Why Men Cheat—And Why I Didn't

A self-professed "ordinary" guy explains the dark underbelly (and surprising upside) of adultery culture.

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I was 29 when I got married, and I did not expect to be happy.

Although the outward details of my life are bound to differ from everyone else's, my emotional life is probably not so unusual. I am ordinary in most ways. I am ordinary in my fears and ordinary in my lusts. Although I could have made other decisions, my decisions, too, are ordinary.

I believed I wouldn't have a happy marriage because I didn't think I would have a happy life at all. My mother is mentally ill, and growing up with her had left me with shame and fear and anxiety. I remember once, when I was a child, my mother slapping me repeatedly during a family wedding. As her hand landed on my ear, my nose, my lips, I was conscious of all the people watching, and I felt embarrassed for her. I felt literally like two people, one feeling my own torment and one feeling pain for her.

One result of growing up in a family like mine is you lose hope; you don't think good things will happen to you. I proposed to my wife because I thought she wanted me to. I was going away for business, and she said she wanted a ring. Several years later, she told me that I had misinterpreted her, that when she had asked me to buy her a ring, she had meant only that the city I was visiting was famous for garnet jewelry and she would've liked to have some. This part of my story is just a variation of the cliché of a man proposing because he has been given an ultimatum.

When you have a marriage that begins this way and you have a personality like mine, there are bound to be problems. Often, in the early years of my marriage, I felt indifferent towards my wife. I once told her, "I sometimes think I don't love you." We were sitting at our glass-topped dinner table. My wife looked at me over the rim of her eyeglasses. After a moment, she said, "I know you do."

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I see how you light up when I come into a room." Until she told me this, I hadn't known I smiled when I saw her.

Around this time, the first of my friends confessed his adultery. We were standing in the back of a darkened hall, watching someone give a speech. Tom* had a glass of wine in his hand, and he had come from another reception and appeared pretty buzzed. As we chatted, Tom offhandedly mentioned that he was seeing a woman on the side. She was younger than he was and engaged. I asked him where exactly they had sex. He said she worked in the hotel business and so had access to rooms.

For several weeks afterward, whenever Tom and I met, we would talk about this woman. I began building a fantasy of her in which she looked like a movie star. I googled her to try to find a picture. Imagining this woman, I started to find my own wife less attractive. My wife has very light hair on her legs. She usually shaves her legs to just above her knees. Suddenly, I started being annoyed that she didn't shave all the way up her thighs.

It was a while before I saw Tom's wife, Lauren, after he disclosed his affair to me. Lauren has pale skin that she makes even whiter with makeup. It gives her a Kabuki appearance. Lauren, Tom, my wife, Christine, and I sat in a booth at a restaurant, and all through the meal Lauren was unpleasant. Among other things, she scolded Tom for going to the bathroom too many times. Usually I find Lauren annoying. That night, though, every time I looked at her, I felt sad. She was wearing a shawl, and it made her appear shrunken.

One of the things women don't realize is that most married men live in a culture of adultery.

She did not know that her husband was cheating, yet to me she looked like someone who was ill and suffering. When my wife and I left and were walking down a sidewalk, I put my arm around her. It is hard after you have known someone for a while to see her afresh. Sometimes when I have done something that hurts my wife so much she cries, I can suddenly see her with new eyes, suddenly see her without preconceptions. That night, having seen Lauren being harmed, I was able to look at Christine as if she were a stranger. I could see her as someone who could be hurt, someone wanting to be happy. I lifted my wife's hand to my lips and kissed it. "I love you," I said.

The image of Lauren in the booth that night, wrapped in a shawl, her face ashen, has become a touchstone. I think of her, and a rush of protective love for my wife floods into me. What happened that night was not just that the door into adultery got heavier, but that I began to understand how much I loved my wife.

One of the things women don't realize is that most married men live in a culture of adultery. We see it all around us. We have friends who have cheated on their wives. We have been on business trips where we went to strip clubs and our colleagues went into the back for hand jobs or more. We don't tell our wives, of course. A lot of husbands still operate with the idea that what gets revealed among men stays among men. Part of this is based on boyhood ideas of not snitching. Part of it, however, is based on a more cynical motive: If we were to tell our wives, they would begin watching us more closely, and as most of us married men keep in mind the possibility that one day we too will have an affair, to tell our wives would be to diminish this chance.

You might believe that your husband or your father or your boyfriend doesn't think this way. Researchers say that one of the strongest predictors of men who cheat and men who don't is opportunity. This suggests that most men at least toy with committing adultery. Social scientists estimate that about 30% of married men cheat on their wives. To get a feel for what this number means, imagine that 30% of married men shoplift. A world in which this were true would feel crazy.

Even if a man is committed to remaining faithful, he is affected by the adultery he sees around him. In his head, adultery becomes a secret passage out of the marriage. Promiscuity takes on the allure of adventure, of a life not lived. When we are fighting with our wives, the prospect of adultery can come to us. When there are sexual problems, the fact that we know men who are having lots of sex outside their marriage makes these problems bother us more. The knowledge of other people's unfaithfulness is one reason fights with our spouses can sometimes spiral out of control. As we fight, we become unhappy, and we think about the options that we are not exercising. So we blame our wives not just for what we are fighting about but also for our choice to not cheat.

Although my love for my wife had become more real to me, as had my recognition that I didn't want to be without her, I still felt not just envy when I heard of friends' affairs but like a wimp for not making passes.

My friend Will, who married young, had been with his wife for 17 years when we got to know each other. Will's wife has emotional problems. She has tried to commit suicide in front of her children by drinking bleach and by climbing out the window of their apartment. Because Will was so unhappy in his marriage, he went out every night, and when he would tell me about his secret life, it sounded glamorous. The many women he slept with, the world that can open up when a woman tells you her story — all this appeared part of a richer life than the one I was leading. But then Will's wife learned of his affairs and threw him out.

Suddenly, he went from living in a large, beautiful apartment to living in two rooms with bedbugs and having a neighbor who fed her cats in the building's communal hallway. Most of Will's money vanished. The first time I met him after he was forced to leave home, I took him to a grocery store to buy him food. He was in his mid-40s, and his furniture included a futon and milk crates. He said that he couldn't sleep, worrying that his children would hate him. He said that his wife had told his parents what he had done. My friend's misery was my great good fortune. I talked to him every day, and I heard his problems, heard how lonely he now got on Friday and Saturday nights. While I still envied Will for his many sexual partners, I could see that there were real consequences to cheating.

Researchers say that one of the strongest predictors of men who cheat and men who don't is opportunity.

But what made me realize most poignantly that promiscuity is not some grand adventure came from seeing friends enter the world of commercial sex. My experience has been that commercial sex becomes more common as men get older and their lives get busy and disposable income is greater. Its appeal is that by sleeping with different women, men can delude themselves into thinking they are as charismatic as James Bond.

One of my friends is a Greek Orthodox priest, another installs telephones, one works in the city morgue, one works in advertising, several are in construction, several others are editors, investment bankers, real-estate agents, actors, musicians. Only four haven't gone to brothels or massage parlors that offer a little something extra at some point while married. Recently a friend told me about how one night, as he was going in for a massage, he saw an incoming call from his wife on his cell phone and sent it to voicemail. Later, when he left the establishment, he listened to the message. It was his little boy, calling to say good night.

Another friend told me about going into a brothel he had been to before and being asked by a new security guard to take out his penis. The guard didn't recognize my friend, and undercover cops posing as clients supposedly aren't willing to do this. My friend unzipped.

I was once traveling for work and a sales representative took my boss and me to a brothel. My boss is a good guy, friendly, cheerful. He has a son with Down syndrome with whom he is madly in love, and he is also very respectful of how important his wife is in taking care of their child. And yet, there we were: in a room with a row of swimsuit-clad Russian women lined up on a sofa. All of them were watching a television that was bolted to the ceiling. The sales rep and my boss went into rooms in back. I stayed in front. I had come along because I hadn't known exactly where we were going, and the main reason I didn't participate was because I was scared of letting anyone at work have something over me. The other two men, who were drunk, their pupils dilated, didn't notice that I remained up front.

There was a rawness to being in the brothel that somehow separated lust from all the other illusions that had clothed it — if only I were with this woman, I'd be different; the problem is my wife and not me. Seeing the drunk men and the women in swimsuits was like seeing these illusions as a sort of insanity. When sad or worried, I still periodically find myself thinking that if I were with someone else, my life would be better. This lie can come in a sly way. I see a young woman walking down the sidewalk and then I think about being young and then I fantasize about being with the young woman, and then I'm suddenly a young man. I confuse the fantasy of being young with being with this woman.

But I am getting better at catching myself. I can see my mind moving into delusions, and I am able to reel it back. Also, I find that the years of being married have made me happier. Sometimes when I'm waiting for my wife in a restaurant and I mistake a woman for her, I get excited and realize I'm smiling.

*Not his real name

You should also check out:

Why I Cheated on My Husband

A Civilized Affair: The Rules of Monogamy

This Is Why Men and Women Cheat