Adultery is commonly defined as an extramarital affair or cheating while married, where, unlike infidelity, one specifically has sex of some sort with a person not their married partner (see the Infidelity Topic). Any particular definition of adultery may have both religious and legal ramifications that vary by local laws. Sometimes the definition of adultery can be specific in that one of the married people has had consensual penis-in-vagina intercourse with someone other than their spouse.

In some instances, adultery can be grounds for divorce or it could be a death sentence as in a recent case in Iran. In the US, there are states where adultery could lead to a misdemeanor charge, and in another adultery could technically, albeit rarely, lead to jail.

For example, the Michigan penal code states: “Adultery is the sexual intercourse of 2 persons, either of whom is married to a third person,” and “Any person who shall commit adultery shall be guilty of a felony; and when the crime is committed between a married woman and a man who is unmarried, the man shall be guilty of adultery, and liable to the same punishment.”

Some individuals in same-sex marriages or other legal partnerships have been unable to claim adultery in divorce cases because some laws define sexual intercourse in adultery laws only as penis-in-vagina sex.

In some states, someone could be sued by the spouse for interfering with a once-happy marriage or “Alienation of Affection.” Forgiving after adultery is one option other than divorce and in at least one state it could affect the outcome of divorce proceedings.

The sourced articles below should provide more information on adultery.

  1. Adultery (American Psychological Association)

    “n. a voluntary sexual relationship between a married person and an individual who is not his or her spouse. In most Western countries, this is grounds for divorce; in some other cultures, adulterers may face severe social sanctions or legal penalties, including death.”

    American Psychological Association,, accessed 5/31/2022

  2. Criminal Conversation Law and Legal Definition

    “Criminal conversation is another term for adultery. It refers to having unlawful intercourse with a married person. Adultery is defined as consensual sexual relations when one of the participants is legally married to another. Some states have laws making it a crime and and in many states it is grounds for divorce for the spouse of the married adulterer.”,, accessed 5/31/2022

  3. What Is Condonation

    “For example, if the spouse who is suing for divorce has chosen to remain in the marriage after learning of the defendant’s infidelity, and continued to engage in intimate relations with the defendant, then the implication is that the infidelity was forgiven. As a result, the court would likely not consider the adultery as grounds for granting the divorce, since condonation had taken place.”

    Malcolm Tatum,, 5/23/2022

  4. Is There A Big Difference Between Infidelity And Adultery

    “Adultery often refers to a physical relationship outside of marriage. It occurs when one partner is sexually involved with another without their partner’s consent. Unlike adultery, infidelity can be physical, emotional, or both. In some states and jurisdictions, adultery is the term used as legal grounds for divorce.”

    Red Mountain Counseling and Education,, accessed 5/16/2022; (Broken link removed 2/2023)

  5. 5 Secrets You Didn’t Know About Adultery

    “Did you know that adultery is a crime in Arizona? It is, and it’s punishable by up to six months in jail. However, the reality is that few people are prosecuted for this crime. That said, if you’re thinking about committing adultery, or if your spouse has committed adultery, you should be aware of the potential consequences.”

    Gillespie Shields law firm,, accessed 5/16/2022

  6. Alienation Of Affections

    “Alienation of affections is a mostly outdated law that allows a spouse to sue an individual that causes their other spouse to end their marriage. … While most states outlawed the cause of action, six states still allow alienation of affections claims as of 2021 with million dollar damages being awarded in North Carolina recently.”

    LII, an independently-funded project of the Cornell Law School,, accessed 5/16/2022

  7. UCMJ Article 134 – Adultery (General Article)

    “The maximum punishment according to Article 134 (Adultery) is a Dishonorable Discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for one year.

    Understanding Article 134 (Adultery) of the UCMJ – The crime of adultery under the UCMJ consists of three elements. All three of these elements must be proved by the government beyond a reasonable doubt in order to charge a service member with adultery and include:
    1. That the accused wrongfully had sexual intercourse with a certain person;
    2. That, at the time, the accused or the other person was married to someone else;
    3. That, under the circumstances, the conduct of the accused was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”

    Crisp and Associates,, accessed 5/16/2022; (Broken link removed 12/2023)

  8. Pope Says Sex Outside Marriage Is ‘Not The Most Serious Sin’

    “The Pope was also asked about the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, who offered to step down earlier this month after a French magazine claimed he had engaged in an intimate relationship with a woman. … The sixth commandment says ‘you shall not commit adultery’, which applies to people having sex outside of their marriages but the Pope suggested it could apply to priests who don’t stay celibate.”

    Laura Hampson,, 12/8/2021

  9. Couple In Iran Sentenced To Death For Adultery

    “The Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced an Iranian man and woman to death for adultery after a father-in-law urged the judiciary to execute his son-in-law.”

    Benjamin Weinthal,, 11/8/2021

  10. 15 Powerful Steps For Surviving Infidelity In Your Relationship

    “2. Answer any and all questions … More marriage experts agree that couples heal better after an affair if the adulterous spouse supplies all of the information requested by his or her betrayed partner. …

    5. Take responsibility … Blaming your partner for the affair won’t heal your marriage. Showing sincere regret and remorse will. Apologize often and vow to never commit adultery again. It may seem obvious to you that you’ll never stray again, but your spouse may have worries, so renew your commitment to your spouse as your one-and-only.

    Sari Harrar,, 7/9/2021

  11. Top State Court Recognizes Same-Sex Adultery As Grounds For Divorce

    “The New Hampshire Supreme Court has overturned a 2003 decision that had defined adultery as voluntary intercourse between members of the opposite sex.”

    Debra Cassens Weiss,, 4/5/2021

  12. Georgia Adultery Laws: How Does Cheating Affect Divorce In Georgia?

    “Can You Go to Jail for Adultery in Georgia?

    Although Georgia is still one of the few states with a criminal statute on adultery, no one has been criminally indicted for it in the past century. Law enforcement officials will also typically refuse to get involved in cases that involve adultery.

    Attorney Sharon Jackson,, 2/8/2021

  13. Taiwan Decriminalises Adultery In Landmark Ruling

    “Taiwan’s constitutional court on Friday decriminalised adultery in a landmark judgment aimed at upholding personal rights and privacy, scrapping a law that activists said discriminated against women. … Adultery is still considered a crime in various places including some U.S. states.”

    Reuters Staff,, 5/29/2020

  14. Forgiving Adultery, And What That May Mean For Your Divorce Case

    “Forgiving the adultery, however, can alter these rules. In South Carolina, this forgiveness is known as condonation. Condonation is a defense to an allegation of adultery in a fault-based divorce. This means it could impact the time it takes to obtain that divorce. More significantly, it may also affect the issues of alimony and property division.”

    Greenville SC Family Law – Attorney Robert Clark,, 4/14/2020

  15. Man Awarded $750K In Alienation Of Affection Suit; His Lawyer Calls It A Moral Victory

    “Kevin Howard says his lawsuit against his ex-wife’s lover wasn’t just about the money. … Howard, who lives in Pitt County in North Carolina, sued in August 2017 under the state’s alienation of affection law. He and his wife had separated less than two months before. He was awarded $750,000 in August of this year. … The alienation of affection tort is based on wrongful acts that deprive a married person of the affection of his or her spouse. A criminal conversation claim is filed against a non-spouse who has sexual relations with a married person.”

    Debra Cassens Weiss,, 10/7/2019