When we talk about affairs the cultural inclination is to think of a married man with a younger unmarried woman. The reality is that life is far more complex than cultural stereotypes. Married women also have affairs.
Recent infidelity statistics suggest that in over 1/3 of marriages, one or both partner admit to cheating. The data suggests that 22% of men report having been unfaithful to their spouse with 14% of women acknowledging an affair in their marriage.
Young and Alexander in their 2012 book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction accept a rough estimate of 30 to 40 percent infidelity in marriage for men and women.
Having worked for many years with men and women and trying to hold on to marriages, recovering from betrayal or caught up in the pain and passion of an affair, I suggest that most married women as most married men, don’t condone, pursue or plan on having an affair – but it does happen.
Do women have an affair as a way to end their marriage? Most would say, no.
Do women have an affair for sex? Not in most cases.
Do women want the feelings stirred by an affair in their own marriage? Most would say, yes.
The primary reason that married women often end up in affairs is emotional. In many cases the affair reflects what feels like the chance to have and to hold a long forgotten or unknown sense of self that feels respected, loved and desired by a partner.
The difficulty is that while the affair seems to emotionally give – it also takes.
How Does it Happen?
A close look at the path to an affair suggests a number of social, psychological, marital, and sexual factors that bear on this choice.
The Social Culture
Ours is a culture that espouses social and sexual monogamy. According to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, marriage is now seen as the bond that is supposed to do it all.
The goal is great – so is the pressure to live up to it.
Self-Critique-While both men and women often feel that they are dancing as fast as they can, women tend to be more self-critical. Wired to nurture, they too often expect to be able to take care of everyone and everything.
Sex as a Chore-Caught in cycles of employment, children and family commitments that leave little couple time, men can more easily look toward sexual connection as an oasis without the time for ongoing romance. Women, who need the romance to feel the desire, often see sexual relating as one more chore on their list or one more failure on their part.
Nobody’s Talking-Whereas women are good at complaining about chores and car pools, they find it more difficult to make their sexual needs clear to a partner who may feel rejected.
It is most often “ what is not said in a marriage” that makes a partner more vulnerable to stray- than what has to be said.
Unmet Needs-Most people need their partners to provide what Self Psychologists call self-object needs.
- Partners need to mirror each other in a way that affirms a sense of value and a special place. It could be “the look across the room” that makes them know they are different from anyone else.
- Partners need to “ idealize” each other, to be proud of the connection and the association to the other.
- Partners need “ to twin” with each other, to feel mutuality about some things; to get each other’s sense of humor; to be friends as well as lovers.
A married woman’s vulnerability to an affair is often increased by her own lack of self-esteem or a spouse’s issues that impair attunement, idealizing or mutual connection.
Personal History– Sometimes a woman has so little history of good parenting that regardless of how successful she is in other dimensions of her life, in intimate relationships she is untrusting, insatiable and unable to be pleased. She may look outside her marriage for what she won’t find anywhere.
Partner’s History-Sometimes a woman has a strong sense of self and is well able to reciprocally respond but she is with a partner whose own history compromises his ability to attend to or respond to her. Often she begins to believe that is something she is doing or not doing that keeps her from getting what she needs.
Sexual Needs and Desires
For reasons that may be conscious or unconscious, many married women and their spouses sabotage the opportunity to satisfy sexual needs and desires in their marriages.
- When there has been a history of little or no personal interest, attention and affection by a partner, many married women stop feeling or risking sexual desire. If they do feel sexual interest it may well be for someone who treats them differently.
- Some women disconnect their home lives from their outside lives such that they dress, act, display confidence and invite sexual interest in a way that is never brought home. Without realizing it, they lose the chance to experience their partner’s response to this unknown and desirable self.
From Validation to Temptation
- The affirmation, mutuality and support that many men and women share in the workplace, community and in athletic endeavors can be an important source of personal validation. When it becomes an eroticized source of interest from someone whose novel attention stimulates “ the chemistry between two people,” it becomes temptation.
- For some married women, the temptation is not just the surge of sexual interest in another man – it is the awakening of an experience of self as sexually desirable and valuable.
- Buoyed by the sexual interest and attention from another partner, some women make an attempt to change and improve their marriage.
- Some are so startled by what they have missed, but so committed to their marriage, that they test or prompt similar responses from an unsuspecting spouse, hoping to get a reason to stay faithful.
For those married women who make the decision to step outside their marriage, it is a highly emotional choice of both pleasure and pain underscored by denial.
- Most want the feelings, the attention, the erotic affirmation – and they want their marriage. Feeling guilty, they often try to convince themselves this is possible until it is proven impossible.
- Some are willing to forgo the marriage in order to attach to a self they have never known. If they give total credit for this new self to the new partner– they still don’t own it.
- Some experience the affair has the only opportunity they will have to regain some positive feelings of being loveable and valued. For them, it is worth the cost of the family disruption and a divorce.
- Some find that their spouse, while hurt and betrayed, wants them back and is able to join in examining what went wrong and sharing the recovery and reconstruction of a new second marriage-together.
Apart from condoning or condemning, an affair is a rupture in a marriage and a crucial communication.
When we are willing to use it to make meaning, to own and to learn about self, it becomes a difficult but important point in our growth and the viability of our future relationships.
Listen in to Podcasts on Psych UP Live with topics like:
Saving the Marriage After the Affair
When is divorce the best decision?