Over the past few years, I've witnessed a growing number of married couples in my fortysomething peer group calling it quits. Not surprisingly, infidelity is a factor in many of these breakups. What issurprising is that it's the women -- not the men-- who are cheating.
Although recent high-profile scandals have involved cheating men (think John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger), a study out of Indiana University finds that women today cheat at about the same rate as men, and that the number of unfaithful women is growing. The study showed that 19 percent of married women and 23 percent of married men reported cheating, statistics that reflect a closing of the cheating gender gap. (Note: These numbers are probably on the conservative side because they reflect the percentage of people who admitted to cheating. Presumably, the numbers of unfaithful partners is higher.) Research from the 1990s found that only 10 percent of married women reported being unfaithful. According to these numbers, female infidelity may one day rival or even surpass male cheating.
Another interesting fact? According to the study, the most common age for women to have an affair is 45. For men, it's 55.
The reasons for cheating are many. Take Diane, a 46-year-old mother of two who has worked full time while raising kids:
"My husband and I were so busy with work and the kids that our life together had slid into the background. It became all about 'who's doing the laundry' and 'who's picking the kids up from daycare.' I needed confirmation that I was still sexy and that other men found me attractive."
This rise in female infidelity is a change from what I saw growing up in the '80s. In those days, it was the man who cheated. In many cases, this pattern held true: Husband cheats on wife with secretary; husband leaves wife and kids near-broke; husband starts new family with younger wife.
My girlfriends and I observed the devastating effects of divorce -- which left families in financial and emotional ruin -- and vowed that we would never let it happen to us. We worked hard in school, went to college and grad school, and pursued careers so that we would never have to be financially dependent on a man.
So why do I look around me and see so many women repeating the mistakes of their fathers? Why are they willing to risk everything -- their marriages, homes, even their children -- for a romp (or two) in the sack with another man?
Is it a midlife crisis? A feminist assertion of independence and power? Or perhaps a "Fifty Shades of Grey" phenomenon where women are craving steamy "chocolate hot-fudge brownie" sex over the "vanilla" flavor they've had for years with their husbands?
According to Carolyn*, a 44-year-old mother of three, "Sleeping with another man awakened things in me that I hadn't felt in years. When I was with him, I felt like I was doing something just for me. I was sick of living for others. It wasn't hard to keep the affair secret from my husband because I travel a lot for work."
While there are several factors that contribute to marital infidelity, there are a few unique reasons women in their 40s cheat. Here are the top 10:
Greater confidence. Women in their 40s have fewer insecurities and are more confident about their bodies, their careers and themselves. They know who they are and feel comfortable in their skin. Many have jobs outside the house and an identity apart from that of mother/wife. Working outside the house also provides women more opportunities to meet men -- and to pursue affairs -- than their stay-at-home counterparts.
"Mommy" stage is over. By their 40s, women no longer have leaky, milk-filled breasts for feeding babies. Hey, maybe they've even gotten their pre-baby figure back! They are feeling sexy for the first time in a while. Having brought up toddlers, they have more freedom to go out again and relax -- with their husbands, partners or someone else entirely.
Shifting hormones. In their 40s, women's testosterone levels are on the rise, which increases their libido, or sex drive. The so-called "nurturing" hormones -- estrogen and oxytocin -- are on the wane, making them less physically wired to attend to the needs of others and more likely to put themselves and their own needs first.
Bedroom boredom. Let's face it, after 20 years with the same partner, sex can become "plain vanilla." And as Christian Grey has taught us, nobody likes "plain vanilla." Sex with someone new is exciting and forbidden and provides a dopamine rush similar to a drug-induced high.
Feeling neglected/unappreciated. Women wear many hats in a marriage -- housekeeper, errand-runner, grocery shopper, babysitter, cook, doctor, lover, etc. Is it any wonder that a woman is tuckered out by her 40s? If she feels more like a housekeeper or maid than a beloved and cherished wife, that's when she may stray. The fact that a husband may be spending inordinate amounts of time at work, traveling or on the golf course gives her more reason to seek attention elsewhere.
Self-esteem booster. Sex can be an instant pick-me-up, a self-esteem booster that makes women feel sexier, more beautiful and more loved. If a woman feels unappreciated or neglected by her husband, a sexual affair could be just the medicine that she needs.
Revenge/payback for past wrongs. Whether her husband cheated, lost a job, made a bad investment or got caught in a lie, a woman feels hurt and betrayed when trust has been broken. She may want to do the same to get even.
Financial woes. Many families today are experiencing financial troubles, which puts a huge strain on a marriage. Women in their 40s feel that they have put in many years of hard labor -- giving birth, raising kids and often working outside the house at the same time. When their husbands are without jobs or decent paychecks, women feel that their husbands are not fulfilling their end of the bargain and become angry and resentful.
Letting the bad girl out. Have you noticed how many women get a breast augmentation, liposuction or other plastic surgery after their childbearing years to enhance their looks and sexuality? If not, take another look. Just as men feel the need to sow their wild oats, some women have an inner sex kitten that -- especially with rising testosterone levels -- is just waiting to come out!
Exit strategy. Instead of breaking up, it's easier to cheat. An affair is an easy way out, or at least that's how some women see it.
Bottom line? Female infidelity is on the rise. When you add up all the reasons that women cheat, it's usually her heart -- or ego -- that needs healing. Not her libido. A few tips? Keep the lines of communication open with your spouse. Look for the warning signs. And get help from a good marriage therapist before it's too late.
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