Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Do Men And Women Have Affairs?

July 10, 1995

Francesca in the movie "Bridges of Madison County" was vulnerable to an affair. Her emotional needs were not being met or even addressed. Romance was suffocated in a life of duty and details. Then opportunity came to her door. An outsider got to know her, paid attention to her and shared feelings with her. Francesca’s need for emotional intimacy opened the door to an affair.

Can affairs be justified? Do men and women have different motivations for beginning an affair? Here’s what psychologists Shirley Glass of Owings Mill, Maryland and Thomas Wright of Catholic University, Washington, D.C. found when they studied the attitudes and behaviors of men and women toward affairs.

Justification for extramarital involvement divided into three major factors. The first factor was sexual - sexual enjoyment, curiosity, excitement and novelty. The second rationale for straying was for emotional intimacy - intellectual sharing, understanding, companionship, and enhancement of self-esteem and respect. The third justification for affairs was falling in love and receiving love and affection.

The primary motivation for men having affairs is sexual. Men give sexual reasons for their sexual involvement and love justifications for emotional involvement. Men, more so than women, can get into extramarital relationships without emotional involvement. Within the same extramarital relationship, the woman focuses on the emotional aspects of the relationship while her partner may be focussing primarily on sexual aspects.

While women need to "fall in love" and have emotional intimacy to justify sexual involvement, men tolerate emotional betrayal much better than sexual betrayal. When an affair is discovered or confessed, the man is preoccupied with sexual infidelity and betrayal. He ignores or doesn’t realize that the greater danger to his marriage is his wife’s emotional attachment to her affair partner. He assumes her primary motivations are sexual and has a hard time believing affairs can be non-sexually based.

A woman in an affair may attach too much significance to feelings. She may be unaware of how she has created an adversarial relationship with her husband to justify her actions. A woman may discount and devalue her husband, become critical and create conflicts that allow her to blame him for her lack of love. She falls into the trap of idealizing her affair partner and rejecting her husband.

A man on the other hand, has the ability to separate sex and love. He may not realize what damage he is doing to his marriage. He still loves his wife and wants to stay with her. He doesn’t comprehend the hurt and confusion he has caused. 

A betrayed wife wants to know about the quality of the relationship, the emotional attachment and what was shared. A man is willing to describe his sexual motivations for the affair but may be genuinely confused or vague about the emotional details between him and his affair partner. Each gender reflects on what would justify an affair and then assumes that is what happened.

According to Frank Pittman III, MD, author of, "True Lies: Infidelity and Betrayal of Intimacy," women appear to ‘fall in love’ before sexual involvement while men appear to fall in love after sexual involvement. Men are seldom emotionally intimate with anyone other than their wife. When they do establish an emotional intimacy with a co-worker or a friend, the intimate friendship is easily sexualized.

Whatever the pathway to an affair, the relationship is most difficult to disengage when there has been both sexual involvement and deep emotional intimacy. One or the other on its own is difficult, but the combination creates agonizing wavering and indecision when the affair is exposed.

Pittman believes that cross-sex friendships - basically the same ingredients as emotional intimacy - intellectual sharing, understanding, companionship, and enhancement of self-esteem - cross over the line when there is secrecy about the level of emotional intimacy. A cross-sex friendship becomes destructive when it has more emotional intimacy than the marriage. Thresholds are crossed when sexual tension and attraction are expressed verbally and the couple acknowledges their mutual attraction.

Husbands and wives need to be open about their desires and needs in a relationship. Francesca may have given up trying to voice her disappointments or perhaps she really never tried. Had she done so, she wouldn't have been so vulnerable to an affair. Husbands need to pay attention and meet emotional needs. Wives need to understand and address their husband’s sexual needs.

Issues need to be dealt with and resolved. Introducing a third party into a marriage doesn’t solve anything. It causes confusion and pain. From that point on, it is difficult to determine if the marriage had real defects or if complaints were introduced as justifications for the affair.

Either way, there is no real justification for an affair.