—Robert Weiss, 2006
Last week I published a blog on why men cheat. The piece generated an unexpectedly overwhelming response from all sides, with one of the main comments being, “It’s not just men who cheat.” And that statement is absolutely correct! Our cultural stereotypes tell us that it is usually men who step out on wives or girlfriends, but research actually indicates that nearly as many women cheat as men. And it does take two to dance the infidelity tango.
Studies on modern Western culture universally suggest that between 10 and 20 percent of men and women in marriages and other committed, long-term relationships are sexually unfaithful to their spouse or significant other. Interestingly, the reasons men and women cheat often differ by gender, and these reasons tend to parallel our general understanding of male versus female sexuality.
For example, when actively viewing pornography, males are typically more aroused by a rapid-fire succession of visual images, objectified body parts, and concrete sexual acts, whereas females tend to be more responsive to sexual imagery that includes some kind of emotional connection.
Pornographers, increasingly aware of this reality, are now actively evolving a new erotic genre known as “Mommy Porn.” The wildly popular erotic book series begun with the worldwide bestseller Fifty Shades of Gray exemplifies the ways in which mature women typically respond to pornography, in that they are interested more in eroticized relationships than objectified body parts.
For instance, the vast majority of the Fifty Shades trilogy’s largely female readership report feeling excited less by the book’s graphic depictions of bondage and sexual domination and more by the intense relational tension taking place between the two main characters. A similar phenomenon, aimed at a younger female age group, is the tremendously successful Twilight book and film series with its exploration of young, beautifully sculpted, highly objectified male figures—presented as vampires and werewolves who are struggling with their desire to love and possess a young girl. (True Blood on HBO falls somewhere in the middle of Fifty Shades and Twilight.)
In simple terms, when men view porn they tend to be more aroused by body parts and genital interaction, whereas women are far more engaged by material that also incorporates some concept of romantic connection or love.
Most healthy men feel comfortable engaging in a “purely sexual” experience that is void of emotional attachment or relationship, whereas healthy women tend to enjoy sexuality that is inclusive of some kind of emotional connection, even if that connection is only implied. This theme holds true in terms of how men and women tend to view and engage in relationship infidelity.
In one survey, Undercover Lovers, a UK based extramarital dating site (not unlike Ashley Madison in the US), surveyed 4000 of its members, approximately 2000 men and 2000 women, about their cheating habits. Among the women cheaters, 76% stated they still loved their husbands, and 57% said they loved the other man. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realize that 76% plus 57% equals a quite a bit more than 100%, implying that women who cheat likely feel more comfortable with their behavior when experiencing or at least perceiving feelings of love.
In that same survey, 67% of male cheaters said they loved their wives (a number somewhat similar to the females studied), yet among that same group a mere 27% said they loved their mistresses. The significant difference here is that men who cheat have less of a need to feel bonded to an affair partner than women who engage in the same behavior.
Further research, conducted by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, revealed that 34% of the women she studied (who were active in sexual/romantic affairs) said they felt “happily married,” whereas 56% of the males studied (also active in sexual/romantic affairs) stated they felt “happily married.” Fisher’s study indicates that women are generally more comfortable having an affair when feeling less attached to a primary spouse or partner, while men appear to be more emotionally comfortable with and accepting of being bonded in a primary relationship and also having sex outside of that bond.
What Drives a Cheating Woman’s Behavior?
Women who sexually or romantically cheat do so for a variety of underlying interpersonal and psychological reasons, the most common of which are listed below:
- She feels neglected, ignored, or under-appreciated. A woman who feels more like a housekeeper, financial provider, or nanny than a wife or girlfriend is more vulnerable to finding an external situation that brings attention and appreciation for who she is rather than the functions she performs.
- She has low self-esteem. Women who suffer with chronic self-esteem and/or mood disorders—some genetic, some resulting from early childhood trauma or neglect—are more likely to seek validation through romantic and/or sexual activity. Being pursued sexually is a way for these women to feel worthwhile, desirable, wanted, needed, and loved.
- She has enough sex, but craves more intimacy. More so than men, women feel valued and connected to their relationship partner through non-sexual emotional interaction such as touching, kissing, cuddling, gift-giving, being remembered, and most of all via meaningful communication. Women who aren’t getting this kind of intimacy with a primary partner will sometimes seek it out elsewhere through sexual/romantic relationships. These same women may also engage in impulsive and/or addictive behaviors like compulsive overeating or spending to compensate for the emptiness they feel.
- She wants revenge. A woman who feels disempowered by her relationship can use sex with someone else as a way to retaliate. For the woman whose spouse or partner has broken her trust in any number of ways—cheating, lying, spending a large amount of money foolishly, etc.—retaliation via outside sex/romance is sometimes an option.
- She is lonely. Women who find themselves with a lot of time alone at home while caring for young children, and also empty nesters, who sometimes feel a lack of importance and meaning once children are grown and gone, may use affairs and sexual liaisons to fill the void. Women who have spouses or partners who are gone for long periods of time for work—they’re in the military, for instance—may also find themselves using sex and affairs to fill what feels like an untenable emptiness.
- She is bored to tears. Sometime women miss the excitement of the early, “honeymoon” stage of a relationship. They crave the dopamine/oxytocin fueled rush evoked by new romance and the obsessiveness of thinking about another person 24/7. A healthy, stable relationship, in which intimacy is built slowly over time, lacks the excitement they crave, so they seek the “high” of new romance by engaging in affairs.
- She is not having enough sex to suit her specific needs. Healthy adult women fully enjoy good sex. They enjoy the physical act as much as men do, and they also enjoy the feelings of being wanted/needed/desired that partner-sexuality can evoke. Women are not martyrs; a sexless relationship may not be acceptable for some, even when the lack of sexual interaction is due to the male spouse’s medical or related issues.
- She wants out. In troubled relationships it can be easier to find a fast exit strategy than to work on an existing partnership. Rather than proactively breaking up, some women engage a new romantic/sexual partner, thereby giving their significant other a reason to end it (after learning about the affair).
- She is moving on, but doesn’t want to be alone. If a woman views her current relationship as over, she may begin one or several new relationships, thereby ensuring that there is someone waiting in the wings as her committed partner exits.
- She is a sex or relationship addict. Some emotionally troubled women engage in a constant, never-ending stream of sex and romance (often involving drugs and/or alcohol) as a means of controlling how they meet their emotional needs. Such behavioral problems most often are the result of early sexual trauma and profound abuse that leaves these women unable to be faithful to a spouse or significant other, even though they may intellectually wish to do so.
- She expects too much from a long-term, primary partnership. Some women have unreasonable expectations about what a long-term spouse or partner should offer. Narcissistic and emotionally immature, these women expect their significant other to meet their every single need, while also being mind-readers in terms of knowing what those needs are. And when their partner inevitably fails them, they feel justified in seeking attention elsewhere.
- She lacks women friends. Some women, especially those who have experienced early maternal abuse or neglect, will dismiss and undervalue their need for solid, supportive female friendships/community. Instead, these women will seek to meet their emotional needs through attention from males, often by having sex and affairs. Other women are seen as competitors to be devalued, dismissed, or avoided. The attention of men is what matters.
Can the Damage Be Undone?
In many ways, cheating has become pervasive in modern society, as evidenced to some extent by the large number of infidelity websites and “friend-finder” smart-phone apps such as Blendr, Undercover Lovers, and most prominently Ashley Madison. These sites and apps use technology to unapologetically promote cheating. In fact, Ashley Madison’s company slogan reads: “Life is Short, Have an Affair.”
These websites and apps make cheating easy as finding a good Italian restaurant. Click the “AM” logo on your smart-phone and the interface instantly display a grid of pictures of immediately available potential sex partners, utilizing geo-locating software to show you which potential partners are geographically closest. (Often they’re within a few hundred feet!) Tapping on a picture displays a brief profile of that user, along with the option to chat, send pictures (sext), or share your own location.
If the interest is mutual, you simply make a plan to meet and have sex. No muss, no fuss, just the sex thank you very much. No longer does a woman have to risk rejection in a bar or be vulnerable to a workplace affair—not in this day when she can geo-locate a willing sex partner with her smart-phone. At last look, Ashley Madison had more than 14 million members, making it one of the world’s most popular and financially profitable websites/smart-phone apps. The simple fact is Ashley Madison and similar companies have successfully utilized modern technology to monetize infidelity.
Sadly, some women may not realize how profoundly their secretive sexual or romantic behavior can affect the long-term emotional life of a trusting spouse or partner. Betrayal hurts men, too. And, as always, more than any sexual act itself, it’s the keeping of secrets from an intimate partner and the resulting breakdown of relationship trust that causes the most damage.
As is true in most emotionally charged events, there are likely multiple meanings/issues/reasons behind the choice to engage in affairs and extra-relational sexual behavior. It often takes the involvement of a skilled professional to help parse through the layers of a woman’s decision-making to find the root causes. If a couple chooses to address these concerns together, marital and couples counseling can for some turn a relationship crisis into a growth opportunity.
If the woman in question turns out to have a problem with sex or love addiction, she will require more specialized individual treatment to address both past trauma and her adult sexual behavior patterns. Gender separate inpatient treatment for women sex/relationship addicts is available at The Ranch in Tennessee, and 12-step support can be found at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Unfortunately, even when experienced therapists are extensively involved with people committed to healing, some couples are unable to ever regain the necessary sense of trust and emotional safety required to make it together. For these couples, solid, neutral relationship therapy can help the individuals involved healthfully process a long overdue goodbye.
Crossed fingers photo available from Shutterstock.