Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.
In a committed relationship nothing hurts more, or is harder to recover from, than infidelity, and this is even truer when it’s the female partner who’s been doing the cheating. In recent years I’ve noticed a precipitous rise in the number of men who have been betrayed by adultery, and while there’s an overall consensus among professionals that female infidelity is on the rise, the trend doesn’t garner nearly as much attention as male infidelity That’s surprising, because female infidelity is often much more damaging to a marriage. Don’t get me wrong: Male cheating is definitely harmful. But when a woman fools around, it’s often the death knell to a couple’s relationship. It's often said that men cheat for sex, while women cheat for love, the theory being that men can more easily compartmentalize sex and emotion, while women typically need to experience an emotional connection to a person before feeling sexual desire. Without those pesky emotions to stand in the way of a potential mistake, a guy is much more likely to get himself into trouble (especially if alcohol is involved and inhibitions are down) or to get involved with someone for whom he has no feelings.
That’s not to say that men don't cheat because they're unhappy, in search of an emotional connection or simply bored in their relationship (a topic we’re currently analyzing at Good in Bed), but many of the men I've encountered who have cheated on their wives often have no desire to leave their primary relationship. Many of them even characterize themselves as happily married with satisfying sex lives.
That’s one of the reasons there's often a better chance that a couple will stay together and try to work things out when it’s the man who’s doing the cheating, rather than the woman. For men, cheating often tends to be opportunistic—they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and the cheating doesn’t necessarily mean anything emotionally—whereas with women the desire to cheat is often less opportunistic and more deeply felt. It’s often more a matter of the heart than of the genitals. Sure, some women cheat for the sex, but many also cheat for another chance at love, or to confirm to themselves that their primary relationship is really over. A woman who cheats is often a woman who doesn't want to work it out. She's already invested time trying to work it out, and she's done. It's too late.
While there aren't any hard statistics on female infidelity, most experts agree that it's on the rise, especially among women who have their own careers and a degree of financial independence. A University of Washington study found that people who earned $75,000 or more per year were 1.5 times more likely to have had extramarital sex than those earning less than $30,000. And with so many women in the workplace, it’s no surprise that among the spouses who cheated, 46 percent of women and 62 percent of men did so with someone they met through work.
Another big factor in the rise in female infidelity is the Internet. Sexual infidelity often starts with emotional infidelity, and digital technologies offer an abundance of opportunity for emotional (and thrilling) connections: The return of an ex, a workplace flirtation, a Facebook friendship that becomes more than "just friends." Women are extremely susceptible to “emotional infidelity,” which starts as friendship, often with colleagues or seemingly harmless online relationships, and slowly progresses to something more. A gradual blurring of the lines between friendship and deeper intimacy draws even happily partnered people into relationships they never saw coming.
So what are some of the signs that a woman could be cheating or thinking about it?
- She shows less general interest in her partner's comings and goings
- She dresses up for work, but seems to care less about whether her partner finds her attractive
- She has less interest in sex with her partner
- She's keeping an irregular schedule and spending more time at work
- She seems happy, except when she's around her partner
- She shows less tolerance of her partner's friends and family
- There are unresolved issues in the relationship that have either been ignored or not resolved in a way that's satisfying to her
- She's in a child-centric marriage that prioritizes parenting and neglects a couple's relationship, with few opportunities for romance and alone time
Guys, think your wife would never cheat? Think again. When men get angry about something, they tend to lash out, but women often self-silence and bottle up their emotions. As Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, says, "Men want to think women don't cheat, and women want men to think they don't cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other." Maybe this isn’t so much a game as a reflection of the double standard and culture of forgiveness that favors men—“boys will be boys,” as the adage goes—when they cheat. But as we’re learning, cheating is an equal opportunity sport, one that women are just as likely as men to play.