Why do women cheat? I know someone who has an answer. Helen Fisher is an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University. While not a couples therapist, Helen is an intriguing thought leader on human love, sex, and the neuroscience of gender differences informing the field of couples therapy today. Helen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute and is the author of a stunning body of research. She is also the author of several books on how we love, mate, bond…and cheat.
Fisher’s research has found that only 34% of women who had affairs reported that they were either happy or very happy in their marriage. That means a clear majority of 66% of women having affairs were not happy. On the other hand, Fisher discovered that 56% of men who engaged in ongoing affairs said their marriages were happy. That suggests that a minority of 44% of men having affairs were unhappily married.
Gottman’s research discovered that wives do the vast majority of the criticism in any given relationship. Because women are always “checking the thermostat” of their relational bond, they are less likely to endure circumstances that are seriously and chronically unsatisfactory.
“Women tend to be more unhappy with the relationship they are in, while men can be a lot happier in their primary relationship and also cheat. Women are more interested in supplementing their marriage or jumping ship than men are — for men, it is a secondary strategy as opposed to an alternate.” Dr. Helen Fisher
This fundamental difference between unfaithful men and women creates complications in couples therapy. Women are far more likely to engage in exit affairs to cushion the collapse of their marriage.
Stimulation of the genitals promotes dopamine activity. This mechanism in the body is incredibly indiscriminate and responds to virtually any stimulation. Unhappy cheating wives can easily get nudged over the threshold into a felt sense of “falling in love” with their affair partner. If their affair partner is a good sexual fit, oxytocin, and vasopressin released in orgasm will cause feelings of attachment to hockey stick upward. Limerence has its own agenda and can be a cruel taskmaster. It not only doesn’t care what you think…it prefers that you don’t.
Dr. Fisher tells us that the basic wiring for Romantic Love inhabits very old, primitive areas in the brain. When you look at a human brain map, you can see that Hunger and Thirst are Romantic Love’s next door neighbors.
Romantic Love is, in fact, not a recent social construction, as some post-modern philosophers would have you believe. It is one of three fundamental brain systems that evolved to orchestrate our essential mate selection and reproductive strategy. While perhaps not as quite as old as your reptilian horniness which may incline you to pursue a variety of sexual partners, Romantic Love has been a proven, successful survival strategy for the human race.
Because feelings of attachment emerge with time, slow love is natural. In fact, rapidly committing to a new partner before the liquor of attachment has emerged may be more risky to long-term happiness…Dr. Helen Fisher
Romantic love is like a sleeping cat; it can be awakened at any time. Feelings of deep attachment, however, take time. Dr. Helen Fisher
Fisher has mapped some of the brain circuitry responsible for marital happiness. She studied happily married couples who scored high on a marital satisfaction questionnaire. Their brains revealed more activity in the area of the brain where feelings of empathy reside. Cheating wives usually feel a significant empathy deficit. If the “sleeping cat” of Romantic Love awakens, it will seek to compensate for a perceived empathy deficit with an affair partner.
Dr. Scott Wolfe is one of Couples Therapy Inc. Master Therapists. His research reached the identical conclusion. Marital satisfaction is linked to empathy. If a wife feels empathy from her husband, she is much more likely to be satisfied with her marriage and is less likely to cheat.
I once worked with Jane (not her real name), who is a personal assistant to a famous international figure. In her job, she traveled the world and was away from her husband sometimes for months at a time.
When her affair began, her marriage with Marc at a low point, but not critical.
” The five-star hotels, the fine dining, I was living in a lonely bubble of luxury,” said Jane. “I got involved with Chet because he pursued me, and I now know exactly how I was vulnerable. Marc was preoccupied with taking his company public and was pretty much ignoring me…even when I complained.
I know I was kinda bitchy, but my self-esteem was pretty much shot to hell. Chet made moves on me. He looked pretty good. I even thought I was in love with him. Marc and I have been together for 9 years. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs.
When I look back on that crazy time, I gotta ask myself…what was I thinking?”
Dr. Fisher says that women’s motivations to have affairs are typically more than just sexual. That’s not to say that some women don’t have affairs just for the sex or that sex wasn’t important. But overall, a cheating wife’s initial motivation for infidelity tends to be more about connection and less the about sex. However, great sex induces a neurochemical cascade that often seals the deal.
So my friend, there you have it. Research suggests that about 20% of married women cheat. But their primary reasons for doing so are due to a growing relational dissatisfaction.
So, men take note. Check your empathy connection with your partner.
“If you fail to do this”… well, you know how the song ends.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.