From Bill Clinton to David Letterman, to Bill Cosby – there seems to be no lack of men at midlife being caught with their pants down. The rampant headlines of this affair or that, begs the age-old question: Why do men cheat? And does midlife really have anything to do with it?
There has long been speculation that men are more “hard-wired” than women are to cheat. The theory goes that the biological impetus to “spread one’s seed” makes monogamy impractical from a survival of the species standpoint, and a few thousand years of “civilization” cannot unwind millions of years of evolution.
This may be true – but by the same token, based on our ancestry, it can be said that humans are similarly programmed to eat meat – yet some choose to be vegetarians. Interestingly enough, a recent study conducted by the UCLA Center on Behavior and Culture found that it might actually be women, and not men, who are genetically predisposed to cheat but only during peak periods of fertility.
However, Elizabeth Pillsworth, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of communication and psychology at UCLA, still concluded that while her research may have discovered an evolutionary basis for the desire to cheat “whether someone translates that into unfaithful behaviors is a matter of their own choosing. Cheating is a choice.”
So the greater question is, despite what may or may not be in their DNA, why do some men choose not to be monogamous, especially as they approach midlife?
Common wisdom dictates that the reason why men cheat can be summed up in one word: s-e-x.
Certainly there are men whose reason for an affair was to experience “something new” so to speak, in the boudoir. But in a recent survey of 200 men who admitted to cheating, conducted by marriage counselor M. Gary Neuman, only 8% of men said sexual dissatisfaction was the reason.
Dr. Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., who has written several books on the subject of adultery says, “Many men commit adultery because of psychological distress that comes from confrontation or conflict in their relationship. Men flee from this discomfort to attempt to relieve, self-medicate, and soothe the psychological effects that conflict produces in them.”
Indeed, in Neuman’s survey, almost half of the respondents said it was a lack of emotional, and not physical satisfaction, that lead them to look elsewhere. “Our culture tells us that all men need to be happy is sex,” Neuman says. “But men are emotionally driven beings too. They want their wives to show them that they’re appreciated, and they want women to understand how hard they’re trying to get things right.”
The problem is that while men crave this emotional satisfaction if they are not getting it, societal pressures that define “manhood” make it very difficult for them to ask for it. Neuman says that because of this, it is very difficult for women to know when their man is in need of a little more emotional affirmation. He says, “Most men consider it unmanly to ask for a pat on the back, which is why their emotional needs are often overlooked, but you can create a marital culture of appreciation and thoughtfulness — and once you set the tone, he’s likely to match it.”
Again, contrary to popular belief, the majority of men in Neuman’s survey consistently pointed to emotional, rather than physical dissatisfaction with their spouse. Only 12 % of men said that they chose a mistress who was more attractive, or better built than their wives. That means that most men don’t stray because they think they’ll get better sex with a hotter looking woman. “In most cases, he’s cheating to fill an emotional void,” Neuman says. “He feels a connection with the other woman, and sex comes along for the ride.”
If you’re worried about infidelity, studies like this one would seem to suggest that you focus on making your relationship more loving and connected, instead of trying to get your body to look like some unattainable pin-up model, or trying to master new sexual positions you read about in Cosmo. Now, this isn’t to say that sex doesn’t matter, Neuman says it’s one of the key ways that men express and feel intimacy, and he believes that it’s important to keep it a priority in the marriage, at any age.
So what about the “midlife crisis” excuse? Academic studies such as Neuman’s and others do suggest that middle-aged people of both genders engage in extramarital affairs, but that the typical “mid-life crisis” has very little to do with it. More often than not, such affairs are the result of placing a low value on the relationship because of a feeling of distance. If a marriage doesn’t have a lot of cohesiveness pulling the spouses together, then any nearby temptation could pull them apart – and that can and does happen at any age.
While it has been a convenient scapegoat, behavioral experts seem to agree that the real causes of midlife affairs have more to with the two people in the marriage and the nature of their relationship than feelings of recapturing lost youth.