“Sex wasn’t the reason for the affair” and other lessons for spouses who wonder why we stray.
Sometimes you hear about some married guy banging his co-worker or one of his wife’s friends or one of his friends’ wives, and you think: What!? Why!?
Sometimes you see guys with super-gorgeous wives (Hugh Grant with Elizabeth Hurley, Tiger Woods with Elin Nordegren, or someone you know in real life, etc.) and you find out they hired a prostitute or had some cheap affair, and you think: What the!?
Sometimes guys appear to be in functional, happy marriages with a couple kids and everything going according to script. Then out of nowhere you hear they’re getting divorced because he was sleeping with someone else. How could he? Why would he want to?
There’s a lot going on here.
Lesson #1 – Physical attractiveness matters little
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, marriage counselor M. Gary Neuman, author of The Truth About Cheating, reported 88 percent of men who cheated did so with women they didn’t consider more attractive or in better shape than their wives.
Sexual attraction is a funny thing. Show me a photo of an attractive woman making a suggestive face and dressed provocatively, and sure I’m going to think she looks good. Girls walk by me every day who pass the Sure, I’d sleep with her test.
I mean that strictly in a physical attractiveness pass-or-fail kind of way. I think all men do this. When I see a woman, and I know absolutely nothing about her except how she looks, the only judgment to be made is whether I’m physically attracted to her.
Most of the time, that’s the extent of our relationships with people we see but don’t know. But sometimes, we have the opportunity to observe people and talk to them. This is the stage when physically attractive people can become unattractive in a hurry. Or people you find only moderately attractive grow in your esteem because you find out something admirable about them or discover a sexiness that shines through in less-traditional ways.
If she is unkind, judgmental, self-absorbed, uneducated, lacks emotional depth, or demonstrates interest in things I don’t value, she becomes unattractive. That’s always disappointing. When something ugly on the inside ruins the pretty shell.
Sometimes you meet someone and discover she loves the same music you do, or the same books, or learn about some other similar interest or passion. Maybe you find out she volunteers to help people. Or is exceedingly kind to strangers. Or practices the same faith. Or roots for the same sports team. Or is a brilliant doctor.
You feel your heart do the thing hearts do.
That’s the good stuff. It’s all well and good when you’re single like me. This dynamic also happens unfortunately with married people.
It’s why the vast majority of affairs happen between people who meet at their jobs or while practicing a hobby.
Being “hot” means precisely dick. Physical attractiveness in a long-term relationship matters most in the context of health and psychology. The argument for exercise and being in good shape is to live a long time. (Better sex, too.) It subconsciously demonstrates that you value yourself. We are naturally attracted to people who respect themselves and demonstrate self-confidence.
Which leads to the heart of the matter…
Lesson #2 – People cheat because they want to feel something
Neuman the marriage counselor said it but we didn’t need him to:
92% of men said sex was not the reason for the affair.
“The majority said it was an emotional disconnection, specifically a sense of feeling underappreciated. A lack of thoughtful gestures,” Neuman said in an interview with CNN. “Men are very emotional beings. They just don’t look like that. Or they don’t seem like that. Or they don’t tell you that.”
Men do not want to participate in activities in which they perform poorly.
It’s the primary reason husbands and boyfriends don’t want to go skiing or salsa dancing or to an art class with their wives. It often has less to do with a lack of interest than in a man avoiding volunteer activities in which he might not succeed.
Guys tend to pursue jobs and activities in which they demonstrate proficiency. It stems from a psychological need to feel like we are winning, or at least progressing toward victory.
You will never read me blame my ex-wife for our divorce. I don’t believe it and I’ve never said it. But if someone were to ask me what she could have done to improve our marriage, this subject would sit atop the list.
She is emotionally colder than I am. Depending on mood and environment, she is not always warm with strangers and isn’t afraid to use a biting tone with people who disappoint her. Because I’m wired the way I am, that behavior sometimes comes off mean and bitchy, and I find it very unattractive.
When it’s directed toward me, I feel disrespected, unwanted, unloved, and like a failure. It also makes me angry because I’m predominantly nice and friendly and have little patience when the courtesy isn’t returned.
I have always believed I was capable of bigger and better things than a ho-hum life in suburbia and a cubicle job. Out of every person I know, my wife was the least likely to make me feel believed in or rooted for. The feedback was primarily constant disappointment.
That is a bad thing for a guy to feel if you want your relationship to work out. That does NOT justify the emotional abandonment my wife felt in our marriage. Nor would it justify someone cheating on their spouse. But I think it’s wise to be aware of WHY humans sometimes behave as they do.
Lesson #3 – People cheat because they are bored
“Self-control is vital to our success. People who have good self-control tend to be both more popular and more successful in many areas of life,” according to PsyBlog. “Those with low self-control, though, are at risk of overeating, addictions and underachievement. Unfortunately, as we all know to our cost, self-control frequently fails. Part of the problem is we overestimate our ability to resist temptation.”
Psychological research shows that self-control is a limited resource. We need to understand how our bodies work and our limitations if we are going to be the best versions of ourselves. (Read: Top 10 Self-Control Techniques)
Let’s be real: People get bored with one another. I bet there are no two people you could put together who wouldn’t eventually tire of one another (at least secretly).
But to be fair, we get bored with EVERYTHING.
When you get your first massive high-definition TV, you sit around watching movies and ball games and even random nature shows on Discovery because it’s fancy and new.
When you first get your new car, you get this little jolt of excitement every time you climb into it and you hope all the people looking at you think you look successful and amazing. (They don’t.)
When you first hear a new album from your favorite band, you’re super into it and play it over and over again.
When you first get that new video game, you play it and play it and play it because it’s fresh and fun.
But INEVITABLY, every single one of those things lose their shine. You get used to them and eventually take them for granted.
Unfortunately, this same phenomenon happens (but to a lesser extent, thankfully) with people.
Combine boredom in marriage with a disengaged spouse who is connecting emotionally with a new friend at work? Someone who pays attention and makes them feel special?
Prepare for fuckery.
The Grass Is Not Greener
So, here’s the big, annoying (but important) rah-rah speech.
If there is something VERY wrong with your marriage (abuse, addiction, infidelity), this doesn’t apply to you. But if you’re a guy like me? Just a typical guy in a typical marriage suffering from staleness after kids and a few years? Please think.
You’re either a person who wants to be alone, or a person who wants a partner.
I’m 97 percent certain you’re the kind of person who wants a partner because you already have one.
And if you’re a person who wants a partner, it stands to reason that if you end your current relationship, you will eventually find yourself in a new one. Then, guess what?
THIS EXACT SAME THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN.
I wish that wasn’t true. I wish there were magical partners in which it was all giggles and orgasms and freshly baked cookies that didn’t make you fat.
But it is true. The problem is NOT your wife or girlfriend. The problem is YOU. (Go easy on yourself. It’s not your fault you’re a human being. But it IS your job to do something because when something’s wrong, those with the ability to do something about it have the responsibility to.)
There’s a saying: The grass is greener where you water it.
Once you come to terms with the fact there aren’t exotic underwear models with whom you’ll never have fights and always have hot sex, it’s a good idea to walk yourself through the logical eventualities of partner selection.
You can choose the single life. More power to you.
But if you’re someone who wants (needs?) a partner, you MUST accept that conflict and hardships will arise with everyone.
Monogamy is a choice. One NO ONE forces you to make. But once you say “I do,” or even just promise your girlfriend? WATER YOUR LAWN.
We exercise self-control, because if we didn’t, all of our monogamous relationships would end (you don’t think she fantasizes about other men?) in total disaster.
If people simply acted on impulse without restraint all the time, everyone would be dead, sick, in prison, or running for their lives.
Love is a choice. You wake up in the morning, and you decide: I’m going to love my wife today no matter how I feel. Even if I get angry. Even if I get sad. Even if it doesn’t seem like she loves me back. I choose to love her.
That, and only that, is how you make your marriage last a lifetime. Doing that every day.
Maybe if you’re really frustrated with how your wife makes you feel, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how all the bad things will go away if you DID start doing that.
Maybe that’s how you save your soul.
Maybe that’s how to find Happily Ever After.
Maybe you could start right now.
This essay originally appeared on Must Be This Tall To Ride.
Photo: Diariocritico de Venezuela/Flickr