Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that a growing number of married couples in my circle of 40-something friends are calling it quits. Unsurprisingly, infidelity is a factor in many of these break-ups. However, what is surprising to me is that in most of the cases, it’s the woman who is having the affair – not the man.
Today’s culture of infidelity is so drastically different from what I saw growing up in the 1980s, it could almost be considered a backlash. As a child, my friends and I saw how divorce left our mothers devastated and in dire financial straits, and we vowed never to let it happen to us. We worked hard in school, went to college and grad school, and pursued careers so that we would never have to be financially dependent on a man. We would not experience the pain that our mothers felt when they were cheated on, dumped for a younger version of themselves, and left with nothing.
Now, as we approach our mid-lives, it seems that we women are repeating the mistakes of our fathers. Why are we willing to risk everything – our marriages, our homes, our whole lifestyles – to have a romp in the sack with another man?
In order to better understand the complex motivations behind infidelity, I perused the Huffington Post Divorce’s Twitter feed to get a first-hand look at why women were having affairs:
“My husband and I were so busy with work and the kids that our life together had slid into the background.”
“Now that my kids are older, I want to go out and have fun. My husband isn’t fun anymore.”
“I needed confirmation that I was still hot and that other men found me attractive.”
“Being unfaithful made me realize that I was sick of living for others. I have the right to do something for myself. For once, not having to please others at my own expense.”
“It was almost inevitable, really, that I’d find him (my husband) boring after 20 years. But it wasn’t just the boredom – he also seemed not to be the right partner for me any more. It struck me that when I was younger I was searching for an alpha male, a provider, but what I want now is a much more sensitive man.”
“My husband doesn’t appreciate me anymore. It had become all about ‘who’s doing the laundry’ and ‘who’s picking the kids up from daycare.’”
I can relate to these women. Let’s face it, after 19 years of marriage, sex is not always 50 Shades of Grey steamy. Add to that the daily grind of work, raising kids, and maintaining a household, and it’s not hard to see how marriage can take backseat to life’s other responsibilities.
“I do it all,” my girlfriend explained to me with a tone of exasperation. “I work full-time. I take care of all the kids’ stuff. And I make sure the house is in order. All he does is work and come home and watch sports. I’ve had it.”
When a colleague at work started showing her attention — and appreciation — she soaked it up like a sponge. “I wanted someone who saw me as more than just a mother and a housekeeper. He appreciated me for my intelligence and saw me as a powerful and sexy woman.”
Another friend had quit her job as a lawyer in a big firm to stay home and take care of her kids. Her husband was totally consumed by his work. He traveled and was rarely around, leaving her alone on a regular basis. Although she was committed to her family, she silently resented that her husband had the freedom to work and travel, while she was stuck home. When her kids reached school-age, she went back to work and met another man, who appreciated and knew her as a smart, professional woman —not as an unhappy stay-at-home mom. The affair lasted for several years.
According to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago, women stray when they are unhappy in their marriages — when they are feeling lonely and disconnected from their partner, and when there is a lack of sexual intimacy.
Janis Abrahms Spring, author of the book, After the Affair, describes a physiological component that comes into play during the initial phases of an affair:
In the throes of romantic love, people experience a high from natural amphetamine-like chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine… the brain releases endorphines–natural painkillers that soothe and create a sense of security and calm.
As a result, you begin to “idealize the other person, assigning him or her more positive attributes than any one person could actually possess… You think the love must be real because the chemistry between you is so explosive.”
“If I hadn’t been such a martyr mom and had taken care of my needs earlier on, I may not have had the affair,” my lawyer friend told me. “Instead, I built up resentment and I exploded, like a pot boiling over.”
And women who think that they’ve found their “soul mate” in the other man are often mistaken. Relationships that start off as affairs don’t typically end well.
“Your relationship started out with some deceit, with some lies and a big problem affair couples have is they tend to be jealous and suspicious of each other because they know that person is capable of cheating,” said relationship expert Rachel Sussman, author of The Breakup Bible.
On the other hand, while some marriages can — and do — recover from infidelity, the path to forgiveness is long and difficult. Working on the relationship before an affair begins is easier than repairing it afterwards.
The bottom line? Marriage ain’t easy. If you go into it thinking it will be smooth sailing, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Every relationship experiences conflict — be it sickness, financial hardship, or the temptation of an attractive co-worker.
But it’s my belief that the ones that succeed are the ones that acknowledge that there will be bumps in the road and develop healthy coping strategies to deal with problems when they arise.
Samantha Parent Walravens is the author of TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, chosen by the New York Times as the first choice for its Motherlode Book Club.More On