Our Cheatin’ Hearts

Men and monogamy: Understanding the urge to have an extramarital affair

From the WebMD Archives

Why can’t you just be faithful?

Any man who has ever been on the receiving end of that question, whether dodging crockery or wiping away his wife’s tears, knows that some women really want an answer. Do men who cheat really outnumber their female counterparts? Is infidelity in marriage more natural to men than women? And do some husbands think that “monogamy” is a board game?

Who cheats most?

“There’s no question that men cheat more than women,” says Steven Nock, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who has followed the marriages of over 6,000 men since 1979. “In the bad old days when we had to prove why we were getting divorced, that was the leading cause.” This was mostly because the husbands were guiltier of infidelity in marriage than their wives — but also because, says Nock, “society is more tolerant of men’s misdeeds.”

Men who cheat, so the conventional wisdom went, were just being men, while a faithless wife was a true pariah. You may remember from your American literature class, it was Hester Prynne who wore the scarlet letter, not the man who did her wrong.

“Men and women cheat in different ways,” says Mark Epstein, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and the author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life. “It’s more like an appetite thing for men, more oral in a way; their partners are more disposable. And the experiences are more disposable.”

Infidelity in men: Does the biological argument hold up?

Wives may consider their husbands disposable when they discover they’ve been cheating, but they still wonder why. Could it be a biological imperative, as some scientists have allowed? Cole Porter may have thought that birds who “do it” and bees who “do it” were falling in love, but if love is what you’re calling it, there is plenty of evidence that the animal kingdom pretty much falls in love indiscriminately. And even we Homo sapiens have spent more evolutionary time seeking multiple partners than we have in pursuit of romantic matrimony and monogamy.

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“There is a natural tendency that is pretty hardwired in us as a species that suggests putting your seed in as many places as possible. It’s what got humanity to this point in history,” says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist in Fair Oaks, California. “That non-monogamous urge persists in many men — though many manage serial monogamy despite that urge.”

The evolutionary argument, however, will only get you so far. One could argue that men also used to beat each other with clubs. But outside of some parts of the Bronx, this practice is generally frowned upon now. And there are no country songs about it. So the fact that many men do remain faithful seems to argue for a behavioral cure to what may be only partly a biological problem. Can counseling, for instance, get a man to stop cheating?

That old feeling: One reason men cheat

“I don’t think anyone can be made to do anything,” says Epstein. “But self-awareness is really powerful. More choices are apparent when you are aware of what is motivating you.” A lot of men, he has found in practice, cheat in the same way an alcoholic relapses.

“People turn to strategies that gave them pleasure when they were younger, that worked to give meaning and pleasure to their lives,” Epstein says. “There is a whole pattern that [non-monogamous men] know how to kindle — coming on to someone and having that first experience — the same way some people turn to a drink when they are feeling out of sorts. Except these men are frustrated with their wives who aren’t orienting their lives around them anymore.”

Addictive tendencies can be worked with, Epstein says, if the patient is willing — “but you might want to stop and not want to stop at the same time. That’s difficult.”

Infidelity as a way out of marriage

Since many divorces still arise from an act of infidelity, cheating can be a man’s way of pulling the plug on a marriage he’s lost interest in. “There can be a deadening of the relationship,” says Weston. “And then the husband accidentally runs across a person who seems to have a certain energy in living and casts that energy his way. A man may feel tempted to respond to that energy; it may feel complimentary and sexy to him. Or sometimes there is a little dysfunction at home, and he feels like he is checking out his equipment in another place.”

Weston says that she is always interested in what led a man to cross the line — when that no suddenly became a yes. “Each answer is a bit different,” she says. “Sometimes a man will say it was a moment of conviction in which he felt that things would never get better between him and his wife, a sense of hopelessness.”

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Marriage after adultery

Can an unfaithful husband who wants to save his marriage change his ways? “It depends on how his wife takes it,” says Weston. “It depends on whether they get counseling. And it depends on his level of sincerity about how he will treat her in the future. I’ve seen marriages get to a really good place when an affair has been exposed because a whole lot of truth is revealed and conversation that should have happened before does happen.”

Too often married couples stop seeing marriage as an arena for the truth. They hide aspects of their lives from each other and the one relationship that should be the most grounded in honesty becomes the most corrupt. And when a man starts seeing his marriage as corrupted or complicated — even if he’s the one who’s done the corrupting and complicating — he can stop seeing the value in it. Or he can become bored.

“I think one of the things that happens in marriages, and with boredom in general, is that people lose sight of the benefits they are deriving from their marriage,” says Nock. “Ask an unhappy man what his life will be like after his marriage is over and he can’t answer. Men vastly overestimate their ability to do well outside of marriage. Women seem to do much better outside of marriage than men do,” he says, citing both the health and wealth advantages married men have over bachelors.

Noting that the average age of marriage in the United States has moved to the upper 20s, Nock figures that people 28 years old “have experienced an awful lot of life” and probably aren’t in search of more sex when they’re unfaithful. “The sexual component of marriage may not have that much to do with fidelity,” Nock says. “Remaining faithful to my wife has very little to do with sexuality. I think it has more to do with honoring her, or fulfilling her expectations about me. What else is it that marriage demands of us?”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on June 01, 2007

Sources

SOURCES: Steven Nock, PhD, professor of sociology, University of Virginia; author of Marriage and Men’s Lives, Oxford University Press, 1998. Mark Epstein, MD, New York, New York; author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life, Gotham Books, 2005. WebMD Feature: “Why We Cheat.” Coontz, S., Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Viking, 2005. Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist, Fair Oaks, California.

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