Men in pursuit of extramarital sex can carry on their philandering actions for decades without being detected, or they could encounter personal and professional catastrophes because of their habitual risk-taking behaviors. The paradox that is difficult for most women to understand is that these philandering men frequently perceive that they are committed to their wives and regard themselves as happily married. They are able to compartmentalize their sexual exploits as separate from their marriages until they are discovered. The underlying causes are usually individual issues that vary greatly although the contrasting patterns may look similar on the surface.
Successful men often perceive that they are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor by taking advantage of the women who are enamored of them. The common stereotype of the powerful man and the trophy woman is consistent with research findings across cultures and across time that men are attracted to beauty and youth, and women are attracted to power and resources. These prominent men are captivated by opportunities for the conquest of beauty queens who scorned them when they were young, awkward, and starting their climb up the ladder. What they usually fail to recognize or consider is that they become a trophy themselves when they take the giant step down from their lofty pedestal to engage in an illicit sexual relationship.
Men who view casual sex as not only pleasurable but as a privilege of their gender, are more likely to engage in extramarital sex. Attitudes and values are a stronger predictor of a husband’s likelihood to be unfaithful than his marital satisfaction. “I never turn down a gift” was the reason a man offered as a justification for extramarital relationships on a research questionnaire. Unfortunately, this viewpoint extends to the adolescent male whom a mature woman seduces. Instead of perceiving that he has been sexually molested, he believes that he has been especially favored. During adolescence, men learn to separate sex from love because their earliest sexual feelings are focused on their genitals rather than on an emotional attachment, as are adolescent girls.
A prevailing double standard in some ethnic or cultural groups accepts extramarital sex as traditional male behavior while prohibiting the women they love from following the same standards. Infidelity is a legacy carried down through the generations in families such as the Kennedys where the men are committed to family life but have affairs, and the women “stand by their men.” Occupations that were prone to rampant infidelity as an industry standard before the advent of sexual harassment suits not only condoned extracurricular “fooling around” by married men but actually fostered “territorial amnesia” by providing women for hire at conventions.
I have heard a number of men try to diminish the impact of their infidelities by saying, “You shouldn’t be this upset. It didn’t mean a thing.” When the wife asks how they would feel if the shoe was on the other foot, the common response is, “I’d kill you, but I know you’d never do anything like that.” They inherently recognize that a wife’s affair is usually more threatening to the stability of the marriage because of the greater likelihood of emotional involvement. Husbands are usually most by the sexual aspects of their wives’ affairs; whereas wives are often more upset if their husbands are emotionally involved with their affair partner, therefore a one-night stand may be less distressing than a prolonged affair with lots of romantic conversations.
Sex and Love Addiction
Philandering can be evidence of a sexual addiction. Sexual addiction is frequently accompanied by another addiction such as substance abuse. Addictions are generally characterized by compulsiveness, shame or guilt, and feelings of worthlessness. Addicted individuals are driven by the high they experience and are unable to resist their impulses despite the potential or actual cost to their career, family, or self. The sexual addict is preoccupied with sex. A forbidden act or illicit relationship increases tension, accelerates physiological arousal, and focuses the drive toward that which offers pleasure. Relief which is obtained through orgasm is only temporary and is followed by regret and shame. The cycle starts again as anxiety builds up which can only be relieved by the sexual behavior. In contrast, the entitled philanderer feels little guilt, and is open to opportunities, but is not anxious during periods of abstinence.
The need for excitement is an especially compelling component for the sexually addicted man. He must remain married so his wife can assume the important role of the disapproving parent because secrecy and barriers intensify his passion. Sneaking around behind his wife’s back adds to the thrill, even if the wife has no awareness of his extramarital involvements. Living on the edge such as being on the verge of bankruptcy and thrill-seeking activities such as Black Diamond skiing or drag racing may also be sought after because of the constant drive for an adrenaline high.
Men who seek excitement by falling in love with one affair partner after another may be love addicts. They are addicted to the high associated with the first stage of a relationship (Stage I). They appear to be incurable romantics who idealize their affair partners until reality bites or someone even more perfect comes along. The marriage suffers because of their perception that although they still love their wife, they are “in love” with the other woman. They are easily identified as men who engage in sequential monogamy; i.e. they are faithful only as long as the romantic idealization endures. However, they bail out as soon as the excitement wears off and start another Stage I relationship.
Love and sex addicts often seek sensory arousal as a means of compensating for inner feelings of emptiness and alexithymia (unable to define or feel emotions). Since the moderate glow of a long-term relationship seldom reaches the threshold of awareness, they need the hot flame of exciting sex or new love. Recovery is possible but must begin with an acknowledgment of the addiction.
Recovery and Healing
The shattered assumptions about the marriage cause the trauma of infidelity. The discovery of the infidelity is often unexpected. The betrayed wife may learn of her husband’s extramarital involvement when he gets arrested, or she gets a sexually transmitted disease, or the other woman shows up at her doorstep, or she reads about it in the newspaper. If the man has been discrete and has not changed any of his behaviors at home, the revelation comes as a horrible shock.
Recovery and healing are possible if the philandering husband takes responsibility for his actions, is truthful about the full extent of his betrayal(s), is empathic about the pain he has caused, and is truly committed to a monogamous marriage. The motivation for change is often the destructive consequences of the behaviors or the pain caused to loved ones. Couples counseling is used to explore the causes, open the windows of honest communication, and rebuild the marriage. There are self-help programs for the addicted philanderer such as Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous which are based on 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
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