We tend to think of cheating as “abnormal” behavior, but according to recent polls, seventy-five percent of married men and fifty percent of married women cheat on their spouses at some point during marriage. Add that to the fact that the divorce rates for first and second marriages average around 50%, and you can gain some clarity on why marriages break up. We all know-people change, they grow apart, some cheat and get caught, some cheat and fall in love with their lovers and leave. Some get new jobs, new lifestyles, and the relationship that once fit perfectly suddenly doesn’t fit anymore.
Long time married tell us that marriage takes work, and many of them shake their graying heads at the way younger people aren’t willing to work at their relationships. The young are lazy, spoiled. That doesn’t explain why even the gray haired folks have cheated on their spouses, run away with others and gotten divorced. After all, divorce is not a new phenomenon; since it became easy enough to obtain a divorce (say, the last 85 years), about half the people who marry, unmarry, and try again later.
Psychologists say that people cheat when their various needs aren’t being met at home. Sexually, emotionally, people’s relationships have staled or perhaps a partner has become unsatisfactory in other ways as diverse as not being helpful around the house or not taking care of the children. The situation is always couched in the idea that whatever’s going on at home just isn’t enough. But I recently talked with an excellent therapist who says that explanation is too simplistic and maybe not true at all. Sometimes you need excitement; a secret love that takes you places you can’t go in a faithful relationship. For people who are addicted to being in love, faithfulness ends the thrill of newborn passion. Some just can’t let it go.
Maybe there’s something else people are seeking that just can’t be satisfied by one person or by one relationship. There’s an old rhyme that doesn’t make any sense, but it springs to my mind here, so I’ll share it with you:
Man is polygamous.
Untrue, of course. But it does set the expectation that men will cheat sooner or more frequently then women. Of course, when we ask who men are cheating with, the answer is frequently “women”! So, either some women are lying about not cheating, or a few women are stealing several husbands over the course of a career. Unlikely, but possible, I suppose.
Why Would My Spouse Cheat on Me?
Some people are cheaters right from the start. They cheat before they’re married, and they continue to cheat afterward. If you marry a career cheater hoping he or she will change, don’t be too surprised if that change doesn’t happen. On the other hand, serial cheaters may be more likely to stay married, since they’re also going to cheat on whoever they’re currently seeing. In men it’s called the Don Juan complex: a need to constantly seduce new lovers. For women who take a series of lovers, there are less charming epithets.
Typically, cheating has been men’s domain. Men have had more power in the world, and more mobility. Before women worked outside the home, they had very little opportunity to meet new men once they were married. But with women taking on breadwinner positions, that’s changed, too. Women have even more opportunity for cheating, since there is always a man around who’d like a little action. Women tend to be a bit choosier and less available. After all, women can get sex pretty nearly anytime they want. So, women have more potential, but they follow through on that potential less than a man would if nearly every woman he met tried to seduce him.
Let’s consider the various reasons men and women cheat on their partners.
Feeling left out
Not enough sex at home
Playing the Game
Resentment and revenge
Falling in love
There might be other reasons I haven’t thought of, but these are the ones that spring to mind. Stressors that might turn a steadfast mate into a cheating one might include having a new baby in the house, traveling a lot for work, working long hours with someone cute or having problems in their primary relationship that leaves them dissatisfied. Sometimes people cheat and discover that the new affair brightens the patina on the old relationship bringing them a new appreciation of their mate. There’s something to be said for that, although the mate is rarely appreciative of the way that relationship has been reevaluated. It hurts when your one-and-only makes love to another person. In the ’70s, people tried to free each other to love other people, but “swinging” usually led to sadness and acrimony. Sharing love turned out, for most people, to be a passing trend.
The Waning of Marital Passion
When marriage stopped being an outright sale of women for money and land, love became the way society persuaded people to marry. But love changes. Experts have identified several stages of marriage, and if a couple fails to negotiate the milestones together, the pressures of life drive them apart.
From Lovers to Friends with Benefits
Depending on who’s talking, there are somewhere between four and seven stages of marriage. The major shift seems to occur in the first few years, when the excitement and sexual passion begin to wane and daily life becomes-well-daily. Couples who can move from being primarily lovers to also being good friends create happy, long-lasting marriages. Others find that, once passion loses some of its fire, there’s nowhere to go. Their marriages may still last forever-other forces are at work, after all-but they don’t compare to happy marriages. Couples may focus on raising their kids, driving their careers forward or forming more satisfying external relationships. Some of those external relationships may become sexual. Some couples are all right with keeping their primary relationship and experimenting with love on the side. Most aren’t. It’s just too difficult to keep from hurting each other’s feelings.
Will He Leave his Wife? The Statistics are Against It
Common wisdom says that cheating husbands never leave their wives. It also says that men almost never leave their wives without having another woman in the picture. Any statistics would be spurious, since we can only assume that the number of people (men and women) who admit to cheating must be less than the number that actually is. So if we take the reported numbers of men who cheat on their wives (reported as high as 75%) and the percentage of marriages that break up (50%), then do the fair thing and divide the difference in half (after all, some women cheat, too-and there are other reasons people divorce!), we come up with the number of cheating husbands who leave their marriages as 12.5%. It’s rough, and the true number is probably smaller, but it’s a place to start.
For Other Women, the ramifications of that 12.5% are significant. All things being equal, dating a married man might result in “success” (success being the elevation of your relationship from under-the-table to above-board) 12.5% of the time. That’s assuming, you’re the only Other Woman in his life. So, at least 87.5% of the time, a married man will not leave his wife. Of course, when you’re in love with a married man, there’s always hope, especially if he says those magic words, “I love you,” followed by, “When the time is right, I’ll leave her. We’ll be together forever.” Maybe he even means it. Maybe he says it to all his girlfriends, knowing those words to be magical and powerful.
Honorable Unfaithfulness: The Case of the Husband Who Left
A friend of a friend had a husband until recently, when he left her for another woman. They had been married more than twenty years: they had a few mostly-grown children. For some reason, the fact that he left after so long caused their mutual friends additional rage: as if he had been perpetuating a lie for more than two decades instead of the last six months of his marriage, when he was apparently making up his mind to become openly involved with his lover. Adding to the indignation expressed by various people was the fact that the “other woman” was ten years younger than the wife. I wonder if it would have been more easily forgiven if he had taken up with a woman ten years older than his wife, or maybe exactly the same age. Probably there would have been other things to focus on; things that make him the bad guy no matter what.
But what about this? The guy fell in love with someone, fell so hard and so far that he changed every aspect of his life, left his relationship of twenty years, became a bastard to his wife and kids and ruined most of his friendships. Why did he do such a thing? I can only assume he did it because he could do nothing else. He couldn’t keep on lying and cheating and he couldn’t stay in his old relationship, so he did the only thing he could do, and he left. In a way, it was the right thing to do. He acknowledged the vital importance of his new relationship to his life. He left his wife, but he brought his lover and his love out into the open.
Whose fault is it when your heart follows someone else out the door and down the street?
So we have the fact that people cheat and some people turn from cheating into divorcing and starting over, and unless your partner happens to fall in love with someone else at about exactly the same time you do, someone will get hurt and someone will be known as the one who did the hurting.
Love and Infidelity
It’s especially sad because we have built this system that says we are supposed to be with one person, happily or not as happily, forever, or at least until death. As we can see by the divorce and remarriage statistics, and by the fact that at least half of married people cheat, monogamy until death isn’t exactly built into the human condition. We might, some of us, be serially monogamous, loving and leaving and loving yet again; some are frankly promiscuous; there are platonic love affairs where technically “nothing” happens, yet we love and hurt and long for each other but stay attached to our original partners out of fear or intelligence or laziness or habit. Our minds know what we believe to be right and wrong, but our hearts seem to follow a different, brambly path. Someone with more wisdom or the long vision of the very aged might be able to say it’s all to the good, but I think there are fewer things more painful and incapacitating than being hurt by love.
Can I Keep My Spouse from Cheating?
Not if your spouse really wants another lover. But there are things both people can do to keep their relationship as rich and satisfying as possible. A solid marriage is the best way to prevent infidelity, but even that’s not a rock-solid guarantee. There are just too many intervening factors.
Is it possible to come up with some pithy advice for someone who’s cheating or thinking of cheating… or being cheated on… or is in love with someone who’s cheating? I’ll give it my best shot, but the thing about falling in love is that you can have the smartest advice in the world from someone who has nothing but your best interests at heart and it won’t do a bit of good. Your heart is running the show and the heart doesn’t operate intelligently, or even in your best interest.
If You Are…
Make a decision about which relationship you want. Do it as soon as possible. Then, tell both your partners your decision, apologize for the pain you’ve caused them and stick with the one you have decided on. If your spouse suspects, verify, because one of the rottenest things cheaters do is deny it even when they’re caught dead to rights. At least let your spouse have the satisfaction of knowing he or she was right. If you break it off with the Other Person, do it gently, regretfully but with total candor and honesty. Don’t leave the door open. Close it firmly and forever.
Thinking of Cheating
Don’t do it. Cheating is complicated and stressful and you’ll probably get caught in the end anyway. Either leave the one you’re with and take up with the new person, or forget the new person. Cheating not only causes pain to the others, it will make you miserable all the time (unless you’re one of those perpetual cheaters who just doesn’t care about other people, in which case, you’re probably not reading this anyway).
Being Cheated On
Decide what the relationship means to you. Some people don’t especially mind being cheated on; others feel it destroys their trust and the relationship. Some couples have an understanding about cheating and find a way to keep their relationship happy anyway. Think really hard about how it affects your relationship and the way you feel about your partner. If your relationship is really good and the cheating isn’t tormenting you-great! If it’s tearing you up and you feel betrayed, you can end the relationship. You may decide you can forgive your partner and stay together as long as the other relationship ends; deliver the ultimatum and hope for the best. But never deliver a false ultimatum, hoping to scare your partner but not really being willing to end the relationship; it may backfire on you.
In Love with Someone Who’s Cheating
If you’re the Other Woman or (less commonly) the Other Man, you’re probably left lonely a lot and are hoping your lover will leave his or her spouse and join you. The statistics on this are underwhelming, especially with men who cheat on their wives, and even more so if they’ve been cheating for a long period of time. Plus, there’s the added detractor of the possibility that someone who has cheated “successfully” on one spouse will be more likely to cheat on another. If he does leave his wife (or if she does leave her husband) for you, how long will it be before your lover is being unfaithful to you?)
If you’re in love with this person, you could wait around for years before realizing that person has no intention of changing the status quo. But it wouldn’t hurt if you hedged your bets by dating other people. You’re in love, fine. You only want to be with this person, okay. But get away from the phone, go out with your friends, meet other people and date them. Just on the off chance that you’re one of the 90% or more of Other People whose lover never leaves his wife.