When it comes to the discussion of men who cheat, it is often reasoned that, well, men are unfaithful because they want sex. Hard stop. But more and more social research confirms that men cheat for reasons relating to emotional validation. They seek affair partners who will make them feel like their feelings are worthwhile, that their stories are worth listening to, that they are masculine. Yes, hearing that they are good in bed doesn’t hurt. But that’s a nice bonus.
In her new book, Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation, and Infidelity, sociologist Dr. Alicia Walker looked to a sample of men who went on Ashley Madison, the dating service that caters to men and women looking to have discreet affairs. After speaking to a variety of the anonymous men about why they cheated, she found that they were indeed having affairs for attention, validation, and to avoid feelings of emasculation. Many of the men felt that their feelings were being overlooked — felt being the main term there, as few of them confirmed their notions with their wives. Instead it was a matter of perception.
“The men who I spoke with were very clear with me that they were aware that they needed a lot of validation and that their ego was extremely fragile,” says Dr. Walker. “More than one of them said ‘However much praise and validation that you think that we need it is so, so much more than that.’ The way they communicated that to me was that they really saw it as just like a function of being a man. Now, is it that? I can’t answer that. I can only tell you that that was their perception.”
Dr. Walker’s book is an honest investigation into the myriad reasons why men choose to cheat on their partners, the rationalizations they make, and what it says about ingrained notions of masculinity. So many of the men who cheated, she says, did so because they couldn’t be honest with their wives about the emotional validation they craved. Interestingly, in her previous book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Infidelity, Dr. Walker looked at a data set of women who turned to Ashley Madison to cheat on their husbands. They sought little validation; instead, their concerns were mainly about sex.
Fatherly spoke to Dr. Walker about what she discovered about men who cheat, the role “traditional” masculinity plays in their decisions, and why the biggest takeaway is “you can’t get what you need if someone doesn’t know what it is.”
Broadly speaking, what are some of the big findings your data shows?
The overarching things that came out of these conversations were centered around men’s feelings of emasculation. They basically described marriages where they felt she was not interested in him. They felt that their wives wanted an adequate lover and that threatened their sense of masculinity, and so they sought a partner who would boost that sense of masculinity for them.
I think it’s safe to say that when people think about infidelity, it’s common to think about the clichéd notion that all men are dogs and cheating about conquest and all that. But emotional validation and self-esteem play a much larger role.
Yes. That was definitely the case with these men, yes.
Why do you think that is?
Well, the men who I spoke with were very clear with me that they were aware that they needed a lot of validation and that their ego was extremely fragile. More than one of them said that however much praise and validation that you think that we need it is so, so much more than that. The way they communicated that to me was that they really saw it as just like a function of being a man. Now, is it that? I can’t answer that. I can only tell you that that was their perception.
Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack here about perceptions and realities. To walk it back a little: these men made a decision to go on Ashley Madison and be unfaithful. From the discussions you had with them, what were some of the main reasons they did so?
They talked about their marriages. And their perceptions of marriage was that nothing they did was good enough. The phrase ‘She’s impossible to please…’ came up over and over and over. And when I would probe about that they never gave me a whole lot of concrete examples. It was just sort of this feeling that they had.
But in the few examples that I did get, which were not specific incidents but overarching impressions, they talked about “helping her with chores”. It was very clear in the men I interviewed that the division of labor was that if it was household work, that is her job. And if he participates in this work? He’s helping her and, in his mind, if he’s helping her with that, then she owes him something.
It is a little yikes. I was kind of surprised. But they felt that she owed him something and that what she owed him was first validation. They wanted her to say, ‘Thank you so much for doing whatever this task is. You just such a great job. I appreciate you so much.’
They also wanted her to listen intently to the mundane details of their day. And they wanted her to reward them by being enthusiastic about having sex with them.
That was a huge complaint for these men: The lack of praise, the lack of validation, the lack of helping them manage their emotional lives. They’d talk about feelings of sadness and that she was too busy or too wrapped up in herself to notice their sadness.
Were these perceptions they had or realities?
Well, when I would say, ‘Have you have you said to her, ‘Hey, I’m feeling sad or I’m upset about this or that?’ they really didn’t feel like they had the autonomy to voice their own feelings unless their wives asked about it, which I think in and of itself is kind of sad.
That dovetails with socialization, ingrained notions of masculinity, and the idea that expressing feelings is somehow wrong.
Yeah, I think that’s very concerning and something that we really as a society need to spend some time thinking about. If we have a portion of the population who doesn’t feel like they’re allowed to express their emotions, that’s not good.
Not at all.
So, all of those things combined made them feel that ‘Well if she’s not going to give me these things, then I’m going to find someone who will.’
There’s the idea that ‘Oh, men are dogs. They’ll lay down with anything.’ Any woman who comes along, they’ll just jump in bed, right?’ But that’s not at all the pictures that I got from these guys.
So, what did these men want from the partners they chose on Ashley Madison?
They vetted their partners very carefully. What they really wanted was a woman who would say to them, ‘You, sir, are amazing.’ Your wife doesn’t know what she’s missing out on.’ ‘You’re fabulous in bed; you’re the best I’ve ever had.’ ‘You have the largest penis.’ You know, all of this stuff. And she would also listen to the hundredth story about Bob at the office, or whatever it is, with rapt attention.
If they were interested in a woman, if they found her attractive or whatever, but she wasn’t going provide this emotional support and relational management, that wasn’t it. So, it really wasn’t ‘Oh, just any warm body will do.’ It really wasn’t that at all. It was a search for a very specific skillset, if you will.
And it seems that what they’re being given in these relationships is attention, enthusiasm, and a boost of self-esteem. I find it very interesting here is that perception versus reality and men saying, ‘The way I feel about it’ versus ‘I know this is what she’s thinking.’
They generally perceived what was happening was that their wives were purposely withholding things that they need that these men wanted. So, it’s not just ‘I’m not getting what I want.’ It’s ‘You are punishing me and withholding something you know that I need from me.’
This seems like a small clarification but it’s critical in the way that these men saw this.
I’d very much agree.
In their minds, it’s ‘She’s purposely setting out to hurt me by not asking me about my sadness, by not praising me about the things that I do, by acting as though I’m a disappointment, by not being enthusiastic about having sex with me.
As a researcher, as someone who talks to people all the time about their relationships, I think that’s a nuanced, but incredibly important, difference. And it was very sad to do these interviews because I couldn’t help but think the entire time. What if these men are married to women who thinks that everything is fine? What if their wives don’t have any idea that they’re unhappy or that they need all of this praise?
That was intensely sad to me. It’s highly probable that at least some of these people are in marriages, where you have two people in the same marriage having totally different experiences and perceptions of it. How different might these relationship be if these men felt that they could just say, ‘Hey, I’m really sad,’ or ‘Hey, I’m feeling kind of bad about myself and, you know, I need a little bit more from you today’
What you’re hitting on is so crucial when it comes to men’s relationships in general and how many are stymied due to this an ingrained inability to express feelings. And it is sad to think about a wife who doesn’t realize that their husband is so deeply unhappy and seeking this validation elsewhere.
Right. They have no idea there’s anything wrong. I encounter a ton of people who just want a proof of all these findings and just say, ‘You know, these men have created this whole thing themselves, and they’re just being so silly and in this and that.’ But you cannot discount the fact that these men live in this society that puts all of these demands on them via masculinity. And, yeah, of course, intellectually, they may be able to get back and say all of this is silly, but it’s one thing to intellectually know these expectations are silly, and it’s another thing to untether yourself from them.
Your first book took a similar approach to this one but looked at a set of women who went on Ashley Madison to cheat on their husbands. Looking at these data sets side by side, what were some of the main differences you saw?
There are a lot of differences. The women were extremely pragmatic. It was just not really any sentimentality. They didn’t have any illusions about their affair partners. They would openly say like, ‘Oh, I was single. I would never date this guy.’ Or ‘This guy can’t hold a candle to my husband.’
They had really positive, productive, healthy relationships with their husbands, and they just needed more sex or different sex or more pleasurable sex. Their concerns were about sex. And they made the very practical decision to outsource this one little aspect of their relationship in the same way one might hire a plumber to come to fix something.
Did the women mention their own failures or inadequacies in their reasoning? Or did that not play into it at all?
Well, about half the sample of women were in a sexless marriage. Some of them knew why. Someone would say, ‘Oh, my husband has X, Y, or Z health issues so I know why we’re not having sex.’ But if it was a woman whose husband was not having sex with her and she didn’t know why he wasn’t having sex with her, she talked about going through period of thinking ‘Oh I put up on a few pounds. You know, am I that disgusting? Why has he lost interest in me?’
But it was just that very small group of women. And then once they got an affair going those doubts were put to rest.
By contrast, all of the men I talked to expressed these feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and emasculation. And then they would get these affair partners, and that would boost their self-esteem. But it was a really interesting dynamic.
Well, on the one hand would say, ‘Okay, I had this affair partner and she tells me I’m the best she’s ever had, and she’s having orgasms. So obviously it’s not me.’ But in the next breath they would express real sadness and regret about the fact that they couldn’t get that same reinforcement from their wives.
The women were largely outsourcing sex. These men were trying to outsource the emotional aspect of a marriage, which I would argue is a much more difficult task, and you’re probably not going to be successful with that. But even when they get that boost, they still come home and they’re kind of right back in that space. Because the person they really want it from? They’re still not getting it from.
What do you think the big lesson men should take away from your book?
The big takeaway is really about communication and about bucking those gender norms. I understand this is all easier said than done. However, if men are finding themselves in a place where they’re feeling emasculated and feeling like, ‘Oh, she’s not interested me’ they have to voice that. As hard as that is, they have to voice it. You have to think: How many of these guys wouldn’t be in affairs if they just said something? Because probably your partner has no idea that you feel the way that you feel.
I think the other thing is the few men in the study who did voice something only couched it about sex. So instead of going to their partner and saying, ‘I feel like maybe you don’t really like me anymore,’ I feel like you’re not interested when I talk,’ or ‘I feel like I can’t do anything to suit you or something,’ they would say ‘We’re not having enough sex.’
So, you have to voice the thing you really want. I know it’s easier for men to express desire for sex because we socialize them that way. But you can’t get what you need if someone doesn’t know what it is. That’s the biggest takeaway from this data.