When it comes to infidelity, men and women are becoming more alike. While most couples never cheat, women are catching up to men in terms of those who do, though their reasons are typically different.
The General Social Survey of the National Science Foundation found in 2010 that 19 percent of men had been unfaithful at some point, a drop from 1991's 21 percent. The number of unfaithful women, on the other hand, increased from 11 percent in 1991 to 14 percent in 2010.
Other studies have put the range of infidelity for men as high as nearly one-fourth and women up to one-fifth. They all seem to agree, said a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, that "any such survey is asking for confessions from people who are presumably lying to their spouses." They posit infidelity is undercounted.
"The emotional toll is horrendous and the relationship is never the same; it creates lots of problems," said Dylan Thrasher, life and relationship coach in San Diego. "When couples try to work it out, it seems it's never truly forgiven and always comes up at some point. 'If they did it before, they might do it again.' "
The best bet, he said, is to "never put themselves in situations that are compromising and never let it get that far. Couples need to make sure they're really connected and really talking."
There are differences in individuals' definitions of "cheating," said Kristin Hodson, therapist/founder of Salt Lake-based The Healing Group, who wrote the book "Real Intimacy: A Couples Guide to Healthy, Genuine Sexuality." While virtually everyone recognizes sexual intercourse as cheating, many don't consider an emotional relationship or even one involving passionate kisses to be infidelity. She disagrees. "I think they still damage. They are disrupting the baseline of trust. Would you be doing whatever you're doing in front of your spouse?"
Even flirting online with an old flame or similar behavior risks relationships and long-term happiness. "I think it pulls the heart and mind away to somebody else. You stop investing or doing the work you need to make your relationship great," she said.
Ironically, one of the most respected sources of information on numbers and trends regarding infidelity comes from an organization created to help people cheat. The online community regularly surveys its own members to learn about infidelity, and noted universities rely in part on its research.
Its founder, Noel Biderman, author of "Cheaters Prosper," told the Deseret News that though no one is immune, there are demographic "hot spots." A 39-year-old man is four times as likely to cheat as a man at 38. "Affairs are often part and parcel of self-reflection," he said. "Men tend to become self-reflective on the eve of their 40th birthday." Men over 65 often seek affairs, while women that age don't.
He said women didn't start cheating in higher numbers until they entered the work force, where they had more opportunities to meet people and take business trips. More financial independence plays in, too. Often, he and others said, things that better life, like higher income or wider networks, also provide more temptation.
Another change is an increase in married women looking for single men, mirroring what's portrayed in Hollywood as "aspirational relationships."
Why people choose infidelity varies. Research says men are more likely to pursue illicit relationships for sex, while women are more often drawn to an emotional appeal. They want to be desired. "There was a point when they were adored, put on a pedestal, brought flowers, told they were beautiful, proposed to. Now life is more mundane. … We see the search for excitement and romance is where it starts."
People pay attention to each other's physical and mental aspects as they fall in love. But being sexually, socially and emotionally compatible matters, too, said Thrasher.
What Thrasher has found most among couples where one cheats is resentment that has not been addressed. And social circles have changed so many people "no longer have a group of friends saying, 'don't cheat.' "
Sometimes, life seems to get in the way of couples, said Dr. Tina Paone, founder and clinical director of the Counseling Center at Heritage outside of Philadelphia, which specializes in marriage therapy and children's services. While sex drives some illicit relationships, the spark that starts an affair is just as apt to be an emotional need that's not being addressed, she said.
"There's some sort of problem within the relationship that is causing one to seek other connections. Instead of working within the relationship, the easy answer is to go outside," she said. If abuse drove it, the relationship can't be mended. Often, though, couples choose to try to overcome infidelity. "It can be a moment that causes everyone to come together and work on it. It really depends on the couple," she said.
Counselors agree that communication is more than the key to healing, it's the key to preventing infidelity. It's where couples in counseling typically need the most work.
"I always tell clients the grass is always greener where you water it," Hodson said.
Seattle therapist Christopher Franklin said an astonishing number of affairs are driven by sexual addiction, which thrives in American culture on readily available porn, ease of communicating online and less restrained cultural expectations. Behaviors once seriously shunned now draw shrugs.
One issue in fidelity is "how socially acceptable sexualizing women in general has become. It is pervasive in our culture," he said. "It sets up an environment where it's acceptable to use sexuality as a leverage on both the male and female side."
No good news
There's no upside in an increase in infidelity, he said.
Humans have a deeply rooted need for intimacy, said Franklin. Research says that early on, couples are biologically programmed to overlook a partner's flaws. Men tend to attach to a woman's looks, while a woman may view a man's confidence, status and abilities as signs he will love, protect and cherish her. The need for intimacy creates a high degree of trauma when it's violated.
"A lot of people I work with develop post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as a result of affairs. … It's very damaging to people."
Like other experts, Franklin believes recovery is possible. "You can become healthier in a relationship than you have ever been, but there are scars and there will always be a certain degree of pain associated with the memory, a certain degree of naive trust that's permanently lost," he warned. "That part that never questions a partner because there was never a reason to — that is lost forever."
Our culture has sold a picture of what love looks like that contributes to the problem, too, said Franklin, who believes we are predisposed to have stars in our eyes. Media peddles the notion that "the ideal relationship is one that looks like the early stages of a relationship all the time. If my relationship loses that, I must be with the wrong person. It makes an affair much more tempting when you think you have the wrong person. In reality, you haven't mastered moving out of immature intimacy into the mature part that requires you to learn to love your partner once and for all."
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