Rebecca, a mother of two in a quiet New England town, must first clarify: “I myself have not had an affair,” she says. But many days she feels like she’s the only one. In the past few years, three of Rebecca’s closest friends have ended their marriages following year-to-two-year-long affairs with other men. “All three were working and traveling,” she says. “All had younger kids.” Two left home, voluntarily giving up primary custody to their exes. “We were all best friends and now barely speak,” Rebecca says. “But we run into each other at soccer … in a small circle of friends, it seems crazy. We’ve seen this happen three times!”
The crazy part, she elaborates, is not the apparent epidemic of adultery, but that it’s the women who seem to be fueling it.
It is, perhaps, another milestone in the march to equality. Women and men are now taking an equal-opportunity approach to extramarital hanky-panky. A report out of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found that, for the first time in modern history, women are cheating at nearly the same rate as men. Another study, published in the National Opinion Research Center’s 2013 General Social Survey, found that while the percentage of men who admitted to infidelity has held constant over the last two decades, the percentage of wives who reported having affairs rose almost 40 percent. Gary Spivak, founder of FidelityDating, a dating website designed to help users “find a loving non-cheater” — typically after being two-timed — says that last year membership on the site was largely female. Just one year later, it’s an even 50-50 split.
Experts suggest there are a few reasons for this shift. There’s the internet, which has made finding a better and/or different partner easier than ever. There’s opportunity — more women are working outside the house, and meeting new partners in the process. And there’s economics. As women are increasingly filling the role of family breadwinners, they no longer “need” men the way they used to and so feel freer to take chances they might otherwise not. That’s the theory, anyway. Then again, a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Connecticut found that while, for men, breadwinning increases infidelity, for women, breadwinning decreases infidelity. (“By remaining faithful,” writes study author Christin Munsch, “breadwinning women neutralize their gender deviance and keep potentially strained relationships intact.”)
Another recent study found that some women are genetically predisposed to “extra pair bonding,” euphemistically speaking. Men don’t have this gene.
But the prevailing theory is that modern marriage is what’s killing marriage — that the more deliberation women put into whom they pair up with, the more willing and motivated they are to make a move when something’s not working. “The gender gap in adultery is closing, and it’s not just about opportunity and possibility,” says Helen Fisher, PhD, author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. “But it is about choice. Women now are more aware of the alternatives to monogamy and more inclined to demand to have all their needs met. That’s because happiness is such an important part of marriage. Fewer women are marrying out of need; instead, they’re marrying to please themselves. But that also means when they’re dissatisfied with something they feel justified to go elsewhere.”
In one study she conducted for match.com, Dr. Fisher found that 34 percent of adulterous women reported that they were in fact “happy or very happy” in their ever-more-egalitarian marriages. And yet. “Couples these days share work, chores, parenting,” says Ian Kerner PhD, a sex and relationship psychotherapist in Manhattan. “That’s the expectation in modern relationships. But where there is pattern and responsibility and transparency with a partner, there often isn’t space for unpredictability or spontaneity,” which can be critical to a healthy romantic life. Meanwhile, he says, the first generation of women raised to believe they can and should “have it all” is less likely to fake it in the bedroom. “Women feel less pressure nowadays to have low-quality sex,” says Kerner. “My female clients are like, why would I ever fake an orgasm?”
Lauren, 41, admits she wanted it all: “the best friend, the domestic partner, the professional equal, the lover,” she says. She had two out of four when, some eight years and one baby into her marriage, she began sleeping with a co-worker — a guy who was more her professional equal than her low-earning husband, who’d largely given up on his career. “A healthy attraction to a person does demand you have a little bit of intrigue and imbalance, which in male-female-empowered relationships is not a priority,” she says. “Wanting some heteronormalcy isn’t something people want to talk about, not in that bougie Brooklyn world I live in. A lot of women I know stick with it and suffer through it even as they have that fantasy of being with someone who is their equal, or even their superior.”
Though, increasingly, women are suffering through it less. These days, that’s the man’s job. Kara, 33, a PR exec in Texas, filed for divorce three months after her affair with the family pediatrician began. Once her construction-worker husband found out she was leaving for someone else, “the shit hit the fan,” she says, and he begged her to try to work it out (right after he texted all the parents on their son’s hockey team, which he coached, to explain why he hadn’t shown up: Sorry I didn’t make practice, he wrote. My wife’s sleeping with our kids’ doctor).
“When the woman strays, there’s anger, yes, but there’s also much more interest from the man than there ever was to collaborate and talk and work it out,” Kerner says. Such was the case with a guy friend whose wife has been having an affair with “some douche bag down the street” while he makes lunches and cleans the kids’ bunnies’ cages, waiting for “the phase to pass” and their marriage to carry on. Or with Randy, a 39-year-old father of four in Idaho who decided to stay with his wife of 17 years after she slept with her business-development coach. “I’m in it for the long haul, till we’re old and gray and sitting on the front porch,” he says, wistfully. “It’s the biggest thing in any marriage to have that trust violated, but I’m not perfect either. And I know she still wants to be here with me.”
Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Talia Wagner says that, in her practice, she’s seen a significant rise in the number of couples who come in following a wife’s affair, and that it’s usually the man who wants to try to keep the marriage intact. “For some, it’s easier,” she says. “Even in egalitarian marriages, the women are the project managers. But men these days seem to have more to lose emotionally.” A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior seems to confirm the idea; it found that for most men, romantic partners are “primary sources of intimacy,” whereas, for women, friends and family members also fill those roles.
Which may also help explain why women who cheat are less likely to feel condemned by their social group. When Lauren told her husband she was cheating, she thought he might keep it to himself. Wasn’t he humiliated? Instead, he told everyone. “He behaved the way a ‘woman’ would be expected to, telling everyone how horrible I was,” she says. That didn’t mean he didn’t want to try to work it out. Or that she felt especially guilty. “I think if he’d been the one who cheated, he’d have been treated a lot worse,” she says. Instead, she says, most of her friends seemed to sympathize. She’d just done what she needed to do.
“Women are more forgiven because it’s the struggle of being a certain type of powerful woman,” she says. “You were a different person when you began the relationship. And he’s just not.”