Combine insecurity with abundant opportunity, the prevailing wisdom goes, and every man’s a cheater … right?
Part one of a two-part series
For the past two weeks, every day has brought a new article analyzing the seemingly perennial question of why men cheat. The sad saga of Anthony Weiner serves as the latest catalyst for all this punditry. Blame it on spring fever, but the pop psychology is particularly intense these days. In Jezebel, we read that narcissism is the real instigator of infidelity; in the Huffington Post, that the problem is the aphrodisiac of power—or, from the same site, that the problem is the special inability of the handsome to resist temptation.
These op-eds all share a similar theme. Straight men who possess “social capital” in one form or another (good looks, political power, fame, charisma, wealth) are intensely attractive to women, who (so we are told) are aware that men with this kind of social capital are scarce. And faced with this onslaught of available, attractive women, even married men with everything to lose can’t say no. Combine male sexual frailty with abundant opportunity, the prevailing wisdom goes, and every man’s a cheater.
The thinly disguised implication is that male fidelity is less a matter of virtue than of an absence of opportunity. “Those who can will,” the articles suggest, “and those who don’t are usually those who can’t.” For those of us who believe that men can be better (and in many instances, are better) than the way we’re portrayed in the media, that’s a frustrating message.
Part of the problem is that we don’t teach men how to be faithful to their wives or girlfriends. The culture says “don’t cheat,” and then either enables cheating or fails to equip guys with the tools to make sure they don’t break their promises. That doesn’t mean that the blame for infidelity can be sloughed off onto “society” any more than it can be blamed on testosterone. It does mean that men can do more to help other men who want to stay faithful do just that.
I identify a bit with Anthony Weiner, as I suspect quite a few men do. I was a bright, nerdy kid in high school with grades as high as my dating prospects were low. The girls on whom I had crushes considered me the dreaded “nice guy, but”—the sort in whom they felt comfortable confiding their own stories of heartache over sexy, tough, bad boys. As the pop psychologists would say, I had low social/sexual capital.
In college, things changed. I lost a little weight and got a more flattering pair of glasses. I also found a confidence that honestly seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I remember the shock I felt at 20, standing at a party, clutching a red cup of beer in my hand, and realizing that the pretty girl standing in front of me was flirting with me. Like so many guys who bloom a bit late, I went through a lengthy and regrettable period where my main focus was on seeing just how much my growing social capital could get me.
I was married and divorced twice before I was 30, and chronically unfaithful through both marriages. I wouldn’t call myself a sex addict, but like Anthony Weiner, was hungry—even desperate—for validation. The actual sex I had with women was less important than the thrill I got from knowing that someone new was willing to sleep with me. I was chasing affirmation more than orgasm. The thrill wasn’t in getting close to new naked skin, the thrill was in knowing that yet another person found me desirable. It was as if I were trying to collect evidence that I wasn’t that nerdy, awkward boy whom everyone had teased in high school.
Just as Anthony Weiner was more interested in having women praise his naked body than in seeing their nudie pics, I cared as much about being told I was “hot” as I did about sex itself. (I wrote about this missing narrative of male desire for the Good Men Project in this post: “The Male Body: Repulsive or Beautiful?“)
At the same time, like so many men who cheat, I did want a monogamous relationship. I was in love with both of my first two wives and hungry for the stability that marriage could provide. I just had no clue how to deal with that gnawing hunger for sexual validation. In order to “work,” the validation needed to come from someone new each time. I’d make a promise to stop cheating, and then I’d find myself in a situation with another woman, and my compulsive curiosity seemed to take over. As self-destructive and joyless as it usually was, it felt like I had no choice.
What I finally figured out—after two divorces, a lot of therapy, and some intense Twelve Step work—was that infidelity wasn’t something that just “happened.” I learned that there was always a critical moment right before I “lost control.” That critical moment wasn’t when I kissed a woman who wasn’t my wife; rather, it was when I first started flirting with her. I had to learn to analyze my pattern (and every cheater, like every addict, has a pattern) to find out the exact moment where a non-sexual, normal exchange slipped into something different.
But it’s not just about putting up boundaries. Staying out of bars and cutting off your Internet connection won’t do a damn thing to keep a man faithful to his spouse if he doesn’t address the core issue: his own hunger for validation. It doesn’t matter whether a man has high or low “social capital”; sooner or later, if a guy doesn’t work through his own sense of inadequacy, he’ll cheat on whatever woman with whom he’s in a monogamous relationship.
Hot guys, rich guys, and charismatic guys usually have an easier time finding those temporary hits of affirmation. But that doesn’t mean they’ll find it harder to give up cheating or harder to be faithful. Those of us who were “lucky enough” to have enough sexual capital to misuse are often the ones who can figure out relatively early that we won’t ever find what we’re looking for from random hook-ups and extramarital intrigues. And though there’s not much news in reporting that a senator or a rock star marked another year of faithfulness to his wife, more than a few men with “high social capital” have learned how to match their public language with their private lives.
I don’t know the current “buying power” of my sexual capital. But as sometimes happens, the other day, I got a smile and an old, familiar “vibe” from a woman in (of all stereotypical places) the produce aisle at Whole Foods. I gave her a polite grin and kept right on going. The temptation flared up to find out if she was just being friendly or was genuinely interested, and I quieted it. “You don’t need to know what you don’t need to know,” I said to myself, repeating the mantra I learned many years ago when I first started to learn the basic tricks for avoiding “slippery situations.”
Sexually exclusive marriage isn’t for everyone. We live in a society that has increasingly viable alternatives to state-sanctioned monogamy. Fewer and fewer of us can claim to have been forced into something that we didn’t really want and for which we weren’t ready. That means that those of us who want to be and stay married need to realize that the greatest impetus to cheat isn’t sexual frustration or romantic disillusionment or even the easy opportunities that seem to come most easily to the handsome and the powerful. The real problem is that relentless craving for validation.
The solution lies in challenging the men in our lives to get past that adolescent hunger for affirmation, that insatiable longing to know what they don’t need to know. And until we do that, we haven’t confronted the root cause of the infidelity epidemic.
In part two, next week, insight and advice on the details of staying faithful from some remarkable married men.