Infidelity isn’t something most couples want to consider, let alone acknowledge as something that could happen to them. But the truth is that even the happiest marriages, can be rocked by cheating. There are many reasons husbands and wives cheat. Loneliness plays a role, as does boredom and alcohol. Maybe a close relationship with a colleague goes too far during a long night at the office. Or an unexpected fling occurs on a vacation with friends. Maybe, it’s a longer-running situation, where a spouse turns to someone to fill a physical or emotional void left unfilled by their spouses. The root causes of cheating are varied, but infidelity is common. And it’s not just men who are unfaithful. Women cheat on their husbands more than we think.
“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.”
What Walker noticed from working on her book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity, is that women are cheating at least the same rates as men. 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? The answer is as complicated as one might imagine. Walker makes clear, there’s no one specific reason for infidelity within marriage. Some women cheat to avoid boredom; other women cheat because they feel neglected. Still, other women say they cheat just because they want to.
“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 wives cheating contrasts a lot of what our culture tells us about women. “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. 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 even 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.”
Part of those frank discussions is being open to what your spouse is interested in. A lot of the women Walker interviewed said that when they talked openly about their fantasies or desires to their husbands, they were met with disgust and made to feel ashamed.
“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 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 women who cheat see it as an exercise in power. The socially accepted norm when it comes to coupling is that the man asks the woman out, the man pays for dinner, the man proposes marriage. While the ideas behind these traditions may be chivalrous, Walker says that the women she spoke to eventually felt confined by them.
“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.”
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.
“Any man who is concerned about this,” she says, “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.”