- Unlike previous generations, women and men currently cheat at approximately the same rates, though the reasons why women cheat may be different from men.
- Experts say the three main reasons women cheat are: lack of love for primary partner, desire for sexual variety and situational factors (like being drunk or on vacation).
The beginning of the year is a rough time for the institution of marriage. Ashley Madison, a dating site for people looking to start extramarital affairs, reported in a 2018 press release that January and February are the site's biggest months for new signups. And in news that may or may not be related, divorce lawyers add that they see a surge in divorce filings after the holidays. But before it gets to that point, it's worth taking a step back and looking at why people are unfaithful to begin with — especially women, whose affairs are often misreported or misunderstood.
The differences in the reasons why men and women cheat are narrowing.
It's easy to fall back on old assumptions that men are more likely to cheat, with the usual list of justifications (like how they can't "keep it in their pants"). That's becoming more and more untrue as time goes on. "Traditionally, it's been argued that women are more likely than men to cheat because they're unhappy with the existing relationships, while men are more likely than women to cheat because they're looking for sexual variety or an opportunity presented itself," says, Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., a professor of human sexuality at NYU. "That's still true to some extent today, but the gender gap in infidelity is closing among the newer generations."
"In older generations, men were much more likely to cheat than women, whereas in the current generation women and men are cheating at similar rates," she adds. "And the current generation of men and women are more similar in their reasons for cheating than older generations."
Of course, there are some variations between men and women. "A recent study showed men were more likely than women to cheat for reasons related to sexual desire and variety, and due to situational factors like being drunk," Vrangalova says. "However, the top three reasons for cheating endorsed by both women and men were exactly the same: lack of love for primary partner, desire for sexual variety and situational factors."
Sometimes, the reasons women cheat are sexually motivated.
If you want to dig a little deeper into why women cheat, Alicia Walker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, is a good person to ask — she spent a year interviewing women who've had extramarital affairs for her book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife. She found more nuance to the idea that women cheat for sexual variety.
"In my studies on women's infidelity, I found women were outsourcing the sexual pleasure in their relationships in an effort to remain in their primary partnerships," she says. "They believed that if they continued to go without their sexual needs being met, they would have to break up their families and break their partner's heart. None of the women made the decision to cheat lightly. After years and sometimes decades of trying to improve things in their marriages, they decided to look elsewhere."
Other times, women are unsatisfied in their relationships.
That doesn't mean that women who cheat are always looking to save their primary partnership. Sometimes, it's the opposite: "One of the main reasons women cheat is to blow up a relationship that makes them feel trapped in some way," says Charlynn Ruan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive Psychology Group, a group practice in California that specializes in women. "Often they're with a partner who seems like a nice person, but is controlling, stifling or emotionally unavailable. The woman tries to make changes, to get their partner to do couples therapy, or push their partner to grow or meet them more emotionally, but when the woman doesn't succeed in these attempts, cheating gives a reason for their partner to leave them."
This often comes with a lot of guilt, Dr. Ruan adds. "I think the unconscious narrative is often, 'He's a nice guy, but I'm miserable. There is something wrong with me,'" she says. "So, they act out to end the relationship. In heterosexual couples, research shows that women are much more likely than men to initiate divorce, and are happier after divorce than men. But, for women who struggle with guilt over leaving a partner, feel like he needs her, and don't feel their own happiness is enough justification to reach escape velocity in their relationship, cheating gives them a way out."
Or, even if she's not ready to leave, she might act out because she has what psychologists call an "insecure attachment" style. "For these people, cheating can feel like a way to ‘keep their options open’ and ensure that they're not hurt or abandoned," says Mark Williams, LMHC, a relationship coach at Relish. "These people need to feel safe and secure, and if this is threatened — if they fight with partner, for example — they can sometimes overcompensate and seek validation and attention elsewhere. The good news is these issues are fix-able. We work really hard with people who have an insecure attachment style to find other ways of responding and ways of regulating strong emotions."
Watch out for the warning signs of cheating.
If you feel your relationship is off track and your partner may be contemplating (or starting) an affair, there are certain clues you can keep an eye out for. "There are three big red flags to look for: being very protective or secretive with her phone, missing money or taking regular large cash withdrawals from the ATM, and missing chunks of time," says Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical psychologist. "If your partner can't tell you where she was for a part of the day, or seems evasive about it, it's a clue that something interesting is happening. Having lots of random coffee dates or meetings with people you've never heard of or never met is also a clue. The biggest red flag is being wacky with the phone — if the phone is always locked and never leaves her sight, even when she's in the shower, I'd worry."