Infidelity has traditionally been thought of as a male problem. Before the advent of easy birth control, cheating on a spouse or partner was riskier for women, and the consequences could be extreme. In many cultures, they still are. In the United States, however, contraception, women’s liberation, and the sexual revolution, among others things, have contributed to us having more sexual freedom than ever before. And though infidelity still remains explicitly and implicitly taboo in most relationships, we live in a time where we feel freer to cheat.
Estimates of the extent of extramarital affairs are notoriously unreliable. Researchers have found there is significant underreporting when it comes to admitting to faithlessness. Psychologist John Grohol, looking at an aggregate of studies, and concluded:
“Taken together, in any given year, it looks like the actual likelihood of your relationship suffering from cheating is low — probably less than a 6 percent chance. But over the course of your entire relationship, the chances of infidelity may rise to as much as 25 percent.”
1 in 4 is a significant number, and while men still outpace women when it comes to cheating, women are catching up.
Over the course of many years in clinical practice, and in my general experience as well, I have been struck by the many forms infidelity can take, as well as significant differences in the women who stray. There is no stereotypical female philanderer or lothario. Most women who have affairs are surprised to find themselves in an extramarital relationship, and untangling how they got there can be difficult.
Historically, men have indulged in certain sanctioned forms of infidelity. From the traditions of droit du seigneur (a practice begun in the Middle Ages which give the Lord the right to sleep with the wives of his vassals) to the discreet mistress tucked away in an apartment, the excuse that “boys will be boys” has been accepted in some circles. While these men feel that sex outside marriage is their right, and do not necessarily feel it is hurtful as long as it is kept secret, women are usually more committed to fidelity, in theory if not practice.
There is no typical cheating wife, and while there are common reasons why they stray, it takes many different forms.
The Accidental Affair
Since this kind of infidelity is unexpected, it is also hard to prevent. Often it happens when a woman is far from home, in a new location where the bonds and boundaries of everyday reality are loosened. The “convention” affair is the prototype. Besides being away from home, and feeling freer than usual, in such situations we are in close proximity to a group of strangers, often for several days, creating a kind of false, but immediate intimacy. It is like being stranded on a desert island, but one that has access to free-flowing booze and hotel rooms.
Any circumstance that puts you in an intense situation but is also isolated can spark a one-night stand. Besides conventions, I have heard of this happening during productions of plays, movies (especially on location), and even during jury duty.
One feels almost “out-of-time” in these conditions, and the more intense the experience, the higher the chances of emotions getting out of hand. The feelings of anonymity that come when strangers surround you lend to the feeling that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
The Workplace Affair
A close relative of the accidental affair is the one that happens with a coworker. Many of us now spend more time in our offices than we do at home. Our jobs can be intense and complicated, and we often have to work closely with a variety of others. Out of necessity, our spouses, whom we see briefly at the edges of each day, become people we talk to about sharing daily chores like shopping and childcare. Meanwhile, at work, our colleagues understand what we are doing and are involved in the more stimulating tasks that occupy a great percentage of our attention.
Sharon, who married her college sweetheart and moved to the West Coast because of his work needs, began in intense job at a startup. Her colleagues were fun and passionate about their goals, and she began to share them. Her husband, meanwhile, also worked intensively, but in another industry, and both spouses were preoccupied and tired at the end of the day. This led to them sharing less with each other and feeling closer to people at work than to each other. Also, because Sharon had moved far from home, her workplace friends were the only ones she made, at least at first.
Sharon was plagued by guilt and confusion when she began an affair with a colleague. Over and over she tried to end it, but her marriage had become dry and lifeless in comparison to the excitement, passion, and fulfillment she felt with her work lover. After several tumultuous years she and her husband agreed to split up, going their separate ways. Both acknowledged that they had married before they were fully developed adults and had grown in different directions.
The Denial Affair
This kind of affair occurs when someone is trying to escape painful internal feelings they cannot acknowledge to themselves. Women also indulge in the “midlife crisis” cheating that is common in men, though sometimes for different reasons. Men often are responding to fears that their powers are fading, their lives are limited, and the realization that death is a certainty, not a vague unimaginable concept. Women are similarly burdened by their fears of aging, seeking reassurance they are still attractive. Both seek the excitement an affair produces as an antidote to the depression and fear they are feeling. Rather than experiencing these painful feelings, they are hidden and masked by what psychologists call “acting out.”
Depression, for whatever reason, can be dangerous to fidelity. We are most vulnerable to the pull of an attractive other when we are going through a period of transition or loss, whether it is due to aging, kids leaving, or loss of loved ones such as parents.
Olivia had suffered several losses in quick succession: two miscarriages and the deaths of both her parents. In addition, her closest friend moved far away. She and Frank had two school-aged children, and after her miscarriages, they decided to stop trying for another baby. They moved on to what Nora Ephron jokingly called the next stage in marriage: remodeling the house. Having insufficiently worked through her mourning, Olivia found herself attracted to her ruggedly handsome contractor, Fritz, with whom she now spent a great deal of time working on remodeling details.
This kind of affair can last months, even years, but often the attraction is situational, and once the lovers get to know each other, they find they don’t have much in common. Like many such liaisons, the attraction springs not from deficits in marriage so much as deficits or problems in our individual psychological dynamics. If handled discreetly, it is not uncommon for such affairs to end quietly without too much damage to the marriage once the woman works through her depression—i.e. “comes to her senses.”
The female philanderer is less common than the male. This is a woman who engages in multiple dalliances, often with little thought to their impact on her family and marriage. Psychologist Frank Pittman writes of them:
“They. . .are usually the daughters or ex-wives of philanderers. They are angry at men, because they believe all men screw around as their father or ex-husband did. A female philanderer is not likely to stay married for very long, since that would require her to make peace with a man, and as a woman to carry more than her share of the burden of marriage. Marriage grounds people in reality rather than transporting them into fantasy, so marriage is too loving, too demanding, too realistic, and not romantic enough for them.”
Pittman cites the example of Marlene Dietrich, who was famous, even by Hollywood standards, for her extramarital liaisons. She had a reputation for sexual insatiability, but according to a memoir by her daughter, evidence exists that she really didn’t like sex much and was really seeking power over men.
“Straying wives are rarely philanderers, but single women who mess around with married men are quite likely to be. Female philanderers prefer to raid other people’s marriages, breaking up relationships, doing as much damage as possible, and then dancing off reaffirmed. Like male philanderers, female philanderers put their victims through all of this just to give themselves a sense of gender power.”
The Love Affair
Women are likely to feel they are succumbing to strong emotions when they cheat, and are likely to be more aware than men of the serious risk they are taking. Many experience themselves as being in love, and can only justify their infidelity in those terms. Pittman says, “Women are more likely to reframe anything they do as having been done for love. Women in love are far more aware [than men] of what they are doing and what the dangers might be.” Not all of these affairs result in deep abiding love, though it does happen, and when it does, it can be devastating to the marriage. The woman in this kind of relationship feels that she loves her lover more than her spouse, and the time she spends without him seems empty and meaningless. Her “real life” becomes an intolerable grind, and her anger at her spouse, who now seems more and more inadequate, increases as she compares the two.
This kind of affair is often the result of real deficits in the marriage. Abusive husbands, emotionally or sexually distant husbands, or absent, traveling husbands, are all dangerous to a woman’s fidelity. Often, these affairs lead to divorce, though not all lead to re-marriage with the lover. Some affairs are dependent on the spark caused by the triangle in order to survive.
But there are many examples of extramarital affairs that lead to happy subsequent marriages. Sometimes this is a matter of having made the wrong choice to begin with, and it seems the best thing to do. Yet, it is hard to discern the meaning behind an affair, and it can often take years to untangle and work through all the details, especially when children are involved.
The Marriage-Sustaining Affair
Some women engage in affairs that sustain rather than wreck their marriages. In these cases, there is an unsolvable problem in their home life, but they are not interested in divorce or able to leave. Emotional and/or sexual incompatibility, chronic illness, and family concerns can cause a marriage to falter or deteriorate, and a woman finds emotional and sexual satisfaction elsewhere. Sometimes these affairs can be quite stable and last for years, allowing the cheating wife to withstand the deprivations in her marriage. Esther Perel, the author of The State of Affairs (2017), says “Paradoxically, many people go outside their marriages in order to preserve them.”
Psychologist Hoffman agrees: “Affairs can wreck a good marriage, but can help stabilize a bad one.”
One proof of the sustaining nature of this type of liaison: when the affair ends, the marriage can fall apart. Without the gratification provided by the love affair, the marriage becomes intolerable and she leaves at last.
Popular culture as represented by novels, plays, and films have historically been rough on cheating wives. The outcome for her, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is isolation, shame, and even death. Most recent depictions have been less judgmental, but the threat of danger is usually high. In the film Unfaithful, (2002) Diane Lane plays a woman happily married to Richard Gere, but nevertheless she falls into an accidental affair with a sexy Frenchman. One of her friends, unaware that she is cheating, tells her that in her experience infidelity is always a mistake: cheaters get caught. Of course, that’s exactly what happens in this film, and the consequences are devastating.
In real life, however, there are many instances in which women (and men) do get away with it, and in some cases, affairs can be helpful. Perel, in her book, asserts that infidelity, once the “dust” has settled, can offer a turning point in a marriage, and an opportunity to renegotiate the contract and start anew. It is important to be aware of the stakes: while not as high as they may have been in past generations, there are always unforeseen dangers.
Ann got accidentally pregnant during her affair with her husband’s friend, and waited anxiously during her pregnancy, hoping that the baby’s eyes would not be brown like her lover’s. Since she and her husband both had blue eyes, if the baby didn’t it would prove that the child was not her husband’s. When the baby was born with blue eyes, she was relieved not to be caught, but because of the laws of recessive genes, she still did not have definitive proof that this child was not her lover’s.
Cheating is not for the faint of heart.