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Study Finds Couples Keeping E Open For New Partners

Sun., Feb. 19, 1995, midnight

Warning: The area you live in may be hazardous to your marriage.

The risk of divorce or separation goes up for young couples if they live in an area with plenty of unmarried and available men or women, a new study finds.

That suggests many husbands and wives keep an eye out for a better partner, said researcher Scott J. South.

The more possibilities they see, the better the chance of finding someone worth leaving a marriage for, South said Friday. He said he assumes unhappy marriages are especially vulnerable, but that he could not rule out some effect on people quite satisfied with their marriages who happen to meet the partner of their dreams.

South noted that a national survey found that about 15 percent of ex-wives and exhusbands said they had been romantically involved with somebody outside the marriage before getting divorced.

Since either spouse can cause a divorce, the result suggests that at least 30 percent of divorces occur after one spouse has started an affair, South said.

South is a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany. He and colleague Kim Lloyd present their study in this month’s issue of the American Sociological Review.

Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who studies marriage, divorce and remarriage, called the study “a good piece of research that shows even married people may consider the alternatives if they’re not satisfied with their partners.”

“I don’t think this tells us that the presence of unmarried adults is a threat to a happy marriage,” he added.

The study dealt with non-Hispanic white people in their 20s, young enough that they had been married a relatively short time.

The early years of marriage bring the highest risk for divorce, and it’s not clear whether the study findings would apply to people who’ve been married longer or belong to other ethnic groups, South said.

He and Lloyd analyzed results from a survey of 2,592 men and women who were interviewed annually from 1979 to 1985. About 22 percent of the participants divorced or became separated during that time.

Using census data, the researchers computed for each participant how many unmarried people of the same ethnic and age group were available in the general area where the participant lived. Each area was a cluster of counties designed to include where people live and work.

Researchers calculated the ratio of available men to available women, because each spouse would face competition from unmarried members of his or her own sex.

Analysis showed that the risk of divorce or separation was lowest when the geographic area had about 129 available men for every 100 available women, which was about the average found in the study.

The risk rose by about 13 percent if the ratio grew to 162 available men per 100 available women. The same trend showed up if women became more available; the risk rose by 8 percent when there were only 105 eligible men per 100 eligible women.

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