This article is the first in the Why Men Cheat series that explores the complex issues that drive some men to have affairs.
This article’s title isn’t meant to imply that all men cheat—obviously they don’t (and it also isn’t meant to imply that women are immune to cheating). But infidelity is a real problem for many of the couples that seek my counseling services, and among those couples, more of the husbands/boyfriends have been unfaithful than the wives/girlfriends…which is why this post is focusing on men in particular.
Not all affairs are alike. And although it may be tempting for the unfaithful partner to claim the infidelity was precipitated by a need to escape an unreasonable spouse/partner making life unbearable, that would be a gross oversimplification, even if there were underlying problems in the marriage/relationship. But it’s not always easy to distinguish possible reasons for an affair versus after-the-fact rationalizations. In either case, it’s important to note two things:
The emotional fallout from infidelity is considerable — the betrayed spouse/partner often feels traumatized by the betrayal;
The men that I work with are often devastated by their own actions. The guilt, remorse and shame they experience after cheating is palpable.
In what follows, I discuss a few of the reasons why some men cheat. There are different reasons why someone might become unfaithful. For the men I work with, not all were conscious of what drove them to cheat on someone they love deeply. It was only through therapy and considerable self-reflection that their unconscious struggles became understandable to them.
There are a few themes I’ve observed in the men I work with:
Diminished eroticism after the birth of children
Some men have a difficult time seeing their wife as a sexual being after she has a child(ren).
This decreased (or lost) eroticism extends beyond the time when she is prioritizing the care of the children and doesn’t feel sexual. This internal shift can occur for men even after their wives/partners return to feeling sexual and desire sex once more.
For these men, their partners are psychically transformed — now that their partners have become mothers, this maternal energy is all that these men see, and this new perspective eclipses the view of their mates as lovers, rather than existing alongside it. Lost for these men is the experience of their wife/partner as someone who still has sexual longings and desires.
And while these men may still have sex with their wives, the sex takes on a routinized, dutiful quality. Erotic vibrancy is lost.
In his 1912 essay, “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life,” Freud observed how some men struggled with a psychic dividing-line between loving-tender feelings and the erotically charged. In this scenario, love clashes with sexuality, rather than enhancing it. The tenderness leaves little (or no) room for the erotic-charge that existed before children.
The “solution” for this dilemma is to erotically sanitize the marital relationship (and protect the maternal image) while splitting off and redirecting the rawness of sexual desire to someone else.
For these men, the erotic yearns for abandon, while the loving-care they feel for their partner brings the other into a sharp focus, a focus that under these dynamics inhibits sexual freedom.
These men struggle to integrate sexual desire with loving tenderness; the erotic must be released from the self-consciousness of maternal purity.
Feeling “trapped” inside the relationship
Intimate relationships bring many gifts. And with these gifts the potential for the expanding of who we are and who we want to become can be realized. It’s as if the self-in-relationship to a caring, loving other (who is also loved and cared for) brings out the best versions of ourselves.
And, of course, there are challenges to intimate relationships as well. One is the potential narrowing of the self, a self-contortion that is required to accommodate the needs, ways of being and demands of the other. This is inherent to all relationships and especially so in committed, long-term relationships.
Something is given, something is received. But we must remain open so that both emotional giving and receiving can occur. We must risk surrender, allowing ourselves to be seen while accepting (and seeing) the other. This level of intimacy isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be uncomfortable, even though we desire it.
When our vision rests only on what is given, the sacrifices we make, there is a danger that we will close ourselves off to the other. Our partner’s needs, wants and desires can start to feel like affronts rather than opportunities that take us to psychological places we wouldn’t travel to on our own.
For some men there is a heightened awareness of what has been given up for the sake of their marriage. A narrative is perpetuated, one that centers around a predominance of frustration, sacrifice and lack. And as these men focus on what they’ve given up, they totally lose sight of what they’ve gained.
We hide behind our grievances. We feel trapped, shuttered in a marriage/relationship that starts to feel like an obligation and little else. The what-I’ve-given-up-for-you narrative provokes a “grass is greener” mentality which makes us increasingly affair-prone.
Unfortunately, when this dynamic takes hold, it’s all too easy to prematurely conclude that we’ve committed to a lifetime of unhappiness and sacrifice. An affair may be seen as a way to escape this life-long sentence.
The individuals and couples who come to see me after an affair are in crisis. They are overwhelmed by pain; the relational world they knew no longer exists. These men are well aware of this fact. They are remorseful, some are beaten down by their own shame and guilt. And many will do anything in their power to make things right.
This is a critical junction because “making it right” again shouldn’t be business-as-usual for the couple, a mindless, rushed return to past normalcy. While this is yearned for, prematurely forcing a return to “normal” (the status quo of what was) can short-circuit any significant change that may need to occur for a stronger, more vibrant marriage or relationship. Both individual and relationship growth may be possible during this painful time.
Stay turned for the second article in the Why Men Cheat series.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
(Photo by Isabell Winter at Unsplash)