Marriage & Life Partners

Unfaithful Women: Understanding Female Infidelity

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.”

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