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In a previous post I wrote about some of the reasons women might choose to be sexual outside of their primary relationship. Judging from some of the comments that post received, a number of readers thought I might be ignoring the other half of the equation—men who cheat. (The highly misogynistic nature of a few of the comments suggests that at least a few male readers were hoping I’d leave the men alone.) But now that blog is here. Gents, it’s your turn.

Men are somewhat different than women when it comes to cheating, and a lot of that difference arises from the fact that men tend to define infidelity rather loosely. Keep in mind this famous statement: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” More generally, most men would say that utilizing porn as a sexual outlet while in a primary, committed relationship is not cheating. (Most women would disagree; for proof, heterosexual male readers could just ask their wife or girlfriend what she thinks.) So does viewing porn count as infidelity? If it does, then a lot of men are cheaters. What about sexting? What if the person you’re sexting with doesn’t live anywhere near you and there’s no chance you’ll ever meet up in person? How about video chat? While you’re video chatting, does it matter if your or the other person’s clothes are off? How about if you are complaining to this other person about your current relationship? etc., etc.

Back in pre-Internet days, the concept of cheating was pretty straightforward: It involved actual in-the-flesh sexual contact. But now, a man in Paris, Texas can mutually masturbate, via webcam, with a woman in Paris, France. And should his wife or girlfriend discover this, he can say, simply and in all sincerity, “Honey, it doesn’t mean anything. She’s thousands of miles away, I’ve never met her, and I’m never going to meet her. I don’t even know her last name. How can I be cheating with someone I’ll never meet in person?” Men, in particular, appear to rely on their intellect—utilizing these kinds of digital word games—in order to continue and justify their extracurricular sexual behavior.

Some men may argue that, as men, it is their biological imperative (or right) to have sex with as many women as possible. In their opinion, they need to spread their seed and propagate the race because, apparently, they (and they alone) sit atop the Darwinian sexual food chain. I hear this and similar excuses constantly in my practice. Rather than debating the nature of "being male” with such clients, which is hardly productive from a therapeutic standpoint, I remind them that when a man makes a vow of monogamy to a spouse or significant other, and then breaks that vow, he is in violation of a relationship contract. I further discuss with them the idea that infidelity is not defined by any specific act (sexual or otherwise), but rather by the keeping of secrets in an intimate relationship. I remind them that in an effort to meet their own less than empathic sexual agenda, they have undermined their personal integrity while simultaneously dismissing their partner’s right to know that their relationship rulebook has been unilaterally revised.

To the more determined (read: unempathic or self-focused), I sometimes suggest that it can be fine to be sexual outside of their primary, committed relationship, to chat up old girlfriends on Facebook, hire prostitutes, see strippers, hook up for sex via dating sites and “friend finder” apps, and look at porn for hours at a time—as long their significant other knows about and is OK with the behavior. In other words, a guy can have as much sex outside his relationship as he wants, however and wherever he wishes, as long as he is doing it with integrity—no lying, no double-life, and no keeping secrets from his primary partner.

The underlying message: Honesty and relationship transparency is the only meaningful path to genuine intimacy, not to mention personal integrity and self-esteem. (Needless to say, I’ve had few takers on this suggestion to date, despite 22 years of clinical practice.)

By far the most common justification I hear from men who cheat is “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” It never ceases to amaze me how many men truly believe that misguided statement. In reality, most cheated-on partners sense, at the very least, the emotional distancing that accompanies a man’s sexual infidelity and affairs. Let’s face it: If a guy is a good liar, his partner may not know the details of what goes on behind her (or his) back; but betrayed partners nearly always know that something is up. It’s like radar—maybe it’s an innate and unconscious evolutionary trait developed to protect the family from dissolution. But the bottom line is that the cheater never fully gets what he wants—a clean getaway—because infidelity is nearly always discovered eventually, and when that happens it inevitably comes with devastatingly painful consequences.

10 Reasons Why Men Cheat

Men who engage in sexual and romantic entanglements after making a vow of monogamy do so for a variety of underlying psychological reasons:

  1. He’s a liar. He never intended to be monogamous, despite his commitment. He doesn’t understand that his vow of fidelity is a sacrifice made to and for his relationship and the person he professes to love. This man views monogamy as something to be worked around rather than embraced.
  2. He is insecure. Deep down, he feels that he is too young, too old, too fat, too thin, too poor, too stupid, or too whatever to be desirable. He uses flirtation, porn, and extramarital sex as a way to feel better about himself, to reassure himself that he is still desirable, worthwhile, and “good enough.”
  3. He is immature. He thinks that as long as his partner doesn’t find out, he’s not hurting anybody. He doesn’t understand that significant others almost always know when something is up. He doesn’t “get” that his partner will eventually find out what’s been going on, and when that occurs, it won’t be pretty.
  4. He is damaged. Perhaps he is acting out early trauma experiences, such as physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse. His formative wounds have left him unable or unwilling to fully commit himself to another person. He may also seek sexual intensity outside his relationship as a way to self-medicate (escape from) his emotional and psychological pain.
  5. He has unreasonable expectations. He believes that his spouse should meet his every sexual and emotional need, 24/7, without fail. In his narcissistic and self-focused way, he doesn’t understand that his spouse may be juggling multiple priorities (kids, work, home, finances) in addition to him and the relationship. When this spouse inevitably fails him (in his view), he feels entitled to seek intimate attention elsewhere.
  6. He is bored, overworked, or otherwise put-upon (in his mind), and feels deserving of something special that is just for him—hiring prostitutes, viewing porn, or having affairs. Or maybe he wants more attention from his mate and thinks a period of pulling away will cause her to comply.
  7. He is confused about love. He mistakes limerence—the “rush” of early romance—with love. He does not understand that in truly loving relationships, the early, visceral attraction is gradually replaced by sweeter feelings of longer-term attachment, honesty, commitment, and emotional intimacy.
  8. He is addicted. Perhaps he has an ongoing, problematic relationship with alcohol or drugs that affects his decision-making and disinhibits him. He may also have an issue with sexual compulsivity, meaning he uses sexual activity as a way to self-soothe, escape uncomfortable emotions, and dissociate from the pain of underlying psychological conditions.
  9. He wants out. He is looking to end his current relationship and is using external sexual and romantic activities to give his wife or girlfriend “the message” without having to be direct. Or, if he is a man who doesn’t like being alone, period, then finding a new and “better” person before leaving a current relationship provides a safer and softer landing.
  10. He lacks male bonding and a peer community. Having undervalued his healthy need to maintain solid, supportive friendships and community with other men, his reaction to a busy or distracted spouse is all the more injurious—as he expects all of his emotional and physical needs to be met by this one person (read: Mom).

Where Do We Go From Here?

Interestingly, after working with hundreds of couples attempting to process and overcome a male (or female) partner’s cheating, it is clear to me that it’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to a committed relationship. It’s the ongoing pattern of secrets and lies that surrounds the cheating that causes a loving partner the most pain. The profound and repeated betrayal of relationship trust causes the most pain. And most cheated-on partners will agree that their feelings of being betrayed are just as profound when a loved one is giving himself away online as when there is a live, in-vivo affair.

Sadly, most men (and women) who choose to break a vow of monogamy to an intimate partner don’t realize the profound effects their behavior can have on that loved one. One important recent study found that the wives of men who’ve discovered a pattern of infidelity in their partners often experience acute stress symptoms similar to those found in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unsurprisingly, the emotional damage caused by infidelity can be difficult to overcome, even with the help of an experienced marriage or couples counselor. That said, if both partners are committed to behavior change and healing, most relationships can be saved, even strengthened, after and despite an affair. For some wives and spouses, however, the repeated violation of trust is too much; they are unable to experience the necessary emotional safety required to rebuild a relationship and move on. In such cases, solid, neutral relationship therapy can help to help negotiate a break-up, offering direction for both individuals to move on with their lives.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the 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 Ageand the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. He has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others.

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