Marriage & Life Partners

Unfaithful Women: Understanding Female Infidelity

The Philandering Affair

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.

Pittman continues:

“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.











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