Women Who Cheat: Understanding the message of the affair
By Tammy Nelson
Even though our ideas about sex and sexuality have greatly advanced over the last half-century, our culture still holds a double standard about infidelity. While no one is entirely surprised by the behavior of a Bill Clinton, an Elliot Spitzer, or a Tiger Woods—men will be men, after all—we still tend to pathologize women or shame them (or both) for having affairs.
In my view, far from being evidence of pathology or marital bankruptcy, a woman’s affair can be a way of expressing a desire for an entirely different self, either separate from the marriage altogether or still in it. An affair can be what I call “a can opener” for women unable to articulate for themselves why they’re unhappy in their marriages, much less empower themselves to leave or begin an honest conversation with their husbands about what they feel is wrong. In my practice, I’ve heard many women say, “I didn’t even know what I wanted until the affair was over and I realized that I really wanted to end my marriage,” or “I had no idea that I used the affair as a way to wake up our relationship.”
Many infidelity treatment approaches today are based on the idea that the unfaithful spouse is a perpetrator, someone who wronged the other person. While the pain caused by infidelity can’t and shouldn’t be denied, it generally isn’t understood well enough that many women cheat because they struggle with their self-identity in their lives and lack of empowerment in their marriages. To some extent, the affair makes up for a felt lack of an adult self. Sometimes, understanding an affair as an unconscious bid for self-empowerment, relief from bad sex, or a response to a lack of choices or personal freedom is an important first step toward a fuller, more mature selfhood.
Searching for the Bartered Self
Sarah came to therapy with her husband, Rob, for couples therapy after he caught her cheating. Married for 10 years, he felt hurt, angry, and hopeless about the marriage. He sat across from Sarah on the couch, with his head in his hands. “I have no idea how we’re going to get past this. Sarah says she wants to work this out, but I don’t know if we can put this marriage together again after what she’s done.”
Rob had read emails between Sarah and her boyfriend that explained in detail how much they were enjoying virtual sex—watching each other masturbating over a webcam—which had both shocked and devastated him. He’d thought their sex life was good, but admitted that having kids had gotten in the way of their relationship. He thought they still loved each other, and Sarah agreed. They were both unclear why the affair had happened, but said they wanted to recover their marriage, if possible.
At the end of their first joint session, Sarah asked whether she could see me individually. Rob consented, so I asked if they’d be OK with an open secrets policy: what’s said in the individual session stays in the session. They agreed that whatever Sarah said could be kept private, though she could share with Rob what she wished to from our individual sessions.
In our first individual session, Sarah asked if therapy could be a place where she could talk honestly about the affair. This led to a discussion of the difference between privacy and secrecy, both in her marriage and in her sessions with me. Keeping secrets in her marriage had given Sarah a sense of space—a secret place where she could grow her sexuality, dream her dreams, and keep a part of her that no one else had control over. Our first conversation revolved around how the space she’d created could be shifted from secret to private, and how she could keep a differentiated, individuated boundary around herself in her relationship. This could give her a healthy degree of separation from her husband without having to lie or be deceptive to stake out her space.