Things like this happen when you least expect them. There you are on a Saturday morning, doing laundry and listening to your boyfriend sing, “Girls, Girls, Girls” in the shower for the millionth time when you catch a whiff of a perfume that is definitely not yours on his favorite t-shirt. You crane your neck to catch the strains of, “I’m such a good, good boy / I just need a new toy,” and wonder, could he be cheating?
If you confront your man, and your suspicions are confirmed, will you join the ranks of Hillary Clinton and Tammy Faye Baker to stand by your man? Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once said, “I do not think there are any men who are faithful to their wives.” Well, John F. Kennedy certainly wasn’t, but do all men have the cheating bug in them? Is a relationship, once soiled with adultery, gone for good?
Living a Lie
Statistics collected by the Associated Press show that 90 percent of Americans believe adultery is morally wrong, yet 22 percent of married men and 14 percent of married women cheat on their spouses at least once during their marriages. (Other statistics put these numbers at 37 and 22 percent for men and women, respectively.) And adultery accounts for 17 percent of divorces. Stereotyping aside, adulterers do seem to be overwhelmingly male. Bill Mitchell, author of The More You Know, a guide for those who are concerned their spouses might be cheating, writes that 60 to 70 percent of cheaters are men.
This is not to say that all men cheat, or that there aren’t other factors involved. Men usually have more opportunity for infidelity, since it’s rather hard to carry on an illicit affair when your day is full of driving to soccer games and cutting crusts off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But according to David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, men crave sexual variety much more than women do. If that thirst for variety isn’t satisfied within the boundaries of marriage, men are more likely to be unfaithful.
Anatomy of an Affair
There is good news, however. Mr. Mitchell reports that only 15 to 20 percent of adulterers are repeat offenders, which means that 75 to 80 percent are able to rebuild committed relationships after having an affair. With the right mix of sincere remorse, understanding, time, and therapy, it is possible to reclaim your relationship and your trust.
Also, keep in mind that your partner probably isn’t in love with this woman. She probably isn’t prettier than you, either, and sleeping with her doesn’t mean that he loves you any less, only that he made a grave (and selfish) error in judgment. In her book, After the Affair, Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD reports that 10 percent of affairs last only one day; another 10 percent last more than a day but less than one month; 50 percent last more than a month but less than a year; 40 percent last more than two years; and very few last more than four years. Frank Pittman, MD, a psychotherapist, author, and former columnist of “Ask Dr. Frank” in Psychology Today, found that only 3 percent of married men who had affairs actually married their lovers, and among those who did get married, the divorce rate was 75 percent.
This may come as a surprise to most women, who have different ideas of what constitutes infidelity than men do. Women tend to find emotional affairs more of a betrayal than physical affairs, whereas men don’t consider it cheating until it gets physical. Women tend to think of affairs as passionate, whirlwind, fly-to-Paris-on-the-weekends romances, but most men don’t. They’re just scratching an itch and are ready to return to their marriages when they’re done.
Healing the Wound
If you break your arm, you put a cast on the fracture to let it heal. But if you have a calcium deficiency, or some other weakness in your bones, you’ll keep breaking them until you fix the underlying problem. Relationships are the same way. You can forgive an incident of infidelity, but if there’s something that is making your relationship ill, that’s causing your partner to feel inadequate or unsatisfied, the chances that he (or she) will cheat again are high.
This is not to say that it’s all your fault, either. Just like any other disease, this one has to be diagnosed professionally. Your first step after discovering infidelity should be to call a therapist and start going regularly, both individually and as a couple. Then, only after all three of you have really gotten to the root of the problem, and you’ve decided whether or not your partner is truly remorseful and willing to change, can you decide whether to save or scrap your relationship. There’s no guarantee he won’t cheat again, but there’s not guarantee he will, either.