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It is a deeply bruised ego – not raging libido – that marks the husband who cheats, sociologist Alicia Walker hazards in Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation, and Infidelity, a discomforting but clear-eyed new book that challenges our closely held stereotypes about male adultery.
In conversations with 46 heterosexual husbands and partners in the midst of affairs, Prof. Walker didn’t find lotharios with no self-control around women. Instead, she saw men who felt depressed, unseen and emasculated in marriages with wives who had long lost interest in them as people. The men, from the ages of 27 to 70, sought “a more enthusiastic third party” for sex, but more than that, for attention and validation. Their affairs functioned as “acts of compensatory manhood,” argues Prof. Walker, an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University. Paradoxically, hardly any of the men wanted to end their marriages; they used infidelity as a workaround to get their needs met instead.
Prof. Walker’s examination of male adultery follows her controversial 2017 book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Of the 46 women she interviewed, 39 said they stepped outside their marriages seeking greater sexual satisfaction. While these women often maintained several affairs at once and avoided emotionally needy partners, cheating men typically kept only one close affair partner, Prof. Walker found.
The author argues that unpacking infidelity can offer perspective on all marriages. She spoke with The Globe and Mail from Springfield, Mo.
Many would answer the question of why men cheat not with a book but with one word: sex.
The reasons people cheat are as complex as the circumstances of the person cheating. We put men in an extremely limited box and sexualize everything they do. While these are sexual affairs, the men made clear that the emotional aspect held the greater importance for them.
People were really challenged by my first book; they didn’t want to think about women being motivated by sexual pleasure. But they’re at least as threatened by this second book about men. It speaks to how tethered we are to these notions of gender and to how much we simplify people’s behaviour.
What was the No. 1 reason the men you interviewed were unfaithful?
They talked the most about their need for praise, validation and attention. If they “help you out” at home, they want to be praised for that. They want praise for their sexual skills and prowess.
So they were wounded by what they perceived as their wives' disinterest?
The men wanted their partners to ask them about their day, their job, their hopes, their fears. They wanted them to listen with enthusiasm.
They were extremely hurt by what they perceived as their partners' lack of interest in them as a person. They internalized it – if they were a better, more manly man, she would be interested. I was taken aback by how much pain men were in.
The men insisted they cheat in order to remain married.
They don’t want to break their partner’s heart, deprive their children of a live-in parent or endure the stigma and financial loss that come with divorce. Instead, they outsource whatever’s missing to a more interested third party.
One cheating husband in his 30s describes his marriage this way to you: "My wife and I get along great. We go to new restaurants and movies, we try new recipes, all that good stuff. We don’t fight over money or bicker about housework. I love my wife very much, and I know she returns the feeling.” Does it unsettle people that spouses in happy marriages also cheat?
How many people would look at that couple and think, “I want to be them?” And yet he’s on Ashley Madison and keeps a regular affair partner. Yeah, it’s terrifying.
We like to think that people who cheat are terrible or that they’re in terrible relationships. When you have people who are in otherwise good relationships, it forces us to look at our own and think, “What if?” And we don’t want to think that.
Why does that husband have an affair?
He didn’t date anybody and married the first woman he ever had sex with. Their sex is really unsatisfying.
About 76 per cent of these men are in sexless marriages. What are they looking for in their affairs, sexually speaking?
They wanted the girlfriend experience, these outside partners who were excited to be with them and have sex for hours. They felt like their wives treated sex like a chore.
It didn’t occur to them that maybe the problem isn’t actually their wives. Maybe the problem is the structure of the marriage, the familiarity and not having time. That a lover is willing to spend hours having sex or dresses up sexy – things men interpret as “she wants me” – the husbands didn’t consider that these are really the structures of an affair. She’s willing to spend hours with you in a hotel because you don’t see each other very often, and you’ve spent money on that hotel room.
Husbands viewed their sexless marriages as an indictment of their masculinity. But research suggests wives don’t see it as a question of manhood – they think familiarity in marriage kills libido. How do you bridge that divide?
Studies show women basically grow bored over the course of long-term monogamous pairings when they share a home with a man. I sent this research to the men I interviewed, thinking they’d find it useful. They were offended. Their attitude was, “Who is she to get bored?”
Did these men’s affairs make them happier?
No, they said their affairs made them realize what they’re missing. The outside partner is heaping praise, validation and attention on them. But it’s still not enough because they can’t get it from the woman they actually want it from. They want all this stuff in their marriage. It’s this point of deep resentment and unhappiness for them.
With the 39 women I interviewed who cheated for sexual pleasure, they were pragmatic and very clear: “This definitely improves my life.” These women didn’t think they could get what they needed from any single person. They thought this was how they needed to run their lives.
Cheating wives told you they would want to consensually open up their marriages. What about the cheating husbands?
Most were livid at the very suggestion.
Is it your hope that all this intel on infidelity can help spouses reconsider how they are with each other?
You can have two people in the same relationship having very different experiences of the same situation. It’s something we have to think about and spend time talking about if we’re going to improve our relationships. What is it that we expect? Are these expectations realistic? Are we giving what we think we’re giving? Are we giving what we want to get? These conversations ultimately strengthen marriages. I hope.
This interview has been edited and condensed.