Stereotype #1— the powerful Don Draper sex god having his way with every woman he fleetingly desires, from roundheeled underlings wanting a promotion (or to secure their jobs) to smart women who are his equals except… not really. Does he want to give up his marriage to a wife who does everything for him? Not at all. He just wants sex with someone else.
Stereotype #2 – the ignored and neglected woman (whose husband may or may not be having an affair) gets so desperate that she invites the new, young, sexy milkman, mailman, Fuller brush salesman into her home for a little afternoon delight.
Very, very, very exaggerated stereotypes, greatly enhanced by TV and film, but with a germ of truth. History tells us that the partner with the most power—usually the man— was more likely to be the one to cheat. The infidelity did not threaten the relationship (after all, he had the power, money, and status), and yet it satisfied his desire for sex. From kings to politicians to moguls, it was easy, people looked the other way, and, well, “boys will be boys” was pretty much the popular wisdom.
Research reveals that, as women have gained increasing status, wealth, and influence, the numbers are balancing out. Today, nearly as many women cheat as men. The reasons, however, can be (though are not always) quite different for each gender.
Typically, women want an emotional connection. A woman who cheats is more often unhappy with her current relationship and either considering leaving it, or would leave it if some obstacle, real or imagined, were not there. On the other hand, generally speaking, men want a physical connection and are less likely to leave a current relationship. These are generalities only, and obviously every person’s infidelity is unique.
Cheating is more now than ever before. Statistics range a lot, but somewhere between 30 and 70% of women have at least one sexual encounter outside their relationship, and from 40 to 80% of men are reported to stray at least once. Why are these numbers so out of control? For one thing, cheating has never been easier.
Thanks to digital technology and social media, cheating is no longer an act of convenience. Once upon a time you had to meet someone, feel something, do something. Now, you can open your computer and scroll through internet sites (like Ashley Madison) specifically geared for infidelity. Texting, sexting, Facebook, and Skype allow people to engage in some level of infidelity from their car, home, or office. When you include virtual relationships (sexual or romantic relationships that do not involve actually meeting) there are more opportunities to stray than ever before, and more ways to do it!
When people constantly lie to keep secrets from their partners, hide phones, lock computers, and screen calls, whether it is physical or emotional infidelity does not matter. It’s cheating. If there is no secrecy, either nothing is going on, or these people are in open relationships and fine with telling their partners they have someone on the side.
Many (though not all) of the classic reasons for infidelity fit, at least loosely, with either stereotype #1 or #2. Sometimes it’s just a matter of “because I can.” Other times it represents a deep seated problem that needs to be addressed.
- Low self-esteem. Someone will seek validation through a lover to feel worthy, desired, lovable. This could be because of a loveless marriage, childhood trauma, or something else.
- Emotional high. Sometimes people just are hooked on getting a thrill. One person might take up sky-diving, another might have affairs and get high on the lust and excitement of a new relationship.
- Getting away with it. Essentially, the allure is the thrill of doing something clandestine and getting away with it. The more these people escape unscathed, the more risks they take, and the more likely they are to hurt someone. The attitude? “What my partner doesn’t know won’t hurt her/him.”
- Lack of empathy. Again—“What my partner doesn’t know ….” This is a basic lack of understanding about the devastating effect infidelity can have on a partner and relationship. Sometimes you have to chalk this one up to basic selfishness.
- Unrealistic expectations. Relationship experts are seeing this more and more in recent years. Our expectations are becoming unreasonable, partly due to the way the media portrays romance. If you expect your partner to meet every one of your needs, emotional and physical, you are likely to be disappointed.
- Failure to communicate. Related to the above, many people expect their partners to “just know” what they want and don’t communicate their wants and needs. Disappointment is inevitable. Rather than open the lines of communication, they seek satisfaction elsewhere, hoping someone else will be that magical mind reader.
- Lack of intimacy. If the current relationship is lacking in intimacy and attachment, it is much easier for one or both partners to stray. This intimacy-gap may be due to a number of factors—lack of communication or attention, or an emotional or physically unavailable partner.
- Opportunity. Temptation is real. If a person spends a lot of time around someone who is sexually very appealing, at work, for example, or while out of town on business, constant availability can wear him or her down.
- Situational factors. Chronic or unresolved anger at a partner, drugs and alcohol, loneliness during a long separation—these are slippery slopes.
- Unhappiness. Specifically, with the relationship. If a partnership is no longer fulfilling, or if it is increasingly clear that two partners are fundamentally incompatible, many people think that infidelity will solve everything. Interestingly, 90% of people who leave a marriage for a lover do not end up with that lover. Of the 10% who do, 70% don’t stay together. (People take their unhappiness with them.)
- Sex Addiction. Compared to the other reasons, this is relatively rare. Yes, it really is an addiction. Therapy is available.
Not surprisingly, the damage to a relationship that is done by infidelity can be difficult to overcome. But not impossible. If both partners are committed to change and to saving the relationship with the help of a couples coach or counselor it can be saved. Best case scenario? A relationship can be made stronger when both partners work together to resolve the issues that led to the infidelity in the first place.