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Why Do People Have Affairs?

Cheating involves some mixture of emotions, ranging from bare appreciation of beauty or desire for validation to deep longing. The Greeks had a word for this: Eros.

In a Tuesday piece on the double standard regarding adultery, Tom Matlack asks, “When was the last time a woman got dragged through the mud for cheating?”

I offer a slightly different question: When was the last time a woman was exposed for cheating -- and the story wasn’t crafted around a narrative of love?

It’s true that the conspicuous distinction between Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen, and Jesse James on the one hand and Elizabeth Gilbert, Tori Spelling, and LeAnn Rimes on the other is that the former are all men and the latter are all women. But a more significant distinction is that the adulterers in the first group all sought extra-marital sex, seemingly, for its own sake. But the adulterers in the second group were all portrayed as having fallen in love. In fact, in all of the examples Tom provided of infamous female adulterers, the women ended up leaving their husbands to form serious relationships with the other men.

The lesson here is that our culture is intolerant of adultery when it seems to flow purely from libido. But when adultery is bound up in story of love, well, we’re willing to look the other way. When Brad Pitt fell in love with Angelina Jolie and left his wife for her, his reputation didn’t suffer. But if ever we should discover a female celebrity with an otherwise solid marriage who is caught serially cheating with dozens of random men, we would see outrage akin to that leveled at Tiger Woods.

It’s a peculiar feature of American culture that we tolerate adultery in the name of love but abhor cheating when it’s fueled by libido. After all, a full-blown love affair is much more likely to end a marriage than a one-night stand. If our condemnation of adultery were primarily about maintaining marital stability, we would cast a much harsher eye on a spouse who allows himself to fall in love than we do on one who merely allows himself to get hot and bothered. But instead, an adulterer only needs to declare his hopeless love and, ideally, marry the person he cheated with, and all is forgiven.


This peculiarity can be explained by our culture’s deeply romantic view of marriage. In the United States, being “in love” with one’s spouse is not only considered fundamental to a good marriage, but is often the sole criterion on which a marriage may be considered legitimate. A marriage might be otherwise functional in a financial, emotional, and practical way, but if one or the other partners is no longer “in love,” the marriage is declared broken and a sham. There is no other culture in the world that emphasizes the primacy of romantic love within marriage to this extent.

And due to this romantic perspective, there is more sympathy for cheaters who we think did it for love. The thinking goes something like this: if the cheater fell in love with someone else, then they must not have been truly in love with their spouse. And if they weren’t truly in love with their spouse, then it wasn’t a good marriage anyway. By leaving their spouse for their true love, the cheater is actually doing their spouse a favor by letting them find true love elsewhere.

But for cheaters who do it just for the sex? Well, they’re scumbags.

The double standard comes into play when our culture’s romantic view of marriage is mixed up with our misconceptions about male and female sexual desire. Here, the conventional wisdom is best summed up with one tiresome cliché: men use love to obtain sex and women use sex to obtain love.

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