Women are catching up to – and even outnumbering – men when it comes to college admissions and earning power. Along with these advancements, women have caught up in less savory ways.
Men don’t want to admit it; women don’t want to admit it; our culture tells us it can’t be so. But research is beginning to address an increasing number of women who are also watching porn, engaging in casual and risky sexual behaviors, and cheating on significant others.
How many women cheat? Accurate estimates are hard to come by, primarily because researchers rely on self-reporting and few women are willing to risk their relationships and reputations in the name of science. Studies from Indiana University and Manchester Metropolitan University have found that roughly 20-25 percent of men have affairs compared to about 15-20 percent of women. These numbers are likely much higher for both genders, with some polls suggesting that as many as 50 percent of married women have cheated.
One factor that continues to differentiate men and women is the degree of shame women feel. Infidelity is still largely viewed as a man’s problem, a mixed blessing that can drive women to extreme lengths to hide their indiscretions. While some women cheat simply for the sex, the majority report feeling unhappy in their relationships and cheat in order to satisfy a number of unmet emotional needs like feeling special, important or loved. Below are some common themes women cite as reasons they have broken a monogamy commitment:
Unmet Need #1: I cheat to feel desired and desirable.
A steamy love affair, or even just being pursued by another man, can be the ego-booster a woman seeks if the monotony of kids, jobs and bills has left her feeling less desired at home. Sex, which may have become just one more task to cross off the list, becomes arousing again as another man offers the kissing, touching and intimacy she craves.
Unmet Need #2: I cheat to feel understood.
Women like to feel heard, but years of marriage can diminish a man’s ability and desire to actively listen. When a woman begins sharing her intimate thoughts and feelings with another man, an emotional affair, which can quickly escalate into a physical one, may not be far behind.
Unmet Need #3: When I cheat I feel more valued and appreciated.
Whether they work inside or outside the home, women typically do a lot for their families. As life gets busier, a woman’s husband may stop noticing all that she does, or forget to show his gratitude. Feeling neglected and taken for granted, the attentiveness of another man can be difficult to resist.
Unmet Need #4: I cheat to feel connected and more intimate.
It requires ongoing effort and quality time together to maintain an intimate connection. When one or both partners checks out emotionally and stops investing the time and attention the relationship requires, a woman may find herself attracted to another man who is willing to listen to her feelings and ease her loneliness.
Unmet Need #5: I cheat out of boredom and am looking for romance and excitement.
Long-term relationships can get boring and predictable. After years of the status quo, women may long for the thrill of new love and get lost in the magic of a new relationship. For some, an affair may be a way to recapture their youth – a time when they felt alive and alluring, and everything seemed more fun. Others may find that the affection of another man distracts them from having to deal with a difficult experience or major life change, such as a child going away to college or a new career.
Other common reasons women offer for straying are revenge for a partner’s marital, financial or emotional unfaithfulness or to put an end to an unhappy marriage. One thing that cannot be denied is the easy accessibility of pro-adultery websites like AshleyMadison.com, online chat rooms, dating websites and smartphone apps, where a woman can now jump into unfaithful intimate encounters without having to chat up strangers at a bar or worry that a workplace affair can go bad. Cheating now takes so little effort that higher rates of infidelity among women also may be the simple result of greater opportunity.
When Cheating Is a Sign of a Bigger Problem
An affair may be a one-time mistake, a passing phase or a step toward moving on, but a growing number of women are finding it hard to stop the cheating game. One online encounter may lead to many more, until cheating becomes a habit that interferes with other areas of life. The loneliness, secrecy and despair build, yet because so few women openly talk about these kinds of struggles, it can be hard to know where to turn for specialized help or if help is even available.
In the field of sex, intimacy and relationship treatment, professionals are increasingly identifying women as a population that suffers from sex, love and pornography addictions – just like men. But women in treatment require specialized support to properly heal and recover. Currently there are only one or two residential programs in the entire U.S. that solely treat women for addictive sexual and intimacy disorders. These programs report the most helpful forms of care involve a gender-separate treatment environment that addresses the frequently contributing emotional concerns of underlying trauma, low self-esteem and co-occurring addictions.
It’s easy to make assumptions that fall in line with gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes do more than misrepresent the realities, they stigmatize people and drive issues underground that would be better served by being acknowledged and treated up front. Next time the temptation to generalize arises remember that in terms of infidelity, men and women may not be so different after all – it’s just that women don’t talk