When Thea and her husband moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, she had no friends close by and was alone frequently while her husband worked long hours. Though Thea says her husband was the "best friend someone could have," the spark and sex were gone.
Seeking company and a little romance, Thea became a member of AshleyMadison.com, a website that connects married people wanting to have an affair.
Thea began an ongoing affair after a few dates with a man. "He was giving me all of the stuff my husband wasn't -- attention and affection," she says.
There are many reasons for infidelity such as revenge, boredom, the thrill of sexual novelty, sexual addiction. But experts say that a large majority of the time, motivations differ by gender, with men searching for more sex or attention and women looking to fill an emotional void.
"Women tell me, 'I was lonely, not connected, I didn't feel close to my partner, and I was taken for granted,'" marriage and family therapist Winifred Reilly says. "They say they wanted to have someone who would look into their eyes and make them feel sexy again."
Searching for an Emotional Connection
Every affair is different, and so are every woman's reasons for their involvement.
Nevertheless, Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?andWhy We Love, says men are more likely to cite sexual motivations for infidelity and are less likely to fall in love with an extramarital partner. Women, she says, tend to have an emotional connection with their lover and are more likely to have an affair because of loneliness.
"Women tend to be more unhappy with the relationship they are in," Fisher says, "while men can be a lot happier in their primary relationship and also cheat. Women are more interested in supplementing their marriage or jumping ship than men are -- for men, it is a secondary strategy as opposed to an alternate."
Fisher has found that 34% of women who had affairs were happy or very happy in their marriage. 56% of men who had affairs were happy in their marriage.
Is It in a Woman’s Genes?
The theory that adultery is "natural" for men, fulfilling their Darwinian need to spread their seed, has been around a long time. But the connection women look for when having affairs may have evolutionary roots as well.
The theory, Fisher says, is that from the earliest days, women paired with a primary mate to have children. But as women went out to gather food, they slept with other men, creating an insurance policy to have someone who would help rear children and provide resources should their mate die.
"Women who slept around collected more meat, protection, and resources from their lovers," Fisher says. "She might even have an extra child to create more genetic variety in her lineage; if some children die, others will live on."
That theory is controversial and can’t be proven or disproven eons later. But experts say that women's motivations to have affairs are typically more than sexual. That's not to say that some women don't have affairs just for the sex or that sex wasn't important. But in general, women's motivations aren't just about sex.
“I don't think women are doing it because they want to have more sex. But I don't think they mind if they get it," Reilly says. "It is not really about sex per se as much as the experience of being with somebody."
Diane left her marriage emotionally long before she had an affair. She says she was living with a lot of disillusionment in a disappointing, sexless marriage.
"You feel the loss of your dreams and hopes and how you thought things would turn out," Diane says. "I was very lonely; I could never understand the concept of being lonely in a marriage until it happened."
Diane began to flirt with other men to get attention, but she never considered having an affair. After a business trip with a friend turned romantic, she began a long-term affair, a path she admits she was likely on anyway as her marriage dissolved.
Using another partner to transition out of a bad marriage is one of the common reasons women have affairs.
"They are on a sinking ship and use it as a life raft because they don't want to just jump into the cold water," Reilly says.
She also sees some women have affairs during periods of vulnerability or life change, like when a child goes off to college or after a job loss. They may see it as a form of comfort during upheaval.
Another common reason is a cry for help in the marriage. One of Reilly’s patients had an affair, ended it, and then told their husband as a way to point out they were in more trouble than they thought.
Reilly says her clinical experience has shown that affairs are almost always caused by problems in the marriage. Therapy may be helpful to avoid going down that path.
"People have affairs because they are looking for something," Reilly says. Although she sees a number of couples grappling with infidelity, "more people come to me [before it happens] because they want to save their marriage."
Affairs with Intention
Women are also less likely than men to have an affair that "just happens," because they tend to think longer and harder about the situation, experts say.
Women are also less likely than men to have an affair that "just happens" because they tend to think longer and harder about the situation, experts say.
Some women take time "to warm up to it," Marcella Weiner, adjunct professor at Marymount Manhattan College, says. "Going in and leaving quickly isn't their thing. Men can walk away more easily because their emotions are just different and it is unusual for a woman to want to have sex and forget about it.”
It may be an old notion that women are the ones who get attached in a relationship, Reilly says. But she sees that women do connect with their partners in affairs and think more about taking part in one.
"Women really can recognize the risk for them," Reilly says, pointing to the possibility of losing their partner because of an affair.