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These days, thanks to actors, politicians, and that one guy down the street, it may seem that cheating comes as naturally to men as leaving the toilet seat up. But it’s the drastic increase in women who admit to infidelity that is worthy of discussion. Esther Perel, a psychotherapist in Belgium who specializes in relationships and sexuality, is bringing the controversial conversation out of the therapy room with her new book State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. She reports that since 1990, the rate of married women who claim they’ve been unfaithful has increased by 40 percent, while the rate among men has remained the same. “I think that a big reason why infidelity has become the subject that it is today in our social psyche is because women have rapidly begun to close the gender gap of infidelity. As long as men only did it, it was just called ‘men being men,’” Dr. Perel said in an interview with Refinery29.
So, what exactly has changed over the years to cause more women to cheat? Dr. Perel told CNN that when having conversations with women about infidelity, what she found was they were not describing infidelity as a transgression but rather a subversive act or protest against an institution they’d come to experience as suffocating or oppressive. In other words, cheating has become a way for women to feel alive and free from traditional gender roles. “In the book, I say that when we go elsewhere, it’s not always because we want to leave the person we’re with, but we want to leave the person that we’ve become,” she said in the Refinery29 interview.
However, this idea raises several concerns for Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship with a Narcissist. “The idea of these women putting their needs above all else and not disrupting the convenience of their ‘domestic flow’ of comfortable homes and easier childcare feels quite narcissistic,” she says. “Marriages and relationships are built on foundations of trust, and once that’s gone, then it’s simply a way to keep life and social status intact.”
“The explanations cited speak to the complex rationalizations used to explain putting the needs of self over all others with little regard to fallout. And it’s rather simplistic rationalizations, too, like ‘I resent having to keep the family calendar and remember birthdays so I am going to bang my trainer,” Dr. Durvasula says, adding that rationalization of behavior that could hurt others is a narcissist’s gambit. “My work is in narcissism, which is traditionally far more over-represented in men. But I think the pendulum shift is happening, and entitlement, lack of empathy, and chronic validation seeking are becoming a woman’s game, too.”
Regardless of gender, the questions remains: How would my spouse feel if they found out I was cheating? Devastated? Betrayed? “This isn’t a debate about morality, but rather one about conduct and the ramifications of one’s behaviors on others,” explains Dr. Durvasula. When a person does not reflect on how their actions may impact their partner (or children), it shows a real lack of empathy.