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Why Do Powerful Men Risk It All to Cheat?

As a psychologist who has been studying issues surrounding marriage and divorce for more than 25 years, I'm interested in the motivations of men who seem to "have it all," and then throw it all away for an affair.
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What makes powerful men like Arnold Schwarzenegger risk their marriage, reputation and career to have an affair? Lots of people have been asking this question. Once Maria Shriver announced their split, the media began picking apart and analyzing their marriage. And the details about his infidelity with the trusted housekeeper and assistant who had worked for the family for 20 years, and whose child he fathered 14 years ago, have been splattered across the tabloids and the 24-hour news programs. So I won't add to such speculation.

However, as a researcher and psychologist who has been studying issues surrounding marriage and divorce for more than 25 years, I'm interested in the motivations of men who seem to "have it all," and then throw it all away, facing public humiliation in the aftermath and subjecting their families to the same. When we see the devastation such betrayal and deception has on spouses, children and other loved ones, it's difficult for outside observers to understand why a highly intelligent and successful man, like the former governor of California, would engage in such behaviors. And yet, it's not all that uncommon -- think of Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, to name but a few recent examples.

Look at national trends among married couples, and we see that Arnold and Maria's scenario is not atypical. Consider:

  • The second most common time for divorce is between 20 and 25 years of marriage. The Schwarzenegger-Shrivers were married for 25 years.

  • Current statistics vary depending on the type of study and sample, but in general, about 20 percent of married women and 32 percent of married men admit to infidelity.
  • Infidelity appears to be on the rise among both genders, particularly among the over-60 crowd, according to the National Science Foundation's General Social Survey.
  • It's too easy to be on the outside and judge Arnold for his baffling behavior. Instead, here are a few ways to understand why powerful men in general risk it all to have an affair:

    The illusion of invulnerability: The first reason powerful men have affairs is because they think they won't get caught. They also assume that even if they do get caught, they won't get in trouble because they have the resources to cover it up. These men often don't worry about the long-term effects of their actions on others, only the short-term gains. Arnold allegedly supported the former housekeeper, bought her and their son a home, and had her sign a confidentiality agreement. For more than 14 years, he believed he could keep the secret from Maria.

    Ample opportunities for temptation: Wealth, fame and power are attractive to many women, who make themselves available to powerful men, sometimes aggressively and without scruples. When powerful men are away from home for days and weeks at a time, which is often the case, loneliness and the desire for female companionship can trigger infidelity. In other words, it's easy for these men to find willing sex partners. But in Arnold's case, he found the opportunity to stray under his very own roof.

    Adrenaline dependency: Many powerful men have positions that require a lot of responsibility and authority. They perform well under high stress, and they continually need and enjoy excitement or challenges to drive them forward. An affair gives them the same type of exhilaration in their private life. Imagine the sense of danger Arnold must have lived with as he watched the son from his affair play with his and Maria's kids in his own house. The situation would have been a ticking time bomb, an ideal adrenaline charge for the risk junkie.

    Enabled by "yes" people: Powerful men tend to be surrounded by people who protect them, idolize them and even "enable" their vices in order to remain inside their influential orbit. Being surrounded by people who don't necessarily challenge your decisions or give you honest feedback about yourself is bound to have an effect on your ego, self-image and your sense of propriety and limits. The fact that Arnold hid his affair and "love child" for more than 14 years indicates that he felt invulnerable. He may have even had a bookkeeper who helped him funnel hush money to the former housekeeper and mother of his child.

    Desire for change: Let's not forget that powerful men are still men, and usually an affair signals an internal need for change. Something in the man's life or his relationship isn't OK -- and the affair creates the trigger for change. Boredom and relationship ruts are common reasons couples cite for infidelity. They can be unhappy with their lives in general or dissatisfied in their relationship. An affair forces the issue and brings things into the open. After 25 years of marriage, if both spouses don't make an effort to keep the intimacy, freshness and fun alive, it's not at all unusual for a married couple to get into a relationship rut.

    In the end, it's important to acknowledge that both men and women -- of all statures, ages and races -- have affairs. The difference with powerful men is that their affairs get scrutinized and talked about in public. While influence, wealth and celebrity may present some additional challenges that are unique to powerful men, the fact is that not all such men succumb to infidelity. And, the explanations above are certainly not excuses for the behavior of those who do.

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