Whether hookups are made on Craigslist, Facebook or apps like Tinder and Ashley Madison (the de facto market leaders in the infidelity industry), digital interactivity provides those interested in cheating with a sense of safety, anonymity and immediacy. It’s no wonder that increasing numbers of people – many of whom would never have sought extramarital sex in a sleazy pick-up bar or sex club – are now finding the road to infidelity to be an easily traversed path.
The common perception is that it is men rather than women who tend to step out on their significant others. In reality, it takes two to tango, and nearly as many women cheat as men. And this behavior is relatively common. In fact, research suggests that approximately 10 to 20% of men and women in marriages or other committed, supposedly monogamous relationships will actively engage in sexual activity outside of their primary relationship – and these numbers may actually be underreported, perhaps rather significantly, thanks to confusion/denial about true nature of certain digitally based sexual activities (sexting, flirting via social media, using porn and other forms of digital erotica, engaging in mutual masturbation via webcam, etc.)
Sadly, many people believe (or pretend to believe) that if they’re not engaging in physical sexual contact with another person, then they’re not cheating. However, as I wrote in my previous posting to this site, their spouses typically feel otherwise. Recognizing this, and in an attempt to clarify what does and does not count as sexual infidelity in our increasingly tech-driven world, I have crafted the following modern-day definition of sexual infidelity:
Sexual infidelity occurs when sexual and/or romantic secrets are deliberately kept from one’s primary intimate partner.
This definition encompasses both digital and in-the-flesh sexual and romantic activities, recognizing that when it comes to cheating it’s usually the keeping of secrets – the betrayal of relationship trust – rather than any particular sexual act that causes the most pain.
Interestingly, the reasons that males and females cheat often differ. For the most part, their motivations mirror what we know about male and female sexual arousal in general, with men typically seeking a purely sexual experience that is devoid of emotional attachment, and women typically seeking forms of sexuality that include a degree of emotional connection.
Research, both scientific and nonscientific, backs this up. For instance, Undercover Lovers, a UK-based extramarital dating site (similar to Ashley Madison in the US) surveyed 4000 members, split equally by gender. Among women, 57% said they felt love for their affair partner, with only 27% of men saying the same. A more scientific study conducted by Helen Fisher, a well-known biological anthropologist, found that 34% of the women who have affairs consider themselves to be happily married, whereas 56% of males feel that way. From these surveys, it is clear that women are more likely to have an affair if they don’t feel adequately connected in their marriage and are seeking that bond elsewhere, while men are more likely to have an affair purely for the sexual excitement.
Given the above, it is clear that many women engage in extramarital sex because they seek emotional connection. But what causes them to seek that connection outside rather than within the primary relationship? In general, the culprit is one or more of the following:
- The woman feels neglected, ignored and/or underappreciated by her primary partner. She feels as if she is more of a housekeeper, cook, nanny or financial provider than a wife or girlfriend. Thus, she may seek an external situation in which she feels appreciated for who she is rather than the services she provides.
- The woman does not feel a sufficient emotional connection with/to her primary partner. Perhaps she is not getting enough nonsexual contact and interaction at home – touching, hugging, cuddling, talking, gift-giving, shared activities, etc. If so, she may look for this connection and validation elsewhere.
- The woman is lonely and/or bored. Perhaps she is stuck at home caring for young kids and the house, and she does not find those activities intellectually or emotionally stimulating. Or maybe the kids are in school now (or they’re adults who’ve moved out of the house) and she misses the constant emotional connection they once provided. Or maybe her spouse has a new job that requires traveling for long stretches of time. Etc. If so, she may try to fill the void with an affair.
- The woman is a sex or love addict. It is not uncommon for women with unresolved early-life trauma, depression, anxiety and other emotional and/or psychological issues to self-soothe with pleasurable substances and/or behaviors. Some women turn to alcohol, drugs or food. Others find escapist stimulation through gambling, spending or video gaming. Still others use the dopamine rush of sexual and romantic activity to fuel their escape from stress and other forms of emotional discomfort. In these cases, the woman is having affairs because she is hooked on the dissociative rush of new romance and sexual excitement.
- The woman expects way too much from her primary partner. In other words, she expects her long-term partner to fulfill her every wish and desire, even when she’s not clear about what those wishes and desires might be. And when her primary partner inevitably fails in this “duty,” she seeks that fulfillment elsewhere.
- The woman is not getting enough sex at home. The simple truth is women typically enjoy the physical act of sex as much as men do, and a sexless relationship might not be acceptable. Maybe her partner is no longer interested in sex, or maybe there is a physical issue that prevents sex. In such cases, the woman may feel justified in seeking sexual attention and connection outside her primary relationship.
Sadly, most women who cheat have little to no idea how deeply their secretive sexual and romantic activities can wound a male partner. The simple truth is that sexual infidelity hurts betrayed men just as much as it hurts betrayed women, though in different ways. On top of the loss of relationship trust, men tend to be most painfully wounded upon learning that their intimate partner has engaged in sexual activity with someone else (a kind of ego wound). Women, on the other hand, tend to be more deeply injured by the feared loss of their spouse/partner (a relationship wound).
For some couples, the damage wrought by sexual infidelity, especially serial sexual infidelity, is too much and trust cannot be restored, leading to the relationship’s end. However, most couples will try to overcome the emotional pain and loss of relationship trust. For them, the experience of learning about sexual infidelity can be a growth opportunity – as long as the cheater is willing to halt the behavior and both parties are willing to work toward better communication and a stronger relationship.
NOTE: For anyone who’s worried I’m being a misogynist with this blog, I assure you that I’m not. In fact, in my next posting to this site I will discuss the reasons that men engage in sexual infidelity.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is 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 Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.