There is a school of thought that says if a woman cheats, it is more likely to signal an end to her primary relationship than if a man cheats. And this may in fact be the case, because men and women tend to think and feel differently about sex and relationships.
Men are generally more likely than women to be able to compartmentalize sex and intimate connections. For many men, sex is sex, and relationships are relationships, and the two do not necessarily overlap. Thus, a man who casually cheats may do so without feeling a significant degree of emotional connection to a mistress, while a woman who cheats could see things differently, with sex and emotional connection intermingled in ways that make compartmentalization more difficult.
Stated another way, when women cheat, there is usually an element of romance, intimacy, connection, or love. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to cheat to satisfy sexual urges, with fewer thoughts of intimacy. Of course, many men cheat because they feel love as well as sexual attraction for an outside partner, but many more don’t: For them, infidelity can be an opportunistic, primarily sexual action that, in their minds, does not affect their primary relationship. In fact, when asked, many such men will report that they’re very happy in their primary relationship, that they love their significant other, that their sex life is great, and that, despite their cheating, they have no intention of ending their primary relationship.
Women are less likely to operate that way. For most women, a sense of relational intimacy is every bit as important as the sex; often more important. As such, women tend to not cheat unless they feel either unhappiness in their primary relationship or an intimate connection with their extracurricular partner — and either could cause a woman to move on from her primary relationship.
Consider the results of a well-known study in which men and women were shown videos of two men having sex and two women having sex. Male test subjects’ responses were highly gender specific: Straight guys were turned on only by the videos of women, and gay men were turned on only by the videos of two men. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the women, regardless of sexual orientation, were aroused by both male and female stimuli — in particular, the videos that displayed or hinted at an emotional and psychological connection. This research is hardly an outlier: Numerous other studies have produced similar results, confirming that, generally speaking, women are attracted to and turned on by emotional intimacy (especially in committed relationships), while men are more turned on by sex acts.
Put another way, male sexual desire tends to be driven by physiological rather than psychological factors. This is why porn sites created for male users feature short scenarios focused on body parts and overt sexual acts and little else. Even porn literature for men tends to focus more on sexual acts than on relationships and feelings.
Not so for women. Open up a romance novel, or tune in to True Blood, the Twilight movies, or other female-oriented romance/erotica, and you’ll see this rather clearly. In such stories, you'll find very little in the way of purely objectified, non-relational sex. Instead, you'll encounter broad-chested, square-jawed, deep-voiced bad boys who melt when they spot the story’s heroine. This is true even of the more overtly sexual Fifty Shades of Grey series, in which a really bad boy meets a really nice girl who knows in her heart that she can find the good in him and make the relationship work.
Men typically do not need to be in love to enjoy sex. In fact, they don’t even need to be in like; they just have to be turned on. Generally, it’s more difficult to get a woman interested in sex because they want a deep voice AND big biceps AND a sense of humor AND a guy who listens AND a desire to have kids and fix up a house together AND a whole bunch of other stuff.
This difference is most likely the product of thousands of years of evolution. Researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam describe this as well as anyone, writing in their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts:
"When contemplating sex with a man, a woman has to consider the long term. This consideration may not even by conscious, but rather is part of the unconscious software that has evolved to protect women over hundreds of thousands of years. Sex could commit a woman to a substantial, life-altering investment: pregnancy, nursing, and more than a decade of child-raising. These commitments require enormous time, resources, and energy. Sex with the wrong guy could lead to many unpleasant outcomes."
Ogas and Gaddam call this feminine need to thoroughly vet a potential partner’s physical and character traits before becoming both physically and psychologically turned on “Miss Marple,” referencing Agatha’s Christie’s celebrated female detective. They note that this internal safety mechanism is not willing to give cognitive approval for sex until multiple conditions are met. (Of note: Women with histories of sexual trauma tend to not have this self-defense mechanism, and as such, are more likely to engage in casual cheating and to be further victimized as adults.)
Men have less of a need to guard against the dangers of casual sex, so they have not developed this inner detective. They will sometimes cheat just for the sex, even when they are perfectly happy with their primary relationship. This is why a relationship damaged by a man’s infidelity might be more likely to survive after infidelity is uncovered, as opposed to when a woman has cheated. Men can and do cheat on a good relationship, and good relationships are worth saving. Meanwhile, women are more likely to cheat when their primary relationship is not going well, and that type of already-troubled connection might not be worth the pain and effort required to rebuild relationship trust, emotional intimacy, and long-term harmony.
For more about the ingrained emotional and psychological differences between men and women, I recommend John Gray’s book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. For specific information about overcoming infidelity and healing damaged relationships, I recommend my own book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.