The simple truth is that men are somewhat different than women when it comes to cheating, and a lot of that difference arises from the fact that men tend to define infidelity rather loosely. Keep in mind this famous statement: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” More generally, most men would say that utilizing porn as a sexual outlet while in a primary, committed relationship is not cheating. (Most women would disagree, and for some anecdotal proof of this, heterosexual male readers should just ask their wife or girlfriend what she thinks.) So does viewing porn count as infidelity? If it does, then a whole lot of men are cheaters. What about sexting? What if the person you’re sexting with doesn’t live anywhere near you and there’s no chance you’ll ever hook up in-person? How about video chat? And while you’re video chatting does it matter if your or the other person’s clothes are off? How about if you are complaining to this other person about your current relationship? Etc.
Back in the pre-Internet days of yore the concept of cheating was pretty straightforward, as it involved actual in-the-flesh sexual contact. But nowadays a man in Paris, Texas can mutually masturbate, via webcam, with a woman in Paris, France. And should his wife or girlfriend discover this he can say, simply and in all sincerity, “But honey, it doesn’t mean anything. I mean, she’s thousands of miles away, I’ve never met her, and I’m never going to meet her. I don’t even know her last name. How can I be cheating with someone I’ll never see in person?” Men, in particular, appear to rely on their intellect – utilizing these kinds of digital word games – in order to continue and justify their extracurricular sexual behavior.
Some men will argue that, as men, it is their biological right/imperative to have sex with as many women as possible. In their opinion they need to spread their seed and propagate the human race because, apparently, they and they alone sit atop the Darwinian sexual food chain. Frankly, I hear this and similar excuses in my practice almost constantly. Rather than debating “the nature of being male” with such clients, which is hardly productive from a therapeutic standpoint, I remind them that when a man makes a vow of monogamy to a spouse or significant other and then breaks that vow, he is in violation of his relationship contract. I further remind some my more resentful male clients that they were not ever required to make such a vow, though by not doing so they may have lost the person they wished to be with. I then discuss with them the idea that infidelity is not defined by any specific act (sexual or otherwise), but rather by the keeping of secrets in an intimate relationship. I remind them that in an effort to meet their own less than empathic sexual agenda they have undermined their personal integrity while simultaneously dismissing their partner’s right to know that the “relationship rulebook” has been unilaterally revised.
To the more determined (read unempathic and/or self-focused), I sometimes suggest that it’s fine for them to be sexual outside of their primary, committed relationship, that it’s no problem to chat up old girlfriends on Facebook, to hire prostitutes, to go see strippers, to hook up for sex via dating sites and “friend finder” apps, and to look at porn for hours at a time as long their significant other knows about and is OK with that behavior. In other words, a guy can have as much sex outside his relationship as he wants, however and wherever he wishes, as long as he is doing it with integrity – meaning no lying, no double-life, and no keeping secrets from his primary partner. The underlying message here is that honesty and relationship transparency is the only meaningful path to genuine relationship intimacy, not to mention personal integrity and self-esteem. Needless to say, I’ve had few takers on this suggestion to date, despite 22 years of clinical practice.
By far the most common justification I hear from men who cheat is “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” It never ceases to amaze me how many men truly believe that misguided statement. In reality, most cheated-on partners sense, at the very least, the emotional distancing that accompanies a man’s sexual infidelity and affairs. Let’s face it, if a guy is a good liar, his woman (or man) may not know the details of what goes on behind her (or his) back, but betrayed partners nearly always know thatsomething is up. For them it’s like radar. Maybe it’s an innate and unconscious evolutionary trait developed to protect the family from dissolution. Either way, the bottom line is simple: The cheater never fully gets what he wants in this situation – meaning the clean getaway – as infidelity is nearly always discovered eventually, and when discovery happens it inevitably comes with devastatingly painful consequences.
Ten Reasons Why Men Cheat
Men who engage in sexual and romantic entanglements after making a vow of monogamy do so for a variety of underlying psychological reasons. The most common of these reasons are:
- He’s a liar. He never intended to be monogamous, despite his commitment. He doesn’t understand that his vow of fidelity is a sacrifice made to and for his relationship and the person he professes to love. This man views monogamy as something to be worked around rather than embraced.
- He is insecure. Deep down he feels that his is too young, too old, too fat, too thin, too poor, too stupid, or too whatever to be desirable. He uses flirtation, porn, and extramarital sex as a way to feel better about himself, to reassure himself that he is still desirable, worthwhile, and “good enough.”
- He is immature. He thinks that as long as his wife/girlfriend/partner doesn’t find out, he’s not hurting anybody. He doesn’t understand that significant others near always know when something is up. He doesn’t “get it” that his partner will eventually find out what’s been going on, and when that occurs it won’t be pretty.
- He is damaged. Perhaps he is acting out early trauma experiences, such as physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse. His formative wounds have left him unable or unwilling to fully commit himself to one other person. He may also seek sexual intensity outside his relationship as a way to self-medicate (escape from) his emotional and psychological pain.
- He has unreasonable expectations. He believes that his spouse should meet his every sexual and emotional need 24/7/365, without fail. In his narcissistic and self-focused way, he doesn’t understand that his spouse may be juggling multiple priorities (kids, work, home, finances, etc.) in addition to him and the relationship. When this spouse inevitably fails him (in his view), he feels entitled to seek intimate attention elsewhere.
- He is bored, overworked, or otherwise put-upon (in his mind), and feels deserving of something special that is just for him – something like hiring prostitutes, viewing porn, or having affairs. Or maybe he wants more attention from his mate and thinks a period of his pulling away will cause her to comply.
- He is confused about love. He mistakes limerence – the “rush” of early romance – with love. He does not understand that in truly loving relationships the early, visceral attraction is gradually replaced by sweeter feelings of longer-term attachment, honesty, commitment, and emotional intimacy.
- He is addicted. Perhaps he has an ongoing, problematic relationship with alcohol or drugs that affects his decision-making and disinhibits him. He may also have an issue with sexual compulsivity, meaning he uses sexual activity as a way to self-soothe, escape uncomfortable emotions, and dissociate from the pain of underlying psychological conditions.
- He wants out. He is looking to end his current relationship and is using external sexual and romantic activities to give his wife or girlfriend “the message” without having to be direct with her. Or, if he is one of those men who doesn’t like being alone, period, then finding a new and “better” person before leaving a current relationship provides a safer and softer landing.
- He lacks male-bonding and a peer community. Having undervalued his healthy need to maintain solid, supportive friendships and community with other men, his reaction to a busy or distracted spouse is all the more injurious – as he expects all of his emotional and physical needs to be met by this one person (read: Mom).
Where Do We Go From Here?
Interestingly, after working with hundreds of couples attempting to process and overcome a male partner’s cheating (or the female partner’s cheating, for that matter), it is clear to me that it’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to a committed relationship. Rather, it’s the ongoing pattern of secrets and lies that surrounds the process of cheating that causes a loving spouse the most pain. Again, it is the profound and oft-repeated betrayal of relationship trust that causes the most pain to a loving partner. And most cheated-on partners will agree that their feelings of being betrayed are just as profound when a loved one is giving himself away online as when there is a live, in-vivo affair.
Sadly, most men (and women) who choose to break a vow of monogamy made to an intimate partner don’t realize the profound effects their behavior can have on that loved-one. One recent and very importantscientific study found that the wives of men who’ve discovered a pattern of infidelity in their male partners often experience acute stress symptoms similar to those found in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unsurprisingly, the emotional damage caused by infidelity can be difficult to overcome, even with the help of an experienced marriage or couples counselor. That said, if both partners are committed to behavior change and healing most relationships can be saved, even strengthened, after and despite the affair. For some wives and spouses, however, the repeated violation of trust is too much and they are unable to experience the necessary emotional safety required to rebuild a relationship and move on. In such cases, solid, neutral relationship therapy can help to help negotiate a break-up, offering direction for both individuals to move on with their lives.