WHY GOOD MEN CHEAT
If you think it’s only about getting some, think again. Baggage and bad judgment — and even a woman’s own behavior — are often at the root of a man’s betrayal
Tony knew he and his girlfriend, Ruby, would tie the knot — someday. They’d been together on and off since college, spending a small fortune on airfare and long-distance calls whenever Ruby returned to her native Barbados. So when her visa expired and they faced another separation, he thought, Why not go all the way? Ruby’s need for a green card may have rushed things a bit, but “in my mind, getting married was the honorable thing to do,” Tony * recalls.
* Some names and identifying details of individuals have been changed to protect subjects’ privacy.
They said their “I do’s” at a lavish island wedding, then relocated to Boston, where Tony was getting his M.B.A. and Ruby had enrolled in medical school. They seemed to be headed for a charmed life. So Tony wasn’t fazed when, 18 months later, Ruby confessed to an affair she’d had when they were dating long-distance. It was history, he figured. Ruby also demanded that he tell her if he’d ever cheated. By now he’d heard all about the players in her past. She needed constant reassurance that he was different. And in his mind, he was. Sure, he’d had a dalliance while they had been living apart, but since the woman meant nothing to him, why not ‘fess up and put his wife’s mind at ease? Big mistake. “She went off,” says Tony. “I saw an anger that was scary.”
The discovery of a partner’s affair can hit a woman with the force of a runaway train. But does it mean that the relationship is permanently derailed? That depends, experts say. It turns out that some brothers who have been unfaithful aren’t necessarily players but loving — if imperfect — partners. Good men who strayed. Why does it happen? In the marketplace of desire, some men see an affair as an impulse buy. Subconscious needs can temporarily make a sexual opportunity seem too good to pass up. Only in hindsight do many realize the cost. Women may weigh the consequences more carefully.
But taking inventory of male behavior can be tricky. “There is a blanket assumption by women that every man who cheats is a bum,” says Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth (Newmarket Press) and a psychological consultant in San Diego. “Women think the infidelity is a reflection on them and a rejection of them.” And that perceived disregard is what makes the behavior so devastating and hard to forgive. But, as Vaughan points out, “infidelity isn’t always about the wife.” This realization helped Vaughan, married for 47 years to her high-school sweetheart, to hang tough during his affairs years ago and work with him to restore intimacy and trust once the drama subsided.
Eros and the Male Ego
Of course, not all marriages survive infidelity. And when a relationship dies, it isn’t often that the guy does a postmortem. Men, who don’t readily process emotions, are more likely to block off a painful past, notes William July II, author of The Hidden Lover: What Women Need to Know That Men Can’t Tell Them (Broadway Books). So it’s not surprising that some brothers insist that their reason for stepping out was purely sexual.
Take Percy Brown, who at age 26 married an older woman he had known for a year. (They wanted kids and, for medical reasons, having them right away was her only option.) He broke his marriage vows at the five-year mark. “After a while I just wanted to sleep with somebody else just once,” he says, feeling that his bachelorhood was far too brief. But he was probably looking to feed a more complex need: Money problems and the stress of being the family’s sole provider strained his sense of manhood. He also felt trapped in a role he wasn’t completely ready for and unappreciated by a woman he realized he didn’t know very well. He later admits that the affair made him feel powerful and desired.
“What a man may be looking for is admiration,” says Shirley Glass, Ph.D., author of Not Just Friends: Protect Your Relationship From Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal (Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group). “If he’s feeling needy, an affair can happen, and it’s not just about sex.” So what are some of the other reasons men stray? We asked a few brothers to speak for themselves. Keep in mind that it’s only one side of the story, but it’s straight from the (cheating) heart:
Tony: ‘My wife expected me to screw up.’
Sometimes a woman’s lack of trust in her man may influence him to stray. Let’s revisit Tony, whose wife, Ruby, learned of his affair before they wed. “She said I was a two-timing lowlife just like my uncle, who raised me,” Tony says. He can’t help thinking that Ruby’s question and his admission put him on the losing end of a destructive game of “gotcha.”
Over the next few years, the conflict continued. Ruby’s distrust deepened. Whenever Tony, a consultant, returned home from a business trip, he says, the inquisition would resume. Although their bitter arguments were typically followed by passionate sex, Tony grew increasingly withdrawn, which fueled Ruby’s suspicions. “Her insecurity was stifling,” he says. “After a while, I can’t say I went looking for anyone — I wasn’t hitting the clubs. But I met someone at a client site and we became friends.” The woman, Rochelle, looked up to him and sought his advice on professional and personal matters. She was also a good listener when he vented about the situation at home. This was a welcome change from his interactions with Ruby. “A long-term partner sees us warts and all,” notes Glass. “But what makes the prospect of a relationship with a new person so attractive is the unblemished image of ourselves we see reflected in their eyes.” Eventually Tony and Rochelle became lovers.
“Rochelle knew I was married,” Tony continues. “But I was convinced I’d had enough. I just didn’t want to end the marriage while Ruby was in medical school.”
Ironically, by checking out of his marriage psychologically without actually leaving his wife, Tony created a kind of buffer zone that made his home life tolerable. When the couple moved to Phoenix for Ruby’s pediatric residency, Tony decided there were enough positives in his marriage to give it another shot, breaking off his two-year affair. “Our marriage got a second wind,” he says.
But the change of scenery didn’t help for long. Tony began feeling smaller and smaller with each passing year. “She would bring me down constantly,” he says, describing how his wife would jokingly discredit compliments given to him in public. Meanwhile, Tony’s business travel left Ruby feeling increasingly abandoned. “She would accuse and complain. I would defend. She was feeling wronged, and I was feeling wronged,” he says. Though they’d planned on having kids, Ruby later told Tony that she didn’t feel he’d make a suitable father because too much of the child-rearing burden would fall on her. “Ruby wanted a Blockbuster husband who would rarely leave home except maybe to pick up a video,” Tony says. “I wasn’t that guy.” He felt devalued and unloved. “In my affair, I felt attractive and wanted. Having gotten a taste of that gave me a sense of what I was missing,” he recalls.
Five months before the marriage finally collapsed, Tony met a woman who stoked his libido and stroked his ego. “I got carried away,” he says of his relationship with a gorgeous woman who told him he was smart, great in bed, attractive — all the things he needed to hear.
But he also felt hypocritical and isolated. “I was the man my friends came to on matters of integrity,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep. I was living a big lie, and it was weighing on me. Eventually, I confessed to my wife.”
The admission was the final act in a ten-year drama. Their divorce was swift and uncontested — with his leaving her everything, including their home, to hasten closure and start anew. Since then he has been living with family and seeing a therapist to figure out what happened. “Once you have an affair, you begin to question if all men are cheats,” says Tony. “I behaved like one of the boys, cloaked in a gentleman’s persona. But I consider myself a good man. When I think of being good, it’s that good men make better choices. When they fall off the wagon, the way I did, they’re willing to get back on. Bad men stay off.”
A sense of “falling” is described by cheating partners again and again. Glass says that partners who begin to look outside the relationship for nonsexual intimacy are on “a slippery slope” that could easily lead to betrayal. July notes a similar pattern: “When some men have affairs, they’re not intending to leave their relationships. It’s more a situation of their running away from a problem. They see the other woman as an opportunity to escape from reality.”
Unfortunately, when a man tries to straighten out, his wife can focus on his failings or faults in a way that trips him further. And who’s there to catch him? You guessed it.
Howard: ‘How can she not see that I need her?’
Anita knew that her fiance, Howard, was a good man. She came home to hugs and a hot meal, and he would run her a bath as he listened to the details of her high-stress day as an executive recruiter. “The two clicked instantly three years ago,” says Grace Cornish, Ph.D., a psychologist in Bronxville, New York, who says their story is typical of couples who lose their way.
But when the pair set up house together, Anita’s take-charge attitude made Howard, a caseworker at a nonprofit agency, feel not that they were creating a new life together, but as if he’d been slotted into hers. “She was doing so many things, he felt marginalized,” explains Cornish, the author of You Deserve Healthy Love, Sis! (to be published next month by Crown). Howard also felt shut out of key financial decisions. For instance, Anita withdrew the down payment for a new Honda from their joint checking account without consulting him.
Meanwhile, budget cuts and layoffs at Howard’s agency swelled his caseload, causing him to work longer hours. He seemed to be around less on weekends too, going to games with the guys, Anita noticed. Then Howard was laid off, so Anita offered to pay his share of the rent. “She thought she was being supportive and kind,” says Cornish. “But Howard felt he wasn’t contributing, like he wasn’t needed.”
Then a trip to the dry cleaners left Anita feeling like the odd woman out. She found a number in Howard’s pants pocket. When she called, a woman named Raquel informed her that Howard was hers. “Give him up,” she said. “He doesn’t love you anymore.”
After the shock wore off and she’d spent some time in therapy, Anita asked Howard if they could work things out. Howard tearfully confided that he had wanted more attention. “Howard’s feeling was, How can she not see that I need her?” says Cornish, adding that his affair was fueled by a desire to get back at his fiancee and a hunger to feel powerful and adored.
And that’s where Raquel fit in. Their friendship started at work. He had helped the pretty single mom of three, who had fallen on hard times, find housing and a job that allowed her to go to school part-time. In her eyes, he was Superman. He kept in touch with his former client, stopping by and doing little favors. “When his comfort level at home was disturbed, he restored it with this younger woman who looked up to him,” says Cornish. “It wasn’t really about the sex.”
But sex became a casualty as Howard and Anita worked to put his affair behind them. They moved into separate bedrooms. They postponed their wedding. Sometimes she’d lash out at him. He’d listen, humble himself, and admit — again — how sorry he was. But sometimes they would share experiences: How he’d learned growing up that a man should always be in charge, how she’d learned, after an uncle abused her, never to show vulnerability with a man and to depend on no one but herself. And after almost a year of healing, they began also to talk about the future. Now they’re saving to buy a house, deciding where to go for vacation, and planning other major expenses together.
“Couples can come back from an affair,” says Glass. “The injured party will never look at the transgressor the same way. He or she can’t just say, ‘Hi, hon, I’m back.’ But if the transgressor is willing to take responsibility, a loving relationship can be restored.”
Is Betrayal Biological?
“My DNA made me do it.” That’s a built-in excuse for cheaters everywhere. But sex researcher Vern Bullough, Ph.D., author of Science in the Bedroom (Basic Books), doesn’t totally subscribe to the theory that cheating is a natural instinct, a biological imperative. Like other experts, the adjunct professor at the University of Southern California says men cheat more to preserve their egos than to preserve their genetic code. “Depending on his temperament, a man may feel that he has to have an affair to show power,” says Bullough. “Another way is to buy a motorcycle.”
The choice boils down to self-control, says Rozario Slack, director of fathering and urban initiatives for First Things First in Chattanooga. “The challenge for someone tempted to cheat is to activate his or her higher self,” Slack says. “It’s easy to say ‘I can’t help myself,’ but these are the same people who can walk past a radio in the store and not steal it.” Choosing monogamy means choosing to integrate our sexuality, our emotions, and our spirituality, adds the married father of three. “There are so many bonds during sex — spiritual, physical, emotional,” he says. “A person cannot maintain these with more than one partner and remain whole.”
July insists that every man has a hidden lover who “longs for a pure open connection, emotionally and spiritually, with his mate.” But this kind of connection is tricky for a man conditioned from boyhood to wall off feelings.
As Tony noted, what separates the “good men” from the boys is the willingness to try. Slack adds that it’s also the willingness to stand firm, amid a sex-obsessed culture that he describes as “one big circus,” in the belief that monogamy is not only preferable but also possible.
Senemeh: ‘Family keeps me faithful.’
R. Senemeh Burke sets down his beverage, his head nodding in time to the music’s beat. Since he became a dad, a night out with his buddies is a rare treat. His boys rib him good-naturedly about that cocoa-skinned hottie who has been eyeing him all evening, but when she makes a move on him, he rebuffs her politely, pushes away from the bar, and tells his pals, “Later.”
“I’ve never cheated on my wife,” says the 37-year-old, a network administrator in Atlanta. But after ten years and two children, he notes this with neither superiority nor condescension. “I won’t say I haven’t thought about it,” he admits. “We have had some difficult times. But I haven’t had to go down that path as a solution.”
What keeps Senemeh focused is religion (he’s a Yoruba priest), his politics (Black nationalism), and his love for his two sons and his wife, an attorney. “When you’re talking about nationalism and nation-building, you’re dealing with the family unit,” he stresses. Watching his closest friends go through horrendous splits has also made him gun-shy about seeking sexual solace elsewhere. “I could not and would not be separated from my children,” he explains. “My sexual conquests do not define my self-esteem; it’s defined by the kind of father I am, the kind of family I maintain.”
While Senemeh won’t say he will never have an affair, he hopes that he won’t. “The most difficult thing is to make time for each other, to keep that spark alive,” he says, acknowledging many parents’ challenges. “If I’m happy at home, I won’t be inclined to look elsewhere.”
Communication helps keep the couple’s connection intact. Like any partners, the Burkes sometimes disagree about finances and household chores, but they’ve learned how to filter out toxic feelings before polluting their partnership.
And if a husband like Senemeh does feel tempted? Experts say that’s the time for him to start talking to his spouse about what may be troubling him — before he trips up. “Honesty is the only thing that can make a difference,” says Glass. “The commitment has to be to honesty, not monogamy.”