How could a man leave his wife and children for another woman?
The advice column in my local paper recently had a poignant letter, timed close to Father's Day. It alluded to several previous columns. The first had consisted of letters from children whose fathers had left the families for another woman. Another had been from a woman who wanted to know why her husband had sought a one-night sexual tryst with another woman and had asked how a decent, educated man who supposedly loved his wife could do such an "unspeakable" thing.
I hadn't seen the previous columns but I felt the pain and bewilderment from this letter. A woman wanted to know whether men had written to tell their stories. The writer said she hoped that such letters would help her understand her own abandonment.
Let me as a social psychologist take a stab at trying to imagine what happens inside some of these men, to prompt them to turn to other women. I want to make very clear that none of this is designed to excuse or justify immoral acts. This is intended as an exercise in social science, not moralizing at all. Indeed, as I wrote in my book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, if we want to understand people who do things we disapprove, it is almost essential to set aside our disapproval and other moral judgments, at least temporarily, in order to try to see how things look to them
What do we know about such men? Not much. They are apparently quite common. Society condemns them without much effort to understand them or accommodate them. It doesn't help that the advice columns, relationship authorities, and moral discourse are dominated by women. It is especially hard to understand the perpetrators from the victim's perspective.
Men who leave their wives and children for another partner present a difficult problem for society. But let us suspend our moralizing for a moment and try to understand them. Possibly some of them are simply immature and irresponsible and give not a thought or care to the wife and little ones left behind. But more likely many of these men agonize and suffer over the loss of their family.
Society has not made it easy for men who desire sex. Marriage demands an impossible promise, that he will desire only his wife henceforth. Standing at the altar reciting her wedding vows, the bride may be utterly beautiful and sexy and desirable, and perhaps he thinks he can desire only her forever. But then what happens? She ages, gains weight, maybe loses interest in sex. Research has found that most wives are very well satisfied with the amount of sex in their marriage, while most husbands wish for substantially more than they get. The implication is that for many men, marriage means years and years of sexual frustration.
The man is told to respect his wife's wishes. When she does not want sex, he should not push her to engage in it. That sounds quite reasonable and decent. Unfortunately, given the well documented fact that women want sex less frequently than men, he is condemned to countless nights of helpless wishes for sex.
And that's assuming that he desires her. What is he supposed to feel when she becomes less attractive to him? We have all heard endless and sympathetic discussions about how hard it is for women to see beautiful female models depicted in the media, because ordinary women feel they cannot live up to those idealized images. But what about how hard those same images are on the men? How are they supposed to continue desiring only their wives when they constantly see countless images of slim and gorgeous women all around?
Mandatory divorce laws pull men apart from their families. If a man finds a woman who will have sex with him and wants to form a relationship, society puts obstacles in his path. He is told he cannot marry the new woman unless he divorces his previous wife first. One wife at a time, that's the rule: If you want a new one, you must first get rid of the previous one. There is some ambiguity as to whether the monogamy rule was designed for the benefit of men or of women, but regardless of its intent, its function is to force many men to choose between sex and family. We should not be surprised (though we may not approve) that some men choose sex.
Meanwhile, what's to hold them back? It is hard for me personally to imagine a man who does not love his children deeply, though I suspect such men do exist. Intuitively, my powers of empathy fail to make the case of a man casually abandoning his children. But I could imagine him deciding to leave them anyway, especially if he is in the grip of passionate love and sexual desire for someone other than his wife, and when he sees society requires him to leave his family in order to experience that love and sex.
Consider how hard the alternative choice must be for some men. Imagine a man whose wife long ago stopped wanting to have sex with him most of the time. Perhaps his desire for her diminished as well, as she stopped flirting with him or started nagging or simply added pounds and wrinkles with the years. He has found someone new, with whom the sex is great and the emotional connection is blossoming into love. We as a society ask him to turn his back on this promise of love and sex, out of obligation to his wife and children. He thinks he sees the opportunity to have great sex every day with the new woman (it is often thus in the beginning, and may well have been that way long ago with his wife), and we ask him to give that up forever. Some wives do not allow their husbands to watch pornography or masturbate, so choosing to stay with his family means giving up most or all sexual pleasure for the rest of his life.
A man who gives up love and sex to remain with his family might think he deserves credit and appreciation for this difficult choice and sacrifice. Sadly, he is not likely to get it in many cases. If he had an affair, he may be made to feel guilty for having it, rather than made to feel noble for electing to stay with his family in the end. I don't know whether the men think of this when they are pondering whether to stay or leave, but surely some must expect that their wives will be inducing guilt more than their lovers, for that is almost certainly what is happening right during the period when he is deciding. His wife may bring up the affair in future years, and he will always have to suffer the guilt over it. Or at least he may anticipate this even if it is not true.
What about fatherhood? What has our society, including psychology, told him about it? This is part of the tragedy. Our society wants men to accept obligations of fatherhood, but they are not respected for doing so. In the media, fathers are mostly portrayed as clueless, hapless buffoons - or, occasionally, as violent abusers. Social policy and social science have affirmed for decades that it is perfectly fine for a woman to raise children without a husband or father. Possibly this message was initially intended to encourage and support women who found themselves in a single-parent situation, but the men have all heard the message that fathers are entirely unnecessary. If you take an honest, open-minded look at what the social science publications say about fathers, you can find plenty of support for the view that there is no need to stay, that children of single mothers do just fine, especially if the departed father continues to send money. There are other views here and there. But when our society rushed to remove the stigma of single motherhood, there was plenty of confident reporting of findings that fatherlessness is not a handicap, especially if one controls for money.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying I approve of men abandoning their families. Moral judgments are not implied here. The goal is simply to try to imagine what could prompt a man to choose to leave his family.
Perhaps, then, we can begin to understand this supposedly mysterious sort of man who although "supposedly" loving his wife can desire sex with another woman and might even at some point decide to leave wife and child for her. Consider his decision options. The option of having a bit of extra sex and remaining with his family is perhaps not available to him, though that might be what he most wants. Society does not approve. His wife may not tolerate. The law requires him to choose.
I am reminded of a character in a television skit I saw as an impressionable teenager. The man said marriage was harder than being in the army, because the army gave him a furlough now and then. That's all he wanted. "I would come back," he said. "I always came back [from the furlough]."
On the one side, he sees sex and love. Society extols love as one of the highest good things. Sex may not enjoy quite as much official cultural prestige, but he doesn't need culture to tell him to want sex. He already wants it from his core. The downside of this choice is that he has to leave his wife and children. But remember, he has been told over and over that they do not really need him and will be OK without him. Looking around, it seems, everybody's doing it.
On the other side, he can stay with his family. He can cling to his role of father, which society disrespects. It is a familiar life that he knows well and may or may not find pleasant. It means giving up sex for the most part, perhaps almost a de facto vow of celibacy. Certainly his dalliance with the other woman will not have endeared him to his wife or made her seem more sexually desirable to him. He will be reminded of his affair and made to feel guilty on future occasions. Sad to say, this choice, which the culture would prefer him to make, may appear to him as being a sucker.
Again, I'm not moralizing, just trying to understand. But when you look at it from his point of view, we should perhaps not be surprised that some men opt for change.
It's worth adding that men who leave their families are often sorry later. The relationship with the new woman may follow the same pattern, with great sex and passion at first, but less over time. Perhaps the man eventually finds himself in the same position he was in with his previous wife. He thought it would be great forever, but often things do not go that way. One can see it as stupid or tragic that he causes suffering in the pursuit of happiness but the happiness eventually eludes him again. Still, at the time he is making the choice, it is his expectation that is decisive, even if the expectation may turn out to be wrong.