a primary partner in the form of a spouse, and one or both partners have sexual relationships with others by agreement with the primary partner. Swinging communities are one example of how open marriages can work.

While adultery may not necessarily come with legal punishments, in some cultures it can result in social stigma. Some regions of the world also practice honor killing, in which the unfaithful spouse and the adulterer are killed. Other forms of punishment, such as throwing acid in the face of an adulterous spouse, have also been documented. More commonly, however, adultery ends in counseling, and the partners may explore the possibility of a divorce if they feel that they are no longer suited to each other.

It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics on adultery. Some people may be afraid to admit to extramarital affairs, even in confidential surveys, and cultural differences between people conducting surveys and their subjects may also create barriers. Studies which have been conducted seem to suggest that infidelity is not uncommon, however.

In a legal context, in addition to being grounds for divorce, affairs can sometimes trigger certain clauses in a prenuptial agreement. For example, the agreement may specify that an adulterous spouse is not entitled to an equal division of assets in the event of a divorce. While couples can file for a no-fault divorce, the adultery can still be brought up during the process of reaching a settlement agreement.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon983447 — On Dec 30, 2014

I made the discovery that my wife began an affair just a little over a month ago. I never, ever imagined I would be searching out articles and stories of this nature. After 27 years of marriage, you never believe it will happen to you.

Even though my wife claims she didn't go "all the way", she got to third base, and I consider this adultery. The sad thing is we discussed going to counseling just about two weeks before this started, and she never gave us a chance to see if it would work. Now, I find that I want to try to save the marriage for the sake of the family, and for the sake of not being "alone". These are probably the wrong reasons to reconcile, but I am scared.

We're going to try counseling now, but it may be too late in my mind. How can I ever trust again? I hope that no one else reading this will ever experience this pain and devastation. - JM

By cupcake15 — On Mar 01, 2011

Crispety - You know there was a case in North Carolina about a wife that was surviving adultery.

What she decided to do was to sue the mistress and she was awarded $9 million dollars because she was able to successfully prove that the mistress ruined the marriage and caused the husband to alienate the wife.

It was an amazing case.

By Crispety — On Feb 26, 2011

SauteePan - I think that you are right on track. Unfortunately too many people want a quick fix for their pain and resort to an affair instead of focusing on their real issues.

I actually read somewhere that only about 3% of men marry the women that they have had an affair with and about 75% percent of those marriages end in divorce. So I guess in those cases history does repeat itself.

By SauteePan — On Feb 24, 2011

Suntan12 - I agree that before someone commits adultery they should think about the implications of their actions.

They should really look at going to couples counseling and if that does not work then seek a divorce. This way there is no guilt because you tried to fix the relationship and once you have gotten divorce then you can take the time to determine what went wrong.

It is really a good idea to find out what the problems in your marriage were so that you do not repeat the pattern with someone else.

By suntan12 — On Feb 21, 2011

Baffled- I agree with you. That is the way that you define adultery. I read somewhere that 90% of Americans feel that adultery is morally wrong, but about one in three couples will be faced with this nightmare sometime in their marriage.

There is really no excuse for committing adultery and it almost always destroys a marriage because the trust is very hard to rebuild again. I don’t know how one would begin coping with adultery.

By baffled — On May 20, 2010

well let me make this simple. when a married man or woman has sexual relations with a man or woman that they did not marry, that is adultery -- unlike a president's perception.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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