Why We as Women Cheat and How to Avoid It

Many years ago, a client sat in front of me crying. She started executive coaching weeks prior to determine how to make her career more satisfying. In our sessions, she realized that her choice of job was based upon it fitting well for everyone else: her husband, her three kids, her elderly parents. She made a good salary, and the schedule worked well around everyone else she was taking care of but she had never enjoyed the work. The job worked well for everyone, except my client. That had been acceptable to her in the past, but not anymore. But the tears weren’t based on her initial reason for coaching. The tears were based on the year-long affair she was having and that her husband just discovered. “I don’t even know why I started the affair or why I’m still in it. I love my husband and our life together. I have nothing to be unhappy about.”

This is a common perspective from women who cheat. They often get involved in extramarital relationships with no intention of cheating and no realization that they aren’t happy. To these women, and their often-confused spouses, there isn’t a reason or variables which led to the affair. Creating more infuriation for the spouse is the fact that the woman can’t even explain why the affair happened. Yet for many in this situation, the answer is relatively simple: women cheat for attention. But it isn’t based on getting attention solely from a different person; it is very much about the attention the woman isn’t giving to herself. Let me explain.

Many women who cheat will state they believed they were happy in their primary relationships, and it isn’t until the affair begins that they realize they weren’t as happy as they thought. A common pattern is for a woman to be caught-up in her daily roles of wife, mother, house manager, professional, daughter, volunteer and others, she rarely, if at all, makes the time to evaluate her role of self. She doesn’t take the time to ask herself what she wants and prioritize herself just as she prioritizes others. Her connections, including to her partner, become about the roles she plays in other people’s lives, rather than who she is. She is so busy doing these roles that she doesn’t realize her potential dissatisfaction or unhappiness. At this point, she might make a connection with someone who she doesn’t have a current role-based relationship with. That individual allows space for the woman to discuss her thoughts and feelings as part of the initial “honeymoon” period of a new relationship. She can process her life away from her life, in a bubble that isn’t based on her daily reality. Not only does the affair provide an escape, but it also provides an opportunity for the woman to be seen, heard and experienced in a way which likely taps into the woman as “self” versus her daily roles. The affair is the subconscious opportunity to connect with who she fully is, incorporating her full “self” maybe for the first time in a long time.

With the client mentioned earlier, she used her coaching sessions to identify the things she wanted in her life. There were big things like having a career she loved and fixing her marriage, and there were small things like learning how to salsa and taking time to meditate every day. When I asked her what her husband’s reaction was over the past years when she shared these ideas with him, she said she never had. She had hinted about maybe taking up salsa “sometime” to him and she had vented about her work to him, but she had never clearly and concretely articulated what she wanted to him. “We’re just always so busy and don’t have the time to talk” or “He’s got enough to worry about” or “Some of these aren’t really a big deal” were some of her responses. Then I asked her what kinds of things she talked about with the man she was having the affair with. Her crying got louder because she realized these were the things she talked about when they were together. No wonder her husband felt like, to use his words, “the rug had been pulled out from under [him]”. He had no idea what his wife really wanted or how her wants had changed. He said, “She always said that it was okay that she didn’t love her job because she got paid to have the time to take care of everything else.” What my client didn’t stop to do was to define the changes in herself, and then articulate them to her spouse. This created distance from her authentic self and from her spouse and fostered a climate in which an affair happened.

So how can you avoid this situation? Schedule time to check in with yourself and do a performance review. We do it in our professional lives because it provides time to consider what is working and what would benefit from change in our work roles. The same is true for our personal lives. Scheduling monthly or quarterly evaluations of our various roles as women allows us to know the areas we are happy with and the areas we want to change. We can identify the beliefs or preferences that are no longer relevant to us and define what we want in our lives now and in the future. By doing this, we can then clearly share this information with our spouses, connecting them to us and allowing them the chance to participate in and support our evolution. Personal self-reviews give us the opportunity to hear ourselves authentically and then provide the chance for our partners to hear us. Our unhappiness doesn’t lay dormant, waiting to push us in the direction of someone else to escape to; instead our unhappiness is detected before it grows, when it is still at a level that can be managed and easily changed. Our regular check-ins become the tool for self and relationship satisfaction, connection and happiness, allowing for the attention our authentic selves want and deserve.

A cognitive-behavioral coach with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dr. Robin Buckley helps executive women and couples thrive in their careers and relationships.