It Takes Two to Tango
Most studies suggest that somewhere from 10 to 20 percent of men and women in marriages and other committed monogamous relationships will cheat on their partner at some point.
While cultural stereotypes inform us that it's mostly men who cheat on their wives or girlfriends and not the other way around, clinical research concretely details that nearly as many women cheat as men.
Why does this stereotype, of men being "The Cheaters," prevail?
Why Are Men More Readily Perceived as "Cheaters" Than Women?
- Western cultural stereotypes are more forgiving of a man having recreational sex (stud) versus how we tend to view a woman doing the same (slut).
- The generally more fragile male ego leads men's thoughts away from even considering they may be cheated upon.
- Men engage in more sexual offenses than do women, perhaps giving the suggestion that men in general are more likely to sexually act out.
- Women are better at cheating and hiding it then men.
- Men are more likely to get caught when cheating (see #4 above).
And the Survey Says...
Cultural assumptions aside, the actual reasons women most commonly give for relationship infidelity are often quite different than those reported by men who are doing the same thing. And perhaps it is no surprise that a woman's motivation to cheat typically parallels our psychological and physiological understanding of what stimulates female vs. male emotional and physical arousal/sexuality. For example, adult men tend to be more comfortable engaging in a purely sexual experience devoid of emotional attachment -- such as viewing pornography, going to a strip club, or hiring a prostitute -- than most women. Women tend to be more aroused by sexuality that includes or implies some form of emotional connection as with romance-oriented erotica such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, both of which have primarily female audiences.
In one survey, Undercover Lovers, a UK-based extramarital dating site, surveyed 4,000 of its members, approximately 2,000 men and 2,000 women, about their cheating habits. Among female cheaters, 57% said they felt love for the man with whom they were having an affair. But in fairly stark contrast only 27% of the men surveyed said they loved their mistress. As indicated by this informal survey, women who cheat are much more likely to want and/or need an intimate emotional bond with their affair partner -- even simply to believe they have such a bond, though the man may feel differently.
What Is Cheating Today?
In many ways, relationship infidelity has become pervasive in modern society, as evidenced to some extent by the large number of infidelity websites and "friend finder" smartphone apps such as Blendr, Undercover Lovers, and most prominently Ashley Madison. No muss, no fuss, just the sex thank you very much. At last look, Ashley Madison had approximately 16 million members, making it one of the world's most popular and financially profitable websites/smartphone apps.
Ashley Madison and similar companies have successfully utilized modern technology to monetize infidelity.
Why Women Cheat:
Women who step out on a husband or significant other -- male or female -- do so for any number of reasons, the five most common of which are listed below:
- She feels underappreciated, neglected, or ignored. 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 craves 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 meaningful communication. Women who aren't getting their intimacy needs met by a primary partner may look elsewhere, trying to meet those needs through sexual/romantic relationships. Some of these same women may also engage in alcohol/drug abuse, compulsive spending, binge or consistent overeating, etc., to compensate for the emptiness they feel.
- She is bored and/or lonely. Women who find themselves alone at home for long periods of time, perhaps when caring for young children or even after children are grown and gone, can feel that their lives lack meaning, and they may use casual sex or deeper romantic affairs to fill the void. Women who have spouses or partners who are absent for long periods of time related to work (military service, for example) may also turn to sex and affairs to fill what feels like an untenable emptiness.
- She never feels fully loved and appreciated. Some women have unrealistic expectations about what a long-term spouse or partner should offer them emotionally and in other ways. Those who are more narcissistic and emotionally immature may expect a significant other to meet their every single need, and also to be a mind-reader in terms of knowing what those needs are. When their human and imperfect partner inevitably fails them, they feel justified in seeking attention elsewhere.
- She has an intimacy disorder. Early childhood trauma and/or sexual abuse often lead women (and men) in adult life to problems with addictive sex and/or serial cheating. Such women repeatedly seek emotional intensity rather than relational intimacy. Women with unresolved childhood trauma as well as those with emotional instability -- women who carry an uneven and disjointed sense of self -- can seek consistency and feelings of importance through intensity-based romantic and/or sexual activity.
Feeling "in control" over someone desiring or wanting them sexually/romantically helps them to approximate feelings of worth, importance, belonging, and emotional safety. Female relationship and sex addicts use a constant stream of sexual activity to fulfill unmet emotional needs, and also to avoid being needful, genuine, and intimate with someone who could hurt them (as happened when they were when young).
In truth, some women cheat because they receive little sex or physical intimacy from their spouse. After all, healthy adult women enjoy the physical act of sex as much as men do. They're not martyrs, and a sexless relationship may not be acceptable for some, even if the lack of sexual interaction is due to the male partner's medical or related issues. For these women, going outside the relationship for sex may be a logical, even healthy answer. That said, women also enjoy the feelings of being wanted, needed, and desired that partner-sexuality can evoke, and a woman is more likely to break her vow of monogamy because she's seeking this type of emotional connection than for purely sexual reasons.
Sadly, some women may not realize how profoundly their secretive sexual or romantic behavior can affect the long-term emotional life of a trusting male spouse or partner. Infidelity hurts a betrayed man by damaging his sense of home, safety, and self. The keeping of secrets, especially sexual secrets, ruins relationship trust, and betrayal causes pain regardless of gender and regardless of the woman's reasons for breaking her vow or commitment. If a couple chooses to address the situation together, couples counseling can 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 specialized treatment to address both past trauma and her adult sexual behavior patterns. Unfortunately, even with experienced therapists on board working with people committed to healing, some couples (post-betrayal) are unable to regain the necessary sense of trust and emotional safety required to continue together. For these couples, solid, neutral relationship therapy can help ease the pain of a long overdue separation.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.