Spinning the Bottle
Women are profoundly sensual and sexual creatures, just as much as men. Yet somehow the idea that a woman in a committed relationship might have physical urges that she wants satisfied elsewhere, especially if her current man isn’t quite, shall we say, up for the job, always seems to catch people by surprise. And let’s face it, our societal distaste and astonishment over this particular activity may be a bit... provincial, idealistic, Victorian, etc. Pick your term. Of course, our cultural stereotypes tell us that it’s most often males who are cheating on the women in their lives rather than vice versa, but current research reveals that in truth nearly as many women cheat as men. (Sex outside a primary relationship, if the relationship is “open” and the rules are followed, does not qualify as cheating.)
Interestingly, the reasons men and women engage in relationship infidelity are often quite different, with each gender’s motivations generally paralleling our basic understanding of male and female sexuality. In short, women are usually interested in sex that includes (or at least hints at) some sort of emotional or relationship connection, while men are typically seeking a purely objectified sexual experience. Both scientific and nonscientific research confirms this dichotomy. For instance, a study by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher found that of men and women actively cheating on their spouse, 34 percent of the women said they were “happily married” whereas 56 percent of males felt that way. Thus, we see that women are more likely than men to have an affair when they’re not bonded in their primary relationship (and therefore are seeking that bond elsewhere), while men are more likely than women to have an affair despite feeling close to their wife. A nonscientific study conducted by Undercover Lovers, a UK-based extramarital dating site, may be even more enlightening. Among women who stated that they were actively cheating, 57 percent reported feeling love for their affair partner, while only 27 percent of the men said they felt love for their mistress. This type of information furthers the conclusion that women who cheat are much more likely than men to be seeking an emotional bond, and that they may in fact feel such a bond even if their affair partner does not.
Once upon a time infidelity partners were limited to your circle of friends and neighbors, and people you met via work, at a party, in a bar, or at a swingers club. Today, however, the playing field is - thanks to digital technology - quite literally endless. No longer is the pool of potential partners limited to people physically encountered in day-to-day life. And once again our cultural stereotype - that men love gadgets and technology and therefore are much more likely than women to engage in infidelity using these devices - is somewhat off-base. In fact, women today, especially the younger ones, are just as involved as men with digital technology. In many cases they are more involved. Texting and social media are prime examples. Women text more than men, and they are much more likely to utilize social media (Facebook, Instagram, and the like). And women typically post not just more often, but more openly. For the most part, women are seeking online what they seek in life - meaningful emotional connection. And if the digital connections they find come with an element of sexual stimulation, so be it.
If you’re reading this and wondering just how pervasive tech-driven infidelity actually is, consider the following: Ashley Madison, a website and smartphone app specifically designed to facilitate extramarital affairs, currently has more than 21 million members, up from 14 million less than two years ago! AM’s slogans are “Life is short, have an affair” (for men), and, “When divorce isn’t an option” (for women). Ninety percent of the males and 70 percent of the females on AM state in their profiles that they are married. And it’s not like you even have to be in the same city to hook up these days. In fact, thanks to webcams and other technologies, you don’t even need to be on the same continent. People all over the world are carrying on (or planning for) torrid digital encounters right this instant - texting, sexting, and cam-to-camming ‘til the cows come home.
Reasons Women Cheat
Even though most women who engage in relationship infidelity understand on some level that what they are doing is potentially harmful to both their relationship and their partner, they continue with the behavior. But why? Below are ten common reasons for female infidelity. (Before I’m accused of misogyny, please note that I’ll be writing about male cheaters in my next blog.)
- Low Self-Esteem: Women with low self-esteem, depression, unresolved childhood trauma, and other similar issues may seek validation through romantic and sexual activity. If someone wants them in “that way,” they feel worthwhile, desirable, wanted, needed, and loveable.
- Revenge: Sometimes women feel betrayed by their partner (usually either financially or sexually), and they use infidelity as a way to retaliate. Typically, women seeking revenge are not secretive about what they are doing.
- Loneliness and Neglect: Sometimes women feel more like a nanny, maid, mother, or financial provider than a wife or girlfriend. They may use sex outside the relationship as a way to fill the emotional void.
- Lack of Sizzle: Some women miss the exhilaration of meeting, flirting, dating, and forming new relationships. They find their ongoing, stable partnership boring so they chase the emotional high of finding and bonding with someone new.
- Lack of Sex at Home: As mentioned earlier, women are sexual creatures. They usually enjoy the physical act of lovemaking as much as men do, and they also enjoy the feeling of being wanted, needed, and desired. Sometimes women are much more sexual than their partner. If so, this can be problematic. Rather than end the relationship, they may seek a little sex on the side as a way to meet their physical needs.
- Lack of Intimacy at Home: Even if a woman is getting enough actual sex, that sex may not be fulfilling her desire for emotional connection. The simple truth is women, much more so than men, feel connected and valued through non-sexual emotional interactions such as gift-giving, being remembered, and talking. If these things are not happening at home, they may seek a connection elsewhere.
- Unrealistic Expectations: Some women expect their partner to meet their every need and desire (even when they don’t bother to share what those needs and desires are). When their partner inevitably fails them, these narcissistic women will sometimes turn to someone else.
- Lack of Female Social Support: A big part of healthy womanhood involves supportive female friendships and a sense of female community. Some women, especially those who experienced maternal abuse or neglect, undervalue this while concurrently overvaluing the attention of men. This can lead to infidelity.
- Wanting to Leave a Relationship: Some women find it easier to cheat, forcing their current partner to end the relationship, rather than ending it more directly or assertively. Other women know they want to leave, but they are not willing to do so until they’ve got another relationship lined up.
- Sex and/or Love Addiction: Some women engage in a never-ending stream of sex and romance as a way to self-regulate (not feel) uncomfortable emotions and the pain of underlying psychological conditions such as depression, severe anxiety, low self-esteem, and unresolved childhood trauma (often sexual in nature).
What Does It All Mean?
Relationship infidelity can be incredibly damaging on many levels. Sadly, women who cheat often don’t realize (or choose to ignore) the fact that sexual and romantic betrayal hurts men just as much as women. Interestingly, it is usually not any specific sexual or romantic act that hurts the most. Instead, it’s the keeping of secrets and the constant lying that causes the most pain. This is doubly true when infidelity continues past the initial discovery, as it often does. And there are more types of infidelity than just sexual. In fact, financial infidelity (the keeping of financial secrets) is very, very common.
For many women who cheat, stopping the behavior is more difficult than they expect. This is because their reasons for doing what they do are usually long-buried and complex. Many women need the assistance of a skilled psychotherapist to parse through the layers of trauma, abuse, and neglect that drive their extramarital activity. If a couple is committed to remaining together, as most are, marriage/couples counseling can turn a crisis into a growth opportunity. If the woman turns out to be a sex or love addict, then more specialized treatment will be needed, such as that found in programs at the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles and the Center for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at The Ranch in Tennessee. Twelve-step support for women dealing with sex and love addiction is also helpful, and best found in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. Sadly, even when skilled therapists are involved, some couples are unable to overcome the damage and loss of trust caused by infidelity. In such cases, solid, neutral relationship therapy can help to facilitate the break-up and to process the relationship’s aftermath.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction,and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.