Her Cheatin’ Heart: Infidelity’s aftermath

Dear Duana,

Two years ago, my wife’s wandering attention prompted me to scope phone records, where I found many lengthy calls to another man.  Helen ended contact when confronted, and I think she’s been faithful since.  Although she claims it was only emotional, my gut says otherwise.  I still love Helen, and there are our three young children to consider, but it makes me feel crazy when she denies the sexual cheating I just know she did.  Do I divorce her, or is there some way to quit feeling so jealous and angry, forgive her and prevent this from happening again?    



Dear Tristan, 

Others might say your jealousy, not Helen’s behavior, is the issue.  But as scientific affair authority Dr. David Buss writes in The Dangerous Passion, eliminating your jealousy “…would be like smashing a smoke alarm to solve the problem of a house fire.  Successful coping requires dealing with the fire.”  Tristan, you sensed emotional heat at a minimum—and perhaps a full-on sexual blaze.  And you stopped it, but injuries were sustained.  What now? 

Remain In Your Marriage.   What you’re going through is tremendously difficult and, given that about half of all marriages suffer at least one affair, frightfully common.  Although it’s tempting to think of divorce as the end of your troubles, it will only change them—bringing on many new threats you won’t be able to detect or fight, as The Case for Marriagedemonstrates.  Not only do divorced adults typically wind up worse-off than those who work through their problems, it’s a well-known hazard for children on every level: emotional, educational, health, income, future marital stability…kids even get less time with *either* parent after divorce.  And if you leave, your children’s risk of severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse increases over 40 times, because it’s likely that Helen will eventually involve boyfriends, a stepfather, and/or new older stepbrothers in your kids’ lives—and unrelated men in the home pose the #1 factor in children’s abuse and violent death today.  Do all unrelated men abuse kids?  Of course not.  But almost all the abusers are unrelated men—and your departure opens the door. 

About 2/3 of today’s divorces would be better-off avoided, according to much data—and I believe yours is one.  Among the strong arguments in favor of staying in this marriage:  Helen is not a habitual cheater; you believe she is now faithful; you still love her; recovery from affairs is difficult but commonplace; and over 85% of couples who consider divorcing—but don’t—say they’re “very happy” within five years, according to excellent research by sociologist Dr. Linda Waite.  So for everyone’s sake, I strongly advise you to Fix, Not Break, Your Marriage by doing what you can to heal and prevent another affair. 

First: Understand why Helen’s infidelity is so hard to forgive.  Globally, men divorce more often for wives’ affairs than any other reason, and they find sexual cheating much harder to forgive than emotional liaisons.  Why?  Ancestral men could never be certain the kids were theirs, so men whose jealousy helped prevent and stop women’s affairs left more progeny than men who lacked the smoke detector.  Fire prevention is in your blood, and today’s men are alarmed by the very thought of a partner’s sexual infidelity:  When asked to imagine being cheated on, Buss’ heterosexual male participants’ hearts pounded, their brows knit and their skin sweated for envisioned sexual infidelities—much more than for imagined emotional affairs.

Second: Know why women cheat.  Are cheaters narcissistic, psychopathic, impulsive women with an inability to make a real emotional attachment?  Yes, sometimes—but it’s not the norm.  Instead, as the song says, “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers.”  Most women *require* consistent signals of emotional closeness and great sex and bringin’ home that bacon—or else a “friend” may become much more.  That’s because in the deepest recesses of our psyche, we know our partner’s willing and able provision of love, commitment and resources spells Survival for us and our kids, and his withdrawal presages abandonment and possibly even death.  Some of the best minds in the field, such as Buss and Dr. Heidi Greiling, have amassed evidence that we’re (unconsciously) lining up a replacement, trading up, getting the Best Genes for our future kids while duping our mates into providing for them, etc.  Whatever it is we’re doing, this much is clear:  Once we’re unhappy, we’re often doing it on the side.

Third: Prevent future fires: Stay vigilant while increasing the love you show.   Tristan, keep that smoke alarm around.  You’ve got a good one, and the best predictor of what any person will do, Helen included, is what they’ve done before in a similar situation.  One way you’ll gain confidence is by remaining alert and seeing that your vigilance is rewarded with her continued fidelity.

But Don’t Be Obnoxious about your vigilance or the past.  Not only does venting rage increase rather than release aggression in any relationship—it opposes the intimacy your wife apparently lacked when she began turning to someone else.  I know that hurts; it may seem vastly unfair, and that’s not how I mean it.  But you told me a lot about Helen in private, and it sounds to me like she was simply feeling lonely—a huge affair risk for women.  In that case, increasing your show of love and affection is one of the very best things you—or any man—can do to prevent another affair because, as we’ve seen, women’s own alarms sound in response to a lack of intimate connection.  Buss’ studies have even identified the five most-effective-ranked “mate-retention tactics”, in this order.  I strongly recommend using them all, starting today and moving forward: 

—Say you love her;

—Go out of your way to be kind, nice and caring towards her;

—Compliment how she looks;

—Be helpful when she needs it; and

—Show more affection than before. 

If you’d like a book that shows you how to excel at these, Dr. John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work  is outstanding.  Or you can seek counseling with a goal of creating more intimacy in your marriage. 

This may seem a tall order when you are justifiably angry and hurt.  But Tristan, you don’t have a choice between the perfect life and this one.  In all likelihood, fixing this marriage is your greatest shot at happiness, and leaving would harm those you love best.  Maintain that alarm; love your wife; move forward.  You’re protecting your family—something men have been needed and admired for since time began.  Keep at it. 



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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

With special thanks to the following additional scientists for their groundbreaking work regarding affairs:  Dr. Shirley Glass and her book Not “just friends”   ; Dr. Thomas Wright; and Dr. Todd Shackelford.   


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Reader Comments (31)

I feel for Tristan --I am sorry this happened to you. But I am wondering .... Who cheats more on the marriage: Husbands or Wives?

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

I love this article - thanks, Duana! It is sound advice that rings true to me. I am a big fan of keeping marriages together, for all of the reasons you state. What Helen did was wrong and hurtful, but for Tristan to stay with her in the family unit, work on the marriage, and get through this to a better day .... wow. Easy to throw in the towel, but staying would be so strong, admirable, and heroic in my mind.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

@Gillian, Thank you for letting me bring this up: Heterosexual men and women differ quite vastly in the whys and ways of cheating.

First, here's what men and women have in common: Cheating early in a marriage spells Doom. People who are going to stay happy aren't looking elsewhere during the honeymoon! Also, affairs are very common for both sexes.

But otherwise, there are many differences! More men than women tend to cheat (about a 10% lifetime gap). And of the men who cheat, they tend to have a larger number of affair partners than women who cheat do. Presumably, it's from an ancient spread-the-seed creed that governs a male mating psychology where more progeny = more success; remember Genghis Khan and his 16 million male descendants?

Women, on the other hand, can't dramatically increase their number of kids by sleeping around, but they can gain a back-up mate as protection in case the current one leaves or dies; in the ancient past when women had to have a mate for survival, and mates did in fact die, women with a replacement strategy would have survived better and had children who inherited that mating psychology. So it's expected, and found, that women who cheat tend to have a low number of affair partners, compared to men who have affairs.

Men also cite different reasons for cheating--basically a physical yearning for a variety of partners, and not typically a desire for emotional bonding. This, too, may have been adaptive, allowing a man to sire children abroad but keep his heart at home--even today, men who fall in love during an affair often leave their wives, so emotional liaisons are more dangerous than physical ones in some ways for men and their families. And in fact, studies show that men who have affairs are more successful at avoiding emotional bonding in their extracurricular relationships than women are (That's not too surprising, though, since most women are cheating specifically to get emotionally involved!).

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

(continued) As we've seen, when women cheat, it's usually highly associated with unhappiness --except for the relatively few cases Buss and Todd Shackelford found where personality issues such as narcissism, extreme impulsivity and a lack of empathy for others get in the way; other studies indicate that women with an anxious attachment style are also more likely to cheat than those who are better-able to feel security in an adult relationship bond.

I can't overstate it, though: Wanton women who are satisfied at home and are just cheating for the hell of it are pretty rare. Dr. Shirley Glass found that the most common way that affairs begin for women is tied to their feelings of deep unhappiness with the emotional state of the marriage.

I know that's a very painful thing for a man to hear; Tristan found it painful when we discussed it. But there IS a silver lining: Knowing that emotional and/or sexual distance (closely related!) are issues can at least empower a man to win back his sweetheart. It can also help men to prevent affairs to begin with. If "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers," the converse is that satisfied women stay faithful. And it's usually true.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Shockingly, Dr. Glass did NOT find that unhappiness was the primary reason for male cheating. In fact --buckle your seatbelts, folks-- the men who cheated tended to be HAPPIER with their marriages than the men who were faithful. (Pause for shock and awe.)

I wish Dr. Glass were still alive so we could ask her for her interpretation of those data. She passed away in 2003 and was exploring this topic at the time. However, here are some possibilities:
Possibility #1. Having sex with a lot of women makes men happier. This is not the interpretation most people want to hear, but it's a possibility, especially given that mating psychology is inherited, and the men of the past who slept around left a lot more kiddos behind to carry that preference forward.
This idea is also a possibility given that men who cheat are usually NOT doing it for emotional reasons--they can be happy at home and still remain emotionally detached elsewhere.

2. Possibility #2: Successful men tend to have happier wives AND more opportunity to sleep around. This one makes a lot of sense. Women throughout history have flocked towards successful men (married or not). Men who have greater resources tend to have more loyal mates, and these same men also tend to have women literally throwing themselves at them.

3. Possibility #3: Happiness in marriage leads men to cheat. Unlikely!

Other research has suggested the lack of a link between men's affairs and their happiness--with just over half of male cheaters being happily wed, and just under half being unhappy. I suspect that there is more than one kind of man, just as there's more than one kind of woman :) --meaning that men who cheat from unhappiness may be different in many ways from the men who cheat while happy.

Sounds like a topic of further research.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Joan, thank you. Science has changed my opinion of many, many things; affair rationales and recovery is just one area where the data wrecked my prior notions.

Before I read the data, I sided with the majority of today's USA culture in thinking the following:
--Couples who are unhappy should divorce for the sake of the kids;
--Adultery is always a good reason for a divorce;
--Couples who are unhappy will stay that way, so they are better off divorcing.

Science has trounced all three of those popular ideas (I urge anyone contemplating divorce to first read The Case For Marriage; link is above).

Children are better-off only if the parents are literally at one another's throats--a criterion met by fewer than a third of American divorces that involve kids (and even then, this presumes the parents will *stop* the horrific fighting after the split--when parents go right on fighting, the kids have lost much and gained nothing). For those other 2/3, divorce is devastating--a word I don't use lightly, and which most scientists whose work I've encountered would underline, highlight and star. There are ways to protect children's interests while divorced--but very, very few people have the economic, social and emotional resources it takes to engage that Herculean task.

Also, most couples can fix their marriages, even when the problems they have had include an affair. It does take heroism, as you've said, Joan--it takes maturity and a willingness to keep the prize in sight instead of nursing hatred and grudges. Those who can do this wind up healthier, happier and wealthier than those who split--and that's true whether or not they ever had children.

That said, it's clear that some adults are better-off divorced--what used to be known as Fault Divorces (as opposed to today's no-fault divorces). These may include those who are suffering a partner who exhibits the following *repetitive* "Three A's"--and who will *not* stop: Adultery; Addiction; Abuse.

Divorce has always existed in every part of the world, and there is a need for it. Science just suggests that we have now, in this time and place, gone far beyond meeting that need and are actively encouraging the end of marriages that could--and often, should--be saved.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

What's interesting to me about all of this is that it sounds like women don't really want to cheat, but seemingly find themselves with little choice from a survival standpoint.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Why do we have such a hard time forgiving an affair? From my unschooled perspective, an affair is always a symptom of something. Often it even seems unrelated to the marriage, but I think it's a symptom, nevertheless, and yet we treat the affair as the original crime. My ex had frequent liasons, and although we eventually divorced, it was not because he cheated on me, but because of what caused him to cheat.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

As to why men who cheat tend to be happier in their marriages, may I suggest reason #4: men who cheat, especially those who cheat repetitively, may well be gregarious, self-confident, outgoing, and socially adept, which are traits that can contribute to general happiness and also increase the chance of finding multiple partners.

The aspie in me cannot help but add that the brilliant Dr. Welch is incorrect in saying that men have been admired for protecting their families since time began. Time, at least as we know it, began 13.7 billion years ago; humans have only been around perhaps 7 million years -- a drop in the bucket. Even if we figure in proto-human primates -- or even yet if we count other, earlier species in which males protect the family units -- men have only been protecting family units for a fragment of "since time began."

Of course, it could be argued that time is older than that, or even that time did not begin but always was, but that's a whole other megillah.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreystoke's Mom

Wow-ee-wow-wow, Duana!

You are a fount of excellent information! I am so glad I found your article. I love the explanation of all the whys and ways that men and women cheat. I will certainly keep reading, so please keep writing!

Reading the posts, 2 random thoughts come to mind:

1. If Helen was so unhappy with the emotional state of her marriage, I wish she would have spoken up about it to Tristan.... maybe she did .... instead of resorting to the drastic step of an affair.

I think women are often guilty of expecting men to "just know" how we feel. But men need the SOS call to be in ALL CAPS, bold, and underlined.

2. About happily married men having affairs: May I suggest another reason? Thrill -seeking. Recently I was *stunned* to hear from a fond acquaintance that she is divorcing her husband after 30 (yes, 30!) years of marriage. She confided that her husband has struggled with infidelity for the last 10 years. He is a highly successful (and attractive) businessman, but everytime something goes wrong at work, he goes on a sexual conquest and has an affair.

He is happy at home, but seems to be addicted to "thrill seeking" (i.e., scoring yet another sexual deal) and he can't ...or won't ....stop. They've tried having him do thrill-seeking in other ways (sky-diving, car-racing....) but it didn't work. After tolerating adultery for 10 years, and failing to resolve the issues through counseling, my acquaintance relunctantly moved out and filed for divorce.

It is hard on her, because she doesn't want the divorce, but at some point enough is enough. Both kids are in college. So she will be starting over at mid-life, seeking another mate for the duration :) I suppose I will look for your article on how to remarry later in life, and send it her way ....

Thanks for putting the science and the love together in one compassionate package that is so enjoyable and informative to read it - love it!

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

Are you kidding me?? Who has TIME for an affair?

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

@Greystoke's mom, I stand corrected--my "time began" was meant as "human time began" ;).

Your #4 reason is probably related to my second possibility regarding why the happiest men in Glass' research were cheating. Women globally prefer long-term mates who show signs of being willing and able to provide and protect...but when choosing affair partners, they especially enjoy partners who can provide Good Genes. A man who Has It All is a catch to many...and may catch many!

Some recent research suggests that many women understand this, and will intentionally bypass a man who is exceptionally good-looking and successful (think Don Draper in Mad Men, and consider his behavior). When asked why, they indicate their belief that a man who is very good-looking and successful will cheat. Love is a least it seems that many are aware of the stakes.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Anonymous-- LOL! I was thinking the same thing as I wrote this column. Erma Bombeck wrote a book years ago with the subtitle, "Or, too tired for an affair."

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

NO matter what the sex (MALE OR FEMALE). People are gonna do what they want to do. Unless someone has a gun to your head each choice is a concious decison that each individual makes on their own. Insecurity relying on someone else for happiness, incompleteness are all individual problems each person has to deal with. Most people get into a relationship long before they should looking for some one to make them happy. THIS IS WRONG. people should be complete and Happy with themselves before they get into a relationship so their signifigant other adds to their Life and Happyness. Like Paint on a house. The paint doenst mean anything if the foundaiton or structure of the house is not solid. Painting over crap is just that painting over crap only temporary until a strong storm comes and blows it apart. People cheat out of frustration, revenge, insecurity you could go on and on. It's a concious decision that no one forces you to make. YESS you may blame the other partner for YOUR decision however that's just not wanting to take ownership so as to put the guilt off on someone else. Now domestic violence is another issue all together. If someone is gonna cheat they should end their relationship and DO it right. But we know that most people dont like leaving one job without having another already the same goes with relationships because GOD FORBID anyone Being alone before starting another relationship. BUT AGAIN THIS IS JMO. As for forgiveness it's very hard to erase things that have already been done, scars never go away and humans never forget.

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThomas SMith

Was it really his wife’s wandering attention or he scoped the phone records regularly; being inquisitive from time to time? Did her wandering attention look right away to him as if she had an affair or other options were observed before the above one was concluded? Did the husband recognize the kind of wandering attention he himself went through sometimes in the past?

“…she claims it was only emotional…”.

Wording “only” with “emotional” together? Were those her words or the husband put it that way?

“…forgive her and prevent this from happening again?”

Presumably the letter is authentic. If it is, then to my opinion, the way it is put says that the husband could be a bit of a self-absorbed character. I do not want to sound judgmental; yet sometimes a little light shed on a devil inside may explain certain “wrong-doings” of those we love. I would definitely look for texts Mrs. Welch recommended here.


September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterI.Pavlov

@Monica, I can see how this could be read as seeming like women are unwilling cheaters--and that's usually true in the sense that most express profound emotional unhappiness as the motivator of their affairs. For them, emotional withdrawal can indeed signal a man who might move on, and they may be getting "mate insurance" (Buss' words) by paying sexual rather than economic premiums to a back-up partner. Again, from an evolutionary psychology vantage point, this strategy is likely to have been rewarded at early points in human history where the death of a male mate could herald death for surviving wives and children, and a back-up plan might have been called for.

Unfortunately, a lot of details are necessarily left out of a 1,000-word column! Some women do seek out affairs quite willingly, albeit still ultimately from a place of dissatisfaction; Drs. Buss and Greiling interviewed such women and women who actively pursue short-term flings. They found the top reason the women gave for cheating was unhappiness with their regular man's performance in the boudoir. They expressed dissatisfaction with the amount, frequency, and/or technique. And, being women, all they had to do to Get Some on the side was ask.

The conscious benefits women reportedly derive from these sexual affairs are, in this order: sexual gratification and a boost to self-esteem. But most of human mating psychology is unconscious; we're able to say we do something because we enjoy it, but we're unable to say why we enjoy it. That's where a close examination of the data is helpful.
In this case, such examinations have yielded compelling arguments that women are --at an unconscious level-- getting at least these benefits from affairs, in addition to "mate insurance":
--Superior Genes/Sexy Sons: Some women who pursue short-term sex stay with their primary mate but tend to have sex with their lovers--not their husbands--during ovulation. They are not aware of putting their husbands at a paternity disadvantage; but when researchers track ovulation and intercourse among cheating women, that is exactly what is occurring. These women are also having more orgasms with their lovers than their husbands--orgasms help in procreation, so again, the lover's paternity is given an advantage, although women aren't devising a conscious plan about it. And this gives us a clue why geneticists are finding that 10% of American children today are born to men who *falsely* believe themselves the father--even in an era of readily available birth control.

These women don't choose just any man as their lover; they choose someone uber-sexy who, studies reveal, is likely to have fantastic genes. Male beauty is far more than skin-deep and is associated with the ability to create healthy, beautiful, geneticaly advantaged babies. If these women then bear their lovers' sons, one tentative theory is that these sons will themselves be sexy (just like Dad), sow lots of their own seeds someday, and thus carry their Grandma's genes much farther into the future than if she had remained with Just One Man. Again, though, this is all unconscious. I recommend Buss' book (link above) to all who want the full details.
--Trading Up: Women who actually leave their mates over an affair tend to "trade up", choosing someone who is more successful than the former husband. Both sexes are more likely to cheat or leave when they are the more desirable of the pair--and they tend to leave for someone who is a closer match. I'll do an article on this in the future.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Monica, Regarding why we find it so hard to forgive an affair: First, let me say I'm sorry you were put through the hell of repeated infidelity in marriage.
Affairs happen for a lot of reasons, of course. Todd Shackelford and David Buss's research showed that there are some personality types that really are more likely to feel entitled to having their cake and eating it, too--and may not give a damn how that feels to anyone else.

But many affairs seem to occur--for women especially--when loneliness and opportunity intersect. Opportunity can occur in the form of a work friendship, an online friendship, a neighborhood friendship...(another form of friendship, the Lost Lover, was covered here in two separate columns: Why Not To Look Up That Old Flame On Facebook, and When First Love Is True Love.). Dr. Glass' website, which is linked above, has some excellent quizzes that give insights into whether a friendship is headed towards something considerably hotter. Her book NOT "Just Friends", also linked above, goes into this in great detail, and can help affair-proof a marriage.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Gillian, Flattery will get you everywhere! :) Seriously, your observations are very intriguing. You are correct that it would be very helpful if women would speak up and say, "I'm feeling lonely. I need more of your time and attention. Can we have dinner out, just the two of us, this Friday?" Lather, rinse, repeat. :)

I suspect that a lot of the women out there who *aren't* having affairs are using this successful approach to lovingly get the time and attention they need.

Since a loss of intimacy heralds many affairs, therapists including super-scientist Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Shirley Glass have further recommended prevention of affairs by putting up walls between the marriage and outside forces (other "friends"), and strengthening the emotional intimacy and friendship between the spouses. Gottman also recommends learning how to bring up and address difficulties, since avoiding them kills sex--there are two Love Science columns that cover those approaches:
Dealing With Your Difficult Man, and
Dealing With Your Difficult Woman.

On the other hand,some women claim they have expressed their emotional/sexual dissatisfaction over months, years and even no avail.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Gillian, regarding thrill-seeking as a basis for men's search for affair partners: Highly competitive, successful men often are thrill-seekers, and part of the thrill can be that of sexual variety. But behind all of that is another question: Why is sexual conquest thrilling? In fact, why is sex fun at all? (It's a weird thing to do, if you really think about it.)

The reason has to do with an inherited mating psychology that rewarded ancestral men for seeking variety rather than monogamy. Those who were less faithful had more progeny, the males of whom carried that successful strategy forward. For women, on the other hand--who tend to be much less prone to thrill-seeking and anonymous sex--gaining commitment from someone who would STAY After The Lovin' was key. Today's women everywhere in the world prefer a committed provider and protector as their first line of defense--choosing short-term strategies as a back-up.

Today, you can see the difference between the male and female mating mind even in sexual fantasies. Scientific analyses of these show that male fantasies focus on the faceless bodies of numerous willing, gorgeous young women who are eager for penetration and *want zero commitment*. Women's fantasies tend to focus on a man they know--most often their real-life partner--and on the emotional content of the relationship, including the emotions surrounding the intensely pleasurable, intimate sex.

So although I think you've got a great point about thrill-seeking, I think it's a support for, rather than alternative to, the evolved male mating psychology.

Thanks again for the extremely intriguing insights!

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Thomas, You are of course correct that affairs are hurtful, wrong and against the marriage contract at its most basic level. You are also right that people would be better off if they chose to deal with unhappiness in some way other than having an affair.

I want to take this opportunity, then, to say very clearly: This article is not intended as a justification for affairs. Obviously, we all have a choice even when we are very unhappy, and affairs are morally the wrong choice.

On the other hand, though, it's not really the case that the women having affairs are usually just deciding to go out and screw around (some of the men are doing that...but many aren't). Instead, most people who have affairs experience them as a series of small steps that seem innocent..and then aren't. The Love Science column posted just prior to this one ("Comments from Why Not To Look Up That Old Flame on Facebook") goes into great detail about that in the final comment.

In other words, it's relatively rare for most cheaters--male or female--to make a choice to seek an affair, and then to have one. Much more common is the unhappy spouse who begins opening up emotionally to a "friend"--and finds it is soon much more of a temptation than friendship. It's not the Right Thing To Do. But neither is it Premeditated Evil.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Thomas, although sometimes people do find affairs impossible to forgive, the fact is that many couples do move on and recover from affairs. I have known couples whose stories would curl your hair--couples whose stories I can't get over even though I'm not involved! Yet they say they are now happy, they seem happy, and they are celebrating high-number anniversaries with kids and grandkids around them.

I spoke at great length with Tristan about this column prior to authoring it. In addition to the advice I gave here (which he committed to following), I recommended that he seek help in finding forgiveness through his faith because he is a religious man. People have forgiven their tormentors for genocides, infanticides, horrors beyond imagining... The human heart can be very resilient. I would wish this resilience for everyone who has suffered a wrong, and one of the wrongs that hits closest to home is an affair.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Pavlov, The letters at Love Science are revised enough to make the original sender anonymous even to their own families. Although the facts are accurate, part of that anonymity involves shortening the letters and changing the identifying details and voice somewhat. Any amount of self-absorption you heard in Tristan's letter is mine ;).

I have tried to present the crucial facts from among so many (for Tristan and I spoke for well above an hour) so that my advice would make sense to readers and not only to Tristan.

Tristan is not, in my opinion, pathologically jealous. He noticed his wife's attention lapsing--an emotional absence, a failure to care what he said, an inattentiveness where before she had been present. And when her new state of mind didn't change, he got suspicious and began looking for evidence.

There are few scientific explorations of what tips spouses off to understanding that they have been betrayed, but often it is something even subtler than what Tristan noticed. Buss cites the story of a man who observed his home's Christmas lights blinking in time with the neighbor's--and even though "evidence" like that seems deranged, it turned out that in fact, he was right that his wife was having an affair with that very neighbor.

And here's a case a client shared with me: Years ago, she had just begun an affair. She was going on a bike ride to meet her lover, and she actually *asked her husband to come along*, thinking it would throw him off her trail if he got invited. Her husband's response? "No, I'm busy. You're probably just asking me so you can get away with meeting some other man. Then you'll have sex, come home from your ride, and pretend everything is fine." He didn't seem to take his own words seriously, but it seriously shook her up. Whether he had amazing powers of intuition that he was choosing to ignore, or whether that was a bizarre random statement, who can know? But she ended the affair that week. And he never said anything like that again.

Eerily, therapists are finding that often, the jealous spouse (who goes to therapy to get over being jealous, since the other spouse insists innocence) turns out to be 100% correct about the affair. Anything as precious as the future of one's Genes will have an evolved mechanism to protect against threat--in Tristan's case and for many of us, that detector is jealousy.

September 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Monica, it occurs to me I actually didn't answer your question regarding why we find it so hard to forgive an affair. The data are eerily similar across many nations at this point, and they indicate *different reasons* for heterosexual men and women... reasons that are readily traced back to the twin tasks of survival and reproduction ,and which are therefore an ancient part of human psychology.

Here are some global results that tell us what aspect of an affair is the most hateful to men versus women:
--All over the world, men ask "Did you have sex with him?" But women are more prone to ask "Do you love her?" And although women find it somewhat reassuring to hear "She meant nothing to me," making that statement to a man would be laughable.
--Women, when directly asked what they find more unforgivable, say they're less forgiving of an emotional than a sexual affair. Men usually show the reverse.
--When physiological measures are taken, women's heart rates, grimaces and sweat are all accellerated by imagining their partner's emotional liaison--more than for visions of their partner's sexual affair. Men, again, show the opposite pattern.

Of course, neither gender appreciates being cheated on at any level. But the patterns of intolerance map back onto an ancient past that is today continuing to inform our mating psychology. Men's paternity, an uncertain thing, is protected by being alert to sexual threats; a man who asks "Did you have sex with him?" could well re-phrase it as "Did you put me at risk of raising other men's kids without even knowing it?!? Did you let me invest my blood, sweat and tears in a woman who is having other men's children?!?"
Women, on the other hand, are sure we're The Mom--the kids came out of our bodies! We saw! But our survival in ancient times depended on keeping our man around. Even today, men invest their resources where they feel love--often abandoning a wife for a lover *only if* the man falls in love. So a woman's question, "Do you love her?" could well be rephrased, "Are you taking away your provision and protection? Are my and my children's lives in danger?" It's a relevant question even in the USA, where the death rate is 10% higher for kids whose dads have abandoned them.

To make the issue even more complex, gay men and lesbian women don't necessarily fit these patterns....

September 24, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

I wanna stir the pot on this one. First of all, in my opinion Tristan is a good spouse taking the punishment, trying to forgive and loving. I wish him the best.

I wanna explore "fidelity" a bit. I understand it to mean to be loyal to ones partner(s) financially, emotionally and sexually. The reason I state partners is because I am including alternative lifestyle folks, i.e. polygamists,swingers. And no I am not one of them. Affairs hurt because they are lies and unknown to one of the partners. So I would assume the "sex" itself is not as relevant as the lie is. Once I had a psychology teacher pose a question to the class. She asked the class if your spouse had a one night stand and nothing could harm you from this encounter and your privacy and money were safe, would you want to know? All the women in the class said yes with a growl! Half the men said no. I went with no. I know that issues abound but if the spouse still loves and cares and protects and etc., what good would come of it. Now should he/she admit it, I believe so to protect your spouse and so that the demons be cast by owning up to your transgressions.

I have a suggestion for a possible reason on the happy males/females. Wouldn't sex also be a measure of desirability? To be desired for can make people feel real good about themselves, that "I still got it" mentality. I know it sounds self absorbed and low self esteemie but everyone likes to be viewed as desirable. Just many carry it over the line. Even though you married your spouse and that statement itself says you are the ultimate desirable person for that person, maybe people just give in to the good feelings that other people bestow upon them. Not a good reason just putting forth another theory unless I missed something in the previous posts.

I had a conversation with one of my neighbors about her divorce which led into the topic of infidelity. I stated that when a man cheats, its very much a stab in the back for women. I compared the act of having sex and the possibility getting pregnant with a "man's" child to the soldier who risks his life for a fellow soldier. The two soldier have a strong bond and betrayal would be devastating because one risked his/her life for the other. When a woman gets pregnant, she is literally risking her life for her man by having his child. I would say that bond is even more dramatic. Cheating by the husband then says to her that her life means less to him, to some degree. My neighbor agreed liked my comparison.
A different take on the subject.

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel C.

I am, once again, quite pleased to read such an informative and valuable article. This one has struck me in a particularly strong way, as it was I who did the cheating in our marriage. Everything that the research suggests was, and still is, true for my marriage. I don't make any excuses for my behavior as I know that I am able to and am responsible for controlling my own behavior despite the feelings that might encourage me to seek out another person. That being said, there is a definite "missing link" in the emotional connection of our marriage that is so vital to me that living without it is like asking a person to survive without food. If I knew how to be happy in that setting I would be. If I could go out a buy some magical apparatus that would give what I need I would sell everything I had to purchase it. But the sad truth is, emotional connection involves TWO PEOPLE. It can be the two people in the marriage or it can be an outside person that is brought in. (Like I said earlier, I am not condoning this).

Guys, you need to understand that connecting to your wife's feelings is not something to be overlooked or disregarded as optional in your marriage. It would be paramount to saying that sex is optional in a marriage. I don't know of any man who would ever tolerate a sexless marriage unless the act itself was impossible for the woman to perform (illness, separation, etc). Why then, do so many men see emotional connection with their wife as something to be ignored? Would having a sexless marriage not also set a man up for a possible affair? The same is true for a woman.

I'm certain that maintaining a marriage under those circumstances is still possible as the level of determination and commitment and loyalty allows for the couple to be together long enough to work it out. But if a continued disregard and acceptance of a woman's need for deep emotional connection is repeatedly ignored, you set her up for a lifetime of misery and insecurity and she will be desperate for some kind of sustenance.

This all being said, I understand, again, that we are all responsible for our own behavior. I am, in no way, making excuses for myself. And I also understand that a marriage lacking in emotional connection may not be because a lack of desire on the man's part. He may be frustrated at his inability. But just like getting a job done is important in making a salary in a career, keeping a marriage healthy is about getting the knowledge and understanding and skills to get the job done. It's not optional if you want your marriage to survive or thrive. And I've heard excuses that may be true in the beginning but become liabilities as time goes by.

I had the opportunity to leave my marriage and go with this man. He asked me several times. But the thing that kept me from doing it was the knowledge that problems in my marriage here and now did not mean that there would not also be problems in my marriage there and then, those problems also being much more complicated given the step family we would be working around. It would have been a purely emotional decision that would create chaos in the end and destroy the very feelings that the affair itself satisfied.

But I am still sad. The problems that existed before the affair are still there and I am often tempted to turn outward in search of something that will help me feel better. It is truly frustrating.

September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCJ
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