There is a common misperception that it’s only men who step out on their partners and that women are always faithful. To that, I say: Who are all these men cheating with exactly? Do heterosexual men only cheat with single women and each other?
The simple truth is that approximately as many married, heterosexual women cheat as married, heterosexual men. Research suggests that 10 to 20 percent of men and women in marriages or other committed (monogamous) relationships will actively engage in sexual activity outside of their primary relationship. And these numbers are likely under-reported, possibly by a wide margin, thanks to denial and confusion about what constitutes infidelity in the digital era. For example: Are you cheating if you look at porn? If you flirt on social media? If you have a profile on Ashley Madison that you check regularly, even though you never hook up in person?
To help couples answer these questions, I offer you my fully functional, digital-era definition of what it means to cheat:
Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep profound, meaningful secrets from a committed primary partner.
I like this definition for four primary reasons:
1. The definition speaks to the most basic element of what happens when we cheat on our partners. We betray their trust. In such cases, even more than our sextracurricular activity, it is the lying and the secrecy of betrayal that wounds a beloved and unknowing partner (male or female).
2. The definition encompasses both online and real-world sexual activity, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of intercourse: everything from looking at porn to kissing another man/woman to something as simple as flirting (now commonly referred to as micro-cheating).
3. The definition is flexible depending on the couple. It lets couples define their own version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision-making. This means that it might be just fine to look at porn or to engage in some other form of extramarital sexual activity, as long as your mate knows about this behavior and is okay with it.
4. The definition helps the cheater understand that the problem he or she created occurred the moment he or she started lying to accommodate or cover up his or her infidelity. The harm is not a spouse finding out the bad news — the harm is that it was covered up.
None of that, of course, explains why women cheat. Nor does it address the fact that women and men often cheat for very different reasons.
So Why Do Women Cheat?
Typically, females step out on a committed partner for one or more of the following reasons:
- They feel underappreciated, neglected, or ignored. They feel more like a housekeeper, nanny, or financial provider than a wife or girlfriend. So they seek an external situation that validates them for who they are, rather than the services they perform.
- They crave intimacy. Women tend to feel valued and connected to a significant other more through non-sexual, emotional interplay (talking, having fun together, being thoughtful, building a home and social life together, etc.) than sexual activity. When they’re not feeling that type of connection from their primary partner, they may seek it elsewhere.
- They are overwhelmed by the needs of others. Recent research about women who cheat indicates that many women, despite stating that they deeply love their spouse, their home, their work, and their lives, cheat anyway. These women often describe feeling so under-supported and overwhelmed by having to be all things to all people at all times that they seek extramarital sex as a form of life-fulfillment.
- They are lonely. Women can experience loneliness in a relationship for any number of reasons. Maybe their spouse works long hours or travels for business on a regular basis, or maybe their spouse is emotionally unavailable. Whatever the cause, they feel lonely, and they seek connection through infidelity to fill the void.
- They expect too much from a primary relationship. Some women have unreasonable expectations about what their primary partner and relationship should provide. They expect their significant other to meet their every need 24/7, 365 days a year, and when that doesn’t happen, they seek attention elsewhere.
- They are responding to or re-enacting early-life trauma and abuse. Sometimes women who experienced profound early-life (or adult) trauma, especially sexual trauma, will re-enact that trauma as a way of trying to master or control it.
- They’re not having enough satisfying sex at home. There is a societal misconception that only men enjoy sex. But plenty of women also enjoy sex, and if they’re not getting it at home, or it’s not enjoyable to them, for whatever reason, they may well seek it elsewhere.
As with male cheaters, women who cheat typically do not realize (in the moment) how profoundly infidelity affects their partner and their relationship. Cheating hurts betrayed men just as much as it hurts betrayed women. The keeping of secrets, especially sexual and romantic secrets, damages relationship trust and is incredibly painful regardless of gender.
If a couple chooses to address the situation together, couple’s counseling can turn a relationship crisis into a growth opportunity. Unfortunately, even when experienced therapists are extensively involved with people committed to healing, some couples are unable to ever regain the necessary sense of trust and emotional safety required to make it together. For these couples, solid, neutral relationship therapy can help the people involved to process a long overdue goodbye. But cheating doesn’t have to be seen as the end of a relationship; instead, it can be viewed as a test of its maturity and ability to weather the storm.