Like many of us, I thought cheaters participated in cheating as a “way out” of their marriage. I assumed cheating was mate-shopping for their next partner. Why else would they seek another partner given the expense, stress of lying, and time involved? As most public cheating scandals go, a person – usually a man – feels dissatisfied in their marriage or relationship, so they cheat, get caught, and get their way out. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered a new perspective: Cheating in order to remain married.
After recognising a lack of academic research on this topic, I decided to gather my own data to learn what cheaters actually hope to accomplish by stepping outside of their marriage. I contacted Ashley Madison, the controversial married dating site that’s seen 70 million members join since its launch in 2002. With their help, I spoke with nearly 100 self-identified cheaters and learned first-hand how much grey area exists when it comes to infidelity. I also learned how wrong all those “commonsense” ideas about cheating really are.
My conversations with Ashley Madison members have produced two books, detailing the behaviors and rationales of both female and male cheaters, which, for the most part, go against what we typically believe to be true. Where a lack of sexual satisfaction at home motivates women to seek out affairs, men crave the emotional connection and support their spouse neglects to provide. I address the latter in my latest endeavour, Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation, and Infidelity, which reveals the surprising truth about male infidelity, and flips the script when it comes to what we think motivates men to cheat.
For this research, I spoke to 46 men ranging from 27 to 70 years of age, all either married or partnered, and all very eager to share their experience with me. While these men report a fondness and deep love for their spouse, they also report a very low or nonexistent amount of validation, and an inadequate amount of attention and praise from her.
Without speaking to these men’s wives, it’s impossible to know whether they purposefully withhold praise, attention, and relational management, as the men claim. Perhaps an inequality of the division of household labour resulted in some long-held resentment on the part of their wives. Possibly it’s simply that household chores and childcare dominated their wives’ time and energy, leaving nothing left for their husbands. Regardless, these men internalised the dynamics in those relationships as a condemnation of them and their masculinity.
Their decision to cheat comes from the desire to experience the love and affection they expect to receive from their wife, but has faded over time. After years of enduring those unmet needs, infidelity became a way for them to be doted on while not having to give up a partnership that still means the world to them.
Sex naturally plays a role in the decision as well, as 76% of the men in this sample report being in a sexless marriage. However, where their own orgasms and sexual pleasure motivated women, hearing praise for their sexual prowess made men feel worthy and manly. To them, their wives treat sex as a chore and lack all enthusiasm about it. Men internalise that disinterest as, “I’m not good enough” and “I’m a disappointment.” They feel undervalued not only as a sexual partner, but as a person. Their outside partners function as the person to whom they go for that praise and recognition. And more often than not, just one “monogamous” affair partner is all they need, unlike many women, who prefer to maintain several concurrent affairs.
That is not to say, though, that the decision to cheat functioned as the first step men took when they felt unsatisfied in their marriage. In fact, these men spent years speaking to their spouse about what was and wasn’t working for them, and asking how they could improve, but weren’t given a substantial answer – or much acknowledgement, in many cases.
Articulating that feeling of under-appreciation and asking, “Why aren’t you interested in me anymore?” can be a very hard thing to do. And when you pass that hurdle and then face a spouse who simply turns a blind eye, is the next step to file for divorce and upend your life? That’s not an option for many people, whether it be financial restraints, children, or knowing it’s not worth it to end a marriage over one missing component. As one participant told me, “I decided my marriage had too many great things about it to end things because of the lack of intimacy.”
A total disinterest in changing their home life exists as a common understanding between affair partners. That is, they prefer the life they share with their spouse. As I mentioned, these men carry a deep love for their wife and 96% of them have absolutely no interest in leaving the marriage. One participant says:
“[My outside partner and I] know that we do not desire a change in our primary partners. We are not ‘in love.’ We enjoy each other, thank each other, and go back to our lives. My wife is my best friend. I enjoy her immensely. Our personalities match well. Our goals are well aligned, as I believe are the goals of my outside partner.”
These men were in real pain before they decided to cheat, both from the neglect they were facing and the realisation that the reality of marriage didn’t line up with their expectations. For many, part of that pain persists knowing that the woman who’s now satisfying their needs isn’t the one woman they ultimately want that satisfaction from: Their wife.
Would these men be happiest with just their wife? Contrary to the common “men can’t resist temptation” narrative, yes, they would be (most men actually enjoy monogamy and are often far less interested in the idea of an open marriage than women are). But circumstances change and reality sets in. Infidelity works as a viable path for them to preserve their happiness and ultimately their marriage.
During the process of putting Chasing Masculinity together, people constantly told me, “I can tell you right now why men cheat, you don’t have to write a book about it.” As it turns out, I did. If I hadn’t, the unfortunate perception we have of men – specifically cheating men – may not have been adequately questioned and challenged.
Alicia M. Walker, PhD is an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University and writer. Her latest book, Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation, and Infidelity, is available now.