“Why did you betray me?” is a common question when infidelity is discovered. The answer is complex and requires a willingness to explore individualistic vulnerabilities, relationship factors, and the social-cultural context. Gender influences reasons for extramarital relationships because the motivations often reflect differences between men and women in attitudes and behaviors. Men have traditionally separated sex and love in their extramarital involvements, while women were likely to link sex and love. Of course, in the “new crisis of infidelity,” men have been more emotionally involved.
Frank lived on the edge and took lots of risks. He often waited to make his mortgage payment until the bank threatened to foreclose, drove way over the speed limit, and was impatient when doing routine tasks. He loved his wife and children and was committed to them, but he had extramarital sex for the variety and excitement. The forbidden and secret aspects intensified the excitement for him. Thrill-seeking infidelity is more characteristic of men than women.
Looking for an escape from the pressures of everyday life, seeking admiration or acceptance, enhancement of self-esteem, and reclamation of fading youth are other individual reasons for infidelity. A person’s values and attitudes toward monogamy are very important factors that influence and predict actual behavior. People who take advantage of an opportunity for an extramarital relationship justify their choice and give themselves permission to cross the line, while other people do not respond to attractive alternatives because they believe that infidelity is wrong.
Joan felt lonely in her marriage because she wanted more affection and understanding. She became emotionally dependent on a friend from work and started confiding in him about her marital problems. When her friend indicated that he was sexually attracted to her, she crossed the line by justifying to herself that she had fallen in love with another person. She blamed her husband’s inattentiveness for her affair.
Although marital dissatisfaction frequently creates vulnerability, many of the people who engage in extramarital relationships report that they are happily married. On the other hand, many unhappy spouses do not have affairs because of their value system. Women who have affairs are more likely than men to believe that their unhappy marriage is the cause rather than the result of an extramarital relationship.
Social and Cultural Influences
Bill’s beloved grandfather was a womanizer. Jack’s father cavorted with movie actresses while he was strongly committed to his role as patriarch of the family clan. Bill and Jack both followed the examples of their male philandering role models during their presidencies while living at The White House.
The social-cultural environment provides a context for extramarital behaviors. Many cultures such as the Mediterranean countries have a double standard in which married men are expected to engage in extramarital sex. At the same time, wives are severely punished for any hint of impropriety. Infidelity is the norm in certain occupations such as the entertainment industry. Birds of a feather flock together and foster each other’s extramarital affairs.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of what is seen as the factors leading up to an affair, people are responsible for the choices they make and cannot blame anyone else for the risk to their marriage and family that their infidelity creates. However, it is important to understand the vulnerabilities in the individual, the marriage, and in the social context in order to strengthen those weaknesses. A search for the meaning of the betrayal is the only way to establish honesty and trust and offer reassurance that another infidelity is unlikely to happen.