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According to stereotypes, men are the sexually voracious cheaters and women are the emotionally hungry commitment seekers. But these heterosexual tropes are pretty reductive and fail to take into account that women like sex, too. In fact, plenty of women seek emotional and sexual satisfaction outside of monogamous relationships.
Studies have shown that not only do women have affairs about as often as men do, but some of them might also be genetically predisposed to the kinds of desires that lead to infidelity — yes, really. In a 2014 study, researchers found a significant association between variants of a certain gene and infidelity in women. They didn’t find any such link in men.
Of course, people cheat for all sorts of reasons — sexual desire, emotional fulfillment, a life crisis, revenge, and boredom are just a few common motivations for both genders. But if there’s research suggesting that women are just as prone to affairs as their male counterparts, why does it often feel like we hear fewer stories of female infidelity?
Whatever your stance on cheating, learning more about how women act on their emotional and physical desires is important to understanding the dynamics of couples, as well as the full scope of female sexuality. To gain some insight, we talked to six women who’ve had affairs and asked them what drove them to cheat. These stories don’t represent all women, of course, but they’ll help paint a fuller picture.
*All of the names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
Alison, 34, Detroit
“It didn’t lead off in a physical way. We met at a conference and just immediately connected. It was like a lightbulb went off. It wasn’t the romantic potential that was driving my interest in him; it was this person that was engaging me in a way I found interesting and very…well, seductive.
"When we eventually met up a month later, I waited until the last possible moment to say ‘I have a boyfriend.’ I didn’t want to tell him, because I was having so much fun enjoying myself, and I was so curious about this person. There’s a mystique involved in there being a possibility, and I knew that once I said that, it would end the possibility.
"We parted ways that night, but I knew I wanted to see him again. He had given me this undeniable boost and engaged me [in] a different way from how my boyfriend engages me. Not better, not worse, just different.
"So M has become a part of my life. Sometimes we hook up, sometimes we don’t. Once, we just went skinny dipping and talked all night. Sometimes I feel bad about lying, but I don’t feel bad about anything else.
"I would feel like shit if I got caught. I know if he found out, he would be absolutely devastated, and things would be over. It has crossed my mind that maybe I’m behaving in this way because I want out of my current relationship. But I don’t want out of my current relationship; we’re newly engaged. And I also want to continue my relationship with M so that we can both continue to get the positive things we get out of it.
"I’ve never wanted to define myself. I’m interested in finding the boundaries and pushing them.”
Mackenzie, 25, San Francisco
“I have had different roles in [cheating]. I’ve been the other woman before; I’ve been the home-wrecker twice. I was with my girlfriend for three years and cheated seven times with seven different people.
"Our relationship was growing further and further apart. I wasn’t really being valued or appreciated at home. I had these opportunities when I was out in the world, traveling and doing art, where I would find people that did appreciate me. So I kept taking these opportunities as a way of, like, ‘Catch me! Try to catch me!’ and I wasn’t getting caught.
"And if I wasn’t getting caught, that was more of a problem. This person had me in her space every day, but she wasn’t paying attention to me or the signs. At first I was doing it to grab attention, and then I did it for self-gratification.
"It took me a few months after breaking up with this person to really sit with the fact that I slept with all these people that she didn’t know about. What was that about, and why did I do it? It was about communication. I did not take the opportunity to verbalize and to fix and to repair what was broken. After thinking about that, I realize that it’s an unhealthy practice.
"Personally, I think I should never have to sneak around and do something I can’t brag about. Living with integrity is the bigger value.”
Lisa, 26, Chicago
“My girlfriend of four years was suffering from alcoholism. I had been taking care of her through multiple organ failures, multiple rehab facilities, and basically learning how to reuse her body. At no point did I stop loving her, but the reality is that I was a 26-year-old in a relationship with the equivalent of an 80-something-year-old.
"I was visiting her every day in the hospital, and I just felt so alone. And then a friend who I had a relationship with years ago moved back into town. We went out to dinner to catch up, and then back to his apartment. We’re hanging out, chatting, and the next thing you know, we’re having sex.
"When I left his apartment, I felt so oddly not guilty about it. I needed to feel close to a person, and I just needed to get laid. One of my biggest fears was that I would start to resent my relationship with my girlfriend because she couldn’t give me something that is an important part of a relationship.
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"I figured if I could fill this small void with a friend who I trust, but who I also have no romantic feelings for, I will be protecting myself from getting emotionally attached to someone else. I wasn’t looking for an out, and I wasn’t looking for a replacement.
"There were times when I would go visit her the next day and ask myself, ‘What is wrong with you? You are a terrible human being.’ Of course that was there. But I truly felt it was what I needed to do to stay as available and there for her as possible. I am not saying it is okay — if I had told her, she would have broken up with me. But there’s a part of me that wonders if she knew.”
Kristen, 30, Bristol, RI
“I think cheating has been part of most of my relationships. I don’t know if it’s the age we live in, my bad judgement, or what. I cheated on my high school boyfriend with his best friend. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a betrayal it was, but I try not to dwell on it. We were kids.
"Years later, I cheated on the only man I ever truly loved. I wanted to share my life, my house, my son with him. I would have done anything for him, but he was 42 and never married. He liked his independence and broke up with me once, which devastated me. When we, slowly, did get back together, I tried my best to conform to the kind of relationship he was comfortable with.
"Then I started an emotional, and later physical, affair with a higher-up at my bank job. We were both in relationships that weren’t working. I was trying my best not to smother the person I loved, and his marriage was being held together by his kids. Honestly, we started loving each other in a different way. We understood each other; he became my best friend. We talked on the phone about everything, and we had really fun sex.
"This went on for two years. In the end, J found out, because I stopped caring and stopped loving him. I left my computer out while I was out of town, and he found the emails from D. This wasn’t the same kind of cheating I did when I was 17. I knew my relationship with J would end, and I think I wanted it to. I was hurt that he barely even sensed that I was doing this. I started to realize I could have a better relationship — not with D, but with someone.”
Jenni, 31, Omaha, NE
“If you asked the people in our community why my ex-husband and I got divorced, it’s because, three years ago, I ‘fell in love with someone else.’ It’s a sad but understandable story. They still judge, but there’s something kind of romantic about it. But it isn’t what happened.
"A lot of people don’t know that I was actively trying to get a divorce for two years before I finally got it — that our marriage was so bad, I had anxiety attacks every day for six months, that I thought about killing myself several times. I felt trapped. We were poor, only had one car, and shared a job. I think, for a lot of years, we were a terribly codependent couple, and then all of the sudden, I didn’t feel fulfilled by being needed. I felt suffocated.
"A coworker got too drunk at an office party and made a suggestive comment to me… It sounds weird, but…the next day, I felt better about my situation. I liked having a secret from my husband. He was being a bad husband, but I was being a bad wife. I wasn’t a victim; I was also a player in the game. It felt good.
"So I slept with the coworker. I didn’t even like him, but I wanted something that was mine. My job, my car, and my friends weren’t mine. But this dirty sex was mine, and he couldn’t touch it.
"Later, I quietly fell in love with my best friend. After saving money, applying for other jobs, and planning, I left my husband. That affair was different. It showed me that there were things I could lose by staying, even though I had been so scared of what I could lose by leaving.”
Beth, 29, Austin, TX
“When I met B, I was at a place in my life when I was ready for a serious relationship. I had casually dated a lot of men, but I hadn’t maintained a long-term relationship since college.
"B was the perfect candidate; he was sweet, gentle, and totally the guy that you take home to mom. We fell in love fast, and everything was natural and easy — except the sex. He had only had one girlfriend prior to me, a very long-term relationship, and he was usually happier to cuddle and fall asleep than have sex.
"For a few months, I earnestly tried to curb my sex drive and content myself with our own form of intimacy. Then, I was visited by an out-of-town friend with whom I had a long history of hookups. The chemistry and sexual tension was unbearable, so I caved and slept with him.
"I never told B. Yes, it was dishonest, but B and I come from different places sexually. Personally, I am able to have casual sex without emotional attachment, and I don’t know if everyone can do that — definitely not B. I physically cheated, but I was still emotionally faithful. If I had told him, he wouldn’t have understood.
"I eventually called off the relationship for other reasons, and it was probably for the best. We were just two different people with two different relationships with sex.”
By Christine Stulik