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Why Rich and Powerful People Cheat: Part 2

The rich and powerful are just like everyone else.

In my prior column I wrote how the lifestyles of the rich and famous promote extramarital affairs. Here we'll consider it the other way around: Part of the reason rich and powerful people cheat boils down to how they are just like everyone else.

No culture exists in which adultery is unknown, despite social rules, moral precepts, and punishment with death. Research indicates over 70% of men and 50% of women have affairs. Bonding with a single mate (monogamy) and extramarital affairs seem to be part of our evolutionary pair-bonding strategy. As a species, we like devotion and philandering.

The rich and famous have their flaws, blind spots, and lapses in judgment, just like you and me. That’s why there’s been an ongoing parade of political, business, and religious leaders blowing up their careers long before Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, Elliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. Even really smart people do incredibly stupid things when it comes to sex.
rich couple
One major factor that makes affairs popular is common dependence on getting a positive reflected sense of self from the people around us, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the car we drive. We light up when someone finds us attractive or thinks we’re special. We feel desirable because someone desires us, and we often spend our days (and nights) trying to find someone to validate us. When other-validated intimacy fades in marriage, as it inevitably does, many people turn to affairs to pump themselves up, regardless of wealth or status. This surprises us because we expect famous accomplished people to believe in themselves before or after they “made it.” But many are painfully insecure despite their success, and need constant validation, adoration, and limelight. This combination of insecurity and grandiosity is the downfall of many “stars.”

It's no coincidence that when rich and powerful people screw up their lives with sex, they are invariably screwing “down” –picking partners of low status and achievement who will idolize them. Both people get a reflected sense of self out of the arrangement.

But to really understand men like Schwarzenegger, Woods, Spitzer or Clinton, stop thinking of them as powerful men, think of them as married men just like you and me. One truth about committed relationships is the low desire partner always controls sex. The low desire partner decides when and how sex happens. This holds true all around the world. Sex cools off and becomes routine even for Donald Trump. Normal couples have problems with low desire and sexual boredom because it’s built into committed relationships. Fifty to 70% of people have affairs instead of becoming "more differentiated"--my term for becoming more emotionally independent and better able to create sexual novelty and tolerate greater intimacy.

When you’re a powerful man having an affair, the rules change: the high desire partner controls sex. You can have sex any time and any way you want. And it’s easier to be sexually adventurous in an affair, than with your wife, where it’s harder to validate something new you might want, and these things may have already been declared off-limits.

The other-validated intimacy that characterizes dating is strictly time limited in marriage. Many people have affairs because they crave that reflected sense of self—the great emotional high—you get when you’re dating or flirting. When you have plenty of adoring attractive women making themselves available, ready to pump up your reflected sense of self like your wife did in the old days, lots of people succumb.

In Part 3, we'll consider these dynamics from the perspective of wives of rich and powerful men.

For more information on keeping sexual desire in emotionally committed relationships, check out Intimacy & Desire on

© 2011 Crucible Institute. All rights reserved.

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