- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sparked by the David Letterman sex scandal, the nation is again talking about the “rules of engagement” in love. Plenty of chatter has focused on the famous talk-show host’s affairs with female co-workers and on the workplace suite (dubbed “the bunker” by insiders) that he used for trysts. There’s also the blatant hypocrisy - Mr. Letterman routinely mocked people for their sexual peccadillos. Now it’s his turn to look hangdog into the cameras.

My take is that Mr. Letterman is now a poster boy for an aspect of cohabiting often gets glossed over: Cohabiters are more likely to cheat than married spouses.

Marriage is built on sexual exclusivity, and spouses typically vow to forsake all others in front of witnesses (and God). But cohabiters take no such vows. They may not even promise privately to be faithful.

And while society expects married spouses to be faithful, it shrugs its shoulders about cohabiters’ fidelity. Listen to what a former staff member at “Late Show With David Letterman” told People magazine this month: Mr. Letterman had an affair with an older female staff member, too, the anonymous staff member said, but it “wasn’t a big deal because he wasn’t married.”

“We heard he had a girlfriend, but she never came around, so it just wasn’t a big deal,” the staff member added, referring to Regina Lasko, Mr. Letterman’s longtime girlfriend, cohabiting partner, mother of his young son and wife since March.

I suppose in coming days we will hear whether Ms. Lasko agrees that it “wasn’t a big deal.” Mr. Letterman said she was “horribly hurt by my behavior.”

Was it normal for Ms. Lasko to have expected fidelity from her longtime cohabiting partner? The answer is yes, according to the landmark 1994 National Sex Survey from the University of Chicago.

That survey of 3,500 people found that 94.6 percent of cohabiters and 98.7 percent of married people expected sexual exclusivity from their partners.

But the survey found that expecting fidelity didn’t mean getting fidelity, especially among unmarried people. Of married men, 4 percent said they had cheated on their wives in the past year. Of cohabiting men, 16 percent had cheated. And of single men with steady girlfriends, 37 percent had cheated.

Among women, wives were the most faithful - only one in 100 said she had an affair in the past year, according to the National Sex Survey, as retold in “The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially,” by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher. Of the cohabiting women, 8 percent had cheated in the past year, as had 17 percent of women with steady boyfriends, the survey said.

A 1991 survey of 3,300 men found similar results: Of the married men, nearly 96 percent reported intercourse with only one partner in the previous year. Of the cohabiting men, only 68.6 percent were faithful.

The cheating doesn’t always end just because cohabiters marry, either. Studies have found that men and women who cohabit before marriage were more likely to cheat on their married spouses than people who hadn’t cohabited.

Why such differences? Researchers are still trying to figure it out, but they have found that cohabiters are likely to have permissive sexual attitudes, be less religious and have lower levels of personal commitment to their relationships.

No one knows why Mr. Letterman repeatedly cheated on his longtime girlfriend turned wife, but for people who study cohabiting, it’s not at all surprising that he was keeping his options open.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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