We have once again been faced with a high profile marriage scandal. This time the lovers included the CIA director, a married and much decorated military officer and his biographer, a married women, herself an Army Reserve intelligence officer.
What is predictable is the media focus on the man. In this case the articles addressed the question of military code of conduct, possibility of security breaches, the explanation of male infidelity in terms of power and narcissism, and the apology and compassionate sentiments to the betrayed wife.
What is curious is how little focus was given to the married woman in this affair. Other than a redundant account of her school success and running time, she was rarely seen as more than the idealizing audience to the man. There seemed little interest in her motives and even less in addressing the broader question- Why do married women have affairs?
Perhaps we don’t ask the question because culturally we prefer not to know the answer. After all, with matters of infidelity, the stereotype is of the married man in an affair with an unmarried female. In the case of married women the presumption is that women are more monogamous then men. They are – but not as much as we may want to believe.
In the largest most comprehensive poll of its kind in 1994, Edward Laumann and colleagues found that 20% of women and just over 31% of men in their 40’s and 50’s reported having sex with someone other than their spouses.
Frances Cohen Praver, author of Daring Wives: Insight into Women’s Desires for Extramarital Affairs suggests that estimates of infidelity range from 30-60% of women and 50-70% of men.
Young and Alexander in their 2012 book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction accept a rough estimate of 30 to 40 percent infidelity in marriage for men and women.
Having worked for many years with men, women and couples trying to hold on to marriages, recovering from betrayal or caught up in the pain and passion of an affair, I suggest that most married women, don’t condone, pursue or even imagine having an affair – but it does happen.
Do they have the affair as a way to end their marriage? Most would say, no.
Do they want the feelings stirred by the affair in their own marriage? Most would say, yes.
I suggest that married women often end up in affairs to find and hold on to a long forgotten or unknown sense of self that feels valued, loved and desired by a partner.
The problem is that they have found something they may need, want and even deserve in a way that takes as much as it gives.
How Does it Happen?
A close look at the path to an affair suggests a number of social, psychological, marital, and sexual factors that bear on this choice.
The Social Culture
Ours is a culture that espouses social and sexual monogamy. According to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, marriage is now seen as the bond that is supposed to do it all.
The goal is great – so is the pressure to live up to it. While both men and women often feel that they are dancing as fast as they can, women tend to be more self-critical. Wired to nurture, they too often expect to be able to take care of everyone and everything.
Read more: Suzanne Phillips, Psych Central