Why She’s Gotta Have It
How does a woman find happily ever after when human nature has us wired to cheat?
The affair happened a couple of years into Linda’s marriage. She was 32 at the time and had just relocated to Pennsylvania with her 2-year-old daughter, while her husband, a 33-year-old electrician, stayed behind in Arizona to sell their house. The couple planned the move to be closer to their families, but as soon as she and James were apart, Linda realized she was vulnerable. When she ran into an old flame in Pennsylvania a few days later, she knew it was just a matter of time.
At first Linda and the old flame only talked on the phone, five, six seven times a day. But five months later, they became intimate. Sometimes they made love at his house, sometimes at hers. “The sex part meant so little to me,” Linda says now. “I was caught up in the conversation, the romance, the newness of the relationship.”
When Linda’s husband, James, joined her six months after the affair began, Linda told him she needed time to sort through her feelings. Still unaware of the affair, James agreed to move into an apartment for a while. But he soon found out about the other man, after reading what he’d thought was an innocent E-mail. As tears filled his eyes, he asked his wife, “What’s going on?”
“It was a very difficult conversation,” Linda says now. The guilt and lies and logistics of leading a double life had become too heavy a burden, and she told her husband everything. Afterward, he just sat quietly. “He didn’t shout, rage or even threaten to do anything,” she says. “He just sat there devastated.”
That was three years ago, and Linda and James are still together, working on their marriage and taking it, Linda says, one day at a time. “It hurts me now to remember,” she says softly. “I know what I’ve done to our marriage, and I will live with that for the rest of my life.”
Studies show that nearly a quarter of married women — compared with 40 percent of married men — will cheat during their marriage. If you include other forms of intimacy, such as emotional or sexual intimacy without actual intercourse, that figure rises by 15 to 20 percent for both women and men. Falling in love seems easy; it’s forsaking all others that appears to be the hard part. But while romantic tradition casts men as the proverbial hunters — and the married partner more likely to stray — the truth is, that sexual fidelity can be as difficult for women to maintain as it is for men.
Rules of Attraction
“Monogamy has never been about our inclinations,” explains Pat Love, Ed.D., an Austin, Texas, marriage and family therapist whose book, The Truth About Love (Simon & Schuster), focuses on the biology of love. “Don’t expect to feel inclined to be monogamous. It’s not the nature of our species.” Instead, nature programs us to meet, mate, procreate, and rear offspring, thus ensuring the survival of the species. That early infatuation, enchantment and sense of swinging from the chandelier with a brand-new lover are nature’s sneaky ways of getting us to hook up often enough to make babies. It’s called chemistry, and it makes us euphoric. We get caught up in the romance and think we’ll always feel that way.
“The trouble is, the infatuation that’s there in the beginning of a relationship is just a stage, and it’s destined to end,” Love says. “That’s why monogamy is always about choices. It’s about our morals, character, commitment and values and the choices we make to honor them.”
So how do we transform our initial euphoria into happily-ever-after, especially after new love settles into the week-in, week-out routine? Well, for one thing, it helps to understand that after the first blush of romance, partners in a relationship will tend to express very different levels of desire — and that is perfectly natural.
In both women and men, desire is primarily related to levels of testosterone. In general, men have higher testosterone levels than women, giving them a more powerful sex drive. In comparison, women naturally produce higher levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone secreted when we nurse babies. This suggests that men are programmed by nature to sow their wild oats as far afield and as often as possible, while we women, once the bonding hormone kicks in, are programmed to stay put and raise the little seedlings — all in the name of perpetuating humankind.
At least, that’s the theory. But even allowing for the broad strokes of theory, the levels of sexual desire in women and men can vary widely. There are millions of high-testosterone women with powerful libidos and low-testosterone men who could take it or leave it any day of the week. Indeed, the science of desire is complicated and, in the long run, can play itself out in infinite ways.
In the short term, however, the pattern is clear. According to therapist Pat Love, about 18 months into a romantic relationship, a state of complacency sets in, and passion and euphoria begin to wane. Most women don’t understand that this is merely another stage in the relationship, one that requires new stimuli, sexual and otherwise, to maintain interest and excitement. Instead, we assume our declining libido is a sign that we’re no longer in love with our partners, and we can be tempted to look for another hormone high with someone new.
It doesn’t help that our careers and overscheduled lives further stress our relationships and bring us into contact with attractive people all the time. Add to that our biological urge to mate, and one is left wondering whether it’s realistic to expect absolute fidelity from our men — and even from ourselves — over the course of a lifetime.
The Case for Monogamy
In our culture, the conventional wisdom is that the optimal child-rearing situation is a stable two-parent home — one reason Western cultures embrace monogamy. “Infidelity deprives us of achieving the highest level of marital and family satisfaction,” says Shirley Glass, Ph.D., a Baltimore marriage and family therapist who is the author of Not “Just Friends” (The Free Press). She points out that affairs can drain marriages of time, emotional intimacy, economic resources, and sexual exclusivity. That often makes it more difficult for parents to support each other in providing a nurturing home for their children, which means that infidelity ultimately undermines our ability to give children the best possible chance at a secure future.
In addition, Glass adds, that studies have shown that very few people who have affairs use protection, increasing the odds of disease and unwanted pregnancy. And with census statistics showing that only 37 percent of African-American children lived in a two-parent household in 2000 (down from 58 percent in 1970), it’s especially important for the future of our families — and the emotional well-being of our children — that we take time to understand what monogamy is and isn’t and how we can make it work for us.
Desperately Seeking Affection
What a couple needs to remain faithful, experts say, is the right attitude. But for some women, the right attitude can be hard to come by. Kathy, 37, works for a nonprofit Christian organization in central Florida. She has been married 12 years, has four kids, and in 1999 ended an affair with a coworker to give her marriage one more try. She began the affair after taking a part-time job at the post office. Three months later her husband visited her at the post office, and he sensed something when he met the coworker. That evening he asked Kathy if she and the coworker were more than friends. “I just said yeah,” says Kathy, still bewildered by her response. “I hadn’t planned on telling him; I just wasn’t quick enough to lie.” That was supposed to be the end of it, but the affair continued for another three years. Kathy and her 37-year-old husband, a sheriff’s deputy, have been on the verge of breaking up because of it ever since.
Kathy says she turned to another man because her husband was “cold and uncaring.” He compared her unfavorably with women he worked with, and she was unhappy and desperate. “I was just yearning for a minute or two of affection,” she says, “to feel like a woman again.” She prays that God will forgive her, that her husband will forgive her, and that she will forgive herself. But she is still lonely in her marriage. So Kathy also prays that she won’t be tempted again.
“Sometimes when you’re feeling neglected, abandoned, or not loved, you are so vulnerable,” says Patricia M. DeLorme, who has a Washington, D.C., family therapy practice. “It doesn’t take much: Perhaps somebody says, ‘Let me rub your back, let me talk to you, let me listen to you.'”
Women are far more likely to say that emotional distance in their primary relationship led them to seek affection elsewhere, DeLorme says. At the same time, men tend to cite sexual attraction as the main reason they cheat. Socially, however, women who cheat are far more harshly judged than men who cheat, and DeLorme believes that for Black women, who often bear the responsibility for holding families and communities together, this judgment can be particularly cruel. “We pride ourselves on being superwomen, but that doesn’t allow us to be human women,” she says. “And human women feel isolated. Feel tired. Feel unable to bear the burdens of our lives and feel the human need for nurturing, love, and attention.”
Caring for children, a task that falls mostly to women is one of the main stresses that can cause us to seek solace outside marriage. Caretakers of young children are often sleep-deprived and overwhelmed and show signs of depression, which can cause communication breakdowns and resentment between partners. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there are irrevocable problems in the marriage,” DeLorme says, “but it can be a sign that something is not working, that a couple need to find better, more inventive ways to get their needs met.”
DeLorme suggests that couples make a date to just talk to each other. Don’t use the time to talk about the kids. Rather, ask “How was your day?” “Are you okay with this?” “What are you feeling?”
“Check in with each other,” she says. “You have to steal those moments together at home so somebody else doesn’t come in and steal them.”
Outside the home, it’s important that we strictly monitor our social and professional interactions, keeping them within acceptable boundaries. This is especially necessary at work, where most affairs occur. In more than 25 years of infidelity research, therapist Glass has seen a shift from the traditional model of male philandering, which involved recreational sex and could go on for years undetected.
“Thirty years ago, before women entered male-dominated professions, men had affairs with women who were subordinates that were based solely on sexual attraction,” she explains. “Now that men and women are colleagues, the attraction is often intellectual and emotional as well, so it’s much more threatening to the marriage.”
Couples who have made a commitment to be monogamous need to understand that we needn’t feel guilty about being attracted to someone other than our partner. But we do have to minimize the time we spend alone with such people so that we don’t end up in bed and wonder how in the world we got there. “A wise person will see the attraction as a red flag and will begin to put up walls,” says Glass. “And the more attracted you are to somebody, the thicker those walls need to be.”
Yes, there will always be women and men who feel those biological urges and willingly follow where they lead. But for those of us who desire some version of faithfully-ever-after, the fact is that marriage, commitment, and sexual fidelity are a good deal more complicated than the fairy tales we were raised on. That’s why it is critical that we respect both the biology and the chemistry of love.
When you get right down to it, the old love songs seemed to have gotten it just about right. “Try a Little Tenderness,” they advised us, or somebody just might start singing “Me and Mrs. Jones.”