We have once again been faced with a high profile marriage scandal. This time the lovers included the CIA director, a married and much decorated military officer and his biographer, a married women, herself an Army Reserve intelligence officer.

What is predictable is the media focus on the man. In this case the articles addressed the question of military code of conduct, possibility of security breaches, the explanation of male infidelity in terms of power and narcissism, and the apology and compassionate sentiments to the betrayed wife.

What is curious is how little focus was given to the married woman in this affair. Other than a redundant account of her school success and running time, she was rarely seen as more than the idealizing audience to the man. There seemed little interest in her motives and even less in addressing the broader question- Why do married women have affairs?

The Reality

Perhaps we don’t ask the question because culturally we prefer not to know the answer.  After all, with matters of infidelity, the stereotype is of the married man in an affair with an unmarried female. In the case of married women the presumption is that women are more monogamous then men. They are – but not as much as we may want to believe.

  • In the largest most comprehensive poll of its kind in 1994, Edward Laumann and colleagues found that 20% of women and just over 31% of men in their 40’s and 50’s reported having sex with someone other than their spouses.
  • Frances Cohen Praver, author of Daring Wives: Insight into Women’s Desires for Extramarital Affairs suggests that estimates of infidelity range from 30-60% of women and 50-70% of men.
  • Young and Alexander in their 2012 book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction accept a rough estimate of 30 to 40 percent infidelity in marriage for men and women.

The Reasons

Having worked for many years with men, women and couples trying to hold on to marriages, recovering from betrayal or caught up in the pain and passion of an affair, I suggest that most married women, don’t condone, pursue or even imagine having an affair – but it does happen.

Do they have the affair as a way to end their marriage? Most would say, no.

Do they want the feelings stirred by the affair in their own marriage? Most would say, yes.

  • I suggest that married women often end up in affairs to find and hold on to a long forgotten or unknown sense of self that feels valued, loved and desired by a partner.
  • The problem is that they have found something they may need, want and even deserve in a way that takes as much as it gives.

How Does it Happen?

 A close look at the path to an affair suggests a number of social, psychological, marital, and sexual factors that bear on this choice.

The Social Culture

  • Ours is a culture that espouses social and sexual monogamy. According to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, marriage is now seen as the bond that is supposed to do it all.
  • The goal is great – so is the pressure to live up to it. While both men and women often feel that they are dancing as fast as they can, women tend to be more self-critical. Wired to nurture, they too often expect to be able to take care of everyone and everything.
  • Caught in cycles of employment, children and family commitments with little couple time, men can more easily look toward sexual connection as an oasis without the time for ongoing romance.  Women, who need the romance to feel the desire, often see sexual relating as one more chore on their list or one more failure on their part.
  • Whereas women are good at complaining about chores and car pools, they find it more difficult to make their sexual needs clear to a partner who may feel rejected.
  • It is most often “ what is not said in a marriage” that makes a partner more vulnerable to stray – than what has to be said.

 Self-Object Needs

Most people need their partners to provide what Self Psychologists call self-object needs.

  • Partners need to mirror each other in a way that affirms a sense of value and a special place. It could be “the look across the room” that makes them know they are different from anyone else.
  • Partners need to “ idealize” each other, to be proud of the connection and the association to the other.
  • Partners need “ to twin” with each other, to feel similar about some things; to laugh at some of the same things; to be friends as well as lovers.

A married woman’s vulnerability to an affair is often increased by her own lack of self-esteem or a spouse’s issues that impair attunement, idealizing or mutuality.

  • Sometimes a woman has so little history of good parenting that regardless of how successful she is in other dimensions of her life, in intimate relationships she is untrusting, insatiable and unable to be pleased. She may look outside her marriage for what she won’t find anywhere.
  • Sometimes a woman has a strong sense of self and is well able to reciprocally respond but she is with a partner whose own history compromises his ability to attend to or respond to her needs. Too often she may begin to believe that is something she is doing or not doing that keeps her from getting what she needs.

 Sexual Needs and Desires

For reasons that may be conscious or unconscious, many married women and their spouses sabotage the opportunity to satisfy sexual needs and desires in their marriages.

  • When there has been a history of little or no personal interest, attention and affection by a partner, many married women stop feeling or risking sexual desire. If they do feel sexual interest it may well be for someone who treats them differently.
  • Some women disconnect their home lives from their outside lives such that they dress, act, display confidence and invite sexual interest in a way that is never brought home. Without realizing it, they lose the chance to experience their partner’s response to this unknown and desirable self.

From Validation to Temptation

  • The affirmation, mutuality and support that many men and women share in the workplace, community and in athletic endeavors can be an important source of personal validation.
  • When it becomes an eroticized source of interest from someone whose novel attention stimulates “ the chemistry between two people,” it becomes temptation.
  • For some married women,  the temptation is not just the surge of sexual interest in another man – it is the awakening experience of self as sexually desirable and valuable.

The Choices

  • Buoyed by the sexual interest and attention from another man, some women take a stronger more entitled stand to change and improve their marriage.
  • Some are so startled by what they have missed, but so serious about their marriage; they test or prompt similar responses in an unsuspecting husband, hoping he will give them reason to stay faithful.

 The Affair

At least 30% of married women make the decision to step outside their marriage bond. In most cases this is a highly emotional choice of pleasure and pain underscored by denial.

  • Most want the feelings, the attention, the erotic affirmation – and they want their marriage. Feeling guilty, they often try to convince themselves this is possible until it is proven impossible.
  • Some are willing to forgo the marriage in order to attach to a self they have never known. If they connect it to the new man – they still don’t own it.
  • Some experience the affair has the only opportunity they will have to regain some positive feelings of being loveable and valued. For them, it is worth the cost of the family disruption and a divorce.
  • Some find that a spouse while hurt and betrayed wants them back and joins in owning the recovery and reconstruction of a new second marriage.

Apart from condoning or condemning, an affair is a rupture in a marriage and a crucial communication.

 When we are willing to reflect on our life decisions, to make meaning, to own and to learn, we embrace a stronger and more authentic sense of self.