The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon may have provided plenty of couples with bedroom ideas but for some spouses, the need for added excitement or romance find them straying from their partner instead. The psychology of infidelity is a complex, opaque issue that invariably speaks to one’s character and state of mind regarding perhaps the ultimate taboo.
Cleveland Clinic Psychologist Dr. Michael McKee calls marriage for some—a mixed blessing. That is, despite the allure of love, there are plenty of mundane moments, common stresses and emotional work that come with keeping the relationship alive.
A study last year by the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy revealed 41 percent of marriages had one or both spouses admit to marital infidelity (either physical or emotional), with the average length of affair being two years. As far as surviving the affair, the data shows 31 percent of marriages survive infidelity. So the question is, what leads people from “I do” to “I did?” Is there such a thing as the psychology of infidelity?
“An ongoing affair is distinct from a one-night stand and gives you a whole separate life where the romance is there and the sex is there but without any of the work,” McKee said. “It’s a way of having your cake and eating it too for awhile, but it often ends up ruining a marriage.”
New Mexico-based Clinical Psychologist Dr. David Ley told us, “Men and women view sex differently. They have different values. Women view sex more relationship-related than for procreation. Men tend to view sex more in terms of recreation, fun and even stress release.”
Psychology of infidelity: Why, oh why, do people cheat?
Dr. Ley, who authored books Insatiable Wives and The Myth of Sex Addiction, said the impetus behind cheating is different among genders.
“When the woman cheats, she’s more likely to cheat with a single male and to develop an intimate and more romantic relationship,” he said. “Women tend to cheat more along the lines of a romance novel, where they are looking for that kind of dynamic and romantic intimate attention and excitement. When a man cheats, he’s more likely to cheat in a series of one-night-stands. Men oftentimes are looking for that kind of high from a new sexual relationships from the attention of oftentimes a younger woman and to feel that kind of escape.”
In his research, Dr. Ley said the one common ground amongst both sexes that cheat is a sense of psychological and biological excitement that oftentimes diminishes in long-term relationships. In fact, the aforementioned Journal of Marital and Family Therapy study showed 57 percent of men and 54 percent of women admitted to committing infidelity in any prior relationship.
Other experts believe infidelity is also tied to personality traits. David Schmidt, psychologist at Bradley University, told Jay Dixit of Psychology Today, there are five personality factors and each has a different likelihood to cheat:
- Extroversion: Driven by sexual desires and pleasure seeking, extroverts tend to look for situations to satisfy their needs.
- Emotional stability: The more emotionally stable a person is, the less likely to cheat he or she is.
- Openness: Those who are open to trying new things might be more likely to try infidelity as well.
- Agreeableness: People who disregard other people’s feelings and opinions might be more likely to cheat.
- Conscientiousness: Those who struggle to control impulses, and whose morals might not be structured, are more likely to be unfaithful.
What about emotional health? Dixit says men with high self-esteem and confidence are more likely to be unfaithful, while the opposite is true for women.
But cheating might not be just a matter of personality. According to Martie Haselton and Elizabeth Pillsworth from UCLA, as Dixit reports, women might be more inclined to cheat when they are ovulating—and if they are tall and attractive, well—the chances just increased quite a lot. According to Pillworth, taller women might have higher levels of testosterone, which could make them more prone to infidelity. On the other hand, Kristina Durante told Dixit, attractive women might have excess of estradiol, a hormone associated to fertility—a fertile woman tends to be more attractive to the other sex, hence giving her the feeling she has options.
What happens after infidelity?
Once an affair is in the open, Dr. McKee said the results are devastating for all parties.
“The person conducting the affair inevitably feels guilt depending on how prone to guilt they are,” Dr. McKee told us. “That can rank from minor to so extreme that leads to attempts at suicide. For the person being cheated on, there’s a tremendous feeling of betrayal, anger and sadness. A period of emotional distancing follows and then finally a lot of hard work to try to identify what led to that and so both people can feel more secure that it won’t happen again.”
Still, data shows roughly two thirds of marriages don’t survive infidelity. Dr. McKee said it’s extremely hard on the person who has been cheated on.
“For the person who has been cheating with someone else, they often find the new relationship doesn’t really work,” Dr. McKee said. “It only worked as an affair and it doesn’t turn into another marriage. So they both end up alone and hurt. And if there are kids, that’s what I worry about. For kids, it’s the death of a family. It’s just like any other major death you encounter. It’s a tremendous loss.”
Recent studies are showing more women are cheating, compared to previous years. While for decades, 20 percent of males have admitted infidelity, female figures have increased from 11 percent to 14 percent.
“I tie that to economics because one of the things we know very clearly is that when women have increased education and increased financial independence, they’re more likely to engage in infidelity because the consequences of infidelity are less than if they’re financially dependent on their husband,” Dr. Ley said. “Now in contrast, as men’s economic worth and education go up, their rates of infidelity actually go down.”
Does tendency to infidelity decrease with age?
Dr. McKee says age difference for infidelity is a bimodal distribution with men under 35 and over 60 years of age likely to cheat more. The same can be said for women in their 60s.
“It’s a combination that people are in better health in later age than they used to be and significant improvements in health and then all of the drugs particularly for men to preserve sexual functioning,” Dr. McKee said. “The more recent generations, the under 35 group, are perhaps a little less committed to the notion of marriage forever to one person just as there’s less commitment to one job for a lifetime.”
How does sex addiction fit into psychology of infidelity?
This is where the doctors disagree. While Dr. McKee points to Tiger Woods’ publicized story as defining a sexual addiction, Dr. Ley calls the psychological condition bogus.
“It’s a psychology pop term that is over-applied particularly in the areas of infidelity,” Dr. Ley said. “When we look at men who engage in infidelity, and get labeled as sex addicts, they tend to be men who are powerful, who are exerting the sexual privilege that powerful men have exerted for thousands of years.”
Whatever side of the fence one falls, McKee said cheaters with dozens of infidelities make it that much harder for the relationship to survive.
“If you’re married to a sexual addict, it does have a lot in common with being married to a drug addict,” McKee said. “It takes over and dominates your life, and addictions are always accompanied by lying and cheating in some kind. So it’s built in to the sexual addiction.”
Even with the best intentions of both parties attempting to salvage a marriage after an infidelity, a lack of trust is often too much to overcome. Dr. McKee said there’s an all-too-common ending involving the guilty party divorcing their spouse to be with their dalliance partner.
“What seems doubly sad is that too often those relationships don’t really work out,” McKee said. “So what was going to be a this great dream doesn’t turn out to be the dream. It’s ended a marriage, which might have been working in several ways, including having a pact on raising children.”
How quickly—if at all—a couple recovers from infidelity depends on many factors and if they have seek professional help. The Good Therapy Org., explains there are three stages a couple usually goes through after an infidelity, if they decide to work on the relationship:
- Trauma: First 6 months after the affair is uncovered. There is significant emotional trauma as well as anger and hopelessness. There might be physical symptoms as well for both the person who cheated and the person cheated on – these include lack of appetite, trouble concentrating and weight loss or gain.
- Clarification: Between 3 and 6 months after affair is uncovered. ‘What led to the infidelity?’ is the main question processed during this time. Resolution of this stage increases chances of survival for a couple.
- Facing the problem: Between 6 months and a year. Emotions become easier to manage and it’s easier to assess the situation and the relationship. It usually has highs and lows but if the couple perseveres, healing is more likely.