Although social norms and Hollywood portrayals often depict men as the sex more likely to cheat, studies show that the infidelity gender gap is narrowing—especially among younger people.
Take, for instance, a research study out of The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, which surveyed 918 men and women with an average age of 31 and found that "there were no significant gender differences in the report of infidelity (23% of men vs. 19% of women)." Then there's the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (GSS), which found that women between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to cheat than men of the same age group (11% vs. 10%). Further data out of the GSS showed that the percentage of women who cheat rose nearly 40% from 1990 to 2010, while men's adultery rate held steady at 21%.
The reason for the uptick in women who cheat? Some attribute it to the increased responsibilities (and therefore increased needs and wants) of the modern woman, as they shoulder the traditionally female duties of housekeeping and child-rearing along with the added demands of a career. Empowered by feminist viewpoints and financial freedom, modern women are less likely to compromise—and better positioned to seek out the emotional and sexual gratification that's missing in their relationship. "[Women] want what they were supposed to get from marriage in the 1950s—house, kids, stability, security," says Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW. "They also want to be loved, respected, and desired, and for their partners to be interested in and to care about their thoughts, feelings, and ideas."
The question still remains: Why do women cheat? Read on for 10 common reasons why women cheat, plus expert insight that may help explain the motivation behind their behavior. Of course, every situation is unique, but these explanations may help you better understand the mindset of women who cheat.
They're Dealing With Low Self-Esteem
When a woman is struggling with low self-worth, it may spur them to look to external sources for the attention and validation that they and their partner are unable to create and sustain. A woman who cheats may rely on affairs to provide them with proof of their value or desirability, or to give their life meaning. When one fling ends, it may cause them to feel neglected or worthless, so they pursue a new romantic interest—and the cycle continues.
They Feel Emotionally Starved
While studies suggest that men who cheat are primarily motivated by sex, women who cheat tend to do so to fill an emotional need. And in the case of an emotional affair, sex isn't part of the equation at all. Whether the affair is physical or emotional in nature, a woman may cheat because they crave conversation, empathy, respect, devotion, adoration, support, or some other connection that's lacking in their current relationship.
They're Expressing Anger and Retribution
Some women enter into a relationship with an idealized image of how their spouse should behave as a parent, a partner, a professional, or some other role. When the partner falls short of expectations, it can create a divide in the relationship that provides the impetus to stray. "Some women expect their partner to meet their every need and desire (even when they don’t bother to share what those needs and desires are)," says Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW. "When their partner inevitably fails them, these women will sometimes turn to someone else."
Some women may resent their partner for another reason, such as a partner's past affair, and use their own infidelity as retaliation.
They're Craving Excitement
You've likely heard of the term serial cheaters—people who cheat for the thrill of it. Women can be thrill-seekers, too. They may love their S.O. but yearn for those endorphin-fueled interactions that make a new relationship so exciting.
In fact, in a study helmed by Eric Anderson, the chief science officer at the affair dating website AshleyMadison.com, it was found that 67% of heterosexual, married women who cheat sought out "romantic passion," yet 100% of the women denied any intention of leaving their husbands; some even "stated their overt love for their husbands, painting them in a positive light."
They Feel Sexually Deprived
Try as we might to keep the spark alive, the excitement that accompanies a new relationship only lasts so long. "The most predictable thing about a relationship is that, the longer it progresses, the quality and the frequency of sex between the couple will fade," continues Anderson. "This is because we get used to and bored of the same body."
It's not surprising, then, that some women who cheat are missing those thrilling hallmarks of a relationship's beginning stages, when passion and intrigue have yet to give way to routine and familiarity.
A woman who cheats may have a partner who works long hours, leaving them home with the kids all day. Perhaps they've found themselves in a stage in life when it's harder to make friends, or maybe their S.O. is contending with a chronic illness.
Whatever the reason, loneliness can cause us to "distort our perceptions such that we view ourselves, our lives, and our relationships more negatively—which in turn, influences our behavior in damaging ways," notes Guy Winch Ph.D. This can lead a woman to cheat, as these feelings of isolation and disengagement cause them to look for companionship outside of their primary relationship.
They Lack a Secure Attachment Style
Attachment theory suggests that early childhood relationships influence how we perceive and behave in our intimate relationships as adults. Depending on the care and nurturing (or lack thereof) that one receives as child, they'll fall into one of three attachment styles as adults: secure (having well-adjusted expectations and approaches to relationships), anxious (exhibiting fear of abandonment), or avoidant (preferring to retain their independence from others).
Women who identify with the latter two "insecure" attachment styles are more likely to display characteristics—think clinginess and dismissiveness—that interfere with a healthy romantic relationship. Moreover, they're more likely to cheat, as they seek out reassurance from a third-party partner or attempt to avoid the intimacy of the primary relationship.
They're Going Through a Mid-Life Crisis
While mid-life crises generally affect people between the ages of 35 and 60, the event, which often presents as a period of existential self-evaluation, has less to do with age than extenuating circumstances. Major life events, such as the death of a parent or a milestone birthday, may trigger a mid-life crisis in a woman, causing them to wrestle with the burden of greatness; that is, the sociocultural expectation that women can and should "have it all"—a successful career, a loving partner, adoring children, and so on.
"Events that make you change your viewpoint about yourself or life, that exhilarate and expand you or throw you a little off balance, can lead to seizing a new love or trying another man on for size," notes Carol Botwin her book Tempted Women: The Passions, Perils, and Agonies of Female Infidelity. A woman may act out of character as they attempt to realize their potential and make up for lost time. These actions can include infidelity, as a woman who cheats goes outside their primary relationship in search of happiness and personal fulfillment.
They're Contending With an Underlying Condition
According to Joel Block, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, depression and infidelity go hand in hand. "[An affair is] exciting, so much so that the brain can begin to pump out dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—neurotransmitters we produce when we’re attracted to someone, but which, not so coincidentally, are the same chemicals produced when we take antidepressants," he says. In other words, a woman who cheats is self-medicating through their infidelity, even if they don't realize the true reason behind their pleasure.
If a woman engages in compulsive sexual behavior that repeatedly interferes with their daily routine and relationships, consider sex addiction as a possible explanation. In this scenario, sex is used as a coping mechanism and is often accompanied by other addictive behaviors, such as alcoholism or drug abuse.
The Opportunity Arose
Very few acts of infidelity are premeditated, asserts Isadora Alman, a board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist with more than 35 years' worth of professional experience. "[Those who cheat] do so usually because they weren’t actively looking for it,” she says. "The opportunity was there—with a workmate, a classmate, someone in their social circle or at the gym, for instance."
Similar opportunities exist in the digital realm, too. Social media, dating apps, and texting have revolutionized the ease at which we can connect with others, so it's no surprise that these platforms often serve as a springboard for affairs—even if the interactions start innocently, without the intent of something illicit. What's more, women are generally more active on social media than men (although men are starting to close the gap).
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