Wives I see in intensive couples therapy want to know “Why do married men cheat?”
When I researched this question, I discovered lots of useless opinions and dubious surveys. I thought our readers might want to learn what some new higher quality, social science research coming out of our universities has to say about why married men cheat. Research tells us that there can be many reasons. The following causes are numbered, but are not ranked in order of importance. However, each reason has some clinical research behind it. It’s not just opinion.
Yeah, sounds like an excuse …doesn’t it?
A recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that “men are more likely to give in to sexual temptations because they tend to have stronger sexual impulse strength than women do.” So says Natasha Tidwell, lead author of this study conducted at the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. “Men have plenty of self-control — just as much as women…However if men fail to use self-control, their sexual impulses can be quite strong. This is often the situation when cheating occurs.”
I interpret this as a comment on how powerful the male sex drive is, not as an excuse for poor impulse control. Men who cheat have as much willpower as women, but the temptation to stray in inherently greater. Self-control, from an evolutionary biology perspective, is one of the new kids on the cognitive block. Tidwell and her team see infidelity, in part, as an impulse control issue.
Loras College psychologist Julia Omarzu and a few of her colleagues conducted a study of people who were either currently or very recently having an extra-marital affair. The intent of their research was to examine how the study subjects described their emotional experiences during and after their infidelity.
Unfortunately, the participants weren’t acquired from a random source, so the results cannot reliably be generalized to the broader population of the unfaithful. And this study wasn’t just limited to men. However, researchers may one day look back on the Omarzu study and credit it for helping to clarify where more research is needed. Omarzu is a helpful new addition to our understanding of the emotional context of infidelity.
The Omarzu study also suggests that marital sexual unhappiness may draw men into affairs. Some men are comfortable compartmentalizing their sexual desires, but describe their marriage as an otherwise “happy” one. These “happily” married men are often massively distressed in couples therapy when they realize that they put their marriage and family in jeopardy because of their behavior. Power, privilege, and a sense entitlement also have a role to play with these otherwise “happy” husbands. This is backed up by other research which suggests that the greater the income disparity between a couple, the greater the likelihood of infidelity.
I found some arguments and pseudo-research that claimed that this was the number one reason for men, but I could see little credible academic research to back it up. Lack of emotional intimacy is, however, more of an issue for unhappily married women. But it is also true for some men. Overall, men are reporting somewhat more emotional involvement with their affair partners than 30 years ago, but it’s still not a significant factor.
Men hunger for appreciation. While this is a profound emotional need, it lacks the bi-directionality of intimacy. Men often get drawn into workplace affairs because they become addicted to the unmitigated esteem and validation they feel from their affair partner. Validation, admiration, and appreciation are some of the well-worn tools of the workplace mate-poacher.
This research finding was similar to research by Allen and Baucom (2004). That reported found that men with a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment style would cheat as a way to distance from their spouse. Attachment science is helping us to learn more about infidelity.
Other research by Del Giudice (2011) and Feeney (1999) demonstrates that men are more likely to develop a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment style, while women tend to acquire an Anxious-Avoidant Attachment style.
In the Omarzu study, relatively few men reported that they cheated because they fell out of love with their spouse. Equally rare are married men who cheat because they fall in love with their affair partners. In fact, numerous studies indicate that the reasons why married men cheat have little to do with a feeling that they are “out of love” with their partner.
Why married men cheat has less to do with love or limerence. Because a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment is so prevalent among men, they tend to be much more casual and superficial in their infidelities than women.
This finding surprised me, and I would like to see more research on affairs and limerence. Limerence is a peculiar phenomenon of “love sickness” which tends to fade after 18 months or so. Very few Men in the Ormazu study reported that they had become infatuated or obsessed with their affair partner. Sexual satisfaction, validation, and to a somewhat lesser extent, emotional intimacy were more commonly reported reasons why married men cheat than limerence.
Payback Affairs. Getting even with a cheating partner is a familiar theme in Hollywood movies, but it rarely plays out that way in real life. It does happen…just not that often.
We have growing reason to believe that the individual attachment styles of men are a template for understanding their sexual behavior. Men may use their sexual behavior a tool to achieve an optimal “comfort zone” for whatever degree of intimacy they can tolerate in their marriage.
According to Cooper (2006), securely attached men are more likely to confine their sex life to their committed relationship. and securely attached couples are less likely to grapple with extra-marital affairs. As this research begins to inform clinical practice, science-based couples therapy will become even more successful in treating infidelity by helping distressed couples to develop secure attachment.
Allen, E.S. & Baucom, D.H. (2004) Adult attachment and patterns of extra-dyadic involvement. Family Process,43, 467-488.
Cooper, M.L. Pioli, M., Levitt, A., Telly, A. E., Micheas & Collins, N .L. (2006). Attachment styles, sex motives, and sexual behavior. In M. Mikulincer & G.S. Goodman (Eds.) Dynamics of Romantic Love: Attachment, caregiving, and sex (pp. 243-274) New York, NY: Guilford Press.
N. D. Tidwell, P. W. Eastwick. Sex Differences in Succumbing to Sexual Temptations: A Function of Impulse or Control? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013.
Omarzu, J., Miller, A. N., Schultz, C., & Timmerman, A. (2012). Motivations and emotional consequences related to engaging in extramarital relationships. International Journal Of Sexual Health, 24(2), 154-162.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.