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Women and Infidelity in the Digital Age

As tech and relationship roles change, so does cheating.

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Psychologist, author, and sexologist Esther Perel writes in an article in the Atlantic, “Infidelity may be ubiquitous, but the way we make meaning of it—how we define it, experience it, and talk about it—is ultimately linked to the particular time and place where the drama unfolds.” In my experience, this might be a more impactful statement for women than men because, over the 75 years or so, the variables of time and place have impacted women’s lives and relationship roles far more than men’s.

In a generalized way, men see their role today much as they did in the 1950s—breadwinners, decision-makers, and willing to help out a little (maybe) around the house. They might now see themselves as slightly more obligated to assist with the house and kids, but otherwise, they see their role as relatively unchanged. Women, on the other hand, have gone from cooking, keeping house, and raising the kids to all of that plus the traditionally male role of earning money and taking care of business beyond the home.

I’m generalizing, of course, but only to make a point. And my point is this: With greater responsibility, women now have greater needs and wants. They want what they were supposed to get from marriage in the 1950s—house, kids, stability, security. They also want to be loved, respected, and desired, and for their partners to be interested in and to care about their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

And even when women have all of that, they still might cheat. In fact, in her book The State of Affairs, Perel says she works with countless cheating women who assure her that they love their husband. They say they are best friends, equal partners, have great sex, and are very happy together. They say they would never date their affair partner, let alone marry that person because he brings almost nothing to the table that they value beyond sex. But they’re still cheating and can’t seem to stop.

One of the more interesting facts Perel reports in her book is that since 1990 the number of women who admit they’ve been unfaithful has increased by 40 percent, while the rate among men has stayed the same. So, more women are cheating today than before, or maybe it’s just that more women are willing to admit to cheating. Probably it’s a bit of both.

But why are so many more women engaging in or admitting to infidelity?

To answer, we must, as Perel suggests, consider time and place. For starters, 1990 was the analog era and 2019 is the digital era. In today’s digital world, cheating is just plain easier—dating sites, webcams, hookup apps, etc. Infidelity is also, generally speaking, more socially acceptable. Plus, as stated earlier, women are more empowered now than at any other point in modern history.

But there is still a choice to cheat, and one wonders why so many women are making that choice.

For the most part, women cheat for one or more of the following reasons.

  • Issues Within the Marriage. A marriage that is not working as well as one or both partners might like can lead to cheating. Perhaps there is resentment about an unequal division of labor. Perhaps there is a lack of sexual spark in the relationship. Perhaps the woman feels more like a maid, cook, and nanny than a relationship partner. Maybe the woman is not getting her emotional or sexual needs met. The list of potential causes for relationship dysfunction is lengthy, and every time I think I’ve heard the entire list, I hear something new.
  • Issues Outside the Marriage. Sometimes women cheat to feel emotional and psychological validation in a way their primary relationship does not provide. Often, these women experienced neglect, abuse, or abandonment in childhood, and through that experience, they learned that their value comes from being wanted romantically and sexually. The good news for such women is therapy can address these unresolved childhood issues in ways that raise self-esteem and diminish the need for external (including extramarital) validation.
  • Self-Exploration and Empowerment. This one comes directly from Esther Perel, and it’s a reason for cheating that I rarely see in the male clients I work with. Perel says she sees this most often in women who say they are relatively happy with their primary relationship. According to Perel, these women are not seeking sexual satisfaction or intensity, they’re seeking themselves. She writes, “For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely to be an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.”
  • The One That Got Away. Some women have cherished memories of their high school or college sweetheart. Sure, they moved on from that relationship, but they never completely let go. Now they find themselves wondering: What if? Along comes Facebook, where they can look up their long-ago flame and see where he is, what his life is like, and if they still find him attractive. Suddenly, before they know it, they’re involved in an emotional (and maybe sexual) affair with this person.

Are these reasons for cheating any better than the reasons I see with men who cheat? Probably not. But they are in many ways different. And after nearly 30 years of working with both cheaters and betrayed partners, I can assure you that infidelity is incredibly painful for the betrayed partner regardless of the cheater’s reasons for doing it. On the plus side, infidelity does not have to end your relationship. There are ways to heal from this betrayal, and couples who do so often say their relationship is stronger after the infidelity.


To learn more about healing from betrayal, visit the Sex and Relationship Healing free resource website.

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