Most married couples don’t ever imagine their relationship ending in infidelity. But the truth is that cheating occurs in even the happiest marriages. Why? Loneliness can play a major role in affairs, as does boredom, impulsivity, and alcohol. Sometimes a close relationship with a colleague is taken too far during a long night at the office. Other times a spouse turns to infidelity to fill a physical or emotional void left unfilled. But the root causes differ with every relationship — and rarely does the infidelity follow a recognizable script. For example, married women cheat just as often as married men.
“We have this idea socially that men are cheaters, all men are susceptible to cheating, that men are dogs, right?” says Alicia M. Walker, an associate professor of sociology at Missouri State University. “But the data tells a very different story.”
In the process of writing her book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity, Walker learned that women cheat at the same rates as men, if not more. Turns out, the cheating wife is not an anomaly. And depending on the age group and behavior, sometimes women cheat even more often than men. “Way more women are cheating than we think,” she says. “We just don’t like to talk about it and we don’t like to think about it. You don’t want to think that your neighbor, your Sunday school teacher, or your friend is doing this. But the reality is, you know a woman who’s cheating, you just don’t know that she is.”
Why Do Women Cheat?
So why do women cheat? Some women cheat to avoid boredom; other women cheat because they feel neglected. Still, other women say they cheat just because they want to. The reasons for infidelity are complex and unique to each relationship. Walker makes clear, there’s no one specific reason for infidelity within a marriage.
“A lot of the time the reasons are physical, sometimes they’re emotional, and, sometimes, as much as we don’t want to admit this or know this, sometimes it’s just a matter of somebody having an opportunity,” says Walker. “There’s a lot of data showing that a woman will have an affair with a coworker and are more likely to report that ‘My marriage is great and I’m super satisfied. I literally saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.'”
The concept of a cheating wife contrasts a lot with what our culture tells us about women. To many, the thought triggers stronger reactions than that of a cheating man, which is more expected based on historical norms. “We want to think of women as not particularly sexual unless they’re deeply in love or they’re married or in some monogamous relationship of some kind,” Walker says. “We just don’t want to think that women are just as sexual and just as interested in having sex with multiple partners or a variety of partners or they get bored with marital sex.”
What to Do About Cheating in Marriage
Given the emotional and financial tolls of cheating, (not to mention their impact on children, which is bigger still) rethinking our preconceptions about female infidelity is only the beginning. Open minds are important, but when it comes to preventing infidelity, communication is paramount. All relationships need to begin with honest conversations about sex, preferably before marriage.
“Something that some of the women in my study brought up that I never thought about was that when they were searching for an affair partner, they were having these candid, frank discussions about sexual compatibility and sexual preferences,” says Walker. “When I got married, I never had any of these conversations, and I started thinking, ‘You know, that’s true, we don’t have those conversations.’ We kind of wander into these romantic pairings and we fall in love and we kind of think that the sex is going to take care of itself. But, according to the data, that’s not true.”
First, it’s important to be open to what your spouse is interested in. A lot of the women Walker interviewed said that when they talked freely about their fantasies or desires, they were met with disgust that made them feel ashamed. Cheating presented them with an opportunity to feel validated and accepted.
“It was really pretty sobering, to be honest with you,” Walker says. “This is a person who’s pledged to love you for all time and you say to them, ‘Hey, I want to try role-playing,’ or whatever it is, and then think about having the person that you love and trust the most say, ‘That’s disgusting. What’s wrong with you?’ If you listen to that for years, and then in walks somebody who’s not only like, ‘That’s not disgusting,’ but they’re into it, you can see how attractive that would be.”
Infidelity Versus Open Marriages
In conducting her research, Walker was surprised to also learn that a lot of the women that she interviewed were interested in the prospect of an open marriage.
“They don’t want to leave their husband, they love their husband, they’ve got a great life, but what they really want is variety in their sexual partners,” she says. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I want my husband, and I want this one affair,’ it’s: ‘I want my husband and I want to taste all the parts of the menu!’ ”
Walker also discovered that most cheating wives see the act as an exercise in power. Old-fashioned chivalry feeds into socially accepted norms that can put women into subordinate roles early on in the relationship. For women who cheat, infidelity can feel like a means of taking back that power.
“They always felt like they had been chosen, rather than choosing themselves,” she says. “And then they go online to Ashley Madison, or any other site, and there are all these men, and now they’re choosing rather than being chosen.”
They’re given the opportunity to have autonomy over their relationship in a way that many of them have been stripped of within their relationships, despite being otherwise fulfilled in other realms. In the end, attentiveness is the key. When you’re with your spouse, Walker says it’s vital to make sure you’re thinking of her needs as well as your own. If you’re not, some could feel compelled to look elsewhere.
“You should really start looking at your own behavior in the bedroom and really make sure that you’re holding up your end of the table. Because, if you’re not, there’s somebody out there who’s more than willing to do that.”